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Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Twin honour for France's first lady

Just before the New Year is ushered in, here's a story that might just tickle the fancy of anyone wanting a respite from serious breaking news.

A French village in the Auvergne region in the south of the country is looking to "twin" with a village close to the Italian city of Turin, to honour France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The French village in question - Carlat (pronounced Carla) and the Italian? Well you've probably guessed - Bruni.

The idea is the brainchild apparently of the Communist mayor of Carlat (population 300), Alain Cousin.

He told Agence France Presse that he had been looking for a while for a village named "Bruni" and although while surfing the Net he had found several alternatives in the United States, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal, in the end he had plumped for the Italian option.

"I've no idea of the political leanings of the mayor of Bruni," he said.

"But all the indications are that the two villages have a lot in common," he added.

"It (Bruni) is a village in the mountains, makes good regional products and has a strong folklore culture - just as we do."

What's more, Turin is the city in which Bruni-Sarkozy, who celebrated her 41st birthday on December 23 was born, although her family moved to France when she was just six years old.

The plan reportedly has the backing of the entire council of Carlat and as far as the mayor is concerned would help draw attention through cultural and economic exchanges to the picturesque village famous for its "Rocher de Carlat" or rock of Carlat, once home to a chateau razed to the ground in 1604.

Twinning is of course a concept widely practised throughout the world, and in the European Union at least, is a chance for a city, town or village to organise cultural links with a counterpart in another country.

Cousin said that he had sent an email to the mayor of Bruni just before Christmas, and was hoping for a reply shortly.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Bernstein's "On the Town" hits Paris

If you're visiting Paris this week and looking for something special to see one evening, then the show you might want to check out is ironically a quintessentially American one.

Leonard Bernstein's 1944 classic On the Town is currently "packing 'em in" at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in a production brought to the French capital by the English National Opera (ENO).

After Candide and last year's hugely successful West Side Story, this production of On the Town is the third in a series of musicals paying tribute to the genius of Bernstein.

As a quick flick through the programme reveals before the curtain goes up, although the musical is apparently "often named as one of Bernstein's greatest successes....it's rarely staged on Broadway or in London".

Indeed it is the first time it has been performed here in France.

On the whole the French don't appear to be that hot on musicals - or as they call them "comédies musicals". Well certainly not as enthusiastic as the British or the Americans.

It's a genre that undoubtedly works when a home grown-production is staged such as Starmania in the 1970s, Notre-Dame de Paris in the 90s, or more recently Le Roi Soleil.

But they tend to have had a limited life-span in comparison with British and American musicals, and often don't export particularly well. So much so, that when Notre-Dame de Paris transferred to London at one point, it was rather unkindly described by one British newspaper critic as a "load of old bells".

Of course the exception that proves the rule is none other than Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables.

There again, the greatest success of that musical, which opened in Paris in 1980 but was forced to close after six months - has undoubtedly been international. And the two men are hardly household names here in France in the same way that Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice are in Britain for example.


Anyway back to On the Town - evidence perhaps that when a classic of its kind hits Paris, and especially one penned by Bernstein, it can still pull in the public.

The plot itself could be seen by some as thinner than the proverbial rake. But hey, it's a musical, where the real points of interest are the singing and the dancing. And in that respect, "On the Town" doesn't disappoint.

But for those of you who don't know the story line or haven't seen the 1949 film version with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, here it is in a nutshell.

It centres on three sailors, Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, on 24-hour shore leave in New York and ready to do (within the boundaries of decent taste) what any hot-blooded seafarers would do given such a short space of time in a major city

See the sites and wow the gals - not necessarily in that order for all three of them.

Gabey almost instantly falls in love with a poster of "Miss Turnstiles" or Ivy Smith, and the trio make it their quest to try to find her for him, individually racing around New York in pursuit.

In the process, Ozzie hooks up and falls in love with anthropologist, Claire DeLoone, who has in the past been rather "Carried away" in her appreciation of the opposite sex, is now supposedly "reformed" and indeed due to be engaged, but quickly succumbs to his charms.

Meanwhile Chip is scooped up by a rather over-amourous taxi-driving Hildy Esterhazy, intent on getting him to "Come up to my place"

And although Gabey finds and woos Ivy himself, and even arranges for a date that evening, the two - for one reason or another - fail to meet at the agreed time.

That sets the scene for his two friends, plus Claire and Hildy - to take the lovelorn sailor on a trip through some of the city's night clubs, until they eventually find Ivy - cut to the end, and of course the trio are at the dock in a final clinch with their "belles" before boarding the ship and returning to duty.

Curtain falls, applause.


There are of course a few more twists and turns, but really the plot plays second fiddle to the dancing and the singing, for which it is to a great extent simply a vehicle.

In fact what's maybe most striking about this musical is that it had its roots in dance - in the form of the ballet "Fancy Free" - and that can be seen in some of the numbers which are pure....well....ballet.

As well as that of course there are some humdingers of tunes, belted out - only to be expected really from ENO - with true relish.

And although the staging of this particular production might not be the most ostentatious or dazzling, in the end it doesn't really appear to matter to the audience.

The production clips along at a fair pace, there's the odd comic moment, that downright silly plot, but all in all it's a great night out, not in the slightest bit intellectually challenging and proving that actually it's all right simply to be entertained.

And of course, it's hard not to leave humming (at least in the head) probably the show's best-known tune "New York, New York".

On the Town opened at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on December 10 and runs until January 4.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

France's new leader - a woman

I know, I know. I sort of made up my mind not to post again until the New Year, but as with all resolutions, it was perhaps meant to be broken.

But the story rather tickled my fancy, and I thought it worth passing on.

Now here's a thing. France has a new leader until the end of the year. A woman!

"What?" I hear you ask.

"Has there been a coup? An election while we weren't looking? A peaceful transition of power?"

"Has the Socialist party finally got its act together and taken over the Elysée palace with Martine Aubry at the helm?"

Well no. None of those.

Here's the explanation.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is in Brazil - on holiday until the end of the year with his wife Carla after a couple of days of state and European Union business.

So under normal circumstances, François Fillon, the French prime minister would become this country's "main man" for the duration.

Except guess what, he's on holiday too - in Egypt.

The next in line - politically speaking - would be the number three in the government, Jean-Louis Borloo - the minister of the environment, energy, sustainable development, planning and other bits and pieces.

It's a sort of hotchpotch super-ministry grouping together many deparments under the umbrella of the government's attempt to be as ecologically aware as possible.

Anyway Borloo isn't the man in charge because.....well you probably get the picture by now. He's abroad on holiday too. Destination Morocco.

So that leaves Michèle Alliot-Marie, the interior minister, who is actually remaining in France for the Christmas period (yes some French choose to holiday at home) with her "finger on the button" so to speak, making sure everything ticks over in a hunky-dory fashion.

