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Wednesday, 27 May 2009

French police in child porn swoop

Early Tuesday morning police arrested 90 people in a nationwide sweep to break up a suspected online child pornography ring in France.

More than 300 officers were dispatched throughout the country following an investigation that had lasted more than four years and had centred on the sharing of images and videos of children reportedly as young as one year old.

Police also seized computers in Tuesday's operation with one of them alone, according to James Juan, the public prosecutor of the northern city of Beauvais (Oise), containing more than 30,000 images.

"That was just the pictures," he told a news conference. "There were also around 1,000 videos on that single computer."

The roots of the operation go back to December 2004, when a site containing pornographic pictures and videos of children first came to the attention of the police.

The creator, from the northern town of Clermont (Oise), was just 17 years old at the time when he set up the site.

Even though he was arrested in May 2005, the pictures and videos were still on the Net and others were downloading and sharing material from his server; proof as far as the police were concerned, that there was an "organised network in place" for diffusing child pornography.

And so began "Némésis" - the code-name for the investigation - to trace and locate those involved in the suspected ring. It was carried out by a specialised police unit to monitor cyber crime.

It was a process which Robert Bouche, the commander in charge of one of the sections in the northern city of Amiens (Somme), admitted was long, but necessary under the circumstances.

"We were dealing with people who knew how to use the Internet and technology easily," he said

"Many for example were computer experts (data processors or computer scientists) more than capable of making the job of investigators all the more difficult and ensuring they couldn't easily be identified," he added.

The 90 men, whose identities have not been released as investigations are still ongoing, apparently come from all walks of life.

If charged and found guilty they could face prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Scientology in the dock

Once again the church of Scientology faces a legal battle in France with the opening of a trial on Monday accusing the organisation of fraud.

It's a case which, should the courts rule against it, could result in the church receiving an outright ban here according to the headlines in many of the country's national daily newspapers.

This time around it's the church itself that's on trial, along with seven individuals charged with illegally prescribing medication that ordinarily can only be obtained with a prescription.

Although Scientology has faced French justice in the past, most often it has been individual defendants that have been on trial rather than the organisation itself.

At the centre of the current trial is a 43-year-old (unnamed) woman who claims the organisation "fraudulently" persuaded her to spend at least €20,000 on medication.

She maintains she was first offered a free personality by members of the church outside a metro station in the French capital back in 1998.

But over the months that followed, and after enrolling, she spent all her savings on "purification packs", books medicines and an "electrometre", an instrument which is supposedly used "to measure galvanic skin response in patients".

As far as the French media is concerned little debate is expected during the trial as to whether Scientology is a religion or a sect - under French law it is clearly defined as the latter.

Instead the case is expected to focus on whether it tries to make money fraudulently.

Unlike neighbouring Spain, which last year ruled that the church could in effect be officially recognised as a religion, France categorises Scientology as a commercial organisation.

It figures on a list of groups defined as "sects" and is under permanent government surveillance.

The current trial is expected to last three weeks.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Who's bothering to vote in the European elections?

June 4-7, depending on where you live in the European Union, will see the 27-nation bloc's circa 380 million eligible voters go to the polls in what's billed as the "biggest trans-national elections in history".

Well that's the theory at least, because while there are reasons aplenty for everyone to get out there and exercise their right to vote, it's unlikely to happen.

Economic growth, unemployment and inflation might well be the major themes both the outgoing parliamentarians and national governments want to be at the centre of the upcoming election, but one thing alone is likely to characterise the vote.


All polls indicate that this, the seventh time EU voters will have gone to the polls to elect a European parliament of 736 members (MEPs), promises to be one with a low turnout.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, only 34 percent say they intend to vote, with 15 per cent saying they won't vote under any circumstances.

A recent report in the New York Times says that the European parliament itself has "gone on the offensive" in trying to encourage people to vote, but there's still little sign that the campaign is having the desired effect.

In fact the call - generally speaking - seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Given the powers that the new parliament will have in terms of the potential for rejecting or amending proposals made by the European Commission, and the influence it has on legislation affecting the everyday lives of a majority of its citizens, it's perhaps more than worrying that governments throughout the EU can't drum up a little more enthusiasm among the electorate.

Worrying, but perhaps not surprising as, again according to Eurobarometer, so few people actually know who their MEP is - 68 per cent.

There's plenty of information out there apparently. It just doesn't seem to be hitting home - not even in France, one of the founder members of the EU.

It's barely six months since France held the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, and it'll be returning 72 MEPs to serve for five years, but only 44 per cent of the French say they intend to vote, according to a recent poll published by Ipsos.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is out on the stump campaigning, and there are some high profile cabinet ministers standing for election, including Michel Barnier (agriculture) and Rachida Dati (justice) but the enthusiasm of the electorate would seem to be, well less than overwhelming.

All right so there was a brief flash of media interest last week when the opposition Socialist party maintained that the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party was using a televised spot aimed at encouraging the French to vote, as political propaganda.

In other words the government, it was claimed, was trying to persuade the electorate to cast their ballots for the UMP, and the Socialist party made a complaint to the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA) calling for the clip be suspended.

The CSA rejected the request.

But television schedules have hardly been dominated by stories stressing the supposed importance of the election.

And one final thing, which might just be anecdotal.

It's now just two weeks before voters in France go to the polls - and how much info has popped through my letter box?

None - absolutely nothing.

Maybe 50 kilometres from the French capital is of little interest to the parties fielding candidates.

It surely comes as something of a surprise in an election in which not only are high level candidates heading the lists for the Ile de France region, the area surrounding and including Paris, and but one that's also, so we're constantly being told by politicians, important for the future of the 27-nation bloc.

If that's a pattern being repeated throughout the whole of the EU, then there's perhaps little wonder that so few will be making the effort to cast their vote.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Billi Bierling - Top of the world!

She made it.

According to her online journal, Billi Bierling reached to summit of Everest at around 09h45 on May 21.

For the latest info you can go here.

Now all we're waiting for of course is the safest of descents and a blow-by-blow account from the woman herself.

But that'll come later.

For the moment though, here's a mighty hug from all of those who've been following her here in France and obviously hearty "félicitations".

Photograph "Sunset over Everest seen from Lobuje Peak" reproduced by kind permission of Billi Bierling.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Billi Bierling - the Everest dream within her grasp

Here's an update to an earlier piece on the attempts of one woman, Billi Bierling, to climb Everest.

Billi Bierling*

Billi is due to summit on May 21 according to the latest entry on her online journal.

Apparently she left base camp early on May 17 and has arrived safely in camp 3.

