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Friday, 31 October 2008

Jeannie Longo - A French sporting legend turns 50

She's an astounding athlete by any measure - arguably one of the all time greats, and something of a sporting heroine here in France and in the world of cycling.

Today, October 31, Jeannie Longo celebrates her 50th birthday and what better way to pay some sort of tribute to her by reminding everyone of just how extraordinary she is.

You don't believe me? Take a quick look at the career - and you cannot fail to be impressed.

Her glittering and long career has brought with it a slew of medals at national, world and Olympic level - 55 in total.

In short - never an easy thing to do for a an athlete whose career has spanned almost three decades - her first title was at the age of 21 when she became the French road race champion for the first of 15 times.

The most recent was in winning the same event in June, just days after picking up the French national time trial.

Her Olympic career doesn't read too badly either with four medals all together including one gold, two silver and one bronze. The first of those came back in Atlanta in 1996, and she only narrowly missed out on bronze at this year's games in Beijing, finishing seconds shy of the bronze medal in the women's road time trial.

As she celebrates her half century, much of this country's media has been hotfooting it to her home near Grenoble in the French Alps.

She's not the most media-friendly of sportswomen, often appearing taciturn and somewhat aloof when interviewed, but there's no denying the contribution she has made to cycling - and that's something every sports lover here recognises.

Saturday's edition of the French sports daily L'Equipe will be paying tribute to Longo, and has invited her to become only the fourth French sports personality to act as the paper's guest editor for a day, after basketballer Tony Parker (2003) swimmer Laure Manaudou (2006) and soccer international Thierry Henry (2007).

Of course there's always that lingering issue as to when, if ever, she plans to retire.

It's a question she has been asked many times, as she admitted during a lunchtime interview on French public television.

And checking out her website, there's no indication that she's thinking about climbing out of the saddle any time soon, although she has admitted that Beijing was probably her last Olympics.

But her sights are very much set on next year's world championships in Switzerland, even if she remains evasive as to what exactly her plans are.

"Ballet dancers stop in their early forties I believe. I'm not crazy, she told L'Equipe.

" I'm aware there are limits. I find it especially difficult to predict the future in general, and even in my personal life."

In spite of her success and longevity, Longo remains as modest as ever, and turning 50 apparently doesn't really impress her that much.

"What does it change," she said in one of the many interviews published today.

"50 is like 49 only maybe a little sadder. It's not as though it were a national holiday."

And the secret of her longevity? Well apart from the fact that she's an expert on nutrition, fervently supports organic products, and pays attention to what she eats and drinks, there might be something in the genes, with a mother who "was still skiing at the age of 81 and a father still riding his cross country bike at 91."

Bon anniversaire Jeannie.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A last minute reprieve for a French tradition

Car licence plates - yes believe it or not they've been making the headlines in France - are something of a national institution here.

And the good news for those who like to see traditions maintained, is that the minister of the interior Michèle Alliot-Marie has backtracked on a decision to get rid of the number signifying from which department or administrative part of France a car comes.

Let me explain.

France is divided into 100 departments - four of them are overseas and the rest of them in what is called Metropolitan France. They're all numbered - more or less alphabetically (if that makes sense) starting with 01 for Ain all the way to 89 for Yonne.

After that it gets a little confusing because Territoire de Belfort is 90 and 91-95 were created in the 1960s when the area around Paris was rejigged.

Anyway for the longest time (well since 1950) car registration plates carried the number of the department in which the owner lived.

Over time it became a badge of pride for many. If you lived in Paris - then your car had 75 at the end of its licence plate. Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) - 06, Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône) - 13, Lyon (Rhône) - 69 and so on and so forth. For a full list (should you be interested) click here.

Of course there was also something of a downside as some departments had a "reputation" and being seen with that particular number on your car was viewed by some as a mark of living in the "wrong" area.

On the whole though it was something the French loved. It distinguished them in a very visible way from each other.

Plus it it provided something of a simple pastime for many a bored child (and adult) sat in the back of the car on those seemingly interminable long-distance car journeys across France in the height of the holiday season.

Hours of fun (?) - we're talking pre-Gameboy days here - could be assured by spotting car registration plates and matching them to the correct department.

Just how much the French seemed to treasure the system became clear earlier this year when the government announced that as of January 1, 2009 it would change and any cars registered after that date would no longer carry licence plates identifying the department.

A new jumble of numbers and letters would replace the 59 for Lille (Nord) and 67 for Strasburg (Bas-Rhin) and all the rest.

The current system, the French were told, would reach saturation point within the next five to six years, so a change was necessary.

But the government had clearly underestimated the simple pleasure and apparent symbolism many French attached to the existing system.

Slowly but surely opposition grew. Regional councils said they wouldn't comply with the ruling, A national campaign started, "Jamais sans mon département", to put pressure on government ministers to change their minds.

Finally on Wednesday, Alliot-Marie announced a compromise that should please all sides and avoid a politically embarrassing stand-off.

And here it is. The rather confusing trade-off which will keep the number of the department on the licence plate.

As of January 1 all newly bought (March 1 for second-hand) vehicles will carry a registration composed of two letters - three numbers- two letters, something along the lines of AA-123-AA.

Also on the plate will be the EU flag and the "F" for France, but - and here's the compromise - there'll also be a space for the department number, although it won't actually form part of the car's registration.

The confusing bit? Well now drivers will be able to choose when they register their car, which department number actually appears on the plate.

Up until now, it has always been the department of residence, and every time car owners have moved house from one department to another, they have had to change the vehicle's registration number.

That'll now be a thing of the past and if you wish, you can keep hold of your old number for life (or as long as the car doens't conk out).

Plus of course it means that everyone will be free to "identify" themselves with wherever they wish.

So the opposition is happy, the government avoids a potentially humiliating impasse and children (and adults) can continue number spotting on those long journeys.

There's no date been fixed for a "complete changeover" to the new system, but the ministry of the interior reckons that within five years, 90 per cent of car owners will have the new plates.

Now where do I want to pretend I live?

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Sarkozy's voodoo doll remains on shop shelves

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has failed in his attempt to have a voodoo doll in his image withdrawn from circulation.

A Paris court has ruled that it can remain on sale.

Sarkozy had instructed his lawyers to file a law suit claiming that the doll was a "misuse of the president's image" and demanding it be withdrawn.

But on Wednesday a court ruled that the "non-authorised representation of the image of Nicolas Sarkozy neither constituted an affront on the human dignity (of the president) nor a personal attack."

The doll, as reported here, comes as part of a kit, complete with 12 needles and an instruction manual on how to use it.

It includes such delightful quotes, characteristic and policy decisions from the French president such as; "The end of advertising on public television, "Work more to earn more" or the infamous faux pas during his visit to the annual agricultural fair earlier this year when he told a visitor who refused to shake his hand to "Get lost you stupid (expletive deleted)" and invites users to stick pins in the appropriate place.

It has been on sale since the beginning of October, but through his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, Sarkozy had protested that he had exclusive rights to his own image.

While acknowledging that the doll hardly represented to best of taste, the court maintained that users couldn't "take seriously the procedure and believe that they were indeed practising voodoo."

It also stressed that both Sarkozy and his opponent in last year's presidential run-off, Ségèlone Royal (who also has a similar doll on sale) had both put played heavily to the electorate in terms of focussing on their public image as part of their promotional campaign.

Royal - who had not taken legal action against the manufacturers - said that she welcomed the court's decision as "good news".

K&B, the company which has manufactured and distributed the manuals and dolls (Sarkozy - 20,000, Royal, 15,000) will be allowed to continue selling the items.

Herzog has not yet said whether Sarkozy will be appealing the court's ruling.

When French fries spell a lawsuit

A woman from the northeastern French town of Rheims is seeking €100, 000 in compensation for slipping on a chip - the French fries variety and nothing to do with uneven flooring or a broken paving stone.

On Tuesday Nicole Borgnon had her day in court to tell her side of an incident that has left her disabled and unable to walk properly.