Alliot-Marie is a safe pair of hands, by most people's reckoning, but there have been a few political eyebrows raised - mainly from the opposition as to how come the top three in government couldn't co-ordinate their diaries a little better to ensure that at least one of them was in the country over the festive season.

Be that as it may, for the moment it's Alliot-Marie who's in charge.

So there you go, a woman in power in France (albeit for just a week) and not an election in sight.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Strasbourg - a superb slice of French life

Seasonal greetings from the eastern French city of Strasbourg in the heart of Alsace.

It's the setting of what is probably the best known and longest running Christmas market here in France - a time when the city, which has more than enough to offer visitors all year round, really comes alive as the place is packed solid for four weeks.

This will just be a (personal) taste of the place at this time of the year, embellished (hopefully) with the most potted of history by way of background.

There is of course plenty of information available out there on the Net or in books - just click on some of the links for a pointer, or better still, come here to discover it for yourself.

The TGV train from Paris has cut the journey time down to just two and a half hours, and there's also an airport - for all those European parliamentarians, amongst others, who shuffle between Brussels and Strasbourg for one week every month.

The city is just the proverbial stone's throw from the French-German border, and its geographical location has seen it switching between the two countries pretty regularly over the last century or so.

Not surprisingly perhaps the influence of both can be felt strongly - culturally, linguistically, architecturally, politically, religiously and not least gastronomically.

Indeed, the Christmas market in Strasbourg - widely found in towns and cities throughout Germany - is very much a prime example of how much the whole region of Alsace is most definitely French, but with a certain German twist.

Actually there isn't just one Christmas market - but several - spread throughout the city.

While they might not offer nearly some of the true Christmas spirit that can be found in their German counterparts, and the stalls for the most part are full of what could politely be termed "imported tat" there's still the chance to hunt out some regional edible specialities and locally produced crafts.

If that's what you're after, then the best starting point is probably Place Broglie.



Honey from local apiculturists, gingerbread galore (not too dry and ideal for the foie gras)
cinnamon biscuits, lebkuchen - ah yes it has probably dawned on you, those with a sweet tooth will not go far wrong.

Waffles, bretzels, tarte à l'oignons, and of course because it's just slightly brass monkeys temperature-wise, vin chaud - white or red - the Alsace equivalent of Glühwein or mulled wine (of sorts) guaranteed to intoxicate against any chill factor.

There's another market around the cathedral, but you might want to put in a spot of culture too and pop inside the city's most famous landmark.

It's VERY Gothic - parts of it dating back to the 12th century - and it houses the fabulous 18-metre astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world.

You want Gothic - you've got it


Moving along to Place Kléber is where you'll find the Christmas tree (from the nearby Vosges mountains) more stalls, more tat, more food and more vin chaud.

And so it can continue from one market to another.

It's not the most enormous of city centres. Even though Strasbourg is the regional capital of Alsace with around 270,000 inhabitants (which almost triples when taking into account the urban population, making it this country's seventh largest city) walking around (or staggering after too much vin chaud) isn't too difficult.

If you're feeling especially lazy, there's always the state-of-the-art tram to take you from one market to another.

Walking is probably your best bet though, to build up an appetite (you'll need it) and to appreciate the true beauty of the city.

There's Petit France, with its quaint timber-framed houses, some of which almost seem to be leaning from different sides of the street to greet each other.

Much of the area is pedestrianised and the streets cobbled, so sensible shoes are the order or the day.



Mixed in with the timber-framed houses elsewhere in the city is an eclectic mix that has thankfully survived the centuries - and wars - in no particular order there's German renaissance, French Baroque, French Neo-Classicism,

Alongside the river Ill, there are some grand tree-lined boulevards, with even more grandiose housing - and if you feel really brave you can "Shanks pony" it all the way to the more modern stuff such as the European parliament or the Richard Rogers-designed European Court of Human Rights building.

When you need a break from the cold and the crowds and want to grab something "proper" to eat and drink - this is where Strasbourg comes into its own, and especially at this time of the year.

Remember this is France - so food and drink are high on any region's list of priorities - Strasbourg and Alsace are no different.

In a sense what's available is "real" fusion food, in that it brings together arguably the best of French and German tables. But be warned, there's none of that prissy pretence or wannabe trendiness. What's on offer is hearty and substantial to say the least, and not for those counting the calories or who baulk at the size of the portions.

Whatever you plump for, be it baeckeoffe, wädele (veal or pork hock), tartes flambée (flammeküche), choucroute garnie (dressed sauerkraut), coq au Riesling or a host of other regional specialities, you'll be presented with a wholesome serving that'll leave you with a suitably warm glow.

Everything of course can be washed down with a regional wine from a Riesling to a Gewürtztraminer, a Pinot gris to a Sylvaner or a beer if you must.

Replete, you might need to walk off some of those extra pounds, and as you wander through the streets, you might still be in need to another slosh of vin chaud.

No problems, the place is still buzzing late into the evening - so one last shot and then back to the hotel to collapse.

There's so much more to write and say (and indeed it has been done so frequently over the years) but perhaps it's best left to the words of the mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, in his introductory welcome to visitors to the Christmas market.

Although he might have a vested interest in promoting the city as its top elected official, he's probably not far off the mark, as he just about sums up what Strasbourg has represented throughout the centuries and continues to do today in a way quite unlike any other European city.

"Every year, when Christmas comes, Strasbourg adorns itself in its very best finery." writes Riess.

"I am particularly aware of the importance of this presence which symbolises the Europe which we want to build; a Europe which laid its foundations in Strasbourg, a Europe which promotes the meeting of peoples and cultures and unites citizens."

So on behalf of him and from the glorious city of Strasbourg, here's one chilled-out, vin-chaud drinker wishing you a very warm "cheers".

Life in le (French) twilight zone

Life for the past couple of weeks has been a little like living in a parallel universe.

Forced to live without modern technology, I took a journey back to something that could almost be described as a return to the dark ages.

All right so that might appear something of an exaggeration on reflection, but it’s not that far off the mark, as I lost the Internet connection at home.

Modern technology, or the lack thereof, had me alternately experiencing pain, joy, relief and frustration – sometimes individually, often collectively.

Gone are the days – here in France at least – of clumsy connections.

Wifi (“whiffy” – remember?) means that I can plonk myself down in front of my laptop just about anywhere in the house – et voilà – I’m online.

Great for those elusive moments of (in)frequent inspiration or the rare times when I actually “require” the Internet.

But probably like a great number of fellow addicts, I’m rubbish at restrained use and frequently find myself surfing wantonly just “because I can.”

Until that was, Mother nature – or perhaps more accurately the French utility EDF – stepped in and briefly turned my world upside down, inside out or maybe even the right way around.