The final push towards the mountain's peak - all being well and the weather holds up - is scheduled for May 21.

You can catch the updates and news on her and the rest of the team here.

Billi's team has apparently been split into two groups for the final ascent, and appropriately enough she's been put in the first one - named the Yaks.

Apt because anyone who knows (and loves) Billi will be more than familiar with her ability to gabble away 19-to-the-dozen, thereby proving herself more than capable of living up to the other definition of the word.

Mind you, she's not exactly alone in that respect.
Before Billi left base camp she made an entry which - how to put it? - revealed maybe some aspects to climbing that many of us would probably never have thought about: namely how to "pee into a bottle".

Apparently it's a "must" in conditions when you really don't want to have to "answer nature's call" by venturing outside of the tent.

It'll appeal to anyone with even a smidgeon of that infamous British "lavatorial" sense of humour (although German, Billi spent more than a decade living, studying and working in London and speaks accentless, idiomatic English) and as with the rest of her posts makes more than compelling reading.

So while I'll be joining many here in Europe in taking the day off tomorrow (it's Ascension day and a public holiday in a number of countries, including France) I'll also be keeping a keen eye on Billi's blog to find out whether she has fulfilled her dream to be "on top of the world".

Sunset over Everest seen from Lobuje Peak*

*Both photographs reproduced by kind permission of Billi Bierling

Parisian bunnies on the move

All right so it might not be the news to end all news but hey, sometimes the lighter stories in life also need to be told.

And this one comes to you courtesy of the local authority in Paris, which has found a more compassionate solution (of sorts) to the overpopulation of rabbits in one of the city's famous parks, the Bois de Boulogne.

Now put away all thoughts of Watership Down or cute and cuddly creatures with big floppy ears and a loveable if cheeky character à la Beatrix Potter's Peter and his three sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail.

The rabbits in the Bois de Boulogne, even though they're part of the park's natural fauna, were becoming a "nuisance" as they had no natural predators and apparently the little critters had been breeding like...well rabbits, and the result?

Their number had reached a critical appoint according to the local authority, an estimated eight times more than the local vegetation could support which also left the total bunny population more fragile and predisposed to illness.

So the Powers that Be came up with a bright idea. Rather than culling, which might have been the easiest and more usual way of dealing with the problem, they called in the experts - l’Association de Lutte Contre les Espèces Invasives et Nuisibles (ALCEIN).

The plan was simple. Capture as many rabbits as possible - alive - and relocate them to another part of France, where there's supposedly a bunny shortage.

Association members, along with the help of the odd ferret or two, got down to business last week and successfully captured a grand total of 129.

Mission accomplished, the rabbits then spent a few days "behind bars" - oh all right then, in an enclosure of 50m2 - followed by a vaccination against myxomatosis before being moved into artificial burrows for a bit of R 'n R.

Next up is a trip to the Champagne region of France - about 200 kilometres away - not for a nip of the areas famous tipple, but instead to be released back into the wild.

So 129 happy bunnies who've escaped the threat of extermination in the nation's capital and instead they can hop away to their heart's content in the French countryside - until the hunting season starts presumably!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Transsexualism no longer a "mental illness" in France

To coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on May 17, the French minister of health, Roselyne Bachelot announced at the weekend that transsexualism in France would no longer be considered a mental disorder.

In an interview with the national daily Libération, Bachelot said that she had received agreement from the rest of the government that transsexualism would "no longer be classified as a long-term psychiatric illness."

"This declassification doesn't mean there won't be the need for a medical diagnosis in determining issues involved (for an individual) in gender identity, nor abandoning complementary counselling," she said.

"But it's a very clear signal addressed towards the whole of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community and is also an emblematic measure that will help fight against transphobia."

Indeed the announcement of the change couldn't have been more timely, coming as it did on Saturday - the eve of IDAHO, which here in France had as its focal point the fight against transphobia.

Up until now transsexuals or those with gender identity issues have able to receive therapy only under conditions which define them as "requiring treatment for a psychiatric illness".

There has been access to long-term therapy which many in the LGBT community in France have considered to be discriminatory, stigmatising and meaning transsexual men and women being "virtually taken hostage by the psychiatric community because the 'condition' was considered as such."

In effect, Bachelot's announcement means that transsexualism will no longer be treated as a mental illness in France.

And it's one which went further than many who had been pressing for a change had expected and was one of historic proportions as far as Joël Bedos, the general secretary of Idaho here in France, was concerned.

"It's one that gives an explosion of hope for transsexual men and women throughout the world," he said.

"And it makes France the first country (in Europe) to take such a decision."

Sunday, 17 May 2009

French "nude" music video creates a buzz on the Net

It's perhaps a lesson to all music makers on how to gain maximum "exposure" (forgive the pun - it'll become clear in a moment) for your very first single release.

The French electro-rock duo Make The Girl Dance, one of whose members, Pierre Mathieu, is a well-known presenter on the national commercial television station M6, is doing just that at the moment with a video that has been creating quite a stir on the Net.

The group's song "Baby, Baby, Baby" isn't due for release until June 1, but already there have been more than 300,000 views of the video in less than 24 hours.

And the secret behind what is probably rather an ordinary bit of music (depending on your tastes) and otherwise unlikely to take the world by storm because the lyrics are, let's face it, hardly mind-blowing (and you don't really need to be able to speak a word of French to understand).

Simple. The video features three women naked and/or scantily clad and then naked, individually strutting their stuff along to the beat of the music.

The shooting of the video took place in one of the streets of Paris (rue Montorgueil) - reportedly one of the most frequented of the French capital - in broad daylight. And while passers-by turn their heads, obviously not quite believing their eyes, their faces are blacked out, as are the "naughty bits"of the three women.

This story would undoubtedly benefit from my being able to upload the video - but the contents might be considered a little saucy for this site (although it is "decent' - just) - and besides I haven't for the life of me managed to work out how to upload.

WARNING: YouTube and Daily Motion both remind viewers that it "could" cause offence.

Perhaps France should have tried a different technique at Eurovision and asked Mathieu to compose and stage the country's entry!

Whatever happened to....."Norway nul points?"*

After Saturday night's clear win in the Eurovision Song contest for the Norwegian entry "Fairytale" - written and performed by Alexander Rybak - it surely leaves many a fan wondering what ever happened to the country's appalling track record in the competition.

Actually come to think of it, nobody would actually have said, "Norway, nul points" when announcing the results for the Eurovision Song contest would they?

But down the years it has become something of a catchphrase - especially when it has come to the country's less-than memorable entries.