(from wikipedia)

If you thought your were all done with the madness that seems to be the French justice system at the moment - think again.

Here's yet another post on an issue that's costing the French tax payer serious money as it makes its way through the country's courts. It could also result in a hefty bill for the company being sued.

And although it has been treated with a degree of lightheartedness by the French media and seems at first sight rather superficial, there is undoubtedly a lot at stake - not least for Borgnon, for whom the consequences of the incident upon which the case is based, have been life-altering.

It happened late one evening in September 2007 when Borgnon popped into the local branch of Quick - a French-Belgian fast food chain similar to McDonald's.

The 38-year-old left the premises, not with hamburgers for her four children as she had been intending, but with a triple fracture of the knee. She subsequently underwent surgery and as a consequence of that operation, suffered a pulmonary embolism (a blockage of the pulmonary artery).

Borgnon claims she slipped on a French frie that had been lying on the floor of the restaurant, and since the incident her life has never been the same. Today she is unable to work and cannot walk unaided.

"(Since I slipped) My life has been turned upside down," she told French television.

"I no longer have the kind of life I had before. I can't do what I want with my children or my husband. We don't go out and I have to go three times a week for physiotherapy."

Far from being a frivolous affair as the story as has been portrayed in much of the French media, Borgnon's lawyer believes the case highlights the obligation any restaurant has to ensure the safety and security of its clientele.

"Today we're faced with a woman who is incapicitated, who has lost her job because of a fall (caused by a chip)," said Emmanuel Ludot.

"But above all we have the behaviour of the restaurant, which refused to take responsibility because it didn't want to declare an accident having occurred on its premises to its insurance company."

While the management doesn't deny that Borgnon fell on its premises, it disputes her version of the event and insists rather that she tripped over her own feet.

"On the day in question there was no food on the floor. It was clean and dry," said Francis Fossier, the lawyer for the fast food chain, and he maintains there is no evidence to prove otherwise.

"The woman simply slipped herself because of the heels she was wearing," he added.

"A ridiculous case is being made of a simple accident, with a claim for an extraordinary sum of money."

Furthermore he insists that there were four other customers in the restaurant at the time who all testified that there was nothing on the floor. The only person to corroborate Borgnon's claims, he said, was her sister who had accompanied her inside.

Before the claim is settled, Borgnon's lawyer also wants the court to order an independent medical report to ascertain the full extent of her injuries.

A ruling on the case is expected in mid December.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Parents and doctors on trial over child abuse death

Sadly the story of the death of five-year-old Marc is one too often repeated both here in France and around the world.

But what's most striking in the trial that opened on Monday in the northern French town of Douai, is that not only his parents stand accused of his death, but two doctors - in other words those who should have been best positioned to protect him - are also facing prosecution.

Marc was found dead on January 25, 2006 at his mother's home.

An autopsy revealed that he had died of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by multiple punches in the face. But it also showed that he had fractured ribs, bruising to his back and other scars including cigarette burns covering the whole of his body that indicated previous beatings.

On trial are the boy's step father, David Da Costa, accused of murder by torturing and repeatedly beating the child, and his mother, Isabelle Gosselin, for complicity in a crime.

Alongside them in the dock are seven other people. They include Marc's grandparents, his aunt and uncle, a childminder who was the mother's best friend and two doctors, Christian Tirloy and Michel Vellemans. All stand accused of failing to assist a person in danger.

According to reports compiled by police after his death, Marc's life could have been saved several times in the weeks leading up to January 25.

But his mother always explained any evidence of bruising on his face to family and friends as being a result of the five-year-old's self-harming. Gosselin told them that her son hit his head against the wall and threw himself downstairs.

And that was a story she repeated to the two doctors, one of whom saw Marc at the end of December 2005 and the other in January, a week before his death.

Both doctors insist that their suspicions were never aroused and that they considered Gosselin to be a "good mother" and one beyond suspicion.

Alice Cohen Sabban, a lawyer for Vellemans, who examined Marc in January, told French television that the doctor had noticed several scratches, but had accepted Gosselin's explanation of how the boy had acquired them and recommended she take him for a psychiatric evaluation.

"He made a diagnosis based on what the mother told him and what he saw," she said.

"And he came to the conclusion that the boy wasn't being mistreated but that it was a behavioural problem - his behavior - that was the cause of his bruising and scratches."

For Alain Reisenthel, one of the prosecuting lawyers however, that explanation is unsatisfactory.

"If the doctor had seen the child and conducted a full examination, he would have stopped the mother from leaving the surgery and contacted the police," he said.

Furthermore Reisenthel believes that all of the seven people on trial for failing to assist a person in danger played a part in the death of the child.

"If just one of them had intervened, Marc would still be alive," he told journalists.

The trial is being seen as not just one about child abuse, but also about the apparent "indifference" of those who should have been in a position to prevent or stop it from happening.

It's set to run until November 7

Enfance et partage - TV spot

Enfance et partage - a French association to protect and defend children against abuse

Monday, 27 October 2008

Alleged serial rapist freed because of error in French justice

While miscarriages of justice have been making the headlines here recently in France (see the stories on Loïc Sécher and Marc Machin), the latest case of the country's legal system "getting it wrong" involves freeing a man awaiting trial on two counts of rape.

Last week, Jorge Montes, was freed from custody because of a simple administrative mistake, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has stepped in to speed up the process by which the original error can be rectified and Montes taken back into detention.

At the moment though, the 48-year-old, with a history of violence towards women and whom psychiatric experts, police and prosecutors all consider a danger to society, is "free" and the only obligation he has, is to report regularly to a police station in the Paris region.

The latest mess the French judicial system finds itself in occurred because of a simple (even the courts have admitted "stupid") slip of the pen.

On October 17 the clerk of a court in Paris signed a document that sought to reject a request to set Montes free, but rather than validating ("confirmer") that request, he invalidated ("infirmer") it - thus in effect allowing Montes to walk free until his case came up for trial.

To compound the mistake, the same document was countersigned by a judge who didn't pick up on the initial error, and last week to everyone's shock and even the surprise of Montes himself, he was allowed out of custody.

"It's a real scandal and a grave mistake," said Franck Berton, a lawyer for one of the alleged victims.

"I'm used to the judicial system sometimes not working properly, but this case is exceptional.

"It's an embarrassment. You cannot have two pages describing that this man is a dangerous criminal and then just one word which allows his liberty."

And that was very much the point of view of the French president who, although on a visit to China, issued a statement calling for the French justice system to rectify its mistake as soon as possible.

"I don't have the intention of allowing a serial rapist to remain free simply because there has been an administrative error," Sarkozy said.

With both Sarkozy and the justice minister, Rachida Dati, putting pressure on the system to correct its initial mistake, a hearing has been set for Friday October 31 for the original request to be authorised.

Montes is a man with a history of violence towards women. Both his former wives describe him as manipulative and violent and psychiatric evaluations categorise the 48-year-old as "narcissistic, a liar and a megalomaniac."

In May 2007 he was sentenced to two years imprisonment with one year suspended for violence and aggression to a former partner. He was freed in June this year and then taken into custody shortly afterwards for having violated the conditions of his parole.

The alleged rapes for which he is now awaiting trial predate that incarceration. One woman accuses him of holding her captive for 12 days in April 2006 and raping her repeatedly, and a second says he raped her in June of the same year

According to police reports, both women had been terrified and humiliated to such an extent that they had been afraid to press charges.

In perhaps what many would consider to be more than a surrealistic appearance in front of television cameras last week when he was allowed out of detention, even Montes seemed surprised.

"I feel astonished," he said. "It's incredible and unexpected."

His lawyer though, considers Montes' release to be totally acceptable and his client has every legal right to be walking free at the moment.

"It's official and has been signed by all the relevant people," Patrick Maisonneuve told French television. "About that there can be no discussion."

