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Sunday, 30 November 2008

France is reminded that charity really can begin at home

For many Christmas and the run-up to the holiday season is a time of course just as much about "giving" as "receiving".

And the French have had a reminder of that this weekend with an idea, that although it is far from being unique to this country, also serves as a lesson as to how easy it can be to help those who are less fortunate.

Up and down the country, anyone popping along to their local supermarket to do their weekly shop over the past couple of days will have been handed a leaflet as they entered.

Printed on it was a list of non-perishable items, such as rice, pasta, baby food, tinned vegetables and so on.

Shoppers if they wished, were invited to simply add to their baskets some of the suggested items as they went around, pay as usual at the checkout and then drop them off at collection point before leaving the supermarket.

It was all part of a campaign organised annually in the run-up to Christmas by this country's "banque alimentaire" or food bank.

The first food bank in France dates back to 1984 - set up on the same model that exists in north America.

Running for two days, over 90,000 volunteers were on hand this year to collect non-perishable goods donated by shoppers, and the hope of the French federation of food banks is that this year's collection will have yielded the same sort of generosity as 2007.

Last year volunteers collected a record of almost 10,000 tonnes of foodstuff (or the equivalent of more than 20 million meals - or 14 per cent of the federation's annual distribution) over the same two day period.

Although the hope is to have collected even more this year, the worry has been that the credit crunch and belt tightening - in France as elsewhere - will have discouraged people from making a donation.

That was a particular concern for the president of the French federation of food banks, Alain Seugé, going into the two days.

He said figures show a record number of people have already used the services of the food bank this year - 100,000 more people than in 2007.

And that number coincides with a change in the "profile" of the people dependent on help.

"When they were created back in 1984 the idea was to distribute food to those on the periphery of society and meet their needs - the homeless or immigrant families with few means," he said.

"Today around 15 per cent of those we're helping are actually in employment, and that compares to just nine per cent a couple of years ago," he added.

"There has also been an increase in the number of pensioners and unemployed dependent on some sort of help from the food bank."

That's also the view backed up by another organisation, Restaurants du Cœur (or Restos du Cœur as it's more commonly known here) which will be starting its big Christmas push on Monday.

It's a charity relying on donations, and was set up in 1985 by the late comedian Coluche, to provide free meals and distribute food packages to the needy.

Over the years it has become something of a national institution here in France, with over 100 regional and autonomous branches springing up throughout the country, and similar affiliates being launched in neighbouring Germany and Belgium.

Every January actors, singers, musicians and personalities from the world of French show biz get together for a televised concert with the proceeds from the sale of the CD and DVD all being ploughed back into the cause.

Even before this year's campaign begins in earnest, the president of the charity, Olivier Berthe, is warning that it's going to have its work cut out meeting the demand.

"The campaign hasn't been launched and already there has been an increase of between 5-10 per cent over the same period last year of people seeking help," he said.

"In particular there has been an increase in the number of elderly, young and single parent families who have registered for assistance," he added.

"We're even seeing some groups, such as farmers, who are having a hard time - and we rarely see them.

"If we don't manage to mobilise enough donation - in France as well as the rest of Europe, we'll just not be able to manage."

Sarkozy wins voodoo doll appeal - sort of

For those of you who have been eagerly awaiting the latest (and possibly final) chapter in the Nicolas Sarkozy Voodoo doll saga, here it is.

He has won his appeal - sort of. Only partially mind you, because the thing will remain on sale, but only if it meets certain conditions.

That was the decision on Friday of an appeals court in Paris, which after a couple of weeks of "reflection" decided that the doll "was insulting to the image" of the French president - a claim he had always made in his attempts to have it withdrawn from circulation.

But at the same time the court refused to ban the doll outright. Instead it said that the manufacturer, Tear Prod, could continue selling it as long as the packaging contained a mention of the court's decision.

Once again, just in case you missed the story first - or even second time around - here's the briefest of recaps.

Full blow-by-blow details can be found here and here.

The doll in question is an effigy of the French president (co-incidentally it's "made in China" which could seem rather ironic to some given Sarkozy's recent problems with Beijing over his decision to meet finally Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama next month - but that's another story) and comes 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.

It originally went on sale on October 9 along, with a similar one representing Ségolène Royal, the defeated Socialist party candidate in last year's presidential election. (20,000 Sarkozy dolls and 15,000 Royal).

Sarkozy, took offence, and through his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, requested that the company which had manufactured and distributed the doll, withdraw it from circulation or risk legal action for "misuse of the president's image".

When the company refused, the case went to court - just one of six civil suits Sarkozy has brought during 18 months in office.

Sarkozy "lost" with the court deciding that the doll "neither constituted an affront on the human dignity (of the president) nor a personal attack," as his lawyer had claimed, and it remained on sale.

A couple of weeks later the case was back in court - this time on appeal - with Herzog arguing once again that the company didn't have the right to use Sarkozy's image and that users might somehow think that by sticking pins into the doll they were actually practising voodoo.

On Friday, the appeals court came through with its ruling.

Yes the doll "constitutes an offence to the dignity" of Sarkozy, but no, a complete ban on its sale would be both "inappropriate and disproportionate".

So it can remain on sale, but the manufacturers must include a mention within the packaging of the court's ruling.

As far as Herzog was concerned , the verdict was one that justified having taken the case to court in the first place.

"I"m completely happy," he said afterwards.

"And there's no regret in having appealed the original decision."

So there you go, a week in this country which has seen the end of two "sagas" from different parts of the political spectrum - just for the sake of balance.

From the centre-right, Sarkozy's voodoo doll "victory" of sorts and from the left of course the battle for the leadership of the country's Socialist party.

Somehow though, with Sarkozy's penchant for civil suits (six during 18 months in office - far more than any other French president in recent history) and Ségolène Royal all but "declaring" herself as a candidate for the Socialist party's presidential nomination in 2012, what's the betting that one or other could be back in the headlines with a similar story in the near future?

Friday, 28 November 2008

Britney's back in France - Spears that is

After a four-year absence from these shores, US pop singer, Britney Spears has made it across the Pond, and will be appearing live on French prime time telly on Friday evening.

She'll be the guest of honour on the reality talent show Star Academy, on the national channel TF1, in an appearance that coincides with the launch of her latest album in this country "Circus".

It's all part of a whistle-stop European promotional tour and comes hot on the heels of an awards ceremony in Germany.

But back to France, and forget for a moment that this is a country with a proud and rich cultural tradition, and that next month the writer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio will receive the Nobel prize for literature at a ceremony in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Cast aside thoughts of all those famous names throughout the centuries that have left their mark in one way or another, such as Voltaire, Claude Debussy, Paul Cézanne, Arthur Rimbaud, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre....ah the list could go on and on.

Or even perhaps those currently famed in their respective fields such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Philippe Starck, Natalie Dessay or Roberto Alagna.

Don't dwell on any of those names - past or present.

Friday is Britney (does her surname really need spelling out) night as far as many television viewers will be concerned.

Well at least that's what TF1 and the producers of Star Ac' (as it's "affectionately" known here) Endemol will be hoping.

The programme - now in its eighth and final season has been floundering in the ratings, and Britney's inclusion in Friday night's line-up is a much-hoped for last push to salvage some of the ground the show has lost over the years, before in winds up in a few weeks time.

TF1 has taken out full page advertisements in many of the country's weekly magazines and has been trumpeting Britney's appearance as "the television event not to be missed."

For those of you unfamiliar with what all the fuss is about - in other words what on earth Star Academy is - here's a brief round-up.

The concept of the show is simple, and is one that, although it was dreamt up by a Spanish production company, was actually first broadcast in France in 2001.

It has also been copied and adapted in more than 50 countries worldwide.