The first time it happened (to the Norwegians) was back in 1963, when their entry, "Solhverv", was happily sung into last place by Anita Thallaug with "nul points".

Actually the whole of the 60s was a pretty lean time for the country in terms of points at Eurovision.

A year before in 1962, it had managed two points and in 1965 just one. After briefly hitting the "big time" in 1966 with the huge total of 15 points for third place overall with "Intet Er Nytt Under Solen" sung by Åse Kleveland, it was back to business as usual with two points in 1967 and 1968 and just one miserable vote in 1969.

Admittedly there were fewer countries involved than today and therefore a limited number of votes actually available, and when more countries climbed on to the Eurovision bandwagon in the 1970s, Norway seemed to be doing a little better.

Apart that is from 1978 when Jahn Teigen sang "Mil Etter Mil" and managed to remind the rest of us how much Norway seemed to crave that last-placed finish by totting've guessed it..."nul points".

Remember this was post Abba's "Waterloo" days, and the contest was probably at the height of its popularity in terms of ensuring that the winner received international exposure.

Norway, it seemed, carried on obliviously and in 1981 there was a repeat performance of that by now all-too familiar occurrence, this time from Finn Kalvik singing "Aldri I Livet". Last place and no points.

But then in 1985 something happened...something nobody expected as Norway came up with a classic Abba-inspired number in the shape of the Bobbysocks "La det swinge".

YouTube Video

It was bubble-gum pop, Eurovision flavour, at its very best, and things have never quite been the same since.

A decade later in 1995 and Norway was once again, to quote Ol' Blue Eyes, "'A' number one, top of the list, king of the hill," when Secret Garden won with "Nocturne".

And Norway threatened to do the double-whammy the following year when Elisabeth Andreasson (who had been one half of the Bobbysocks back in '85) notched up enough points (114) with "I Evighet" to finish second.

Those good old/bad old days of "nuls points" seemed a far and distant memory. The country was on a roll.

But as if to prove that old habits really do die hard, Norway was well and truly back on the right track just a year later when its 1997 entry, "San Francisco", sung by Tor Endresen finished plum last with the magical "nul points".

Perhaps it was the thought of having to stage the contest again, that encouraged Norway to enter a song that would ensure it had no chance of winning.

After all, down the years, those costs have become almost prohibitive.

Indeed without the Big Four contributors (Germany, United Kingdom, France and Spain) to the European Broadcasting Union under whose auspices the whole thing take place, Eurovision probably wouldn't happen.

Russia alone reportedly splashed out more than €30 million for the week-long extravaganza in Moscow which ended up with Rybak's win.

Somehow though it's hard to imagine little Norway - total population, less than five million - putting on a show quite so lavish when it plays host in 2010 (the tradition is that the winner welcomes the rest of Eurovision to a knees up back home the following year).

So although there were plenty of smiles and cheers after Rybak's victory on Saturday, surely there must still be a sneaking suspicion lurking at the back of many minds that it won't be too many years before we're once again hearing (or not, because it will of course never be "announced") that Norway has secured last place with "nul points".

Just a thought.

*"Nul points" is a British phrase coined back in the 1970s to describe the lowest possible score for a performer at the Eurovision Song contest. In other words, none of the juries from the other participating countries would have awarded any points to the entry.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Europe comes alive to the sound of "music" - Eurovision style

The European parliamentary elections are just over three weeks away, but Saturday sees a much more important "political" event taking place throughout the continent, and probably one which will have a higher participation level.

Yes it's the Eurovision Song contest - the annual "musical" jamboree (heavy on the inverted commas) which many music aficionados dread but the viewing public seems to love.

This year it'll be coming from Moscow as Russia won the competition last time around and with it the honours to play host.

More than 100 million viewers across Europe are expected to tune in to watch as performers from the 25 countries that have made it through to the final, take to the stage and - ahem - "sing".

For those of you unfamiliar with Eurovision, here's a little bit of background.

It all started innocently enough way back in the 1950s - 1956 to be precise - in Switzerland, when just seven countries entered.

But since then, under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which came up with the idea of an international song contest in the first place, it has....well mushroomed would be putting it mildly.

So much so that when Dima Bilan won last year for Russia with "Believe" he had to face competition from songs representing 37 other countries in the semi-finals before making it through to the final.

That has been the pattern ever since 2004 as the number of countries clamouring to compete has grown, and the EBU has been forced to split the contest into semi-final and final stages.

Only the so-called "Big Four" - Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and France - gain automatic qualification to the final round - no matter how poorly they might have done in the previous year's competition, because they're the biggest financial contributors to the EBU and without them the production costs to mount to contest would be prohibitive.

The country with the winning song (the voting procedure is cumbersome and protracted) then goes on to host the following year's contest.

Hence when Bilan chirped his way to victory in Belgrade last year, Russia was assured of organising this year's Songfest

Few would insist that it's a platform for culture of any sort. Indeed the annual knees-up is generally considered to be a celebration of the very worst that each nation has to offer musically and it comes in for a fair amount of ridicule.

And recent trends have shown that the whole contest has turned into something of a farce with political and more importantly geographical blocs forming to ensure the “right” country wins.

Voting has always been a very longwinded and complicated process, but this year promises to be a little different as an apparently important change has been made.

The procedure has been altered so that alongside viewers each country will also have a jury made up of "professionals" whose votes will be merged with those of the general public.

Eurovision costs the proverbial arm and a leg to organise, hence the Big Four are so important to its continued success, and for once a couple of them at least, seem to be serious about trying to win.

France and the United Kingdom have both had pretty dismal records in recent years.

The heydays of the 1960s and 70s when the UK regularly finished in the top five, are long gone.

Its last winner was back in 1997 (Katrina and The Waves with "Love Shine A Light") and in the past six years has done no better than 16th place - actually finishing last or last but one on two occasions.

France hasn't fared much better and has placed only as high as 15th in the same six years, twice finishing in 22nd spot and once in 23rd.

In fact you have to go all the way back to 1977 for the last French winner (Marie Myriam with "L'oiseau Et L'enfant").

But for Moscow, both countries are sending in the big guns.

The French entry, "Et s'il fallait le faire" will be sung by Patricia Kaas. It's a track lifted from her latest album "Kabaret".

And it's a clever choice because Kaas has not only been a star in France and throughout much of Europe since the 1980s. She has also had a number of hits in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and has great name recognition.

The United Kingdom has also pulled up its socks in an effort to win, by having its song penned specifically for Eurovision by none other than the internationally renowned composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber and American Grammy Award-winning lyricist Diane Warren.

Will the tactics of either country pay off tomorrow evening?