Although Montes is at liberty for the moment, he is required to report his whereabouts to police and has had his passport confiscated. On Friday, a Paris court will review the order allowing his release.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

France - Teacher who hanged himself - pupil admits he lied

The sad circle is almost complete on the story first reported here last month of the teacher who committed suicide following accusations that he had hit one of his pupils.

On Friday the 15-year-old boy admitted that he had made the whole story up. His teacher, Jean-Luc Bubert, had never hit him.

"He lied," Francis Les, a lawyer for Bubert's family told a press conference on Friday.

In a statement the public prosecutor of the northern French town of Laon, Olivier Hussenet, confirmed that the boy had admitted that he had never been hit.

"The teacher neither raised his hand to the boy nor hit him," he said in a statement. "And after medical examinations it was clear that there was no evidence that the boy had suffered a broken tooth."

You might remember the story. In September, Bubert, a teacher at the César-Savart secondary school in Saint-Michel near Laon, was taken in for several hour's worth of questioning after the parents of the pupil made an official complaint.

The boy had maintained that the 39-year-old science teacher had kept him back at the end of class and hit him during a heated exchange of words.

Bubert was eventually released because as far as the police had been concerned there didn't seem to be enough evidence to back up the claim.

But after almost a full day of questioning he went home and hanged himself.

At the time Hussenet, said that it had been one person's word against another's and that there had been no witnesses to the alleged incident.

He insisted said there had been no direct link between Bubert's detention and his later suicide, offering the more likely explanation that a combination of personal factors had been involved as Bubert had been going through a messy divorce.

"The detention and questioning by the police could have been the trigger that led him to take his life."

But in the intervening period since Bubert's death and the boy's admission not only had reservations been circulating about the veracity of the original claims, but also the role of the police, with the father of the teacher asking for access to files to prove his son's innocence.

As the mayor of the village in which Bubert lived told French television, the whole case highlighted the problem of how you assess the credibility of a child's accusations in relation to the reputation of a teacher.

"In France we have to find some sort of balance between the accusations a child makes and the presumption of innocence of someone until they're proven guilty," said Thierry Verdavaine.

"Unfortunately we have the tendency to go from one extreme to the other.

And that's a matter that concerns Bubert's former colleagues, and probably many others within the profession.

"On a purely human level of course we have lost a co-worker and it was an enormous waste of a life," said Alain Dambron, - a maths teacher at the school.

"It's also something that could happen to any of us, to be accused of something similar at any time. I know that under similar circumstances I would also find myself alone," he added.

So who's to blame for a man having taken his own life?

Was it the fault of the 15-year-old who made the false accusations, or more likely as Bubert's father seemed to imply a number of factors including a system that encourages the readiness of the police to accept a story based on little evidence without looking first to protect the innocence of his son.

"Justice had its own part to play in the way in which it went about investigating the case of Jean-Luc," he said.

The responsibility of the boy is of course enormous, but simply to burden him with complete and total blame for the affair would be also be wrong", he added.

The boy has since changed schools, but will face prosecution for making false accusations.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

There’s more to Brussels than just sprouts

All right so the title of this post is a tad misleading. It has nothing to do with the much maligned vegetable, which – call me weird – is one of my favourites – and everything to do with the Belgian capital, and a fair bit to do with food.

But more on that in a moment.

Brussels, home to Nato, the wannabe and de facto “capital” of the European Union (it’s where the Commission sits and the parliament too, when the latter isn’t schizophrenically transported to Strasbourg in Eastern France every month for a week) and the place I decided to spend my birthday (that’s THE news value as far as I’m concerned - call me vain).

Anyway, film buffs and those among you old enough might remember the film "If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium."

It's a romantic comedy from 1969 in which a group of US holidaymakers takes a whistle-stop tour through Europe, visiting seven different countries in just 18 days. A bit of a cliché at the time perhaps on how Americans see the world, but nonetheless an image that sticks in the mind as vacation time is limited and there's just so much to see on this side of the Pond.

Well it wasn't Tuesday, but Wednesday, and I'm certainly not American, but British. All the same it was most definitely Belgium and to be more precise the capital Brussels that took my fancy.

The joys of high-speed train travel means that it only takes one hour and 20 minutes to cover the roughly 300 kilometres from Paris.

Thalys (pronounced Tallis)

As Thalys (the equivalent of the Eurostar service only it connects Paris with Brussels rather than London – obviously) leaves Gare du Nord, it doesn’t waste much time in picking up speed and zapping through the notoriously flat northern French countryside.

In fact the landscape passes in such a giddy blur that it's just as well passengers can fit in a spot of work during the journey. That's made easier by the wifi Internet connection (free in first class, a small supplement in second) which is a must-have for a service that has become the usual way for businessmen and politicians to travel - almost "commute" between the two cities.

In peak hours, trains leave from Paris every 30 minutes - and it has become an even more important link between the two cities since Air France stopped flying the route because it simply couldn't compete.

All right enough of the journey. It’s fast and comfortable and gets you conveniently from city centre to city centre. Full stop.

Now Belgium might seem an odd sort of destination for a "treat". Maybe the title of the film said it all in a way, as the country suffers somewhat from an identity crisis, and isn't high on most people's lists of places to see.

Mind you, that identity crisis is one with which the country is struggling internally and is hardly surprising perhaps given the French-Flemish linguistic, geographical and political divide. Furthermore the country's image abroad wasn't helped much when the Flemish Christian Democrat prime minister (as now is) Yves Leterme was asked by Belgian television to sing the country's national anthem before celebrations to mark its National Day on July 21, 2007. Leterme broke into the opening bars of La Marseillaise - the French national anthem.


While the country is undoubtedly famous for a number of things such as chocolate, beer, waffles and chips (fries - not crisps) it's also the target of some ridicule (name ten famous Belgians - I can, but can you?) and the butt of many a joke such as:

Question:Where is the biggest chip shop in the world?"
Answer: "On the border between France and the Netherlands."

A word of explanation, chips in British English are the equivalent of French fries. And a quick look at a map of Europe will show you that France and the Netherlands don't share a common border - because Belgium is in the way.

All that of course is the stuff of clichés, as is the snootiness with which France seems to view the cuisine of its smaller neighbour.

As you've probably gathered by now, this was no culture-vulture trip - or even the pretence thereof (well a quick gander at the Mannekin Pis - disappointingly small - and a wander around Corneille's gallery to look at his cats) but the main attraction was most definitely gastronomic.

Belgian food has the (deserved) reputation of being rather hearty, so it's not for those counting the calories or worrying about the waistline. And one of its specialities (well in northern France too to tell the truth) is moules-frites (or mussels and chips, which sounds decidedly less appetising maybe) washed down with a local beer.

My short but determined eating extravaganza was to take place in La Grand Place in the centre of Brussels - probably the first stop for many a tourist. It's an enormous open space surrounded by beautiful gabled buildings, including City Hall. And in summer most of the restaurants and cafés have seating outside.

La Grand Place

In one corner of La Grand Place is something of a mussel Mecca - if you will - for tourists and locals alike. It's the T'Kelderke, a small and very cosy (read noisy and elbow to elbow) cellar, packed with atmosphere, the service is fast and the food delicious.

In season of course moules-frites are the thing to go for, Perhaps moules marinieres. And be warned, when it comes to the chips, we're not talking about those skinny little efforts you might find at any fast food joint. These are the proper thick, fat, luscious things - a complete meal in themselves - almost.

And as promised, all washed down with one of those famous beers - blondes or brunes the choice is amazing and the list to a non beer drinker, bewildering.

When mussels aren’t in season, there are always those other Belgian specialities (I hesitate to call them delicacies as any meal here will leave you full). There's seafood , waterzooi (a light chicken or fish stew with cream) and carbonnades a la flamande (beef stew with beer)

If you cannot get in to that particular bar, or you haven't the patience to wait - and you haven't a clue where to eat, wander along the rue des bouchers (just a stone's throw from La Grand Place) and the adjoining streets, where you'll be spoilt for choice. Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai and of course restaurant after restaurant serving up those Belgian dishes.