In France, each new season has 16 contestants "holed up" in a chateau on the outskirts of Paris, under the watchful eye of a director and a number of teachers who coach them in dancing, singing, acting and sport.

Just as watchful an eye, if you like, has been that of the viewing public, as the students' progress can be caught live virtually 24/7 on the Net, and each evening for a resumé of the previous day's "highlights".

It's a sort of musical Big Brother, indeed produced by exactly the same company, the hugely successful Endemol.

Every week there's a prime time special, and the contestants get the chance to sing with some of the biggest names in the music industry - both French and international stars. And each show ends of course with one of students being voted off by the public.

Past winners have included Jenifer, Nolwenn Leroy and Elodie Frégé during the first three seasons of the show.

Never heard of them? Doesn't matter - they've all had reasonably good careers here in France.

In its fourth season the winner was Gregory Lemarchal, the "voice of an angel" who had numerous hits, but sadly died last year at the age of 23 of cystic fibrosis.

Seasons five and six brought us Magalie Vaé and Cyril Cinélu as winners - now you could be more than forgiven for not having a clue as to who they are - nor do most French. Their albums bombed, and little more has been heard from them.

And last year was the turn of Quentin Mosimann - the jury's still out on whether he'll make it big time here.

For this, the last season of the show, the students have been living in the centre of Paris rather than the chateau, and are now down to the final five.

They're the lucky ones who will get, in the words of the show's presenter, Nikos Aliagas, "the chance of their lives" to share the stage tonight with Britney.

They include (first names only, as is the tradition while the show is on air) Alice, Gautier, Mickels, Solène and Joanna - each with their "own universe" as the teachers continually insist on telling viewers, and all five over-excited at the thought of rubbing musical shoulders (or vocal cords) with Britney.

"It's just crazy to think that I'll be on stage with Britney," says Alice, the 19-year-old "pretty and graceful beauty" from Marseille.

"I've sat through all her videos and have learned many of her dance moves, "says 21-yearold R 'n B singer, Joanna.

"Mad," says 20-year-old wannabe rocker Gautier.

The last few months and indeed weeks have been a bit of a nail-biting time for the show's co-ordinator of guest appearances, Nathalie André.

In an interview with the weekly TV guide, Télé 7 Jours, André said that it had taken months of negotiations to secure the US singer's agreement to appear on the show.

"Every time we book an international star, we never have any 'legal' guarantee that they'll actually turn up," she said.

"We've been negotiating with Britney for the last seven months," she added.

"And we experienced the same kind of stress we had before Madonna agreed to come on the show."

Incidentally that appearance by Madonna was back in 2005 - the fifth season, and pulled in more than eight million viewers.

With the programme nearing the end of its run, and an average audience of just over three million tuning in each week, TF1 and Endemol are hoping that "Brit Brit" will work her star magic not just with the five left in the competition, but just as importantly with viewers.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

French Socialist party saga ends - for the moment

The debacle over the result of who won the battle to lead the French Socialist party is apparently over - or so they would have us believe.

On Tuesday evening the party's national committee finally announced that Martine Aubry was indeed its new leader.

But the signs are ominous that the woman she narrowly defeated in last week's vote among party members, Ségolène Royal, is not going to give up her claim to be its candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and the infighting looks set to continue.

After painstakingly going through the returns of every federation, the committee finally confirmed that Aubry had won last week's run-off vote.

The margin of victory was in fact 102 votes - more than double the original razor-thin 42, announced in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In case you missed the ins and outs of the whole saga that has gripped the French media and probably bored the nation, here yet again is the briefest (possible) of recaps.

The full details can be found by clicking on the links provided to previous posts.

Last month party members whittled down whose visions of the party's future they most preferred to just four choices.

Three of them traditionally left of centre - the fourth - and the one that surprisingly came out on top - from Royal - wanting to move it towards the centre and do away with the old party apparatus.

A conference at Rheims just over a week ago was supposed to come up with just one candidate and one programme to put before members to a vote last Thursday.

Events didn't go as planned - in other words the pretenders to the "throne" couldn't sort out their differences and three candidates remained in the running.

Last Thursday party members voted - eliminating one, and the following day there was a run-off between Aubry and Royal.

The result, when released, was just too close for comfort.

Only 42 votes separated the two women, and while Aubry declared herself the winner, Royal contested the outcome and cried foul.

She maintained there had been vote rigging, miscounts and fraud, and called for a rerun of the vote.

The national committee then stepped in to say that it would scrutinise the results from around the country and in the process investigate claims of alleged vote rigging and fraud - all in the name of establishing transparency and determining who had won and with what margin.

Most of the national dailies and weeklies provided blow-by-blow accounts on their websites of every statement and development during the committee's count,

Television channels carried programmes and debates between supporters of both women, and political commentators argued and analysed every possible outcome.

Even government ministers from the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) felt obliged to have their say.

Finally after two days the national committee declared on Tuesday evening that yes, Aubry had won, and by 102 votes.

Shortly after the announcement, Aubry held out the hand of peace towards Royal, recognising that the vote had been a narrow one and calling on the party to "unite, rally together and renew itself."

So now the party has a leader - what chances are there of her achieving the unity that everyone agrees has been sorely lacking?

One possibility she has, is to include some of Royal's supporters within her team and there are already unconfirmed rumours that she has approached one of them, Vincent Peillon,

But that might not be enough and certainly the events that immediately followed the committee's declaration show that Aubry will certainly have her work cut out.

Because Royal clearly still has her sights set on being more than the proverbial thorn in the party's side.


Already she has made a personal appeal to her supporters (half the party's membership) with a video appearing on the Net thanking them for their support, outlining the plans she has to help "renew" the party and reminding them not to forget the presidential election in 2012.

"2012 is not that far away, and it's from now that we must be thinking about that," she says.

"See you again soon," she finishes.

It's probably far from being the end of a story that has more twist and turns than a well - or even a badly - crafted (political) thriller.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

French cash in on Christmas cyber shopping craze

Yesterday saw the launch in France of this country's version of Cyber Monday - a site based on an American concept.

The French version groups together around 300 online retailers, offering users a week long shopping spree at prices apparently lower than can be found in the high street.

Online shopping is of course not new in France, but this is the first time that so many retailers have come together at one time to provide a pre-Christmas "sale".

Cyber Monday was a concept that started in the US a decade ago.

The principle here in France - traditionally a country with the reputation of being only too ready to look down its Gallic nose at anything initiated Stateside - seems to be if an idea is worth "borrowing" then why not jump in first, move it up the calendar and stretch it out a bit.

In a sense, Monday's launch couldn't have been better timed, as faced with the credit crunch, the French are of course as much on the lookout as anyone for bargains - and that hasn't gone unnoticed by retailers.

Nor has the fact that there's an ever increasing trend towards online shopping, and that there's money to be made, as Alexis de Charentenay the commercial director of Cash Store, the company behind the French equivalent of the US import, said in an interview with the weekly news magazine Nouvel Obervateur.

"The principle in the States is to offer users the chance of thousands of bargains on just one day - the Monday following Thanksgiving," she said.

"It's the start of the holiday online shopping season there and the day where e-commerce reaches its peak," she added.

"Last year it generated a record $800 million."

The figures here in France would certainly seem to suggest that the concept is one likely to succeed.

According to a survey published by the Fédération des Entreprises de Vente à Distance (Fevad) the organisation that represents "distance selling" companies ( by correspondence, over the 'phone, minitel and of course online) there has been a 27 per cent increase in online sales in the third quarter of this year over the same period in 2007.

That trend looks set to be repeated during the run-up to Christmas, with 20 per cent of French saying that they intend to do their Christmas shopping online this year - up from 13 per cent in 2007.

The same survey forecasts sales of €3.7 billion from now until the holidays compared with €3.1 last year.