Well you'll just have to tune in to find out.

But for the record here's a list of the countries that have made it through to the final and the order in which they'll be appearing.

And for those of you unlucky enough not to be able to see the whole thing live, simply click on the country of your choice to hear the entry.


1. Lithuania
2. Israel
3. France
4. Sweden
5. Croatia
6. Portugal
7. Iceland
9. Armenia
10. Russia
11. Azerbaijan
12. Bosnia and Herzegovina
13. Moldova
14. Malta
15. Estonia
16. Denmark
17. Germany
18. Turkey
19. Albania
20. Norway
21. Ukraine
22. Romania
23. United Kingdom
24. Finland
25. Spain

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Are the French weather-obsessed?

Well if a survey published in the national daily, Le Parisien, on Thursday is anything to go by, then the answer could quite possibly be a "yes". At least in terms of their preferred television-viewing habits.

The country’s most popular (in all senses of the word) TV channel - the privately owned TF1 - commissioned TNS Sofres to carry out a poll to find out which programmes the French preferred watching.

And according to the results - which compared like with like so are open to interpretation - weather bulletins, and more specifically those of TF1 (surprise, surprise) scored the highest individual rankings in their particular category.

Of those questioned 52 per cent said they preferred TF1’s weather forecasts over the 20 per cent that plumped for the bulletins on the national public channel France 2 and 3.1 per cent on France 3.

And there was some pretty grim news in terms of the efforts of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to try to get the French watching more home-grown TV (by doing away with advertising on the nation’s public channels....yes there’s a link there somewhere, but it has never been made quite clear as to how) with US imported series scoring well on all the private channels.

They make up the backbone of most channels’ broadcasting it seems, and in that particular category TF1 once again came out on top. It outranked its main national commercial competitor, M6 with 48 per cent to 35 per cent respectively.

Canal + - the main satellite telly provider came in third in the category at 20 per cent, with France 2 having to make do with just seven per cent.

When the category was broken down by series, the most popular was Dr House on TF1 (13 per cent) followed closely by Desperate Housewives (12 per cent) on M6.

Moving along to Reality TV - yes the French have that too, and by the bucket load - it was neck-and-neck between the two private channels TF1 and M6 once again - 44 per cent to 43 per cent.

No great shock perhaps as both rely heavily on it for pulling in the viewers (and the advertisers) with public telly seemingly still taking the moral high ground.

Topping the Reality TV preferences then were TF1’s Koh Lanta (a French version of Survivors) with 28 per cent followed by Pékin Express (A Dutch-inspired hitchhiking series which doesn’t yet have a US or British equivalent - 18 per cent) and Nouvelle Star (Pop Idol - 15 per cent) over on M6.

Finally, before the proverbial pants are completely bored off you, and your head is sent spinning with statistics, the home-produced programming.

And guess what? In that category it was TF1 (40 per cent) once again coming out ahead of M6 (24 per cent) with France 3 (16 per cent) and France 2 (15 per cent) trailing some way behind.

So the moral of the tale and the conclusions to be drawn?

Well threefold perhaps.

Statistics and surveys don’t lie - ahem - especially when you’ve commissioned a poll in your own interests and it comes up with the information you want to read.

The French love US imports and Reality TV as much as the rest of the world.

And the weather is as important in France as it is anywhere else.

Cannes film festival throws open its doors

With the usual hullabaloo and a throng of A-list celebrities expected, the 62nd edition of the annual Cannes film festival opened on Wednesday on the Côte d’Azur.

In purely French terms, it'll have to go something to outshine last year's festival, which saw the excellent “Entre les murs” (The Class) directed by Laurent Cantet win the coveted Palme d’Or.

But this year still promises to be a memorable one, with insiders - ah yes the infamous cognoscenti - seeming to agree that the list of entries is pretty impressive, especially in the main competition, that for the Palme d'Or.

The red carpet will of course be graced by the usual host of big screen names - domestic and international - including Monica Bellucci, Diane Kruger, Brad Pitt, Gérard Depardieu, Eric Cantona (more on him in a moment) and many, many more.

The 4,000 plus accredited journalists will have a tough time jostling for position as they clamber to get those all-important interviews and reports back to HQ.

And the nine-strong jury, headed this year by the French actress Isabelle Huppert, also look to have their work cut out as a glimpse at just some of the directors whose films are in the running for that coveted top prize would seem to bear out.

Lars von Trier (Antichrist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Pedro Almodovar (Los Abrazos Rotus/Broken Embraces), Jane Campion (Bright Star) and Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) all figure among the 20 film-makers in the in main competition.

For a full run down of all 20 films including the synopses, take a look here on the festival's official site.

That's not to mention of course another 20 films in the category "Un certain regard" click here, or those out of competition or receiving special screenings.

By any measure Cannes seems to have come up with a treasure trove for any film buff this time around and although of course I could go into rapturous speculation about the possible outcome, as I've yet to see any of the films, that might be more than a little presumptuous.

But I have seen a preview for one - and it's from a man who's no stranger to success at Cannes - the British director, Ken Loach.

His surreal comedy "Looking for Eric" stars none other than - wait for it Eric (as in the title of the film) Cantona.

YouTube Video

For those unfamiliar with the name, he is a former French international football (soccer) player, who in the 1990s became something of an idol to millions of British followers of the "beautiful game" during his seasons at first, Leeds United and later Manchester United.

The film looks and sounds as though it was a meeting of two men, who on paper at least might seem rather mismatched, but in reality have more in common.

And from the trailers, what Loach seems to offer film-goers is a trip down memory lane and something much more light-hearted than his usually more serious offerings.

It's a "must see" regardless of whether it receives critical acclaim at Cannes, although that certainly wouldn't do the box office receipts any harm.

The only qualm perhaps is that some of the dialogue (and remember this is just from the trailer) is very regional British English and the accents might be a little difficult for even some native speakers to follow.

Last year was the first time in 21 years that a French film scooped top honours for best movie at Cannes and only the fourth time a French production had triumphed since the gaggle of glitterati first started gathering for the annual film festival on the Côte d’Azur in 1946.

Can the French do it again? Well we'll have to wait until the final day of the festival, May 24, to find out what the jury thinks.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Bernard Kouchner a French Socialist in UMP clothing?

Ah politics is often the home of the fickle it would appear. And nowhere more so than in France, where the protagonists switch sides and allegiances almost "on a whim" it would seem - or should that read "where they perceive potential for personal glory"?

Such is the case of Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, who has finally come clean and said he'll be throwing his weight behind the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) list for the European parliamentary elections in June.

So what? You might well be asking.