Last week there was a sudden surge of power – just a couple of seconds’ worth – and “Poof!” that little miracle of an invention the Livebox (courtesy of Orange/France Telecom, which would have us all believe there were two companies when in fact they are just different facets of the same one) which provides the Wifi connection, blinked what to all intents and purposes appeared to be its last little green light.

Wouldn't you just love to do this sometimes?



Help! How would I check my emails? What about staying in touch with people in far flung places? More to the point, I wouldn’t be able to share news from France with the rest of the world (well no great loss there, you might well be cheering) and much, much more.

I rang France Telecom in desperation, hoping that one of their kindly techies would be able to guide me through the reconnection process, still firmly convinced that the Livebox could be revived.

But “no’ came the response. It was a lost cause, and the only option was to take a trip to the nearest Internet supplier, break open the wallet, and purchase a new box.

That of course would mean happily following the instructions, getting horribly confused as I tried to follow the “simple” (re)installation procedure step by step and then spending hours on the ‘phone to someone in Morocco (which is where France Telecom seems to outsource its services for Apple) in an attempt to connect.

“Been there, done that, seen the movie and bought the T-shirt,” I thought.

“How about taking the radical step and going ‘cold turkey’ – ie; living without a connection (at home) for a while, and rewinding the clock to a time when the Net wasn’t the be all and end all?” I mused.

And that’s exactly what I decided to try – just for a few days at least. A technological “time out”, if you will.

The result? Well getting up in the morning no longer meant logging on and checking my mails or sending them, because I couldn’t.

So I sat down and ran off a couple of letters (how old fashioned) remembering that I could physically “write”, and I worked my way through the Christmas card list – ahead of time.

And here’s something of a scoop. Rather than scanning the French and foreign press online, catching up on everything almost before it had actually happened, I picked up a book or a wrestled with a broadsheet and actually read the things

Instant messaging was impossible, so I made full use of the ‘phone and had a jolly good (albeit probably more costly) natter with friends and family.

I listened to the radio – I mean really listened, not just heard. I watched the television.

The house reverberated to the sound of real conversation, and not just the “tap, tap, tap” of fingers fling across the keyboard. In fact everyone seemed to have rediscovered that not only did they have five fully functioning senses, but social skills to boot.

For me, the initial frustration of being apparently “cut off” was replaced by the gradual realisation that I could actually live without the Net – and vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a hermit stuck in a virtual reality. But the two-second electricity surge (and a similar 30-minute power cut a couple of days later) brought home to me just how much I had been dependent on the Net in my private life.

In a way I had been given a much-needed elbow-in-the-ribs revelation of something I had forgotten.

The world didn’t stop because I was offline – either for me or anybody else.

In a sense it was almost like a holiday – Christmas come early – and perhaps a sign as to what I should be including among my New Year’s resolutions.

So with that in mind, from this particular corner of the world to all of you out there who have made it to the end of this and other posts I’ve written, Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année – as they would say here in France.

And until 2009 - perhaps.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Top 10 (plus) moments in France for 2008



So I can't count - maths never was my strong point. Perhaps it should be retitled "Some of the most memorable moments from French news over the past year" but that seems a little long-winded and cumbersome.

And besides any top-10 list of what have been the highlights (and the lowlights) of a year's worth of news here in France, could probably be filled with a certain Nicolas Sarkozy - the French president, in case you were unaware.

He of course cannot be excluded, and indeed features strongly.

So without (too much) further ado, grab a glass of wine (French of course) and settle back for a taste of some of the stories that have made the headlines in France during 2008 - for better or for worse.

Some have links to pieces (in English) that might provide a little more meat to the story; others don't - so you'll just have to take my word for it.

The year started off pretty much as the previous one had ended, with Sarkozy's name and face plastered all over the front pages.

First up in January of course was his press conference to the nation's (and the world's) media in which he took everyone here by surprise by announcing the end of public advertising on French television for the beginning of 2009.

The head of French TV, Patrick de Carolis was as unprepared as anyone, but the only thing everyone present really wanted know was would he or wouldn't he marry - Carla of course.

A few weeks later another name hit the headlines - that of trader, Jérôme Kerviel, who lost a whopping €5 billion of Société Générale's dosh. Little did we know he was a something of a trendsetter for what would follow much later in the year.

In February Sarkozy fulfilled his promise (for once) from the previous month that we would only find out about his and Carla's nuptials after they had happened.

The two tied the knot barely three months into their whirlwind romance, and the country had a new First Lady.

But Sarkozy's PR honeymoon with the French didn't last too long, as just a couple of weeks later he was at his very best during the agricultural fair in Paris.

Few will forget those now infamous presidential words he uttered to a visitor who refused to shake his outstretched hand; "Casse toi alors, pauvre con."

Casse toi alors, pauvre con



March is always a month that promises much but delivers little - certainly in terms of the weather. Spring is around the corner, but winter hasn't really yet finished having its say.

The French went to the polls in local elections - gains for the Socialist party and some political spinning from the government after a less than encouraging performance.

The "party girl" justice minister, Rachida Dati, admitted what everyone knew - namely she enjoyed the trappings of office - when she confirmed reports that her department had already spent two thirds of its annual €200,000 entertainment budget.

But the month also marked the death at the grand old age of 110 of France's last surviving World War I veteran, Lazare Ponticelli, a man whose life was by any stretch of the imagination remarkable.

The official end of the "Bling Bling" presidency (as if) was announced by the creator himself in April as Sarkozy faced a barrage of questions from five "approved" journalists in a 90-minute prime time television interview.

He admitted having made mistakes - not in policy as much in delivery of the message - and promised to pull his socks up in an effort to improve his plummeting popularity ratings.

Jérôme Kerviel went back to work, a giant of French literature, Aimé Césaire, died at the age of 94 and there was a storm in a teacup moment as a 33-year-old electro-pop singer, Sébastien Tellier, was chosen to defend the nation's colours at the annual Eurovision song contest the following month - singing primarily in English. Zut alors!

Sébastien Tellier



It was also a month that saw the beginning of Sarkozy's somewhat - shall we say - diffident handling of relations with China and the Dalai Lama - a sort of one step forward, two steps back tale as the Olympic flame made its chaotic and truncated way through the streets of Paris, with little comment from the Elysée palace, and still no firm decision on whether the president would attend the opening of the games in Beijing.

The excellent Entre les Murs scooped top honours at Cannes in May - the first time a French film had won in 21 years

A sign that French cinema was on the up and up, especially after Marion Cotillard's Oscar for best actress in la Môme a couple of months earlier and the roaring success of the home-produced comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, which was busy breaking all domestic box office records.

Sadly, Sébastien Tellier singing in English didn't help France much at Eurovision - he notched up just 27 points, and finished 19th....out of 25 countries.

Other more dubious cultural highlights in a month packed with them included the awarding of the country's highest honour, the Légion d'honneur, to the Canadian chanteuse Céline Dion, and Kylie Minogue became a chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (a knight of the order of Arts and Letters)

Oh yes and Carla (Bruni-Sarkozy) confirmed she had a new album in the pipeline.