So there's definitely money to be made and it's easy to see why retailers are turning to the Net and how a specialised site offering apparent bargains for a limited period would be attractive.

There has of course been criticism surrounding both the term and the concept in the US, with claims that retailers were cashing in on the popularity of the Net and that users could in fact find exactly the same products at more or less the same prices in high street shops.

Such a controversy hasn't reached these shores yet, and although it could all be interpreted as a wonderful public relations exercise, as retailers see there's money to be made, it's certainly not without its attraction.

And of course along with the increase in online sales comes the potential for a rise in hacking or identity theft.

One thing though, it sure beats going shoulder to shoulder with the heaving masses, when one click of the mouse from the comfort of your own sitting room could mean you're done.

That seemed to be very much the appeal on Monday as the site became rather victim of its own success when it opened for business. It quickly reached saturation point as more than 150,000 users logged on within the first hours, leaving it inaccessible for others for a chunk of the day.

The sales period will be limited to one week here, ending on November 30.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Launch of TV spot on Internet dangers for children

The French government has given the go-ahead for a television campaign aimed at highlighting the potential dangers children may face from the Internet.

Starting this week, and in the run-up to Christmas, TV channels will carry free of charge, a commercial encouraging parents to be more aware of the potential risks their children are running from indiscriminate use of the Net.

And it will be backed up by an information campaign offering advice on what options are also available for computers within the home at least, for filtering access to certain sites.

TV spot

The move follows the highly publicised case last week in France in which a 14-year old girl went missing for five days.

It transpired that she had been in contact over the previous three weeks with a man through an Internet chat room and had travelled half way across the country to meet him.

He was a 44-year-old convicted paedophile, who had been released from prison in August, and when the girl was eventually traced, the initial media reports suggested that he had held her captive.

As it turned out when the girl was questioned by police, she said had not been held she against her will, and had consented to sex with the man.

He has since been charged with unlawful sex with a minor, and could face a 10-year prison sentence, as he is a repeat offender.

With that case the focus of media attention the press conference to launch the campaign to raise public awareness of the potential risks of the Net, couldn't have been better timed and the junior minister for family, Nadine Morano; said the campaign provided the best means of preventing such cases occurring.

"While adolescent boys prefer to play video games (on the computer) girls are more involved in chatrooms," she insisted.

"There's not one week goes by when a young girl in France doesn't find herself faced with a problem whose roots can be traced back to the Net," she added.

"Statistics show that around 62 per cent of parents aren't even aware that their children have a blog."

Both the government's campaign and similar ones from organisations such as Association e-enfance, which provides guidelines for parents and children alike on "safe Internet use", recognise that there is a balance to be struck between "protecting" a child - and in particular adolescent girls - without encroaching on their "secret garden" or right to privacy.

But access to the Net via a home computer is only part of the problem, according to Christine du Fretay, the president of Association e-enfance.

"Often young girls access the Net through their mobile 'phones and give out all manner of intimate information," she warns.

"They don't realise and don't have the capacity to measure the impact of what they're doing, especially as it's something that they probably wouldn't do face-to-face".

While admitting that the problem is far more wide reaching than a simple issue of Internet use within the home; Morano hopes that the latest campaign will open up a broader discussion of the issue, and that parents will take the initiative.

"We will launch a working group to educate young people not just about the Internet, but also about the media in general," she said.

"Parents must talk about the Net with their children who are alone in front of the screen."

The television spot (see accompanying video) which starts airing in France this week, is a German production that has been translated into several languages and has already been broadcast in a number of European countries.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Count yourself lucky if you don't speak French

I'm a murderer. And I'm something of a polyglot. Or perhaps that should be the other way around.

Whatever, one thing's for sure. I can happily give several languages a jolly thorough oral and aural mangling - linguistically speaking, but somehow, somewhere along the line I manage to come out the other side to make myself understood.

But the one thing I can't get to grips with is numbers.....and more specifcally counting, especially here in France where they're a foreigner's nightmare.

Every time I try to give someone my telephone number or make a note of someone else's - particularly over the 'phone - it resembles a badly written scene from the very worst television sitcom. Exactly why will become clearer (I hope) in a moment.

Let me give you a little bit of background, and in the process a quick French lesson.

Apologies in advance if when you get to the "numbers" it all looks rather muddled and complicated in writing. Just imagine, as you're reading, how confusing it can be when speaking.

French isn't the hardest of languages to speak - well at least for a native English speaker.

There are plenty of words that are similar. It's just the pronunciation that can prove a little tongue-twisting at times.

But once you've got over the initial embarrassment of thinking that you're making a complete fool of yourself, it becomes quite easy.

And the French will even warm to you when you try your luck.

Oh and you know that thing the British, at least, have about how sexy a French man or woman sounds when speaking English with a foreign (obviously French) accent.

Well, it sort of works the other way around too - well almost.

Oh all right only partially if you're being generous, but it's getting there - and all the better if you make the odd vocabulary mistake or two.

"Endearing" "charming" "cute" and "funny" - one of this country's most famous Brits living in France, Jane Birkin, the long time partner of the late and great Serge Gainsbourg, plays on the fact that she has an accent - even though she has been here for donkeys years.

And many French find it "adorable".

Well that has perhaps established that speaking the language isn't really as difficult as it might at first appear.......except that is when it comes to numbers.

Time to take a deep breath (and a stiff drink perhaps wouldn't go amiss.)

Probably a fair few of you reading this will be more than able at least to start counting in French:




and so on.

Fine. A good, simple start.

And from one to 69 everything is pretty much OK - well apart from 17, 18 and 19, or dix-sept, dix-huit and dix-neuf respectively, which quite literally translate as ten-seven, ten-eight and ten-nine.

But at 70 it goes blindingly and confusingly bonkers.

70 you see is soixante-dix or sixty-ten, and 71 is soixante et onze or seventy and eleven.

By the time you get to 77 you're in for one almighty mouthful soixante-dix-sept (sixty-ten-seven)

And 80 could blow your mind - quatre-vingts (four-twenty).

90 isn't much better. Any ideas?

Quatre-vingt-dix or four-twenty-ten.

It comes as something of a relief to have made it past 99 (quatre-vingt dix-neuf or four-twenty-ten-nine) to Cent.

Yes, yes there's an illogical logic to it all, but it all seems a bit of a conspiracy for the hapless foreigner to make things even more difficult than they actually should be.

So how does this all play out in everyday life for the Brit in France - or any other foreigner come to that?

"With difficulty," is the short reply, and here's why.

It involves going back to trying to jot down somebody's telephone number - be it over the 'phone or face-to-face (the former is worse).

Imagine you're on the 'phone for example, talking to customer services and the person the other end gives you another number to call - say 01 77 87 92 71 (a completely random telephone number, and one containing 10 digits as all French ones do)

Now in English - well at least in Britain - they tend to be spoken digit for digit.

Hence the person the other end of the line would tell you to call "Zero one seven seven eight seven nine two seven one." Nice and simple, and pretty easy to follow.

But remember this is France, and "bienvenue" to the foreigner's nightmare.

As you've probably noticed from the way I initially wrote it, the habit here in France is it to break the telephone numbers up into pairs, making life unnecessarily difficult and leading to a situation where, when spoken aloud that same number becomes.

"Zero, un, soixante dix-sept, quatre-vingt-sept, quatre-vingt-douze, soixante et onze."

OR, if you haven't been paying attention while the person the other end of the line has blasted it out at terrifying speed could end up as being written down as follows:

01 60 17 4 20 7 4 20 12 60 11.

Of course by the time you've made it past the second seven and you have more than 10 digits scribbled down, you realise that you've made a complete hash of it, and either have to ask the person to repeat it (more slowly) or say it in individual digits (which it has to be said sounds particularly cumbersome in French)

Experience teaches anyone living here what to expect, but even so it can still lead to confusion as the person the other end of the line seems to delight in having a laugh at the caller's expense.