Well "so something" apparently because Kouchner, although a government minister, is not a member of the UMP. And indeed his political career has been one marked mainly by his support and involvement on the Left of the French political spectrum.

Plus there's no doubting Kouchner's popularity among the general public here in France. He regularly tops the polls of the nation's favourite political figures. So people take note of what he says and does - and they seem to like it.

In a sense Kouchner's political career is typically French.

In other words he has shown himself willing and able to change allegiances whenever it has suited him and refuses to be bound by political dogmatism.

Mind you he's not alone in the world of (French) politics where individuals form alliances for the "moment" almost, find "best friends" and then "turn on them" at a later date.

There are two examples of just such behaviour from ministers in the current government: Hervé Morin, (minister of defence) the former close ally of François Bayrou, the leader of the centre party MoDem, and Eric Besson (minister of immigration).

Besson was a member of the Socialist party and an advisor to its candidate in the last presidential election, Ségolène Royal, but quit to change sides in the middle of the campaign back in 2007.

But that's seemingly par for the course in French politics and the stuff of further tales. For the moment, back to Kouchner.

Just at the weekend in an interview with the national daily Le Parisien, Kouchner said that he didn't yet know how he would vote in the elections and was waiting to see each party's programme.

Less than 24 hours later however, he had managed to speed read his way through the manifestos of all this country's major political parties and, as the satirical French website Bakchich pointed out, had come to a conclusion in double-quick time.

Political commentators mused on the fact that two of Kouchner's cabinet colleagues, Michel Barnier (agriculture) and Rachida Dati (justice) are both standing for election (they'll have to step down if as expected they are successful), and the foreign minister had "perhaps" come under pressure to make his position clear.

For Kouchner though, the decision was obvious.

"It's the conception of Europe I've always supported and one which I always hope will overcome national differences and partisan logic," he said.

"That's the concept of Europe of the government to which I belong."

By any stretch of the imagination, Kouchner's support for the UMP is something of a long path from his political roots. But there again perhaps not so much of a surprise as he's an international humanitarian heavyweight and has often been described as a loose cannon given to plain talking

He began his political career as a member of the French Communist party, from which he was thrown out in 1966, and although he hasn't always been a paid-up member of the Socialist party (indeed he isn't at the moment) he served as health minister three times between 1992 and 2002 under two different Socialist prime ministers; Pierre Bérégovoy (once) and Lionel Jospin (twice).

He was a co-founder of both Médecins Sans Frontières and later Médecins du monde (he left the former after a bust-up to help set up the latter).

In 1999 he was nominated as the first UN Special Representative in Kosovo, a post he held for 18 months.

Kouchner twice narrowly missed out on top international jobs – in 2005 when he was, a candidate for the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a year later when a contender to become Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

Although he is an internationally renowned and respected figure many put his failure to land either post down to reluctance within the international community to throw their support behind an advocate for humanitarian interventions.

One final thing perhaps, lest we forget Kouchner's political track record and just in case it isn't already clear by now that he's not a man who easily fits into the mould of a party player.

Back in the 1994 European parliamentary elections he was third on the list headed by the Socialist Michel Rocard.

But how did he vote? For another party reportedly - that of that of Bernard Tapie.

So who's to know whether his public statements this time around will be followed through in the very private act of voting?

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Roland Garros - it's over before it has begun for Gasquet

France’s Richard Gasquet will be missing from this year’s draw for the French Open at Roland Garros, which begins on May 24.

Nope, Not because of injury, which plagues many players on the professional tennis circuit - but drugs - or cocaine to be more precise.

On Monday the French tennis federation confirmed that Gasquet would be suspended from this year’s tournament - one of the four Grand Slam events in the tennis calendar.

The signs of likely problems for Gasquet first broke on Saturday when the French daily sports paper L’Equipe reported that he had tested positive for cocaine back in March in Miami.

And a day later the 22-year old confirmed the rumours,

"The result of the B sample test I took at the end of March during the Miami tournament in which I didn’t participate, confirmed the positive result of the A sample test taken on the same day," he said.

"Given the complexity of the case, I’m in the process of gathering all the evidence to prove my innocence before fixing a more appropriate time to explain myself," he added, admitting that he had been out partying one evening during the Miami tournament.

There is however a complication in Gasquet’s case, aside that is from the wider implications that cocaine use is illegal.

Under purely anti-doping regulations it’s only "forbidden" if it’s being used as a performance-enhancing drug or stimulant during competition.

Gasquet tested positive for cocaine during a tournament in which he didn’t actually participate. He was scheduled to, but withdrew before his first round match because of a shoulder injury.

The news came as a bombshell to many in the French tennis world with veteran player, Fabrice Santoro, expressing his shock on national television.

"I’ve known Richard since he was a young boy," he said.

"I know how he lives, we see each other a lot on the circuit and it’s completely out of character," he added.

Former French professional player, Henri Leconte, was perhaps more forthcoming when questioned for his reaction.

"Unfortunately I think he has to accept the consequences, he said.

"Even if you say ’oh it was like that for one evening’ - he’s an example for French tennis."

Currently 21st in the ATP rankings, Gasquet has made it as high as number seven, and with five career titles to his credit and a losing semi-finalist at Wimbledon back in 2007, he has finished as the top-ranked French tennis player in three of the past four seasons.

Gasquet’s fate will be sealed within the next two months when he is expected to appear before an anti-doping tribunal.

The maximum penalty is a two-year suspension, which could effectively put an end to his playing career in much the same way it did to that of a former women’s world number one, Martina Hingis, back in 2007 when she faced similar allegations.

Ain't no mountain high enough - for Billi Bierling

What would figure on your list of 10 things to do before you die? Sorry to appear rather morbid, but it's one of those questions that has been the stuff of many a television programme.

Swimming with dolphins perhaps? Or how about trekking to see those mountain gorillas in East Africa? Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef is another one that often appears on the list, as is (maybe more sedately) attending the carnival in Rio.

But for one exceptional woman it has always been about climbing THAT mountain - Everest. And that's exactly what Billi Bierling is trying to do at the moment.

I first encountered Billi over a decade ago when we were both rather "mature" students (in comparison to the others on the course) at the same post grad school in London.

She walked loudly (Billi never does anything quietly) into the lecture theatre on the very first day, scanned the assembled crowd and bounded up to me, bicycle saddle in hand (another story) and boomed, "Hello, I"m Billi from Germany, who are you?"

It was a moment of sheer delight as this woman barged into my life with such obvious joy and bonhomie. How could anyone not take an instant like to such a person?

We've remained close friends ever since even though our jobs and lives have sometimes taken us to different countries and even continents.