Les Bleus (the national soccer team) - runners up in the 2006 World cup just two years earlier, went home with early their collective tail between their legs from Euro 2008 in June, scoring just one goal in their three group matches.

Gaël Monfils had the country's hopes high in making it as far as the semi-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros, before losing to Roger Federer

Away from sport, the Irish rather put a dampener on Sarkozy's hopes for a successful stint as France prepared to take over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union the following month, when they voted "no" to the Lisbon treaty,

And more importantly (for some) Carla "revealed" almost all on how she and her husband had first met, in a new book - well summer was around the corner, and beach reading was required.

Summer arrived, and with it the long-promised release in July of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's album Comme si de rien n'etait.

It quickly made its way to the top of the charts, going double gold in the process, but somehow magically failing actually to sell the required number of copies.

L'amoureuse



Meanwhile it was a busy month for her husband who took over the six month rotating presidency of the EU, informing the Irish that they should vote again. He didn't get very far.

During the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan at the beginning of the month Sarkozy looked (by general agreement) rather bored, but his demeanour changed somewhat a couple of weeks later when he officially launched his pet project, the Mediterranean Union, in Paris.

Although generally pooh-poohed by the other 26 members of the EU present, Sarkozy was in his element as he played host to leaders from Egypt, Israel and Syria, trying to put a gloss on their refusal to shake hands, but blusteringly confident that "Club Med" was the beginning of "something new and important".

Sarkozy finally finished dithering over whether he would attend the opening of the following month's Olympic games in Beijing by announcing to nobody's real surprise that he would.

Oh yes and on 25th, he played host to a certain Barack Obama, who stopped over in Paris on his whistle-stop tour that took in several European capitals.

Appearing in front of the television cameras, Obama looked all the part of a world statesman, while Sarkozy seemed in comparison - well, decidedly short.

Away from politics, there was another in a series of those so-called "run-of-the-mill" leaks at one of the country's nuclear power plants, and the month also saw the end of an era in French television as the country's long-serving prime time news anchor, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, made his final broadcast,

August is of course a time when virtually the whole of the country comes to a standstill - not because of the national pastime of striking, but because everyone goes on holiday.

For the residents of Hautemont in the north of the country and surrounding villages, those holidays were rudely interrupted by a tornado which wrecked the town, destroying 700 homes, killing three people and injuring 18.

Sarkozy made it to the opening ceremony of the Olympics, but the French team got off to the slowest of starts with a seeming interminable wait and much hand wringing from disappointed commentators before the country eventually struck gold. The final result - 40 medals in total, seven better than in Athens.

While Sarkozy was in China, the Dalai Lama was in France on a 12-day trip. Still not wanting to offend the authorities in Beijing, Sarkozy sent his wife, Carla, along to meet Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, and she was joined at the last moment by two members of the government, the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, and the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade.

It was also the month in which 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in Afghanistan.

A few weeks later in September, there was outrage in France as the weekly magazine, Paris Match, published an interview with the leader of a faction of the Taliban responsible for the ambush.

Alongside appeared photographs in which members of that faction were dressed in the military uniform of some of the dead soldiers, and showing personal effects taken from the victims.

On 12th, Pope Benedict XVI arrived for a three-day visit and thousands turned out to catch at least a glimpse of the head of the Catholic church.

The justice minister, Rachida Dati, announced she was pregnant, but refused to name the father because "it's a complicated situation."

Jean Sarkozy, the younger of the French president's two grown up sons from his first marriage, took a leaf out of his father's book when, along with his wife, Jessica Sebaoun, he took legal action against two weekly magazines for publishing photographs of the couple's recent marriage, without their consent.

And French television aired what was probably one of the most touching documentaries of the year on Annie Girardot, a star of the big screen here in France during the 1970s and 80s, now living her own personal hell in the final stages of Alzheimer's.

Absence prolongée



October was a busy month for the French president by anyone's reckoning - both in France and worldwide.

By now Sarkozy had settled into his role of the EU's Big Cheese in his efforts to try to quell the dispute between Russia and Georgia, which had begin a couple of months earlier.

He had received fulsome praise from many quarters of the (French) media, and revelled once again in being thrust (or should that be thrusting himself?) back into the international limelight as he sought to save the world from financial meltdown - almost single handed.

When the French state helped bail out the Belgian bank Fortis and then a couple of days later the Belgian-French, Dexia, Sarkozy was hailed (not least by himself) as a hero.

But he fair blew a gasket on learning that the chief executive of Dexia, Axel Miller, would be receiving a golden handshake of €3,73 million and threatened to call the deal off unless Miller abandoned his claim. He did. The real end of Bling Bling?

And while the US president, George W Bush seemed paralysed, Sarkozy went into hyper drive to organise the G20 summit for the following month (his secret wish from July's G8 was coming true)

In the middle of saving the world, he still had time to turn his mind to matters closer to home - taking legal action seemingly whenever the mood suited, and in particular in his efforts to get that dratted voodoo doll (made in his image) removed from shop shelves.

In other news, French cycling wonder, Jeannie Longo turned 50, and there was more outrage, this time at the whistling that accompanied the singing of the French national anthem at the opening of a friendly soccer international in Paris against Tunisia.

For once politicians from all parties seemed united on something.

Then there was the death of one of this country's most exceptional and much-loved women.

Soeur Emmanuelle, who had dedicated her life to helping the poor, died just days short of what would have been her 100th birthday.

In November, the summit in the United States, convened to deal with financial meltdown, was almost pushed out of the headlines here in France - in spite of Sarkozy's role, because the month also ushered in the climax of the long-running saga also known as the battle for the leadership of the Socialist party.

It was a story that went on and on and on and on - and still many political commentators have the feeling that it's not quite over.

Somewhere in the middle of it all though, one of the main protagonists, Ségolène Royal, still found time to provide one of those golden moments of radio when being interviewed one morning.

After the presenter asked her whether she could think of anything Sarkozy (remember she lost to him in last year's presidential election) had done that she might consider worthy of praise, she thought. There was silence - never to be highly recommended on the airwaves, before she responded that she couldn't think of anything "apart from the drop in the number of deaths in accidents on the motorway."

Rama Yade



So into December, which began with what had to be just about the most extraordinarily jaw-to-the-floor statement from that world famous humanitarian, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

In an interview with one of the country's daily newspapers, he turned around and said that it had been a mistake to appoint a junior minister responsible for human rights as "foreign policy cannot be conducted only in terms of how human rights functions".

Er..............

That statement was made on December 10 in Paris - a day which just happened to mark the 60th anniversary of the singing of the universal declaration on human rights.

Of course it was really just an attack on Rama Yade, the junior minister in question, who was being told off publicly for not agreeing to stand for the European elections next year as "instructed" by her big boss Sarkozy, which she described as "like being forced to marry Prince Albert (of Monaco)".