Ah, there speaks the voice of experience as it happened just last week when trying to re-arrange an appointment with the electricity board to come and read the meter.

I had misdialled of course, and the receptionist, rather than transfer me - which seemed not to fall within her job description - gave me another number to call.

After writing down the first 12 digits of the 10-digit number, I realised my mistake and asked her to repeat it, which she exactly the same supersonic manner so that I had a combination that any security company would be happy to affix to their safes.

After three attempts I gave up, asking in my best British-accented French (laying it on thick and hoping to appear charming) whether she could give me the number in individual digits (à l'anglaise).

The charm factor clearly didn't work (how does Jane Birkin manage it?) as I could hear the sharp and indignant intake of breath, and even though the words "idiot" weren't muttered, they were clearly audible in between each pause she made as she enunciated e-v-e-r-y d-i-g-i-t as though she were talking to a five-year-old.

I repeated it back - sounding equally infantile even to my own ears, thanked her and hung up.

The 'phone is perhaps the greatest barrier when it comes to noting or painfully giving a number here in France.

But it can be just as excruciating when face-to-face with someone.

How many times have I launched confidently into rattling off my mobile number rapid fire (I've learnt it like a mantra) only to be asked ever-so-politely to repeat what I've just said?

Of course going back in to the number and trying to make sense of something that defies logic in the first place is no easy task, and to avoid further frustration, there's nothing better than resorting to the rather old-fashioned pen and paper.

The real thing though is that in all of this confusion, it's hard to get over the impression that the French in France are simply trying to make life difficult for the rest of us trying to get to grips with their language.

After all, they could - if they so wished - choose to follow the example of their Francophone cousins in Switzerland and Belgium.

The Swiss-French make life that little bit easier - at least numerically - by substituting septante (70), ottante/huitante (80) and nonnante (90) for the more exhausting - well I won't repeat myself.

While in Belgium, true to form, they don't quite go the whole hog, opting for septante and nonnante, but sticking with quatre vingts.

Ah well.

Of course if you wanted to look across the border from France to German numbers, you would be faced with a whole different set of problems as they seem to have a fascination for counting back to front.

Twenty one? Ein und zwanzig (one and twenty).

But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

Comptez bien et bon weekend.

France's Socialist party soap opera - explained - sort of

The Socialist party leadership "fiasco" is dominating the news in France at the moment, and is unlikely to be a story that goes away any time soon.

Martine Aubry says she's the new leader. Ségolène Royal refuses to accept the result.

So I thought, in the interests of trying to make the whole saga a little more understandable to readers outside of the country (and who knows perhaps some inside it too) I would try to tell the tale as to where (some of) the problems lie, as simply as possible.

The issue under scrutiny at the moment is the election process itself, which has undoubtedly been harmed by accusations from both sides of vote rigging and fraud, and would seem to be flawed.

But to understand how the party has managed to get itself into such a mess, you need to backtrack a little and look at what its leaders have been trying to do.

It's fundamentally about different visions of which direction the party should take politically of course. Move towards the centre or remain a party of the traditional left? A combination of the two would seem to be impossible.

But also involved are personalities - all of whom want to be leader (there's a surprise for politicians) with most finding themselves united mainly on one subject.

None of them (apart from the woman in question) wants a certain Ségolène Royal as either leader, or the party's chosen candidate for the 2012 presidential election

Their motto could well be "2007 was bad enough, and it's not a horror we want to live through again."

The main problem they have with her (apart from her popularity among the party's grass roots) is that she wants to make it more electable by moving it towards the centre ground and at the same time opening up its membership.

Cast of characters

Befitting any drama here's a cast of some of the leading characters involved.

First up there's Martine Aubry. She's the architect of this country's 35-hour working week interpreted as either a costly and disastrous policy or a just and fair opening up of the job market - depending on your political persuasion.

She's the daughter of Jacques Delors (former heavyweight French Socialist politician, and former president of the European Commission) and mayor of the northern city of Lille.

In case it had escaped your notice, Aubry is the newly elected leader of the Socialist party and has already made her "victory" and "acceptance" speech.

Martine Aubry declares victory

Then of course there's Ségolène Royal. She was the defeated Socialist party candidate in last year's presidential election, the bête noire, if you will, of most of the party's old guard and the only reason perhaps that there is a semblance of unity among the leaders.

And they include (along with Aubry) the following:

François Hollande is the outgoing (or now "outgone") leader of the Socialist party. He's the former long-time partner of Ségolène Royal - they split shortly after her electoral defeat last year - and father of their four children. Hollande has backed Delanoë and Aubry at different stages of the leadership battle.

Bertrand Delanoë - mayor of Paris and wannabe presidential candidate - a self declared "liberal Socialist" - he recently redefined the term "liberal".

Lionel Jospin - former Socialist prime minister, and failed presidential candidate in 2002, when the party disastrously failed to make it through to the second round. Fervent supporter of Bertrand Delanoë, Jospin could be termed the "Elton John" of French politics as he has "retired" and made many a comeback..

Benoît Hamon - young European parliamentarian. He was against the European constitution and is to the left of the party.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a former finance minister. He's currently head of the International Monetary Fund, but remains a heavyweight within the party, and would probably like to be its presidential candidate in 2012.

Laurent Fabius, former Socialist prime minister, one-time partner of none other than Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. He campaigned heavily against the European constitution. And most importantly, he really, really wants to lead the party and be its presidential candidate in 2012.

Jack Lang is a former culture minister from way back when, and bears a striking resemblance to Rolling Stone, Keith Richards. A perennial of the French political scene, he changes his support to which ever candidate looks to be the likely winner.

There are of course many other players involved but these are perhaps the most instantly recognisable ones.

They might each have their own egos and many harbour desires to lead the party and perhaps the country, but one thing unites them. They don't want Royal in charge.

Changing the rules

And that is at the heart of the current wrangling that is going on. Indeed, in a sense the problem is all of the party's own creation - and here's how.

Before party members voted last month on whose programme they would prefer, Hollande and all the rest agreed that whichever one came out on top would form the basis of agreement for the others in presenting just one candidate and one platform at last weekend's conference in Rheims.

It was supposed to come up with one name for party members to vote for on Thursday.

Well we all know what happened. Royal's programme came first - against all the odds.

Suddenly the party decided to "change the rules" and said that as her programme hadn't won a majority of votes first time around it had no legitimacy and the platform offered by Aubry, Delanoë or Hamon, were the ones on which everyone should be voting. No longer was it enough to be in first place, but a majority was needed to create that much sought after consensus.

Royal followed the original rule to the letter and tried to use her programme (which had come first) as the basis upon which to build agreement with each of the others.

None of them wanted to know and couldn't agree among themselves which of each other's platforms to support.

Hamon said he would stand, Delanoë decided not to (fully expecting Aubry not to) and then at the very last moment, Aubry said she would. The mayor of Lille had outwitted the mayor of Paris in the smartest of political manouevres and now looked the most likely to "save" the party from Royal.

So members were faced with three possible candidates Aubry, Royal and Hamon.

After Hamon was eliminated on Thursday's vote, members were asked to vote again on Friday to choose between the two women - a process which Royal criticised on national television on Saturday evening, saying it had been ridiculous to ask members to vote in a second round a day after the first.

Ségolène Royal

Rigged, fraudulent and flawed

The problem with the vote has been made all the more crucial of course by the closeness of the official result - Aubry receiving just 42 more than her opponent.

Both sides are contesting the way in which votes were counted and there have been accusations of "lost" ballots or mistakes having been made in transmitting the final figures to party HQ in Paris.

Party officials in the overseas territory of New Caledonia for example, say their votes weren"t included at all (Royal 13, Aubry 3).