Billi has been crazy about sports ever since I've known her. Cycling, running and swimming have been her everyday pursuits, and she has even combined them on a couple of occasions to compete in triathlons.

Along the way she has had her fair share of sporting-related injuries and has undergone surgery for fractured "this" and broken "that", but always seemed to recover with alarming speed and was back pounding the roads and pushing the pedals when most ordinary mortals would simply be "taking it easy".

But one thing has always captured her imagination - climbing. And not just any old hill or pile of rocks, but the biggest of the lot (of course) Everest.

There's no point in asking "Why?" I've done that and just had the biggest of grins as a response followed by a torrent of superlatives and vivid descriptions about the rush she gets from climbing, the challenge, the beauty, the magnificence of reaching the peaks.

She's captivated by the idea, not just of climbing, but making it all the way up that 8,800 plus metres. It's almost as though she's in love with the thing, just as much as she is with Nepal where she lives.

But when push comes to shove and when pressed a little further, Billi is willing to offer up the following as a reason.

"I have wondered myself why I am doing it," she writes on her website. "And the only answer I can come up with is NOT 'because it’s there' as George Mallory put it, but because I need to have a look at the mountain myself."

And that's exactly what she's doing right now.

Sunset over Everest seen from Lobuje Peak

You can follow her daily exploits here in her Everest diary. Yep modern technology is amazing.

Even though she's supposed to be thousands of kilometres away and officially "out of touch" while in the process of tackling Everest, Billi still manages to find time to sit down and share her experiences with the rest of us.

It makes compelling reading. Heck, you even feel as though you're there. And it's happening in real time.

So sit back, relax and then move a little closer to the edge of your seat as you join Billi and the rest of them currently making their way up Everest, Sagarmatha, Chomolungma, Qomolangma, Zhumulangma or whatever you want to call it as one woman attempts to "realise her dream".

All images reproduced with kind permission of Billi Bierling.

Monday, 11 May 2009

People-watching in Paris - and eavesdropping

The weather here in France has been fair to middling recently with the odd rainy hiccough, which anyway has to be good for the garden.

It's probably just as well, given that we're about halfway through Spring, Easter has been and gone and we're well into May.

And this past weekend was another long one in France as Friday was May 8 - Victory in Europe day or the date back in 1945 when the Allies formally accepted Germany's unconditional surrender to mark the end of war here in Europe.

It's a national holiday in France.

May 8 - a national holiday in France with towns and cities up and down the country marking Victory in Europe day in 1945

So combining the weather, the long weekend and living in the capital, it was a chance to partake of one of those typical Parisian practices - the lazy pastime of people-watching.

After having spent some time in France, you can get drawn into a number of habits - not all of them always entirely desirable.

One of them is undoubtedly sitting in a café watching the world go by looking at those around you and "wondering".

Simple observation of course only gives a part of the picture and allows the imagination to run riot.

If you also happen to be able to eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table, it can provide some juicy titbits and some unexpected surprises.

Whatever the case, the cafés were full to bursting point and a Saturday morning spent doing very little apart from poring over a couple of coffees provided happy hunting for the inveterate eavesdropper - that's me in case you were wondering.

Oh yes and "Paris in Springtime" and all that - brings the tourists flocking in.

There are bound to be more than a few clichés in what follows - I apologise ahead of time - but it seems that sometimes tourists - where ever they may be - forget simple manners and resort to behaviour which I would hope they would not practise back home.

There again as Fats Waller said, "One never knows, do one?"

People-watching is probably not uniquely French, although their manner of practising it is somewhat (offensive) to the milder-mannered, more polite British variation.

It amounts to unashamed staring with no pretence of anything other - rather than surreptitious glancing.

Many has been the time I've been forced to point out to French friends that what they're doing could be considered rude. But the response has always been that famous Gallic shrug and the accusation that I'm just being a hypocrite.

There might be something to that of course. I'm blessed with excellent periphery vision and can "pretend" that I'm not watching as intently as my French friends thereby apparently taking the "moral" highground.

Sure looks like hypocrisy to me when I face it - better make sure friends and family don't get to read this.

So hands up I people watch too - and probably what is worse I eavesdrop.

Let out the collective tut.

Anyway back to the café and a morning spent drinking coffee and remaining bravely hidden behind my newspaper.

First up as I spent far too much time over my first cup and seemingly engrossed in the culture section of Le Monde, was a British couple - Bob and Margaret (I've taken the liberty of changing their names).

They were apparently just over for the weekend, having arrived on the Eurostar, cooing over how quick it was from London to Paris (they're right - just over two hours) but complaining a little too loudly that, "The French don't seem to understand a word we're saying and all in all are downright rude."

Er memo to Bob and Margaret, "Try avoiding the clichés. Parisians aren't representative of the French - in the same way that London isn't Britain, Berlin isn't Germany and so on."

Oh yes and rather than complaining about their apparent lack of English, how about trying a few words of French? Polite manners breeds - er polite manners. And there's nothing the French (Parisians included) respond to more than at least trying.

Next up a group of Italians - actually several groups of them - dotted around at tables facing the street, talking 19-to-the-dozen and to each other across the rest of the clientele.

Roll on the hackneyed phrases.

Maybe they didn't realise there was someone around who actually understood what they were saying or perhaps they were all rather caught up in their own cacophony but I, and anyone else "forced" to listen and able to understand were treated to some rather graphic descriptions of the women passing by and what they thought of them.

"Signori, show a little sensibility please and a lot less chauvinism." I didn't say that of course (otherwise it would have indicated that I was listening - a cardinal sin) but perhaps I should have.

Oh and then there was a trio of more Brits who arrived, whose conversation left me almost spluttering into my coffee.

They were rather well-spoken in that "hot-potato-in-mouth" sort of genteel English way. Rounded vowels, clipped consonants and the stiffest of upper lips, which seemed to remain motionless when they spoke.

Imagine then how much of an eye-opener and ear -raiser it was as these three seemingly fine specimens everything that is best about being British broke into raptures as they animatedly breeding.

Eyes agog and ears agogo, I was treated to a rather graphic description of the "act" and the "aftermath", which included the words "stallion", "broom" and "hose". Enough said perhaps.

First coffee finished, second ordered and along came an American quartet to replace the equine English.

They didn't need to open their mouths to reveal their nationality, it was clear from the way they were dressed; checked trousers, caps and Burlington sweaters. "Had they just stepped off the golf course?" I wondered.

I warned you that clichés abounded.