Proof perhaps that politicians do indeed have a sense of humour.

Sarkozy tied up the odds and ends to the French spell at the EU presidency (that'll now move on the Czech Republic) won "agreement" on a 27-nation Climate control plan, launched a financial plan that's supposed to save French industry, and is (probably) off to Brazil to sign deals and for his Christmas break with Carla.

That's it. A year's worth of some of the most memorable news stories here in France.

There's more, much more of course, but you've probably made it through to the end of a bottle of wine by now, let alone that glass.

Predictions for 2009? A cabinet reshuffle, Rachida Dati gives birth, more Sarkozy and even more Carla. It'll rain and there'll be strikes. Ségolène Royal won't go away and there'll be some surprises in the elections for the European parliament.

How's that for hedging my bets?

Pass the bottle.

Roberto Alagna

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Strasbourg - a superb slice of French life

Seasonal greetings from the eastern French city of Strasbourg in the heart of Alsace.

It's the setting of what is probably the best known and longest running Christmas market here in France - a time when the city, which has more than enough to offer visitors all year round, really comes alive as the place is packed solid for four weeks.

This will just be a (personal) taste of the place at this time of the year, embellished (hopefully) with the most potted of history by way of background.

There is of course plenty of information available out there on the Net or in books - just click on some of the links for a pointer, or better still, come here to discover it for yourself.

The TGV train from Paris has cut the journey time down to just two and a half hours, and there's also an airport - for all those European parliamentarians, amongst others, who shuffle between Brussels and Strasbourg for one week every month.

The city is just the proverbial stone's throw from the French-German border, and its geographical location has seen it switching between the two countries pretty regularly over the last century or so.

Not surprisingly perhaps the influence of both can be felt strongly - culturally, linguistically, architecturally, politically, religiously and not least gastronomically.

Indeed, the Christmas market in Strasbourg - widely found in towns and cities throughout Germany - is very much a prime example of how much the whole region of Alsace is most definitely French, but with a certain German twist.

Actually there isn't just one Christmas market - but several - spread throughout the city.

While they might not offer nearly some of the true Christmas spirit that can be found in their German counterparts, and the stalls for the most part are full of what could politely be termed "imported tat" there's still the chance to hunt out some regional edible specialities and locally produced crafts.

If that's what you're after, then the best starting point is probably Place Broglie.



Honey from local apiculturists, gingerbread galore (not too dry and ideal for the foie gras)
cinnamon biscuits, lebkuchen - ah yes it has probably dawned on you, those with a sweet tooth will not go far wrong.

Waffles, bretzels, tarte à l'oignons, and of course because it's just slightly brass monkeys temperature-wise, vin chaud - white or red - the Alsace equivalent of Glühwein or mulled wine (of sorts) guaranteed to intoxicate against any chill factor.

There's another market around the cathedral, but you might want to put in a spot of culture too and pop inside the city's most famous landmark.

It's VERY Gothic - parts of it dating back to the 12th century - and it houses the fabulous 18-metre astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world.

You want Gothic - you've got it


Moving along to Place Kléber is where you'll find the Christmas tree (from the nearby Vosges mountains) more stalls, more tat, more food and more vin chaud.

And so it can continue from one market to another.

It's not the most enormous of city centres. Even though Strasbourg is the regional capital of Alsace with around 270,000 inhabitants (which almost triples when taking into account the urban population, making it this country's seventh largest city) walking around (or staggering after too much vin chaud) isn't too difficult.

If you're feeling especially lazy, there's always the state-of-the-art tram to take you from one market to another.

Walking is probably your best bet though, to build up an appetite (you'll need it) and to appreciate the true beauty of the city.

There's Petit France, with its quaint timber-framed houses, some of which almost seem to be leaning from different sides of the street to greet each other.

Much of the area is pedestrianised and the streets cobbled, so sensible shoes are the order or the day.



Mixed in with the timber-framed houses elsewhere in the city is an eclectic mix that has thankfully survived the centuries - and wars - in no particular order there's German renaissance, French Baroque, French Neo-Classicism,

Alongside the river Ill, there are some grand tree-lined boulevards, with even more grandiose housing - and if you feel really brave you can "Shanks pony" it all the way to the more modern stuff such as the European parliament or the Richard Rogers-designed European Court of Human Rights building.

When you need a break from the cold and the crowds and want to grab something "proper" to eat and drink - this is where Strasbourg comes into its own, and especially at this time of the year.

Remember this is France - so food and drink are high on any region's list of priorities - Strasbourg and Alsace are no different.

In a sense what's available is "real" fusion food, in that it brings together arguably the best of French and German tables. But be warned, there's none of that prissy pretence or wannabe trendiness. What's on offer is hearty and substantial to say the least, and not for those counting the calories or who baulk at the size of the portions.

Whatever you plump for, be it baeckeoffe, wädele (veal or pork hock), tartes flambée (flammeküche), choucroute garnie (dressed sauerkraut), coq au Riesling or a host of other regional specialities, you'll be presented with a wholesome serving that'll leave you with a suitably warm glow.

Everything of course can be washed down with a regional wine from a Riesling to a Gewürtztraminer, a Pinot gris to a Sylvaner or a beer if you must.

Replete, you might need to walk off some of those extra pounds, and as you wander through the streets, you might still be in need to another slosh of vin chaud.

No problems, the place is still buzzing late into the evening - so one last shot and then back to the hotel to collapse.

There's so much more to write and say (and indeed it has been done so frequently over the years) but perhaps it's best left to the words of the mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, in his introductory welcome to visitors to the Christmas market.

Although he might have a vested interest in promoting the city as its top elected official, he's probably not far off the mark, as he just about sums up what Strasbourg has represented throughout the centuries and continues to do today in a way quite unlike any other European city.

"Every year, when Christmas comes, Strasbourg adorns itself in its very best finery." writes Riess.

"I am particularly aware of the importance of this presence which symbolises the Europe which we want to build; a Europe which laid its foundations in Strasbourg, a Europe which promotes the meeting of peoples and cultures and unites citizens."

So on behalf of him and from the glorious city of Strasbourg, here's one chilled-out, vin-chaud drinker wishing you a very warm "cheers".

French justice condemns mother's "mercy" killing

Sometimes it seems justice can get it wrong - and sometimes it gets it right.

You judge for yourselves which way around it is in the following case - one in which French justice applied the law, which states that individuals do not have the right to take the life of another.

In April this year Lydie Debaine was acquitted of the murder of her daughter, Anne-Marie, in May 2005, even though she had always admitted killing her.

The Advocate General appealed that decision and brought the case to trial again this week - the verdict, a two-year suspended sentence for the 65-year-old.

