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Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Paris bans 79-year-old from tending abandoned graves

It's perhaps just one of those everyday stories that illustrates how rigid bureaucracy can sometimes be, and also how rules are applied that seem to fly in the face of common sense.

A 79-year-old woman has been served with an injunction by Parisian authorities to stop her from taking care of unattended graves at one of the capital's most famous cemeteries, Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement.

The reason? They're private property and therefore unless they belong to you or your family, or you have permission, you're not allowed to look after them.

The Montmartre cemetery is the final resting place of many a famous person, including among others, the Egyptian-born singer and actress Dalida, the French singer-song writer, Michel Berger, composer Hector Berlioz and ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to name but a very few.

Tomb of Dalida (from Wikipedia)

But alongside the tombs of past greats there are also a fair number of unattended graves, and it's those that Marie has been looking after for the past 28 years.

Day in, day out she has turned up at the cemetery, secateurs, watering can and, most importantly, plants at hand to follow her passion and provide a little more colour to the graves of those who would seem to have been forgotten.

"I put the plants on the abandoned tombs, and maybe those who have left are happy about it, and it certainly delights me to do it," she told national radio.

"I'm crazy about flowers and doesn't it look better with all the deteriorating stones covered like that?"

Except the body charged with looking after the capital's greens areas, which also includes its cemeteries, la direction des espaces verts et de l’evnvironnement (DEVE) doesn't quite see things the same way.

As far as it's concerned, not only is the 79-year-old "breaking the rules", she's also leaving her own mess behind her.

"We have photos of hundreds of broken pots left on the grounds of the cemetery," said Pascal-Hervé Daniel, the head of the department responsible for the maintenance of the capital's cemeteries.

"The woman simply leaves them there once she has finished, and we're obliged to clean up after her."

Marie maintains that in spite of the injunction which came into effect on Monday, she'll continue visiting the cemetery, "To the end of my days as flowers are my life."

One well-meaning if slightly potty woman or an overzealous administration?

Or perhaps a little bit of both.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Exam woes for French high school student

It's that time of year again; the one many of us probably remember with somewhat less fondness than other childhood events - end of school, examinations and the results.

Here in France around 331,000 students have been taking their baccalauréat, more "affectionately" and popularly known as the bac, generally viewed as the passport for entry into the country's higher education system.

Spare a thought though in particular for one 18-year-old from the southern French city of Toulouse, who has gone through an experience with which many, who have "been there, done that" can probably sympathise.

Last Monday, along with the rest of her class, she sat her English exam, and according to the regional daily newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi, was "more than satisfied with how she had done."

All fine and dandy, except the following day after sitting her Spanish exam, she was hauled in to the centre responsible for marking to be asked why she hadn't handed in her English paper.

She maintained that she had in fact given her copy to the invigilator but the problem was there was no proof that she had done so.

As La Dépêche du Midi points out, during the bac the only requirement made of students is that they sign a paper to confirm their presence. There's no system in place to verify that they have handed in a copy of their work.

Faced with something of an impasse and the threat of not passing her bac, the only option left open to her was to contact the director of the school and plead her case.

And that's exactly what she did, with her requests being heard to the extent that it was agreed that she would be allowed to retake the paper.

So it was probably with a certain resignation and understandable lack of enthusiasm that she sat alone in the classroom on Wedesday afternoon to resit the examination.

"Naturally I was upset," the 18-year-old, who has not been named, told the paper.

"I didn't have the same motivation as I had the first time and I didn't understand why I was doing it.

"They were telling me that I was being given a 'second chance', but as far as I was concerned I had already taken the paper and performed well on the Monday."

But of course the story doesn't end there, because guess what!

At the end of the same day the director of the school rang her parents to inform them that the copy of her first paper "had been found" and that would be the one that would count towards her final mark.

So "All's well that ends well" and undoubtedly there's relief all round, not just for the 18-year-old but also the examining board and the school, both of which had perhaps done her a disservice in the first place by insisting that she hadn't handed in her original paper and then generously allowing her to retake it.

Perhaps they'll take note for the future and install a (simple) system which checks that not only are candidates are present, but that they have also handed in their papers.