They wanted lunch. "A typical French lunch," one woman said rather loudly to the man who sat next to her, and then they summoned the waiter in a way they must have thought appropriate from watching too many comedy sketches and bad films.

A click of the fingers and a hearty "GARSON" (I swear that's exactly what they did) left me almost choking once again and my ears were running riot as I heard them dissect the menu, request salads without this and that and order a round of drinks that included coke and cappuccino. "Oui très français," I muttered in a superior fashion under my breath. "The whole experience."

Coffee in a café - the best part of French life, any time of the year

Finally there were the German speakers - only the two of them, who sat down in front of me just as I was about to leave.

I use the term German-speakers judiciously because they were in fact Swiss, and in spite of having lived in Switzerland for three years and before that Germany for seven, I've never been able to get my lug holes around or get to grips with the dialect that is Swiss-German.

It's just too - um - incomprehensible, even to someone with a good grasp of the language, and takes practice - plenty of it.

Sure I understood every fourth word but that really wasn't enough to be able to make heads or tales of what they were actually talking about.

Maybe they were passing comment on me!

It would have served me right, I suppose.

Knowing then that my spot of people-watching and eavesdropping was over, I settled my bill and I headed off to take in some more of the City of Lights, rather exhausted from my listening but itching to get back home to write it all down.

The couple of hours in the presence of some rather over-loud tourists had provided me with plenty of entertainment, whether I had wanted to listen (I did) or not.

Now don't get me started on mobile 'phones.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Agreement possible in French-Russian child custody battle

An end could be in sight in the battle over the custody of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl who has been at the centre of a dispute between her parents for much of her short life and has been kidnapped on three occasions.

Both parents could be about to sign an agreement which would give them shared custody over Elise, the daughter of a Russian-born mother, Irina Belenkaya, and a French father, Jean-Michel André.

The last time Elise was abducted was on March 20 in the southern French city of Arles, when she was taken by two men dressed as security guards and a woman.

Her father was left badly beaten, and French police put out an alerte de l'enlèvement (the equivalent of an amber alert) on nation-wide basis, later extending it throughout the whole of Europe.

On April 12, Elise was found safe and sound by Hungarian police in the company of her mother as Belenkaya attempted to cross the border with her daughter into Ukraine.

Belenkaya was detained and André flew to Hungary to collect his daughter and bring her back to France.

The case has always been particularly complex because both parents have been awarded individual custody of Elise by courts in their respective countries.

Similarly both are liable to prosecution for abduction in one another's countries; Belenkaya in France and André in Russia.

When the couple split three years ago, a French court gave André custody of their daughter.

But just one month later she was kidnapped by Belenkaya and taken to Moscow.

An international arrest warrant was issued for the mother at the time but Russia refused to comply or even acknowledge it, and instead gave Belenkaya custody over her daughter.

So a stalemate was reached, with French courts having given André custody while as far as Russia was concerned Belenkaya was completely within her rights.

In September 2008 André flew to Moscow to find his daughter and for the second time she was abducted, although without any violence according to André.

Again the two countries' legal systems differed as to the rights of the parents.

As far as France was concerned, André had acted within his legal rights to bring Elise back to this country, while the authorities in Moscow said he had breached Russian custody law.

Now after this third - and hopefully final - kidnapping, an amicable agreement between Belenkaya and André could be on the cards, according to reports in the French media.

It has been hammered out by lawyers representing both parents and would allow Elise to live as near normal a life as possible, without two parents tussling over custody rights.

Belenkaya has reportedly agreed to terms that would mean she would have access to Elise under French law, admit her role before French courts in the most recent kidnapping of her daughter and in particular the attack on André, and most importantly accept shared custody.

It's not yet a done deal though. André still has to sign and it has to be approved by French courts.

And there's still the matter of whether Belenkaya will be extradited to France even though she has already agreed to appear before the courts in this country.

On Wednesday Hungarian authorities signed an order for her extradition which could take place within the next two weeks, but her lawyer immediately launched an appeal.

So the whole process of an amicable solution could still hang in the balance.

But in spite of that, André's lawyer, Victor Gioia, is still upbeat that an end to the long-running custody battle is just within reach.

"It's a mother who committed an act of folly through love," Gioia said on French television.

"She must be capable of explaining that, and she has been well advised and we're on the right road for finding a solution - a solution for Elise," he added.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Want to know how much your colleagues earn?

Are you interested in knowing how much other people working alongside you are making without asking them directly or in discovering what your earning potential might be elsewhere?

Well here in France you can - thanks to a site launched at the end of March.

JobFact is the brainchild of its founder Julien Recoing who, according to the French website Rue89, said that its goal was to provide human resources information on two levels - for both employees and companies.

"We started out with the premise that when someone's looking for a job they want to know more about what the company has to offer," he said.

"What we ask is that our members provide a balanced view of the company they work for; the positive and negative aspects."

Where JobFact differs from two other sites in France that have been operational for a year now, and, is that it allows users to go a step further in "rating" the company they work for - namely by revealing how much they earn.

The principle is simple and as with the other sites its all done "anonymously".

It's free to sign up, which is what you'll have to do if you want to have anything more than a very general overview of what others are earning.

And when you register, you're required either to reveal your salary or leave an evaluation of the company you work for.

The site already has 1,600 members

But as Rue89 points out there's something of an inbuilt contradiction in what the site is setting out to do and the tools it currently has available.

And that is to give reliable information while guaranteeing the anonymity of those providing it; anonymity which makes checking the authenticity of potentially exaggerated claims difficult.

It's something that Recoing says is being addressed with editors able to pinpoint discrepancies that they feel might appear in submissions made.

Perhaps it's an idea that'll catch on, even if openly discussing take-home pay is something of a taboo here in France, where on the whole work colleagues don't talk about how much they earn.

It's not really the "done thing" and smacks of the somewhat vulgar as if mentioning how much you make is tantamount to bragging.

But with figures released on Wednesday by the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (French national institute for Statistics and Economic studies, INSEE) revealing that around 50 per cent of households live on less than €2,260 each month, maybe there'll be fair few out there "interested" in finding out just how their salaries compare with others within their own companies or doing a similar job elsewhere.

Or maybe not.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Franck Ribéry faces financial ruin? Hardly

If the rumours currently circulating the Net and some European newspapers are to be believed, then the French international midfielder, Franck Ribéry, has a hard choice to make.

He's reported to be considering offers from two of Europe's top teams as they try to woo him away from his present club, Germany's Bayern Munich.

Ready for some silly spondoolicks?

First out of the stall - to use a well-worn sporting term, albeit borrowed from horse racing, are Barcelona.