Her daughter, Anne-Marie, was 26 years old when she died, but with a mental age of five. She was severely physically and mentally handicapped and needed the around-the-clock care of her mother, who gave up work to look after her.

Anne-Marie was in constant pain, incontinent, had severe headaches and frequent bouts of epileptic fits. Medical records also documented that her physical health was deteriorating.

"It was 26 years of anguish," said Debaine's husband, who although he didn't condone his wife's act, had "forgiven" her.

During the first trial Debaine acknowledged that she had killed her daughter by administering drugs and drowning her in a bath tub, but maintained that she had done it as an act of compassion.

"I didn't do it because she was handicapped, I did it because she was suffering," she said.

"It was and act of love. My daughter spent day after day without sleeping."

And that was once again her defence during the second trial this week - an appeal the Advocate General had sought to overturn the original jury's ruling because "such a verdict could act as an encouragement to others to take the lives of handicapped people."

Even though the Advocate General in the second trial was at one point reportedly reduced to tears and recognised that Debaine had been a "courageous mother", he insisted that it was important that handicapped adults be protected.

"I represent all young handicapped people so that such a thing never happens (to them)," said Michel Debacq.

"It's not possible to give up in these cases, that's simply not just," he added.

Debaine made no comment after Tuesday's verdict. But her lawyer, Cathy Richard, said that although not exactly satisfied with the decision, it was the minimum sentence that could have been given, and in that sense was symbolic.

"She's too exhausted to react," said Richard.

"She's disappointed, that's for sure, but she also has the feeling that the Advocate General actually listened and understood," she added.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Smile - It's just another December day in France

Prising oneself out of bed - even when one has the benefit of the pre-dawn chorus of howling hounds - is no easy matter.

But it's made all the more difficult at the moment by the fact that it's still pitch black at 6;30am outside, and will remain so for the next couple of months.

Anyway the dogs had been fed and potted, yours truly was slouched over the kitchen table, traditional cuppa (with just a nuage of milk) in hand, gawping bleary-eyed at the small screen in the corner.

Yes decadent perhaps but habit-forming, and informative in terms of getting a head start with the day's news (that's my side of the story) watching the excellent Maïtena Biraben present La Matinale on Canal +.

There was an interview with Dominique Paillé, a spokesman for the governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party.

The issue at hand - why the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy had backtracked on two reforms apparently so dear to his heart - Sunday shop opening hours and the reform of secondary school education.

Paillé helpfully and spinningly told viewers that there had been no "backtracking" just a consensus of opinion within the (UMP) party that it was better to introduce Sunday opening gradually (10 days a year to be determined by the mayors).

Then he informed us that the delay by the education minister, Xavier Darcos, of reforms to the secondary school system had nothing to do with fears that French youth - rather notorious for revolting - might follow the violent lead of those in Greece.

Instead the government would now have the chance to explain "properly" what was behind the proposed changes to the syllabus and loss of teaching jobs - one year exactly because they now apparently won't come into effect until September 2010

So you see, "no backtracking" by Sarkozy, even if the presenters and most of the front pages of the French newspapers say so.

Then the news headlines. Snow (how unusual for December), the danger of avalanches in the French Alps and 90,000 households still without power.

By all accounts the French utility, EDF, was working overtime to restore electricity - well let's hope they're all being paid healthy bonuses - remember Sarkozy's mantra "work more to earn more"?

Another day of delays on the trains as the after-effects of Monday's strikes by some drivers are still felt by those trying to make their way to work. Just another strike as far as most French are probably concerned - c'est la vie.

More on that crazy, single-handed, round the world sailing race, Le Vendée Globe. It seems the competitors are in iceberg waters still, and a Briton, Mike Golding has just taken the lead. Hurrah. Mad!

The sad news that German actor, Horst Tappert, had died at the age of 85.

He was the star of the long-running detective drama "Derrick" which, although it stopped being made around a decade ago, is still watched by over one million people each day here on France 3 and has been sold around the world.

Then that moment at the end of many a news bulletin, when the world seems to stand still and greet you with a massive hug, a great big silly grin and a loud "hello" with the "and finally" story.

So.......and finally. No story, no earth-shattering news, no words. Just a video to brighten up the start of your day as it did mine.

Go on. Sit back, take a break from the rest of the day, and enjoy - pretend it's Sunday morning, evening if it's actually Tuesday.

Go on - smile

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Sarkozy on ice - a law suit in the offing?

Oh la la, how will the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, react to the latest advertising campaign by the German all-news television channel Ntv?

Take a look at the accompanying picture and you'll see how the station is using Sarkozy's image to promote itself in some magazines and newspapers in Germany.

As you can see the smiling face of the French president is superimposed on the body of an appropriately clad (female) figure skater in a classically artistic pose with the title "From the Elysée to ice skating" and the caption underneath reading "Ntv viewers don't just get the most important political and business news, but also exciting reports and documentaries - in fact everything you need to be able to join in the discussion."



Sarkozy of course has made it something of a habit of bringing civil suits in this country - six so far during his 18 months as president - and he hasn't hesitated in resorting to French justice to prove his point.

They include most famously perhaps the recent case of the voodoo doll and the one earlier this year of Ryanair. In both instances Sarkozy argued that there had been unauthorised misuse of the president's image.

So will he now be tempted to stretch his legal reach as far as Germany? After all he is currently the biggest cheese in the European Union as France's term in the 27-nation bloc's six-month rotating presidency still has a few weeks left to run.

Admittedly Ntv's publicity campaign has only just started to appear in German newspapers and magazines such as the weekly Der Spiegel.

But those same magazines are also widely available throughout France, and already sections of the media here have caught hold of the story and reprinted images of the "dancing president".

Perhaps though he should take some heart from the fact that he's not the only head of state to be featured in the channel's campaign.

He's in the most regal of company as there is also another advertisement featuring the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II, dressed as a trade union official, waving a red banner with the headline "From monarch to minimum salary".


The campaign is part of an attempt by the channel to give it a "younger, fresher, and friendlier" appeal according to the Ntv's communications director, Christoph Hemmerschmidt, and it's being accompanied by some on-air changes to its programming.

The privately operated German language 24-hour news channel is a partner station of CNN, widely available throughout France too on satellite.

"We've had some great feedback from this campaign," Hemmerschmidt told the German press.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is very well known (here in Germany) and in a sense he represents foreign policy".

There has been no word yet from the Elysée palace - Sarkozy's official residence as president of France - on whether he's actually seen the advertisement.

And Buckingham palace in London has not yet made a comment either.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Security concerns ahead of Marseille's Champions League match

Tuesday evening's European Champions League match between Olympique Marseille and Atletico Madrid could be one remembered as much for what happens off the pitch as on it.

Certainly all eyes and television cameras will be pointed in that direction as there have been threats of violence ahead of the game.

Security at the Vélodrome stadium in the southern French city is on high alert, extra police officers have been drafted in, and as the good old sports journalism jargon would say, "tensions are running high".