In one section in eastern France, the figures of 18 votes for Royal and six for Aubry, were muddled and sent the wrong way round for the final count.

In the south west of the country, local party officials have also admitted mistakes in votes being transcribed - this time 41 more votes being registered for Royal than had been cast for her, and Aubry officially receiving 11 fewer than had been cast.

Royal is calling for a rerun of the vote, Aubry still says there's no need for one, and in her "victory acceptance" speech on Saturday evening stressed that the party was bigger than one individual - a non-too heavily disguised attack on Royal.

A special committee of parliamentary members of the party is due to convene after the weekend to check and validate the results.

Is all that clear? As mud perhaps.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Aubry wins French Socialist leadership battle - just

Martine Aubry has won the battle to become the new leader of the French Socialist party by the narrowest of margins.

Just 42 votes separated her from rival Ségolène Royal, and it wasn't until the final votes had been counted in the wee hours of Saturday morning that party officials confirmed Aubry as the winner.

The final result after a night of counting and declarations of victory from both sides at one time or another - 50.02 per cent (or 67,413 votes) for Aubry and 49.98 per cent (or 67,371 votes) for Royal.

If you thought that was the end of the story, and that the party would now unite behind one figure - especially as it has spent so much of its recent past involved in infighting - then you could be in for something of a nasty surprise.

The margin of victory was so narrow that it hardly acts as a ringing endorsement for Aubry as leader, especially as only 137,116 (or 58.87 per cent) of the 233,000 card carrying members actually voted.

And Royal has reacted to the result with claims of "fraud" in the counting, vote rigging throughout the polling, and a call for there to be a rerun of the vote next Thursday.

Her supporters are also demanding that the counting methods in Aubry's strongholds around the country be re-examined.

Although they were unwilling to pin point exactly in which ones, they've stressed that polling was still going on in the North (Aubry is mayor of the northern city of Lille) as results (favouring Royal) were coming in from the south.

Manuel Valls, one of Royal's closest supporters told public television's lunchtime news programme on Saturday that there had obviously been fraud and vote rigging involved, and that the election, rather than being a victory for Aubry had been one snatched from Royal.

He also decried the treatment Royal had received in the run-up to the party's conference in Rheims last weekend and said holding a second sound of voting just one day after the first, had been a ridiculous way for the party to try to elect a new leader.

The outgoing leader of the party François Hollande is expected to convene a committee of parliamentary members of the party to check and validate the results, although as far as Aubry's camp is concerned, she's the winner and "there's no need for further scrutiny."

Anyone who has watched the Socialist party tear itself apart from within over the past decade or so, will perhaps not be at all surprised by this latest twist in the tale.

Many within the French media were already wondering whether the party would be able to recover from internal bickering before the vote and emerge with a result that would present a united front encompassing Royal's wish to take it more to the centre and Aubry's declared intention to "uphold leftist values".

The result - which although a win for Aubry - is to all intents and purposes a tie, with the big question now remaining as to whether the party can continue in its present form.

So perhaps this is just the end of the story "so far" in a saga that looks set to run and run.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Simone Veil - a truly exceptional woman

Simone Veil, one of France's most loved and respected political figures, has been elected to the prestigious Académie française or French Academy.

The 81-year-old former minister was chosen on Thursday to take over the seat left vacant by a former French prime minister, Pierre Messmer, who died in August last year.

If you're looking for a woman who arguably represents many of the ideals of European integration, has been at the forefront of this country's battle for women's rights over the years and has a personal history that surely leaves nobody untouched, then read on.

Before that though a word or two of explanation about l'Académie française.

It's one of this country's oldest and most respected institutions. It's made up of 40 people known as "immortals", each of whom holds a "seat". They're elected by other members, and have the position for life.

When one dies, it's up to the other académicians to vote on a replacement.

It has no official authority, in other words no binding legal powers, but it makes recommendations on the use and composition of the French language - yes a very French institution in a sense - in an attempt to "safeguard" the country's language and culture against - in particular - the infiltration of dreaded Anglicisms into everyday life.

For every English word, there is a French one, (such as courriel for email) but it doesn't necessarily mean that Monsieur et Madame Français et Française are going to use them.

It is, if you like the standard bearer of French culture, and publishes the "official" dictionary of the French language, known "dictionnaire de l'Académie française."

Elevation to l'Académie is possibly the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon an individual her in France.

Now back to Veil.

She's only the fifth woman to take her seat in the 40-strong body.

As a member of the centre-right Union pour la Démocratie Française (Union for French Democracy, UDF) Veil has had a long and distinguished domestic political career, which included five years in the 1970s as the French minister of health serving under two prime ministers.

She was instrumental in pushing through reforms to make contraception more easily available to women in France, and more famously for her battle to have abortion legalised in this country in 1975.

It was a battle she led in the face of staunch oppostion, that sometimes turned into violent street demonstrations

For 14 years Veil was a member of the European parliament, where she became the first elected and first female president since its creation in the 1950s.

After stepping down from the European parliament in 1993, she returned for a two-year spell as minister of state for social affairs.

Veil also campaigned heavily for the European constitution, which has been put on hold since the Irish "no" vote earlier this year, and she raised a few political eyebrows last year, when she came out in support of Nicolas Sarkozy in his campaign to become French president.

But it's not just her political career and fight for women's rights that have endeared her to the French and led much of the media to describe her as an "exceptional" woman when reporting her election to the Academy.

Because underlying all her political and professional achievements, there is of course a much more personal history.

Veil is a survivor of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, to which she was deported at the age of 16, and where both her parents and brother were killed.

She is also the honorary president of Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.

And speaking on national radio the morning after her election to the status of "immortal", Veil made reference to her experiences during World War II to put everything into perspective.

"It's a great honour," she said. "And yes we're called 'immortal'," she added.

"But for my part, I went past the stage of possible 'immortality' a long time ago, in the sense that a part of me died in the (concentration) camp," she continued.

"So such an idea is a difficult one for me to accept. But all the rest - to take my seat in the Academy and to be surrounded by a number of people of such great quality - it is of course a great honour."

Perhaps the French president himself, best summed up what many people here think, in a statement released shortly after the news was announced in which Sarkozy paid homage " to a stateswoman who has always served the Republic and shown perpetual courage in her fight for women's right, for Europe and for Shoah."

Simone Veil - a truly exceptional woman.

French Socialists get their maths wrong in leadership battle

The leadership battle for France's Socialist party should be decided tonight, and it'll see two women vying for the job - Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry.

In Thursday's vote among the party's 233,000 card carrying members, none of the three candidates achieved the magical 50 per cent needed to claim victory.

The result of Thursday's vote: Royal - 43.1 per cent, Aubry - 34.5 per cent, and Benoît Hamon 22.83 per cent.

So as many predicted Royal and Aubry will go head to head in a re-vote today.

But hang about. Isn't there something just a tad strange in those figures? Anyone who has been following the Socialist party soap opera will surely be asking themselves what on earth is Royal still doing in the race?

Ah well it's all about the fact that complicated politics and simple maths don't always go together.

Let me (try to) explain and recap simultaneously.

In what has by any standards been one of the most protracted processes for choosing a new leader, party members will once again vote on whose vision of the future of the party they support.

Crudely put, a move to the centre - as proposed by Royal, or more traditionally left as Aubry wants.

A couple of weeks ago the party took its first step in supposedly determining its future direction when members voted on the so-called "motions" or programmes.

It wasn't a vote on the leadership per se, but on the alternative programmes - although both were and of course still are inextricably linked.

You might remember that Royal surprised most political pundits when her programme came top. It garnered 29 per cent of the vote followed by Aubry's and that of the mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë - both gained 25 per cent, and in fourth place Benoît Hamon's with 18 per cent.

So four programmes with a chance of winning overall approval and paving the way for a new leader to be "crowned".