You'll be accosted in the friendliest of manners by waiters encouraging you to come and eat inside - and there's more of that beer of course. You can even eat outside on the chilliest of nights as there's external heating.


Finally - and this is definitely the order in which to do things, as you roll out of the restaurant - is a meander through the covered galleries, Galerie du roi and Galerie de la reine, perpendicular to rue des bouchers. Simply put they are chocolate heaven (as is much of Brussels) and even with a full tummy you still run the risk of tripping over your tongue as it’s likely to hit the ground at the obscenely delicious displays of chocolate in shop window after shop window. Cruelty written big time for those counting the calories – and don’t even think about entering one, because you won't come out empty handed.

Should you still feel a bit peckish by the time breakfast comes around, there's always another Belgian special on offer - waffles. But that might just be pushing the limits of what one person can eat in the shortest period possible.

One word of warning when arriving and departing by train. Both Eurostar from London and Thalys from Paris arrive and leave from Gare du Midi – De Zuid and not Central Station.

Worth remembering when you’re late and in a hurry to catch your train – only to pitch up at the wrong station. There speaks the voice of experience.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Sarkozy taking action - legal action

It has been a busy almost 18 months for the lawyers of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the past month has been especially hectic.

As the latest edition of the weekly news magazine "L'Express" points out, Sarkozy has resorted to French justice to pursue civil suits more than any other president in the history of the country's Fifth Republic.

It had been 30 years since an incumbent president had last brought a civil suit legal action, but in the space of less than 18 months, Sarkozy has well and truly bucked the trend in taking or threatening legal proceedings six times.

Some would argue that at least a couple of the suits have had a basis, such as the recent ones involving hacking into his private bank account - for which two people where taken in for questioning on Tuesday - or action he has taken against allegations made by a former head of French intelligence (more on that in a moment). But others - and remember there have been four more - have raised a few eyebrows.

Of those six, three have come in just the last month, and without passing judgement on the relative merits of each case, L'Express listed them all, pointing out that Sarkozy had now "accumulated a number of legal actions making him the "most plaintiff president of the Fifth Republic."

Here's a whistle stop tour of what Sarkozy's lawyers have been up to while he's been running the country, trying to fix the world's economy and, as France currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, bashing Europe into shape by trying to persuade countries unwilling, that institutional reform in the shape of the Lisbon Treaty, is an absolute must.

The most recent case of course was just last week when he instructed his lawyers to take out a law suit against the former head of the French intelligence service, Yves Bertrand, following the publication of diaries which included "unsubstantiated allegations" about a number of politicians - among them Sarkozy.

But that wasn't the only threat of action last week. There was also the affair of the "Voodoo dolls."

They come as part of a kit; complete with 12 needles and an instruction manual that quite literally invites the user to "pinpoint" exactly which elements of Sarkozy's policies or character they dislike most. His friendship with a comedian of dubious taste? Apparent "respect" for actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise? The end of advertising on public television? If you don't like one or many of the "traits" written on the effigy of Sarkozy, you stick the needle in the appropriate place.

There's also a similar doll for the defeated candidate in last year's presidential election, Ségolène Royal.

Certainly not of the greatest taste, but offensive enough to Sarkozy and his advisors to have him instruct his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, to whip off a letter to the distributors to have the doll withdrawn or risk legal action for "misuse of the president's image".

And in May there was the "T-shirt incident", when the president's lawyers demanded a company withdraw T-shirts emblazoned with "Sarkozy" with the "o" in his name transformed into a target with the slogan beneath it "zero tolerance - 50 points." An affront to the office of the president? A slight against the man and his policies? The case is still ongoing.

In February Sarkozy - and his not yet third wife Carla - took low cost airline Ryanair to court for the unauthorised use of a photograph of the couple in an advertisement. They later won the case, Sarkozy receiving the symbolic sum of €1 and Bruni-Sarkozy being paid €60,000 in damages.

And of course few here in France will forget the furore surrounding the text message he reportedly sent to his former wife, Cécilia, shortly before marrying Bruni-Sarkozy.

"If you return, I'll cancel everything" - ran an sms apparently never sent and therefore never received, but which caused a brouhaha both at home and abroad when it was reported on the website of the weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur.

Sarkozy immediately slapped a law suit on the magazine - which could have brought with it three years in prison and a €45,000 fine. But matters were "sorted" an apology apparently made (by the magazine) and Sarkozy's complaint withdrawn.

Of course Sarkozy isn't the only member of his family to have been "involved with the law" over the past 18 months,

His second son, Jean and his new wife, Jessica Sebaoun, have recently started proceedings against a number of magazines for "invasion of privacy" when they snapped shots of the couple shortly after their very private marriage.

And Jean's alleged involvement in a hit-and-run scooter incident from 2005 has only just been dropped - on the recommendation of the public prosecutor.

Sarkozy is often portrayed at both at home and abroad as the most "American" of French presidents, and for much of the first few months after coming to power in May 2007, he certainly seemed more than to embrace that image.

On recent evidence he seems to have taken it one step further with a pattern of behaviour that might perhaps be more widely characterised as being "typically American" namely suing or at least regularly launching the threat of legals proceedings.

Perhaps the conclusion is that if the past 18 months of Sarkozy's time in office are anything to go by, then the rest of his tenure could well be a busy one - at least for the family's lawyers.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Rush hour "motorway" madness hits French town

Spare a thought for the inhabitants of Sannois, a town of 25,000 on the outskirts of Paris, and perhaps also for motorists on their way to work in the French capital.

Every weekday morning for an hour from 7.30am the town centre shudders and judders to the rhythm of passing traffic, and one small residential road in particular has locals feeling as though they're living alongside a motorway.

It's all thanks to the wonders of modern technology. Drivers aren't there by accident, rather it's that helpful little motorist's mate, the GPS (SatNav) that has directed them there.

The route is supposed to be an alternative to sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the nearby A15 motorway, with the computerised voice of in-car navigation advising motorists whose cars are equipped with GPS to take an exit and make their way through the town to avoid congestion further ahead.

Instead they now find themselves slap bang in the middle of another delightful traffic jam, which leaves tempers fraying, locals furious and the town almost gridlocked.

There's one street in particular that's especially hard hit, the narrow residential rue des Saules-Bridault.

One local, who has been living in the street for the last 22 years told the national daily, Le Monde, that the situation had become unbearable.

"It has been like this for the past couple of years," Joëlle Roussel the paper.

"The street has become an alternative motorway. The other day I had to let 18 cars pass before I could get out of my driveway."

Roussel is not alone, and it's not just those living locally who want to drive to work who are having problems with the excess traffic. Pedestrians also feel they're taking their lives in their hands.

"It has become complete madness every morning," another resident, Paul Couturier, told the paper. "When I take my son to school, I have to put him on my shoulders to avoid the risks of passing cars."

Stéphane Lagresle, the European marketing director for Tele Atlas, a company that provides digital maps for in-car navigation (among other things) told TF1 news that GPS in itself wasn't to blame, as motorists could always programme another route that might at first appear less logical to the system.

He explained that when calculating the "quickest" route GPS currently only takes into account speed limits and not traffic lights or roundabouts which could effectively lengthen journey time.

So a news team decided to test for themselves what motorists were being told by their GPS as they headed into Paris along the A15 during rush hour. And sure enough the computerised voice told them to take the exit that would have them passing directly through Sannois and along rue des Saules-Bridault.

"The current state of affairs is encouraging all drivers to become verbally aggressive and contributing to road rage," Geneviève Malidin, from a committee representing local residents said.

"And that's especially true if someone is trying to back out of their garage into the street."

Residents are fed up with waiting for technology to progress enough for an "intelligent GPS" to factor in all possible variants to dissuade motorists from following to the letter, a route that's not proving any quicker than remaining on the motorway. They're putting pressure on the local council to act.