Maybe though such an expression is far from being an understatement, certainly not as far as the local authorities in Marseille are concerned, given the events that occurred when the two sides last met in the same competition back at the beginning of October and what has happened since.

During a training session before that game, one Marseille (OM) player, Mathieu Valbuena, said he was the victim of insults hurled at him by the Atletico coach, Javier Aguirre - an accusation Aguirre has denied.

At the match itself, Atletico supporters chanted racist slogans at some of OM's black players, and crowd trouble broke out in the stands resulting in the arrest of one Marseille fan, Santos Mirasierra, who was charged with hitting a policeman.

Last Friday Mirasierra, who has always claimed his innocence, received a three and a half year prison term from a Spanish court - a sentence judged too harsh by many Marseille supporters, who have been calling his acquittal.

Club officials at Atletico have also confirmed that since Mirasierra's arrest they've received email threats of possible reprisals at tonight's match. As a result they've advised official supporters of the Spanish club to stay away from tonight's game, but of course they cannot guarantee against some fans travelling to the match with the express purpose of looking for trouble.

Even though 1,000 extra police officers have been drafted in for tonight's games, there's still a real worry that trouble could occur outside the stadium, especially as a large number of OM's official fan club have said they'll boycott the game itself but gather outside in a show of solidarity for Mirasierra.

During a weekend league match against neighbours, Nice, the president of OM, Pape Diouf, launched a call for calm ahead of tonight's game.

"I'm appealing to those in charge of whatever group of supporters to see sense," he said.

"This club has a future.....we have to show ourselves able to behave in a dignified manner and we're counting on your support on Tuesday," he added.

That was a sentiment echoed not only by the mayor of Marseille, Jean-Claude Gaudin, and the club's coach, Eric Gerets, but also by Mirasierra from his cell in a Madrid prison.

As reported in the daily sports paper Aujourd'hui Sport, Mirasierra has sent messages to other members, and in particular the leaders, of his band of OM supporters, urging them not to provoke violence at tonight's game

"The Spanish expect incidents and are telling their supporters not to travel to Marseille, but I know that we can remain true to our reputation," he told them.

"I think you have to call for calm. They're expecting incidents and that won't do my cause any good."

On the sporting side - which has very much taken something of a back seat in the French media in the run-up to the game - while OM cannot qualify for the final 16 of the Champions League, they still could make it through to the next phase of the Uefa Cup.

For that to happen, they need to beat Atletico to finish third in their group.

A draw would leave Geret's men waiting on the result from the night's other match in group D between the Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, who could still deny them that Uefa Cup place, and Liverpool, already through to the last 16 of the Champions League.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Lass mich bitte ausreden - s'il vous plaît

No fears, you've clicked on to a post written in English, even if the headline is a German-French mix.

It's all about manners - and how difficult it can be sometimes to get a word in edgeways (or edgewise if you like) when trying to add one's own two centimes to a conversation.

In particular it's a look at the different way we have of expressing ourselves, especially when confronted with someone from a different cultural or linguistic background.

Apologies in advance if it's a little on the long side. It's the weekend after all, and there's always the alternative of "zapping" along to the next post.

Let's begin with a question.

Have you ever wondered how world leaders manage when confronting each other and being separated not just by politics and national interests but also the lack of a common language?

When for example, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel recently in Paris for a tête-à-tête, how on earth did they both manage?

After all neither of them really speaks each other's language, and they're not that inspiring when they try to parler l'anglais oder sprechen englisch.

All right so it's obvious they had interpreters, but in a sense their decisions and those of other world leaders in such high level meetings are very much in the hands (or mouths) of that elite band of men and women diplomatically ironing out linguistic differences and supposedly "getting it right".

By any stretch of the imagination, that's some responsibility.

It's also not a job made any easier by the fact that it's far from always being a done deal that when two people talk to each other using the same mother tongue, they'll necessarily grasp what the other is trying to say.

Factor in the cultural baggage one brings to a conversation with someone in another language other than one's own, and there's a sure fire recipe for some classic misunderstandings.

Let me take you on a momentary diversion that'll hopefully serve as background to what comes afterwards.

As I sit at the keyboard merrily bashing in a four-fingered touch-typing frenzy, I'm having more than a few problems finishing a sentence.

You see on a French "clavier" as they call it here, the layout of the letters is from the top left AZERTY rather than the English language QWERTY, and that can present something of a challenge to the user.

As the "A" and the "Q" are reversed the simple sentence
"the cat sat on the mat" (for want of imagination) becomes
"the "cqt sqt on the ,qt".

Ah yes, did you notice that the comma on the French keyboard is where the "m" is on the English one.

Makes life easy huh?

But more fascinating (to me at least) is the positioning of the full stop or period.

All right so it's in the same place (third from the right on the bottom) but to use it, you need to remember to hit the "shift" button.

Where's that full stop?


Now returning to the main theme of this post though (manners, just in case you had forgotten), perhaps the layout of the keyboard and the peculiarity of using the full stop shouldn't come as a surprise when, as a non-native French speaker, you find yourself in conversation with someone here.

After all it rather illustrates to the outsider the way the French could appear to think and speak......in other words in one endless sentence, full of clauses, interspersed with marathon length "errrrrrrrrs" and leaving little room for a true dialogue.

Such was the case this week during a dinner party at a friend's rather swanky apartment in Paris.

Ignoring the old tenet of not talking politics, religion or sex during dinner, I asked (what I thought) was a rather innocent, almost innocuous question of my neighbour as to what he thought of the future of the Socialist party.

After all it has been the subject of a fair bit of media conjecture in past weeks with the battle for the leadership and the narrowest of victories for Martine Aubry.

I was then treated to more than five minutes of polemic (the French love that word) of almost Herculean proportions as one sentence stretched out to infinity with no recognisable full stop in hearing range.

The only time he paused was to take a sip of wine - an opportunity I used to respond, but even before I had begun warming up, he talked over and took over the conversation once again, proceeding merrily with his train of thought.

Now maybe I was being just a little too British about the whole thing. But I thought - and still think - that conversation was supposed to be just that - an exchange of ideas and a level of social interaction which doesn't just consist of one-way traffic but is also composed of bodily signals that act as encouragement to join in - a dialogue.

Gaps, breaks, pauses - call them what you will - combined with gesture are an invitation to participate - at least that's what social convention would suggest.

Not so in France it would appear, where quantity seems to be as important as quality, and any "discussion" resembles something along the lines of "here's what I have to say, and if you dare try to interrupt, I shall just talk and talk until there's no air left in the room."

Filibustering supreme.

At some point of course, he did stop, but by then I had lost any impulse I might have had to continue the discussion and was rather ruing my decision to have asked a question in the first place.

Besides my neighbour on the other side was "talking food". This was a dinner party in France after all.