That was the expectation going into the party's conference last weekend in Rheims, especially as everyone agreed that what the Socialists needed most was "unity" and that could best be achieved by rallying behind one programme and therefore one candidate.

Aubry and Hamon looked to be on the verge of reaching an agreement. They didn't. Aubry and Delanoë also tried to iron out their differences, but with the same non-result.

None of the others really wanted to "be friends" with Royal, although she apparently tried hard enough, sending them personalised letters and encouraging them to "come aboard".

They didn't. The only surprise being perhaps that after a weekend of "burning the midnight oil" Delanoë withdrew from the leadership battle (by not entering it), but refused to endorse any of the others.

So the party came away from the conference with the choice of three candidates, and it was up to party members to choose between them.

The very next day there was a coup de théâtre as Delanoë changed his mind - not about standing, but about who he would endorse - Aubry. And he urged his supporters to vote for her "massively".

So the maths looked quite simple. Aubry's 25 per cent, plus Delanoë's 25 per cent with hopefully some others joining the non-declared TSS ("Tout-sauf-Ségolène" or "Anything but Ségolène") campaign and bingo. Surely a shoo-in for Aubry.

"Outrageous" claimed Royal over the coming days. Underhand tactics she implied, and although she never actually said it overtly, once again evidence of another cleverly played TSS campaign.

Hamon meanwhile took the moral high ground and criticised everyone, saying he wasn't going to be part of it, and therefore he was the natural choice of leader (all right so a tiny bit of paraphrasing going on here in the interests of making a long story less long).

But in spite of seemingly simple sums, as Thursday's results show, it didn't quite turn out the way Aubry, Delanoë and the rest had hoped

The next twist of course is that Hamon has now turned around and urged his supporters to vote "massively" for.......wait for it......Aubry.

So once again the maths would appear to indicate that it's game, set and match for Aubry. After all 34.5 plus 22.83 would give her more than the 50 per cent needed for victory.

But remember her opponent is Ségolène Royal - discounted by most from the start, and apparently the person everyone in the party wants to beat, but has so far been unable to.

When she ran for the party's nomination to be the presidential candidate last year, she was up against the might and power of its old guard "elephants". But her appeal to the grass roots eventually saw her nomination reluctantly "endorsed" by all her opponents.

So who would bet against her defying the pundits (and the maths) once again?

One thing's for certain, it'll be a woman leading the party - the first time one has been elected to that position here in France.

Whatever the result though, what it probably won't do is stop the internal bickering as whichever woman wins, there will still remain a sizeable chunk of the party disillusioned with the outcome.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sarkozy's Bling Bling rapping video hit

Even when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, isn't trying to make the headlines, it's hard to keep him out of the news.

This time around it's in a video that has become all the rage in France, in which his animated "double" does a presidential rap.

The video has had more than 800,000 hits (and counting) and points fun at Sarkozy's Bling Bling reputation by putting lyrics to music "inspired" by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

It's the brainchild of a small production company, Mixus, and has created a buzz on the Net not just here in France, but has also been picked up by sites in Belgium and Switzerland and according to the weekly news magazine, L'Express has even made it across the channel to Britain.

And over the past week, the music channel MTV has also added the video to its prime time playlist.

The video opens to the strains of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and then it's quickly into the presidential rap with, with a "Yo how are you doing my fellow citizens" (all right so it loses a little in translation).

Donning a pair of his almost trademark mirrored Ray-Bans and with a plump cigar in hand, Nicolas Bling raps and gyrates his way through lines that parody some of the most memorable headlines of his presidency - so far.

"I promised to increase purchasing power and as far as that goes - well I've done all right. Thanks," he sings with a shot of a vault stuffed full of gold bars.

There's a reference to the shake up of public television, with the suggestion of full presidential control by appointing a "minister of information" and both are neatly combined with his now infamous retort to a man who refused to shake his hand during a visit to this year's agricultural show with the line

"If you don't like the idea, then switch channels 'pauvre con'."

Throughout there's the constant reminder in the chorus of who exactly is "the big boss....the king of Bling Bling."

Carla fans (she's the former model-turned singer and now presidential wife for those of you who may have forgotten) might be a little disappointed as she makes just two fleeting appearances, and we see nothing more of her than brief arm waving.

The video is of course just pure parody with the original intention being a challenge the studio set itself to combine creativity with technology and a way of promoting its work.

It certainly seems to have hit a button, and perhaps it's only to be hoped that Sarkozy doesn't take offence in the way he has about the voodoo doll (appeal decision expected at the end of this month).

The company that made the video has been rather overwhelmed with all the coverage it has received, and there is already talk of making a second one.

"We're amazed by the buzz the video has generated," admits Thierry Soret the creative director of Mixus.

"At this rate we'll have to think about a follow-up."

So for those of you out there who haven't had a chance to watch and listen, simply click on the video (in French) accompanying this post.

It doesn't really matter whether you understand French - you should quickly get the general gist.

If you would rather see the whole thing with English subtitles, click on the company's site here, then "entrez dans le studio" wait a few moments and then, when it comes up, on "animation 3D and finally "Le clip qui déchire".

Watch, listen, enjoy.....and remember "who is king of Bling".

Le clip qui déchire

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

France - a "working" week in the life of a country

Hello or "bonjour" from France, the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité - oh yes and of course industrial action.

Within the space of barely a week, pilots, train drivers, teachers and postal workers will all have been protesting, and what might from the outside appear almost a national pastime is from the inside just a way of life.

If somehow you managed to make it to France by 'plane last weekend, in spite of the Air France-KLM strike over government plans to increase the retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, the chances are that when you landed you would have heard the usual sort of announcement.

You know the kind of thing. Something along the lines of....

"Welcome Ladies and Gentleman, we have landed at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

"The local time is eight o'clock and the outside temperature is nine degrees celsius.

"Please remain seated until the aircraft has reached its final parking position.

"On behalf of captain Dupont and the rest of the crew, we would like to thank you for flying Air France-KLM, and hope to have you on board again soon."

Well that's more or less what you would have heard.

Of course what probably wouldn't have been mentioned, but perhaps should have been for anyone wondering what on earth is going on in France at the moment was that little "extra added value" resembling the following.

"As you know, our pilots have been on strike for the past four days, and if you thought that was the end of the story as far as industrial action in France is concerned, think again.

"On Thursday, primary school teachers throughout the country will be on strike over job cuts due next year, and as local authorities cannot guarantee the government's promised 'minimum service' many parents will have to take the day off work to look after their children.

"Next Saturday - November 22 - it'll be the turn of the post office, or La Poste as we call it here. Employees won't actually be on strike, they had one last month to protest privitisation plans in 2010.

"Instead this time they plan a massive march in the streets of Paris and most of the country's major cities. So in case you're hoping to do some autumn sightseeing of the capital's world famous monuments, or are taking a trip to Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux or practically any other destination in France, you can expect some congestion.

"For those of you who were looking forward to the train drivers' strike on Wednesday, we're sorry to have to tell you that it has been postponed.....for the moment.

"Management and unions are still in negotiations over proposed changes in working conditions for freight train drivers.

"But don't worry, with a little bit of luck, those talks should break down and normal strike service will be resumed from Sunday.

"On behalf of captain Dupont and the crew, once again thank you for flying Air France-KLM, and we hope you enjoy your stay in France."

All right, so you'll probably never hear such an announcement, but what's striking about this week in particular in France is exactly that - striking.

Not of course that France is a country unaccustomed to industrial action, and there has been plenty of it, well documented over the years.

Just last autumn the country was brought to a virtual standstill when train drivers came out on strike over government plans to reform pensions, and there have been a series of one-day stoppages over the past 10 months.