The mayor of the town, Yannick Paternotte, has announced that a commission will be set up to resolve the problem - especially that of rue des Saules-Bridault, and there'll be a public enquiry. But he also issued a word of warning.

"We have to find an overall solution," he said. "It won't be enough to put a no-entry sign on this street as that will simply divert the problem to another road."

As they say here in France, "Bonne route". Or in this case, maybe not.


How things have changed. Sannois, rue d'Eaubonne
and station, circa 1900 (from Wikipedia. Copyright expired)

Soeur Emmanuelle is dead

Tributes have been paid across France after the news that one of the country's most remarkable and much-loved women is dead.

Soeur Emmanuelle, who dedicated her life to helping the poor and was often compared to Mother Therese. died on Monday morning at the age of 99.

She died peacefully in her sleep at the home where she was being cared for in Callian in the south of France, the president of the association "Asmae-Association Sœur Emmanuelle" Trao Nguyen announced.

The comparison to Mother Therese is one Soeur Emmanuelle - born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels, Belgium - repeatedly downplayed with the comment that she was "no saint".

But hers was a rich life that included setting up an association for unmarried mothers, working in Turkey and Tunisia and then at the age of 63 in the slums of Cairo, where she remained for 21 years.

Even when she returned to France at the age of 85 - supposedly to retire - she continued working with the homeless, and made a number of television appearances to promote humanitarian causes.

For the past decade she spent most of her time in a retirement home in Callian, receiving visitors but not leaving the village.

Apart from many memories, Soeur Emmanuelle also leaves behind a series of books including one published in August "J'ai 100 ans et je voudrais vous dire " (I'm 100 years old and I would like to tell) in which she not only outlined what she considered her many faults but also left us with the thought that, "Without helping others and without sharing, humanity cannot progress."

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner was among one of the first to respond to the news.

"My Soeur Emmanuelle is dead, she would have been 100 years old, always young, admirable and beautiful, and I have a very heavy heart" he said in a statement.

"I always remember what a joy it was to work alongside her. I will always keep the memory of the life force she gave and her ability to make mountains move," he added.

"A woman of the streets. An incredible force who would tenderly tell you off."

Even though she was sometimes at odds with the conventional thinking of the Catholic church - she spoke out in favour of the clergy being allowed to marry and even wrote to Pope John-Paul II telling him she thought contraception should be allowed - the Vatican was also quick to respond to news of her death.

A spokesman for the Vatican, Father Federico Lombardi, said the church had lost "one if the greatest examples of Christian charity."

"Her life showed how Christian charity could succeed regardless of national, racial or religious differences," he said.

Soeur Emmanuelle made many appearances on French television and radio over the years, and as recently as July in a poll of this country's most popular people, she ranked sixth.

There is simply too much to say about an exceptional woman who made such a difference to the lives of so many, and televised tributes have already been announced for the coming days.

According to her wishes there will be a simple funeral ceremony in the village of Callian on Wednesday.

But perhaps the last word for the moment is best left with the woman herself.

"I've had a good and happy life," she said in her recent book

"I can only keep repeating that it's necessary to give others optimism , the will and love."


Addition

Soeur Emmanuelle truly was an extraordinary person, and neither this post nor the previous one I wrote really gets across just how remarkable she was.

Her spirit, energy and humanity were a lesson to us all - regardless of religion, nationality or race. And that has been a point made time and time again throughout the course of today (Monday) here in France.

She spoke and appealed to generations of French, and they appeared to listen to her. She addressed everyone, French presidents, clergy, the homeless, intellectuals - you name it - in the informal "tu" form, and cajoled, bullied, smiled and won her way into the hearts of an enormous number of people.

In a statement on Monday, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy said (and I paraphrase)
"She was a Sister to us all, a woman of the highest conviction, but also one of action, for whom charity actually meant doing something concrete for the benefit of humanity worldwide."

Politicians from Left to Right and religious leaders here in France have either issued statements or spoken to press, radio and television today about what she meant to the French and world at large.

Lunchtime TV news was dedicated in the most part to her death, and doubtless the story will lead the prime time news this evening on both the country's major national channels. There are further special programmes scheduled for the coming weeks and in particular for November 16, when she would have celebrated her 100th birthday.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Hackers gain access to Sarkozy's bank account

Cybercrime might well be on the increase, but you would have thought the person holding a country's highest office would be safer than the rest of us.

Well apparently not - at least not here in France - according to a story revealed in today's edition of the national newspaper, le Journal du Dimanche (LJDD).

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had his personal bank account hacked into, the newspaper revealed, and "small transactions" had been made.

Sarkozy made an official complaint in September after it was discovered, and a police investigation was immediately launched, his office confirmed on Saturday.

The question currently concerning investigators is how someone managed to gain access to Sarkozy's personal accounts.

According to Christophe Naudin, a criminologist at one of the capital's universities, it was probably much in the same was as criminals gain access to anyone's account.

"Direct hacking would be rare," he told TF1 news. "There are a lot of attempts made, but not many of them are successful," he said.

"It's much more likely that someone managed to get hold of (hard copy) documents containing some element of his banking details, and it was by pure chance that it happened to be his (Sarkozy's) details, he added.

"It could just have well been any other French citizen."

Whatever the method of getting hold of his details, there has been a crime involved and Sarkozy's private account has been hacked into via the Internet

And in the last 12 months, there has been a nine percent rise in such cases according to official statistics, with one of the weak points being the passwords assigned to the Carte Bleue many French carry around with them.

Carte Bleue is a debit card and not a credit card, with a personalised four digit pin-code, which cannot be changed.

Every time you make a payment using the card, there will also be some sort of paper trail via a receipt, which could lead the more unscrupulous among back to an individual's bank account.

Perhaps that should serve as a word of warning to all us every time we make a payment using our credit cards, or Carte Bleue to keep a tight hold on all receipts rather than simply bin them without thinking.

The issue of passwords was also a point taken up by Georges Liberman, the president of Xiring, a company that ensures the security of online banking transactions.

He said that the weak point of the current system here in France was that online access to bank accounts was made using the account number and a password, which although different for each person (and from the one used for the Carte Bleue) could on the whole never be changed. It too remains the same.

Once "cracked" the door would be wide open to hacking.

All the stops may have been pulled to discover who was behind the hacking and how and they gained access to Sarkozy's accounts.

But after a month of investigations, and with the public prosecutor of Nanterre, Philippe Courroye leading the inquiry police are, according to LJDD, no further along in actually discovering "whodunnit".

France-Britain and the whiffy Wifi language divide

A word of warning before you launch into a rapid read of this post. Much of it probably won't make any sense until you've made it to the end. And even then you might need to start all over again.

To begin with, I would like to say that I think I have a pretty good grasp of the English language.

Well I should do. It's my mother tongue and I was born and brought up in Britain, although I've spent the best part of the last couple of decades living and working abroad and alternately murdering and mangling other languages with abandon.

Throw in the fact that I have a teaching qualification (although no longer used) and actually do a fair amount of talking for a living, and I should have a handle on "proper" pronunciation.

As I stress, "I would like to say." Sadly that's not always the case.

All right so I know that Britain and the US are supposed to be two countries divided by a common language (among other things). And I'm well used to be gawped at with almost total incomprehension when I open my mouth in a restaurant on the other side of the Pond and ask where the loo (restroom) is or request the bill (check).

Even though I know Americans "stand in line" the devil in me means that I still cannot resist asking where the "queue" is for tickets at the cinema, and I know that someone, somewhere is going to tell me that my plummy accented way of pronouncing tomato (tommarto) is either "cute" or completely "foreign".

But never, ever in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my fellow Brits would have a problem with the way I talk. Well apart from once in Scotland, when I was told that my accent was too "alienating" to be heard on the local radio station. Harrumph.

Now though, I have to own up that perhaps I no longer have a grip on the language I used to claim to be able to master.