Similarly - and here speaks the voice of experience - trying to hold a conversation in German with a native speaker can sometimes prove more than a little frustrating for Mr-Perhaps-just-a-little-too-polite Briton (oh yes bring on the stereotypes).

It's a language of course full of mammoth sentences with the longest words imaginable, but native speakers tend to be less demonstrative in terms of gesticulation and more measured (read deliberate) in the way they speak than their French-speaking counterparts.

Once again for the well-behaved Brit, enthusiastic to jump in and participate, it can be something of a shock to be pulled short and told "Lass mich bitte ausreden" or quite literally "let me finish speaking".

I mean, at face value it's really just not polite is it? In fact it could appear downright insolent.

But actually is that the case? Are either the French, or in this case, the Germans being rude?

After all they're just using their own language in the way they've been taught and in the manner in which it allows them.

The problem of course is how that actually comes across and in the way in which we see perceive each other.

Here in Europe - a continent of 730 plus million people with a breadth of languages, there's an apparent desire for closer co-operation with each other. The 27-nation European Union is an ongoing work in progress for economic, political and social integration.

But what is surely more than clear to all of us is that, while the United State and Britain are often described as two countries divided by a common language, the EU amounts to 27 nations rendered apart by a whole slew of tongues and traditions, trying to achieve unity of sorts.

When Sarkozy and Merkel get together (with interpreters) do they speak in never-ending sentences never allowing the other to have their say? Probably not. But do they actually listen and understand each other in the process?

Add some more world leaders into the equation (George W, Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi et al) and how on earth do they ever manage to find linguistic common ground? And perhaps let's not even get started on the United Nations or the endless round of international gabfests.

There you go, just a couple of thoughts to leave you with this weekend.

"Right enough already," I hear those of you who've struggled to the end of this post shouting.

I'm off to have a chat with someone I know holds exactly my opinions, will understand every muddled and confused concept I'm trying to express and would never dream of interrupting when I'm in full flow.

Yes, that's right, I'm going to chatter away happily to myself.

Bon Dimanche und schönes Wochenende.

A French-American Miss for France

This weekend saw the election of Miss France 2009 – an affair carried live on TF1 national television, watched by over nine million viewers, and won by Chloé Mortaud.

Just a week before Miss World 2008 is due to be chosen in South Africa, this country was busy deciding who would carry its crown for next year and, in the words of the organisers, become the face of France and in a sense an ambassador to the rest of the world.

The winner – a 19-year-old with dual French-US nationality.

Whether the whole idea of beauty pageants belong to a bygone era is of course up for debate.

Views range as to whether they really have any relevance to the place of women in the 21st century.

There are those who might see them as degrading, a meaningless jamboree of airheads with legs and other prominent bits and pieces looking for the fast track to domestic and international “stardom” based primarily on their looks.

And then there’s the opinion, as expressed at least by the organising committee here in France, that it’s the chance to find a face, a young woman who can act for a year as a goodwill ambassador for the country both at home and abroad while dedicating time to charitable causes.

You takes your pick and you makes your choice.

Whatever the case, this weekend’s competition and the eventual winner are perhaps both quite revealing in what they say about the make up of France.

For starters take the candidates – 36 of them representing the country’s different regions here in metropolitan (or if you like mainland) France and its overseas departments and territories.

In a real sense, Miss France is a mini Miss World, with contestants coming from around the globe, because French borders aren’t confined to Europe.

Be warned, you might have to reach for your atlas to find some of these places.

From the Caribbean there were Misses Guadeloupe and Martinique (who will also be sending different contestants to Miss World). South America was represented by Miss Guyana.

The Indian ocean island of Mayotte (between northern Madagascar and Mozambique) sent its Miss as did “nearby” Réunion, and from the Pacific ocean there were representatives from New Caledonia and Tahiti.

Let’s not forget North America either while we’re at it, in the shape of the Saint Pierre and Miquelon just south of Newfoundland, whose candidate was making a first time appearance at the event.

And that takes us nicely on the winner, 19-year-old Chloé Mortaud or Miss Albigeois-Midi-Pyrénées as was – that’s a region in the southwest of (mainland) France for those of you still stuck with your noses in an atlas, incorporating the city of Toulouse.

Born and brought up in France, Mortaud actually holds dual French-US nationality. She’s of mixed race (or métisse as the French say – as was last year’s winner, Valérie Bègue, but more on her in a moment) bilingual in English and French and is an undergraduate studying business management in Toulouse.




While the crowning of Miss France 2009 might have been the highlight of the three-hour television spectacle, the anticipated and much touted confrontation between last year’s winner, Valérie Bègue, and the president of the organising committee, Geneviève de Fontenay, never happened.

The two women had a very public falling-out shortly after last year’s event when “suggestive” photographs of Bègue, the former Miss Réunion, appeared in a monthly magazine, Entrevue.

They had been snapped privately a few years earlier and sent anonymously to the magazine after Bègue’s “coronation”, leading to calls from de Fontenay for her to resign as they had contravened a pre-competition contract that contestants sign to guarantee they had never been photographed in compromising positions.

The stand off was eventually resolved with Bègue retaining her title but being banned from representing France at international competitions (such as Miss World or Miss Universe) and de Fontenay instead focussing her efforts on promoting last year’s runner up, Vahinerii Requillart (Miss New Caledonia) and preparing for the 2009 event.

De Fontenay is something of an institution here in France. The outspoken 76-year-old, who’s never seen in public without her trademark hat, has been organising the Miss France competition for 53 years.

She had steadfastly refused to share the stage with Bègue during this weekend’s show and her wish was respected, with the presenter, Jean-Pierre Foucault, informing viewers that “Valérie isn’t here this evening because Geneviève didn’t wish her to be.”

Instead there was a live link to Los Angeles where Bègue said she was “currently in negotiations for a role in a film.”

So peace has returned to the Miss France world for the moment, with the newly crowned Mortaud taking on the coronet for the next year and beginning the endless round of television and newspaper interviews that immediately followed.

Meanwhile next week in Johannesburg, the French contestant will not be Bègue or even Requillart, who has withdrawn from international competition for “personal reasons” but the 2008 third-placed, Laura Tanguy.

One aside to the whole pageant perhaps was its somewhat incongruous TV scheduling.

Not for the first year, while TF1 was showing the event live, over on France 2 and France 3 public television the annual telethon was underway to raise money for medical research.

After more than 30 hours of continuous broadcasting, it finished at 1am on Sunday morning and raised promised donations of more than €95 million.

Finally, back on TF1, perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening belonged to Miss Mayotte, 20-year old Esthel Nee.

When asked what her plans for the future were the first year old law student didn’t hesitate.

“I would like to be in politics – perhaps in the cultural field, and maybe who knows, even become president of France,” she replied.

“This is my first election and maybe not my last.”

Nee finished fourth.

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