Similarly in spring, teachers, students and parents regularly took to the streets to demonstrate against education reforms, and postal workers have also held a number of one day walkouts over the past year.

The French though seem to take it all in their stride.

They grumble about the impact it has on getting to work and everyday life, and then seem to just get on with it.

Perhaps though the most remarkable aspect of this latest round of disputes has been the deafening silence from politicians of all persuasions.

Even though unions reckon that around 70 per cent of primary school teachers will be on strike tomorrow, the education minister, Xavier Darcos, has dismissed the action as an almost "annual autumn ritual."

Meanwhile little has been heard from the opposition Socialist party, which of course is currently embroiled in a battle to choose a new leader.

So to all of you out there, who have made it to the end of this post, here's wishing you "bon travail" as some might say in France.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

A French football fairy tale - from dustman to international call-up (with update - see end)

Here's a heart warming story from the usually mega-bucks world of football - or soccer if you like - all about a player who against the odds, and late in the day, has been given the chance of making his first appearance for his country.

Steve Savidan, now 30, who has spent much of his career playing in the lower ranks of French football, has been called up to the national squad to face Uruguay in an international friendly at Stade de France in Paris on Wednesday evening.

Steve ..... who? - even the most fervent of football followers out there might be asking - and you might be well entitled to.

"Slow starter" and "late bloomer" would be two apt descriptions for a footballer who has spent much of his career playing for sides in this country's lower divisions and whose story could be plucked straight from the pages of a boys own magazine.

After two spells at four different clubs and a season in which he didn't even find the back of the net, Savidan found himself as recently as 2004 at lowly Angoulême, and his prospects looked less than promising.

The (third division) club still had amateur status, so to make ends meet, Savidan was forced to look elsewhere for work.

"I only earned FF3,000 (around €460) a month, and my wife worked at the local Quick (fast food restaurant)," he says of his time at the club.

"We couldn't really make ends meet, so when I wasn't training I also held down some day jobs. For a couple of months I was a dustman, and I also worked in a bar."

Squeezing in work with training didn't seem to harm Savidan's performance on the pitch, but after scoring 12 goals during the season, he was on the move again - this time to another third division side, Valenciennes.

And that's pretty much where the "click" occurred, professionally speaking.

In successive seasons, Valenciennes climbed from the third to the second and then in 2006 back into the elite first division for the first time in 13 years, where they've remained ever since.

During his four-year spell at the club, Savidan "bloomed" scoring 61 goals in 141 first team appearances, and at the beginning of this season was signed by fellow division one side, Caen.

Again that's hardly a team that has set the French footballing world alight, and certainly not one with the record, tradition or financial resources of the country's better-known clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain, Olympique de Marseille or Olympique Lyonnais.

The team currently sits mid-table.

But in just 11 matches so far this season, Savidan has notched up seven goals, just two fewer than the fully fledged French international from Olympique Lyon and the league's leading scorer, Karim Benzema.

It's that sort of consistent performance that has made the French national coach, Raymond Domenech, sit up and take notice, and in his hunt to find a side capable of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, the manager has put together a squad which in his own words "includes players who haven't yet been given the chance to play for their country but over the weeks, months or even years have earned the chance to show what they can do."

Savidan certainly has the sort of track record that as far as Domenech is concerned, warrants at least his inclusion in the squad.

"If you look at how he has performed this season, there are some interesting signs," the manager said at a press conference last week when he announced the 23-strong squad.

"We won't know unless we try - afterwards we'll see how it goes," he added.

But Domenech also stressed that Savidan isn't guaranteed to take to the pitch, and now has to prove he's up to the job of being included in the team - a fact of which the 30-year-old is more than aware.

"It's not a reward in itself but a result of my performance over the years," he said.

"I'm part of a group of 23 players, and now I need to prove that I can adapt and fit in," he added.

Even if Savidan never makes it off the bench during the 90 minutes, his inclusion in the squad isn't bad going for a player, who just a few years ago was "moonlighting" as a dustman.

Update - November 20, 2008

The match probably wasn't one to remember - certainly not for the fans - ending in a glorious 0-0 draw. Or as commentators said the following day "not a game whose memory will be engraved in marble for years to come."

Apart that is from the second half substitution of Steve Savidan. Yes that's right, he made it off the bench and on to the pitch to win his first international cap (on his very first call up) at the grand old age (for a footballer) of 30.

Savidan managed to breathe some life and interest into an otherwise poor team performance, with a couple of shots on target and a spectacular scissor kick in the 62nd minute.

But even his efforts weren't enough, although at least - as Thursday's papers pointed out - France managed not to lose.

Speaking after the match with a huge smile on his face and a clutch of journalists' microphones in his hands, Savidan looked deservedly pleased and proud of himself, and you could hear how much he relished the occasion and being able to say "We played at the Stade de France (the national stadium) and ended up with a draw."

Monday, 17 November 2008

French Socialist party at "sixes and sevens"

Or perhaps the headline should read "at twos and threes" because after the weekend's conference which was supposed to propose just one candidate as a new leader for the French Socialist party, that's exactly how many contenders are still left in the race.

Realistically when the party's 233,000 card carrying members vote on Thursday, the two women seeking the job, Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry, should fill the top two slots. Both have very different concepts of the future of the party.

But a third candidate, Benoît Hamon is still in the running, and even though he's unlikely to cause an upset, his presence will probably force a second round run-off.

The biggest surprise of the conference was the decision by the mayor of Paris, and long-time front runner for the post, Bertrand Delanoë not to continue his campaign for the top job, while at the same time refusing to endorse any of the other three.

Although he's perhaps more akin to Aubry's line of thinking in his vision for the future of the party, his move is being interpreted by some as "hedging his bets" by not appearing to upset either of the putative candidates for the leadership.

The story so far

In essence the vote should be about the future direction of the party. In simple terms, does it move to the left as Aubry wants or towards the centre ground as Royal's approach would favour.

After the first round a couple of weeks ago when members voted for their preferred party programme, in what is a typically protracted process that would also see the election of a replacement for the outgoing chairman, François Hollande, no one candidate achieved an outright majority.

Everyone expected plenty of horse-trading and jockeying going into the conference, in the hope that one clear candidate would emerge.

There was plenty of midnight (and beyond) oil burnt, but no agreement reached.

The events of the weekend will hardly be a surprise for anyone who has followed French politics for the past decade, and in particular the ever-declining fortunes of the Socialist party, which even its leadership admits has been riven by internal dissent for several years.

The losers

A quick scoot through the French media reveals that nobody is really sure where the party now is headed.

What they all seem agreed upon - regardless of political persuasion - is that the conference failed miserably in its attempt to find a leader, rally behind a common cause, or achieve the much sought-after unity.

The left-of-centre daily Libération headlined its analysis of the conference as "All that for that" - reflecting on the fact that the party had ended its three-day gab fest embroiled in much the same infighting and disunity as it had begun it.

For the centre-right daily, Le Figaro, Delanoë was clearly the biggest individual loser, and perhaps surprisingly Le Monde - arguably this country's most esteemed newspaper and slightly to the left of centre - was in agreement.

It suggested that in proving himself unable to reach an agreement - especially with Aubry, from whom he is not that far removed politically-speaking - Delanoë suffered a massive setback to any presidential ambitions he might have nurtured for 2012.

And that's an important point to remember, because as well as determining the future direction of the party, the leadership vote is also about who will lead it into the next presidential election in 2012.

For the centre-right weekly L'Express, Royal still remains the favourite in Thursday's vote after the other three failed in their efforts to reach agreement among themselves, in spite of late-into-the-night attempts.

While the centre-left weekly, Nouvel Observateur, basically uses the words of the interior minister and member of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP), Michèle Alliot-Marie, expressed on national radio to sum up what many thought.

"It'll be very difficult for the party to find a leader," she said.