And it's all the fault of modern technology. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

You see, a couple of months ago I had the local Internet provider here (Orange) install a Livebox in my home. It means that I can log on from my laptop anywhere in the house. Yes that's right Wifi is now available "chez moi".

It's great and means I'm not desk-bound to the study but can use my computer anywhere in the house; perched on my knees while I goggle at the box if I fancy, or (weather permitting) even outside in the garden.

All right, so it's not the hottest of news. I mean, I've been using Wifi all around France at various hotels and airport lounges for quite a while. But to have it within my own four walls has been rather a novelty.

Anyway, on a recent trip "back home" to London, I took my rather overweight laptop along for the journey, and while checking in at the hotel I naturally asked - as I always do here in France - whether they had Wifi available.

The receptionist gave me a rather puzzled look, but asked politely, "Wifi sir? What exactly would that be?"

"Wifi," I replied helpfully. "Wifi. Do you have Wifi available here?" Repetition seemed to be the best way of making myself understood, I thought.

"I'm sorry sir. I don't understand what you mean. What precisely do you want?" She asked.

Even after the shortest of exchanges, the conversation was becoming more than a little tedious for me. I'm not renowned for my excess of patience especially when faced with an idiot.

I mean Wifi is Wifi isn't it? Everyone knows what it is, even a technophobe such as myself. Either the hotel had it or it hadn't. The receptionist really couldn't be as dim as she appeared.

That at least was what was passing through my mind.

Fortunately as it turned out, I held my tongue and rather slowly, but with clinical precision enunciated, "W.I.F.I - you know the thing that allows me to connect to the Internet without those interminable wires and wotnot."

Silence. Then.

"Ah," came the reply. "Wye - Fye (proper English mother-tongue pronunciation of Wifi). Yes of course we have Wye-Fye sir," she added with a smirk.

It was one of those "please-let-the-ground-open-up-to-swallow-me" moments as I realised that too many years in France and the fact that I've only ever used the word here, had led me to believe that the correct pronunciation was "wiffy" as in "whiffy" (meaning smelly) and not wye-fye, as I've since learned much of the rest of the world calls it.

I sheepishly admitted defeat, not daring to look her in the eye as she could clearly see I had arrived from Planet Zog, albeit with an English accent and a seemingly dippy IQ.

So now I know how to pronounce the word, there should be no stopping me - at least not when I'm either in Britain or next visiting the US.

But for the moment there is - something stopping me I mean.

I just can't bring myself to say it.

And even as I double check the spelling and grammar here, I'm mouthing the word "whiffy, whiffy, whiffy" in my head as I read.

Quelle horreur.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Platini speaks out over jeering of French national anthem

The controversy rumbles on here in France over what action - if any - should be taken when there's whistling or jeering during the singing of the French national anthem before an international football match.

And now the president of Uefa, and former French international, Michel Platini has weighed into the debate saying that the most recent incident on Tuesday evening had been blown entirely out of proportion.

In an interview with the national daily, Le Monde, Platini said that football was in danger of being taken hostage by politicians.

"The incident of the whistling during the singing of the anthem has become a political affair," he said.

"It has nothing to do with the sport."

Platini went on to say that it was something that had happened on numerous occasions in the past and shouldn't be interpreted as an insult against France but simply a "display against an opponent on the evening."

"When I was playing in the national team some 30 years ago, the anthem was jeered on a number of occasions both at home and abroad," he told the paper.

"At the time politicians weren't interested in football and it didn't shock anyone."

Platini's comments come four days after an international friendly between France and Tunisia at the national stadium in Paris, La Stade de France.

As Franco-Tunisian singer Lââm launched into the opening bars of la Marseillaise, large sections of visiting supporters started whistling.

There was an outcry in the national press the following day and condemnation from all sides of the political spectrum, with the prime minister, François Fillion, leading the charge and calling the incident "insulting".

A poll conducted later by CSA revealed that 80 per cent of the French agreed.

The day after the game, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy hauled in the president of the French Football Federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, and afterwards it was left to the sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, to tell journalists what the government wanted to happen in the future.

"All matches would be stopped immediately if supporters whistled during the singing of the national anthem," she said.

"Any government ministers present would leave immediately and the stadium would be cleared," she went on.

"Future friendlies between France and the country involved would be suspended for a period to be determined by the French Football Federation".

While Bachelot was undoubtedly expressing the wishes of her boss, police unions among others were quick to point out just how impractical it would be for a stadium holding 50,000 plus supporters to be cleared quickly and quietly.

But that didn't stop Escalettes from insisting that such measures were feasible and that it would be entirely possible to clear a stadium peacefully if the will was shown.

"It would be difficult but not impossible," he said.

"If the police, the football federation and the minister of sport worked hand in hand it could happen," he added.

Everyone needs to get together to sort out how to go about it should this happen in the future.

Perhaps the last word - for the moment, as there are plenty of others being spoken and written - should be left with William Gaillard, Uefa's director of communications, who reminded anyone who was listening that it was not the politicians who were in charge of the match.

"Who's going to stop the game?" he asked. "For the moment it's the referee who decides whether to call a halt to the match, not the French government."

Missing sisters found safe and sound

The mystery of the "disappearance" of two girls who went missing 11 days ago in the northeastern French town of Rheims is over.

On Thursday 11 year-old Sophie and her 13-year-old sister Valérie turned up at school. Their father and three other people, were taken in for police questioning suspected of having kept the girls hidden.

As reported here, the girls had been at the centre of a custody battle between their mother, Katia Navigante and their father, Rénaldo Gualtieri.

They were last seen on Monday October 6, when they reportedly left their father's apartment to go to school, leaving behind them a message saying they would rather die than return with the mother to Italy, where she lives.

Navigante had been given custody by Italian authorities of the two girls after the couple split - a decision that had been upheld recently by a court in France.

The sisters went "missing" the day before their mother arrived to collect them.

Now it seems that the father was behind the charade to keep the girls hidden, although when news broke that they had turned up at school, he was still maintaining his innocence in the whole affair.

He told French television that he was relieved they were safe and sound and perhaps the suspicions that he had anything to do with their disappearance would now be dropped. But shortly afterwards police took him in for questioning along with his brother and two of his friends.

They girls turned up at school on Thursday morning looking as though nothing had happened, their principal, Dany Alary, told national radio. "It was 8.10 am and they looked like two girls who were just a little late for class - that's all."

The police were immediately informed and the sisters questioned as to their whereabouts during the past 11 days.

Although of course it was good news that the girls had been found safe and sound, Navigante's lawyer, Sylvie Dumont-Dacremont, told reporters the welfare of the children had always been paramount and they had also been unwilling to implicate their father in their "disappearance" for fear that he would be sent to prison.

She also urged the authorities to "take all measures necessary to keep them safe until their mother arrived."

For almost two weeks the police remained convinced that the father was behind the "fake disappearance" of the two girls and a half hour before they turned up at school had launched an investigation of more than 15 houses of friends and family of the father of the two girls, the public prosecutor of Rheims, told a press conference.

"It seems that this has all been organised by the father," she said. "It's unacceptable to play such a game with the police and judicial authorities for such a period of time

Gualtieri's father, Guiseppe, refused to believe that his son is guilty.

"I know my son. I know he's innocent," he told reporters. "He would never have hidden his children."

In spite of that Gualtieri and his accomplices are likely to be charged and if found guilty, could face a maximum of three years in prison.

On Friday morning the girls' mother arrived in France to collect her daughters.

France's disappointing sporting double whammy

It hasn't been a great week for French sport - or at least not for two events held annually here.

First up there was the announcement that next year's Formula 1 Grand Prix at Magny Cours would be cancelled. And then came news that Germany's public television channels had decided not to broadcast live cycling's Tour de France in 2009.

Lack of money is behind the decision to cancel next year's French Formula 1 Grand Prix.

On Wednesday the president of la Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA), Nicolas Deschaux, announced that there would be no race in France during the 2009 calendar.