The reigning Spanish title holders and Champions League semi-finalists have apparently offered a cool €25 million (plus another player) to entice Ribéry away from Bayern, where the poor guy is only pocketing €8 million annually.

Up to the plate, to use another non-football sporting term, steps that other giant of European club soccer, the defending Champions League holders and English premier league side, Manchester United with...wait for it...a bid that amounts to a whopping €70 million.


Yes, welcome to the world of the footballing élite. At a time when much of the planet is having a tough time handling the credit crunch, the crème de la crème of club football - or soccer if you will - would appear to be a law unto itself.

Ribéry moved to Bayern in 2007 from the French side Marseille for around €25 million, and although his contract is due to run until 2011, he's thought to be looking for another club.

While Bayern's management has repeatedly ruled out a transfer and denied rumours that circulated earlier in the year in the Spanish press that Ribéry was about to sign for Barcelona, the immediate future of the French midfielder could well see him move to pastures new.

Ribéry has made no secret of his willingness to leave Bayern, especially if the team fails to qualify for next seasons Champions League.

The side was on the wrong end of a 5-1 aggregate drubbing by Barcelona in the quarterfinal stage of this year's competition and Ribéry said in a recent interview with the French sports daily l'Equipe that failure to qualify next year would be a bitter pill to swallow.

"It would really be very difficult to remain with the club under those conditions," he said. "That's why the side has to finish at least in the top two at the end of the season."

A lot will hinge of course on whether Bayern manage to finish in the top two of the German Bundeliga. They currently lie second, just three points adrift of leaders Wolfsburg.

Should he decide it's time to go though, Ribéry will have to weigh up which of the reported bids on the table is in his best interests.

€25 million or €70 million.

Life can be full of difficult decisions!

François Bayrou - the return of the "third man" of French politics

The leader of the centre party Mouvement démocrate (MoDem), François Bayrou, is back in the headlines with the timely publication of a new book, "Abus de pouvoir" in which he takes aim at the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Its release comes just five weeks before the European parliamentary elections in June and has given rise within the French media as to possible political alliances in the run-up to that vote and the potential consequences afterwards.

Although Bayrou is keen to point out that the book is not a personal attack on Sarkozy, it's still being interpreted as a reflection on how he considers the office of president to have been diminished under its present incumbent.

The two men have never been particularly close and the leader of MoDem still clearly fancies his chances at a run for the French presidency in 2012.

"The values Sarkozy has chosen to represent don't match the function of the office," Bayrou said on national radio.

"The president (of France) has to be someone who sees 'success' as something other than the pursuit of money."

Not surprisingly perhaps there are some very different political interpretations being made about the contents of Bayrou's book and his possible influence on the French political landscape.

It very much depends on where your political affiliations lie and which national daily newspaper you read.

In an editorial the centre-right Le Figaro goes as far as to suggest that the opposition Socialist party, so long riven by internal bickering and disagreement over its future direction, has finally found its potential leader - in the form of Bayrou.

The paper describes the Socialist party's attitude towards Bayrou as "bees around honey" and it cites the former party leader, François Hollande, in an interview last month with the weekly news magazine L'Express as evidence in the change of approach.

In the interview Hollande is quoted as saying the party needs to "clarify convergences and divergences" with MoDem - a rather different line from just two years ago when, as leader, he was vehemently opposed to any suggestion of an alliance.

For a completely different interpretation of what's happening though, readers need look no further than the pages of the left-of-centre daily Libération.

The paper carries an editorial in which it suggests that those who should be most unsettled by the current flow within French politics are above all the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) and Sarkozy's supporters.

There are signs emerging, suggests the paper, not so much of an "alliance of the centre" but rather the possibility of a grand coalition "post-Sarkozy"; one that will take into account a number of dissatisfied elements. The proof is that even the Socialist party has begun openly to discuss such a possibility of looking for common ground.

Whatever the case may be, Bayrou certainly seems determined to overcome the role of the "third man", a term used to describe him during the last presidential election in 2007, especially after his solid showing in the first round of voting.

Bayrou notched up 18 per cent of the popular vote, and although that wasn't sufficient to make it through to a second-round run-off, it was enough to make Ségolène Royal sit up and take notice.

History of course has since shown us that Royal's overtures to Bayrou for him to endorse her were unsuccessful and instead he found himself rather isolated politically-speaking.

Much of the rest of his party the centre/centre-right Union pour la démocratie française (Union for French Democracy, UDF) upped sticks and changed camps to join forces with Sarkozy's UMP.

Bayrou retaliated and created MoDem for the parliamentary elections in June 2007, with himself at the helm of course.

It won just four seats in the 577-strong National Assembly, hardly the most auspicious of beginnings.

But Bayrou never really went away and surely while there might be disagreement as to his impact on French politics, there seems to be a general consensus that he is likely to remain a thorn in someone's side.

It's just not clear whose.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Not all the news from France is "grave"

This week saw the rolling out of a website dedicated to "news" - both French and international. Inverted commas of course because "Les Graves Infos" doesn't exactly tell the stories as they happen.

Instead, it's full of totally fictitious stories, concocted by those who are contributing to the site.

"Les Graves Infos" is all the brainchild of Dominique Farrugia, who comes with a rather long pedigree in terms of comedy in France. He is, in the mould of many French celebrities, something of a multi-talent, having acted, produced and directed for both television and film.

And he was also behind the launch of the television channel, Comédie! - the French version of the US concept Comedy Central.

His latest venture then, would seem to fit perfectly with his general philosophy of setting out to make people laugh.

"The idea is to make (people) laugh and nothing else," he says. "If it's culture you're looking for then this is not the place you'll come to."

The site, take a look here (apologies, but it's obviously in French) mixes a daily news journal which follows the format familiar to most French, complete with "news" and a breaking line update running across the bottom of the screen, that is obviously completely untrue.

There's also a separate section, "gravepubs", devoted entirely to television commercials - once again, completely fabricated, and there's perhaps a less amusing section but one that could catch the eye of many male viewer, the weather, presented by a topless (female) forecaster.

Perhaps there'll be a rethink as to whether the weather presented in such a way, or really has its place on the site.

It's not especially amusing and if it's really looking for a role model in terms of making the weather appear funny, then it need perhaps look no further than the excellent Pauline Lefevre on Canal + Le Grand Journal.

Most importantly perhaps, Les Graves Infos is also an interactive site with "Internauts" of all levels being encouraged to participate in forming the "news" schedule by becoming "gravereporters" themselves.

Apart from maybe the weather, the whole concept is rather a welcome break from the seriousness or gravity of much of what is making the headlines in France and elsewhere.
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