Friday, 26 June 2009

French finance minister says "not personally moved" by Michael Jackson's death

It was of course the major story leading the news here in France on Friday; the death of US pop singer, Michael Jackson.

And journalists took every opportunity to pose the inevitable question (in slightly differing formats) to all their pre-invited guests, no matter what their background.

"How do you feel about the death of Michael Jackson?" Or the variant "Has the news of his death touched you in any way?"

It was the latter of the two that was put to this country's finance minister, Christine Lagarde, as the opening question to her interview when she appeared, as scheduled, on the early morning show of the French all-news channel, LCI.

And Lagarde didn't mess around with her answer, replying quite simply, "No." Followed by the briefest of pauses and then, "He was a great artist, who has received a lot of media attention worldwide for practically 40 years," she continued.

"Of course I'm sorry for his fans and for the music, but (his death) hasn't touched me personally."

A well-practised political grin into the camera, followed by the next question from the journalist that, after all, got to the nub of the matter and the real reason she had been invited in the first place; increasing unemployment in France, and when the country was likely to come out of the economic crisis.

So there you have it. The straightforward non-spun reaction from one of France's top ministers to "the question of the day".

Maybe though Lagarde could have thought a little before giving such a response, which seems more than a little heartless.

After all the 53-year-old former synchronised swimming champion (no it doesn't have anything to do with her current job, but it's a useful bit of trivia to throw in at the dinner table perhaps) speaks fluent English and spent several years living and working in the States.

It's perhaps hard to imagine that she did a great deal of moonwalking in her younger days, but she surely couldn't have been totally oblivious to the impact Jackson had on popular culture the other side of the Atlantic as well as elsewhere.

To that extent, maybe she could have given an answer that didn't appear to illustrate that she really was quite unconcerned by the news.

Just a thought.

Where's the Xertigny crocodile?

Well it's certainly not in the village pond. That has been drained and the only beast of any notable variety found was a 94-centimetre pike.

You might remember the story (here) from last week; a crocodile on the loose in the village of Xertigny in eastern France.

Its two-hectare large pond has been the site of more-than-usual activity for the past week or so, ever since several local people stepped forward to say that they had seen a croc - reported to be about 1.5 metres in length.

The crocodile was apparently first spotted the weekend before last by an elderly man, who perhaps understandably kept quiet about it until several others stepped forward to say they too had seen it.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the croc was simply an hallucination or a figment of the imagination of the local folk.

But the authorities began to take the whole story a lot more seriously last week when those previous sightings were corroborated by the area's best and bravest in the form of a couple of fireman and a policeman.

Indeed on Wednesday last week one of the fireman apparently managed to get within a couple of metres of the beast before it slipped into the water and disappeared.

That led to local officials to call in the experts, set a trap for the reptile in the pond and basically keep their fingers crossed.

But the crocodile refused to cooperate, declining the tasty morsels positioned inside a cage for over a week and so the mayor, Véronique Marcot, decided to have the pond drained.

"We started emptying the pond at five o'clock in the morning (on Thursday), taking all the necessary precautions," said Marcot.

"But there was no crocodile, just a large pike," she added.

"I have to admit I'm a little disappointed, but at the same time somewhat relieved because the pond now has the all clear."

So one large pike (among others) plus around 200 kilogrammes of other assorted pond life, including carp, perch and crayfish but most significantly of crocodile.

The pond will remain in its now current dry state for the next three months, "just in case" the illusive reptile should decide to return.

And the latest theory in the croc who seemingly enjoys a rather protracted game of hide-and-seek is that it has has done a runner, crossing a nearby forest and headed for another pond.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

What has happened to little Typhaine

It has now been a week since five-year-old Typhaine Taton disappeared without trace while walking with her mother in broad daylight in the northern French town of Maubeuge - and there's still no sign of her.

Everyone surely remembers the case of Madeleine McCann, the British girl who disappeared in May 2007, a couple of days short of her fourth birthday, while on holiday with her parents in Portugal.

It was a story that made the world headlines for many months, and her whereabouts is still unknown.

Here in France there has also been a case of a little girl disappearing without any explanation, and the circumstances are just as extraordinary.