"The problem now is to know whether the Socialist party is capable of finding an identity, because the question we can all ask is how many different parties there actually are within the Socialist party."

The winners

So if everyone seems to agree that the Socialist party hasn't gained from the weekend's stalemate, who has benefited?

Well first up of course is François Bayrou, the leader of the centre party MoDem.

Most political commentators agree that in future elections he could attract a chunk of the electorate unwilling to vote for the UMP but disullusioned with the battles within the Socialist party, and its seeming inability to form an effective opposition.

Another eventual winner could be the charismatic and popular leader of the far-left-wing Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), Olivier Besancenot.

If the Socialist party were to implode, he could be the rallying figure for a broader opposition further to the left that would include disheartened members of the Socialist party, the Communists and even the Greens.

Of course that's all speculation for the moment, but certainly not outside the realms of possibility.

The biggest immediate winner though on the political front to all intents and purposes is none other than the French president himself, Nicolas Sarkozy.

At a time when the country is undergoing institutional reforms, facing economic and social challenges and a host of other issues, the opposition - in the form of the Socialist party - is without a voice or an effective leadership.

It's all a long way away from the party's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when François Mitterrand was president, and many are predicting that unless it can get back "on track", the party founded (in its present form) in 1969 might be no longer.

What next?

For the immediate future, with three candidates still left in the race, it's unlikely that one of them will emerge with a clear majority after one round of voting on Thursday, which means that party members will probably have to vote a second time in a run-off between the top two.

There's not time to hold rallies up and down the country, so the chances are that all three will be battling for as much media airtime as possible over the next couple of days in an effort to appeal to party members.

What happens to Delanoë's supporters will perhaps be crucial. The most obvious beneficiary should be Aubry, but as the two camps were unable to reach an agreement prior to the weekend, there's no guarantee they'll be any more successful in doing so before Thursday.

Some of his supporters simply cannot stand Royal, but others don't want to alienate her, and besides nobody openly wants to be seen indulging in a TSS ("Tout-sauf-Ségolène" or "Anything but Ségolène") campaign, just in case come the end of the week, she's the one holding the reins of power.

The story continues.

There'll be an update when the result is out.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Food, glorious French food

A word of warning before launching into this post. It should perhaps be read on a full tummy, because parts of it could quite literally whet your appetite and have you headed for the fridge to unhinge your jaw and tip back the contents.

So with that in mind and to use the opening phrase of childhood radio listening - and thereby run the risk of revealing my age.

"Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin"

There's been a fair amount of talk on the radio here recently about the standard of French cooking and whether it really lives up to its reputation.

Added to that there are moves afoot to slap in an official application next year to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to honour this country’s cuisine.

Whether the application is accepted is pretty doubtful, but it has given commentators quite literally "food for thought".

The whole debate coincided with my attempts to wow those around me with my culinary skills - or lack thereof.

In other words I had resolved to throw a dinner party.

The decision was two-fold.

Firstly it was based on my almost slavish devotion and deepest desire to emulate one of my favourite television programmes, which gives viewers step by step instructions on how to concoct and serve a full blown "perfect dinner" (if only).

And secondly I had promised to thank some friends for treating me to a slap up meal in Brussels for my birthday treat last month.

A promise made is a promise kept, and as last weekend stretched for many of us here in France from Friday to Wednesday (every time a national holiday falls towards the middle of the week, as it did this year with November 11 Armistice day, the French take full advantage and "faire le point") the timing seemed impeccable.

Now to be quite honest, if there's one thing guaranteed to scare me witless, it's the thought of having to cook.

I mean it's not as though I'm not reasonably handy at rattling the pots and pans, and making the kitchen resemble a modern-day Armageddon once I've finished.

But more than enough years living in France and being told how wonderful this country's cuisine is, has more than bashed my ego into shape.

Plus I'm British - worse English - and we've not exactly got the best of reputatations when it comes to what we've offered the world - gastronomically speaking.

Speaking of speaking - the French talk about little else - food that is - especially when they're chowing down on one dish or another.

Mealtimes are the occasion during which to talk about other meals, past and in the pipeline. The present just seeming to be an excuse to reminisce or plan.

And of course everything served up is "genial" - which although supposed to be polite encouragement, you know in your heart of hearts really means the same as "interesting."

Hence I wasn't really surprised that even during the starter - a Mousseline d'asperges à la pistache (asparagus mousse with pistachio) , which took hours of preparation - the conversation soon moved away from what was on the plate to gastronomical pastures new and old.

Guest one. "Hmmmn this mousse is delicious. It's just as light as the one that we had at Jacque's last weekend."

Guest two . "Yes but his wasn't home made. He bought it at Le Nôtre - pretty expensive"

Guest one . "I know but it really was worth it. After all they simply make the best cakes and desserts."

Guest three. "I'm not so sure about that. I find them rather overpriced. And besides there's a little patisserie just around the corner from me that's just as good and far less expensive."

Guest four. "Oh yes I remember. Last Cristmas you bought all those wonderful petit fours there....."

Host (that's me, in case you had forgotten). "So how's the starter?" as everyone seemed to be talking about dessert.

"Oh genial," came the collective response, and so the conversation continued in much a similar vain throughout the rest of the meal.

And what a meal - even if I have to say so myself - which clearly I do.

Now is neither the time nor the place to go into the ins and outs of the recipes - chef's secret and all that. Besides a quick surf on the Net will reveal a host of possible preparation alternatives and ingredients. But here's a guide as to what was on the menu.

To begin with there was that mousseline d'asperges à la pistache of course, followed by pintade au chou (pot roast guinea fowl with cabbage) cooked in Belgian blonde beer. Sélection de fromage (cheese platter) and Charlotte au chocolat (Chocolate Charlotte bought from Le Nôtre - as I'm not too good at making desserts).

Ever noticed how even the most unappetising sounding dishes in English can appear mouth watering when written in French?

The cheese in particular seemed to go down a real treat, which is hardly testament to my cooking abilities it has to be admitted.

Mind you, it's difficult to go wrong in a country whose former president, Charles de Gaulle, once famously asked how a country with 246 varieties could possibly be governed.

The choice is vast and as I live in the heart of Brie country on the outskirts of the capital, I knew from experience that the only way to serve it was by leaving it at room temperature for a couple of hours so that it would virtually make its way to the table by itself, by crawling off the plate and along the floor.

There was even an excellent "young" goats cheese (not too whiffy) and a rather sweet and mild Comté (one of my favourites).

But the "crowning glory" was to throw the British equivalent of a dairy spanner into the works with what only those across the Channel could tell the French is the "King of cheeses" - a deliciously ripe (read mouldy) blue Stilton.

Cheese apart, throughout every course I would continually enquire as to how the food tasted and whether the wine I had chosen was appropriate. Getting that right is never easy as the French clearly have their own thoughts on which wine goes with which dish, and woe betide you to contradict or break the rules.

The response may always have been more or less the same "genial" yet I knew, and felt pretty chuffed, that everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if they spent a great deal of it talking about other dishes.

As the evening gradually drew to a close, there were the inevitable longest goodbyes, before I was finally left alone to face the disaster zone of a kitchen and had the chance to reflect on the previous few hours.

And I realised - not for the first time - that this fascination or almost social obsession the French seem to have with food and chattering about other dishes virtually to the exclusion of the one they're currently "enjoying" has nothing to do with bad manners.

It's not even done intentionally. It simply seems to be what happens at the dinner table here in France. Even that "genial" isn't really as bad as it might at first seem.

The French love eating and are very appreciative of good food. So much so that they can't help talking about it.

Next time though, maybe I'll get caterers in - and let it be known beforehand.

That way, I too can participate in gastronomic gossip without the effort or worry of whether what I've actually served up has been in the least bit "genial".

Bon appétit et bon weekend.
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