The decision is probably not too much of a surprise given that the rights to stage last year's race reportedly cost around €13 million and it made a loss of €1 million.

With partners pulling out because of the economic climate here in France and the belt tightening required, the FFSA would be forced to foot the bill alone.

"The federation cannot pay to host the Grand Prix by itself," said Dechaux. "It's too much of a risk."

So no French Grand Prix for 2009, but there's still the chance that it might return in 2010 - although there's likely to be pretty stiff competition from other countries such as South Korea, Russia and India, who are also apparently looking to fill the available slot.

France currently has six other projects in place to host a Grand Prix in either 2010 or a year later. A renovated Magny Cours is one possible bidder, but the whole thing could take on a distinctly Disney-like character as Marne-la-Vallée, also home to EuroDisney is in pole position to find the money for the event.

In the world of cycling, organisers of next year's Tour de France, were dealt a blow on Thursday when one of Germany's public television channels, ARD, announced that it would not be broadcasting next year's Tour de France live.

"The sporting value of the Tour de France has declined because of the increase in the number of doping cases," said Fritz Raff, the president of ARD. "As a result the interest in broadcasting it has also diminished accordingly," he added.

Hours later the country's other public channel, ZDF, confirmed that it wouldn't be showing live coverage without ARD - effectively shutting the door on live transmission on German public television of the Tour.

Tour organisers, Amaury Sports Organisation (AMO), say they've done everything that was requested of them to weed out the cheats.

In a statement after the announcement AMO all but accused ARD of making the battle against catching drug takers even harder.

"ARD requested a fight against doping but gets upset when we find case," it said.

"It would be better to test and find nothing. In taking this decision, ARD is unfortunately encouraging those leading the fight against doping to throw in the towel in order to ensure broadcasting."

In spite of the organiser's efforts to keep this year's Tour clean and come down hard on those taking drugs, the recent revelations that Stefan Schumacher and his team mate Bernhard Kohl had tested positive for the banned substance EPO seem to have been the final straw for the two channels.

Both men rode for the German team, Gerolsteiner, with Kohl finishing third overall in the Tour and winning the polka dot jersey for best climber.

After suspending live broadcasting of the Tour two years ago following a series of doping scandals, ARD returned to cover the event in 2008, albeit with less airtime than in previous years.

In spite of public television's decision, there'll still be a way for German cycling fans to watch the Tour live on the small screen, just as they did in 2007 when a public channel, Sat 1, stepped in to cover the event.

The pan-European sports channel, Eurosport, will continue to carry the Tour live.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Illegal immigrants, the easily forgotten many

With the financial crisis dominating the recent European Union summit in Brussels, it was easy to miss another important decision that will effect the daily lives of millions living within the 27-nation bloc and even more outside of it.

On Thursday EU leaders rubber stamped the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum.

Some six million illegal immigrants are currently thought to be in the EU and the principle behind the pact is to find a common way forward for the 27 countries to "manage" immigration, set limits and co-ordinate the labour needs of the bloc.

As France currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, it had the job of drawing up the so-called "preamble" to the pact.

And when leaders approved it on Thursday, they were formally recognising that, "the EU doesn't have the resources to receive decently all migrants hoping to find a better life here."

Cruelly put perhaps, that could be interpreted as a way of keeping the "unwanted" out while welcoming in those deemed "worthy".

Of course a proper in-depth look at the plight of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers isn't really the stuff of sound bites, 700-word posts or even the standard two-and-a-half minute slots on prime time news. But that's about what it got on last night's broadcast here on the national channel TF1.

All the same, and even though it was buried half way through the programme, it still drove home just how complex and complicated an issue it is.

Away from political decisions being taken in Brussels, the report took a look at the realities facing refugees in the northern French town of Calais.

There used to be a refugee camp in Sangatte just outside the town. It was closed down in 2002, by the then minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Since that time, those seeking to make the trip across the channel to the El Dorado that is supposedly awaiting them on the other side in Britain, have been forced to camp in the most appalling conditions.

They live in makeshift tents in the open air in an area that has been nicknamed "The Jungle". They're regularly rounded up and hauled off to the nearest police station, only to be released a little later.

Many don't have papers, and if they do, are often from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Eritrea, with authorities unwilling or unable to expel them.

With little or nothing to eat, they rely on the generosity of voluntary organisations such as L’association la Belle Etoile, which serves food to ever increasing numbers.

On the day of filming there were more than 500 men, women and children standing in line, waiting.

The goal of those who have already travelled thousands of kilometres is to reach Britain, a country where many are convinced "life is good" according to one of the association's volunteers, Christian Salomé.

"For many, they have the impression that it's a country where everything is perfect," he said.

"When we speak to them, most of them tell us that they have a brother, a friend or someone from their village who's already there, and has passed on the information that the conditions there are magnificent," he added.

Although that's far from being the case as the report made clear, it remains a view clearly held by many who have made the journey this far and are ready in the early hours of the morning to try to stow themselves aboard a lorry bound for Britain.

The reality of what they can expect once there might be far from their dreams, but it surely cannot be as much of a nightmare as they're currently experiencing.

Many arrive in northern France already weak and sick, and volunteers, who have run a local medical centre since 2006 simply don't have the resources available to cope.

There are just four showers for 500 people.

"What we can provide here is just a brief shelter, said Mariam Rachid, one of those volunteers.

"We see women and children living under inhumane conditions. It's unacceptable."

After months of travelling to get as far as northern France, in conditions perhaps worse than the ones they're now experiencing, many are prepared to endure even more hardship in the hope of making the 34 kilometres that separate them from their final goal.

The cameras showed one man, whose face wasn't visible, insisting that across the channel awaited a better life.

"In Britain they'll give me money and everything I need to live," he said.

"Are you sure of that?" asked the reporter.

"Yes I'm certain," he replied. "That's why everyone wants to go there."

Of course last night's report is far from being an isolated case, either here in Europe or in many other parts of the world.

But when it's on your own door step - so to speak - it's hard to ignore, at least for the two-and-a-half minutes worth of television airtime it was given in French sitting rooms on Wednesday evening.

Immigration may be a political "problem" but as the report reminded those who were watching, it has a very human face.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Outrage over "shameful" whistling at France-Tunisia football match

It's not often that politicians from Left and Right agree on something, but that's pretty much the case here after last night's international football match between France and Tunisia.

There was nothing at stake in terms of qualification for the 2010 World Cup. The match was supposed to be a friendly between two countries.

But it was the whistling that accompanied the singing of the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, before the match started, that has made the headlines and turned what should have been a 90 minutes of the "beautiful game" into something definitely uglier.

The French Football Federation (FFF) must have known that there was likely to be trouble of some kind. Home games between France and north African countries seldom pass without incident.

In October 2001 against Algeria, there was jeering and whistling before the game started and a pitch invasion afterwards. And in November last year a there was a similar reaction during the playing of this country's national anthem when France played host to Morocco.

The FFF had taken measures of sorts before last night's match to try to prevent a repetition of any such occurrence.

It had invited Franco-Tunisian singers, Lââm et Amina, to sing the national anthems of the two countries and the players were asked to take to the pitch of la Stade de France hand in hand in a show of "fraternité".

But even as Lââm began with the opening line "Allons enfants de la patrie" the whistling started in the stadium.

Anyone watching from the comfort of their sitting rooms will have writhed in embarrassment, as the singer belted out the words to the very end, and all the football commentators could say when she had finished was that once again, the lack of respect shown during the singing of the French national anthem had been "completely humiliating" and there was no other words for it.

The whistling didn't stop at the singing of national anthem. For the duration of the 90 minutes it continued whenever French players - many of whom are of north African origin and some of whom of Tunisian origin - were in possession of the ball.

The commentators might have been lost for words at the time, but the day afterwards there have been plenty exchanged throughout the media.

The match, or more accurately the whistling has dominated television news. There have been reports in all the national newspapers and listeners have rung in to radio programmes to express their indignation, shame and explanations as to what had occurred and why it had happened.

Leading the debate of course have been the country's politicians, who have had a fair amount to say on the subject.

Appearing in national radio in the morning, the prime minister, François Fillon, said that the game should have been delayed immediately the whistling started.

"Organisers have to find a solution," he said. "I think that games should be interrupted when national anthems - no matter for which country - are whistled at in this way.

"It's an insult for the players and for the country."

Fillon wasn't alone in his condemnation. In a written statement, the national secretary of the Socialist party, Razzy Hammadi, agreed that the whistling had been "unacceptable".

"Even if France was for many years a political and colonial power in Tunisia, and even if the French of Tunisian origin and in general or north African origin are all too often the victims of discrimination and police harrassment, it's inappropriate and humiliating to whistle during the national anthem," he wrote.

Further to the Left, the former minister of sport and leader of the Communist party, Marie-Georges Buffet, who was present at the match said to say that she was scandalised by what had happened was to ignore the reasons behind the whistling.

"It's an expression of the sort of suffering that's going on in this country at the moment," she told national radio.

Answering calls from some politicians that the match should have been interrupted, Noël Le Graet, the vice president of the FFF said that it would have been a mistake to have stopped the match.

"It was a regrettable incident," he said. "But it's always better to play the match and to present a strong symbol."

And what did the national coach, Raymond Domenech, have to say in response to the debate raging in the French media? Very little.

His only comment when asked about the incident was that he had been "moved" by the singing of the national anthems and a "little deaf" for all the rest.

Perhaps that's not so surprising as Domenech is often the target of media ridicule especially since after guiding a talented team to an early exit in this year's Euro 2008 in Switzerland, rather than offering a mea culpa, he popped up on national television and proposed to his long time partner and sports presenter, Estelle Denis.

The team's recent loss to Austria and a weekend draw to Romania - both group qualification matches for the next World Cup in South Africa- haven't really endeared him to French football fans, but all the same he has been confirmed as the national coach until 2010.

Domenech might not have wanted to get involved in the debate, but the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, certainly did.

He hauled in the president of the FFF, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, for a lunchtime tête à tête and an explanation as to what had happened.

The outcome of that meeting as presented by the minister of sport, Roselyne Bachelot, shortly afterwards was that in future, all friendly matches in which there was "insulting whistling" during the playing or singing of the French national anthem would be stopped immediately and any government ministers present would leave the stadium.

"Furthermore," she told reporters "any future friendlies between France and the other country involved would be suspended for a period to be determined by the president of the French football federation."

The result of the game, which has been somewhat lost in the polemic, was a 3-1 win for France.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Fontainebleau - a fabulous slice of French life

It's maybe not as well known as it's more famous cousin Versailles, which lies to the south-west of Paris, but Fontainebleau is definitely a town worth more than a casual visit.

Fontainebleau rue Grande

And it has probably been given an extra boost - in terms of tourism here in France - by being featured in this week's edition of one of the country's leading news magazines.

L'Express sells around half a million copies each week, and is a pretty good read, bringing anyone who's interested, bang up to date with what's happening here in France.

Of course it has a political bias, but that can be balanced by maybe reading one of its competitors such as Marianne or Nouvel Observateur.

Anyway I have a subscription and receive my copy every weekend.

Imagine then my combined horror and surprised delight as this week's edition popped through my door, and there emblazoned on the front was a banner headline "Fontainebleau and its surroundings" with the promise to reveal 60 top names and addresses of "must sees" and "have-to-go tos" in the town itself and the neighbouring villages.

One of those neighbouring villages is the one in which I live, and about which I wrote here a couple of weeks ago.

Without waxing too lyrical, it's a great place. It's home to around 1,500 people, sits on the edge of one of the largest forests surrounding Paris and is chocolate-box pretty while retaining a real soul.

Any thoughts I might have had when I first moved here a year ago that it was one of those "best kept secrets" we all like to look for, were quickly dispelled when I realised that it attracted bus loads of Japanese tourists - come rain or shine - who visit to pay homage to a hotel in which Emperor Hirohito once stayed.

Add to that the fact that it also has a school of painting named after it (one of its most famous sons was Jean-François Millet), has numerous artists' ateliers, restaurants and hotels and a calendar jam-packed with cultural events, then it's no surprise perhaps that it pretty much acts as a magnet for tourists all year round.

Still it was a bit of a shock to see the face of the local butcher staring back at me from the cover of L'Express, with the recommendation to all readers within driving distance that this was the place to buy some of the juiciest and most tender cuts.

I mean it's not as though I disagree - far from it. It's just that I feel a little protective towards a man I've come to know and like over the past year. He's MY butcher and I don't want anyone else muscling in.

Philippe Auguin. is the guy from whom I buy some of the best meat available - all of which is organic, top quality and simply delicious. So much for my "find". Now the rest of the world (or at least those who read L'Express) are likely to make a beeline for the village to stock up

Mind you, his popularity and great reputation are more than fully deserved, and it's hard to begrudge him his new found notoriety. He's the kind of fellow who is very much the heart of the village, always has a smile for his customers and makes the chore of shopping a pleasure, by offering a personal and personable alternative to the anonymity of the "Grand Surfaces" superstores.

Philippe loves his job, works a long day and takes the shortest of holidays simply because as he told me recently he "loves being back home and at the centre of what's happening."

Somewhere in that is a lesson for all of us perhaps.

His is not the only "address" featured in L"Express. The special pull-out lists 60 of them, all in villages surrounding the main town of Fontainebleau - just over 50 kilometres south east of the French capital.

For sure It's less well-known that Versailles but that doesn't make it any less worth a trip out to the "sticks".

By no stretch of the imagination is it poorer architecturally, culturally or in terms of setting.



Château de Fontainebleau (from Wikipedia, Carolus)


It too has its own chateau, which although less ornate that the one in Versailles is actually older. With its trademark horseshoe staircase, the château de Fontainebleau was the largest one built be François 1 in the 16 century.

For French history buffs, François 1 was prone to building chateaux all over the shop, leaving them empty and instead just moving the royal court (complete with furniture) around when he fancied a change of scenery.

For those planning a visit, the opening hours are a bit haphazard - depending on the time of the year - and it constantly seems to be undergoing renovations of one sort or another, but it's definitely a must see.

Fontainebleau also boasts one of Europe's premier business schools, INSEAD, and during the 1950s and 60s was home to Nato's HQ allied forces central Europe - until that is the former French president, Charles de Gaulle, took the country out of the organisation.

What really sets it apart though from many other towns in or around the French capital is its forest.

It's enormous - more than 250km2 and hugely popular with Parisians looking for a weekend break in the countryside while not wanting to face the dubious delights of spending huge chunks of Friday and Sunday evenings sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

At the moment of course there are guided crack-of-dawn tours to help those that are interested in identifying and collecting edible mushrooms. There are huge boulders for rock climbers to tackle, cycling pistes for the lycra-clad cross-country enthusiasts, bridle paths and a criss-crossing network of footpaths for the serious or even more humble rambler.

Throw in the enormous variety of fauna and flora, the stags currently roaring their night time rut and wild boar rampaging through the place, and you have an ideal cocktail of preserved nature just a 40-minute train journey from Paris.

The townsfolk go by the delightful name of Bellifontains or Bellifontaines and are well used to foreigners dawdling around the centre of town with maps in hand and phrase books at the ready.

While their English might not be the most robust, they're a pretty friendly bunch with none of the infamous arrogance for which the French, and in particular those living in the capital are often accused.

Fontainebleau café


And if all you want to do is sit outside a brasserie or café and watch the world go by or see what a "proper" French market is all about (three times a week) it's all here (and more) in living technicolour.

So there you go. L'Express has done its bit at telling the rest of France a little more about Fontainebleau, and now I've chipped in giving readers here a taste of what they can look forward to.

Just promise though that you won't all be descending on Philippe and depriving me of the joy of bagging the best cuts for myself.
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