It's a story that has received national coverage but as French investigators have apparently had so little information to go on - just the statement of the mother - they still seem to be at as much of a loss as to what could have happened to the girl as they were last week when the local public prosecutor, Bernard Beffy, told reporters that they had no idea as to Typhaine's whereabouts.

"We don't know whether she's alive or dead and at the same time no hypothesis has been ruled out."

A week ago five-year-old Typhaine disappeared without trace while walking with her mother in the northern French town of Maubeuge.

According to Anne-Sophie Faucheur, the two of them were in the town centre last Thursday afternoon, her daughter roughly 50 metres ahead of her.

Typhaine turned the corner at the intersection of two roads and by the time Faucheur arrived her daughter was nowhere to be seen. She had "disappeared within the space of five seconds" was what she told police.

Faucheur, who finally broke her week-long silence at a news conference on Wednesday, told reporters that at first she had been convinced that Typhaine couldn't be very far.

"I looked around and then I started to panic," she said. And rather than ask passers-by or shopkeepers whether they had seen her daughter, she rang her partner, Nicolas Willot, who joined her in the town centre and together they went to the local police station to report Typhaine's disappearance.

Police opened an investigation and during the past week they have detained and questioned both Faucheur and Willot, later releasing them. Forensic and technical teams have searched the home the couple share with Typhaine and her two sisters.

The father of the five-year-old, François Taton, from whom Faucheur is estranged, has been questioned, as has his mother.

Pictures of the girl have been distributed, divers have searched the nearby river Sambre and a lake, sniffer dogs have been used, and pictures of the girl have been distributed.

And still there's apparently no clue as to what happened to Typhaine or where she could be.

Of course there are other details that have slowly made their way into the media and given rise to the inevitable conjecture.

Faucheur and Taton didn't have any sort of formal legal agreement as to who should have custody of the Typhaine and her older sister, Caroline.

Until January the five-year-old had been living with her father and attending a nearby primary school, but then reportedly Faucheur decided that Typhaine should come and live with her. Since then she has not been enrolled in any school.

Then there's the non-appearance of the Typhaine at the baptism of her one-year-old half-sister (the daughter of Faucheur and Willot) on June 13, with Faucheur claiming that she left had left her daughter alone at the home!

Such speculation that there is more to the fate of the five-year-old than simply having "disappeared within the space of five seconds" led Faucheur to hold Wednesday's news conference, where she once again repeated what she told the police and journalists before: her daughter had disappeared while the two of them were in the centre of Maubeuge.

"We feel completely powerless. There's an emptiness " she said.

"We don't know anything apart from the fact that we miss her and we are certain she will be found."

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sarkozy's summertime government spring clean

A Mitterrand enters government as Sarkozy makes a bigger-than-expected reshuffle. But what happened to the women in government and human rights?

All right so a French government reshuffle has been very much on the cards for some time now.

There had to be one, especially as the (now former) justice minister, Rachida Dati, and (ditto) agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, successfully stood for election to the European parliament earlier this month and were thus forced to quite their days jobs.

But the announcement of the new line-up came a day earlier than planned. It had to in a sense because the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, found his hand somewhat forced by the obvious joy of one new member of his team, who clearly couldn't contain his delight and actually told the media of his new job on Tuesday afternoon.

Frédéric Mitterrand enters the government as the culture minister, replacing Christine Albanel.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. He's none other than the nephew of the former Socialist president (1981-95) François. But have no fears, the appointment of the 61-year-old isn't exactly an example of a further opening up of the government as he is far from having the reputation of being a man of the Left.

Instead he comes with a long cultural pedigree, if you will, having been a television presenter, writer and producer, and since June last year he has held the prestigious position of director of Académie de France (French Academy) in the Villa Medici in Rome.

There are eight new appointments to the new government, nine ministers have changed jobs and 17 have stayed put. Of the eight who are leaving, Dati, Barnier, Albanel and Christine Boutin (the former housing minister) held frontline posts.

Among the most notable changes are Michèle Alliot-Marie's (MAM) move from the interior ministry to justice, where she takes over from Dati.

Meanwhile after just five months at the employment ministry, Brice Hortefeux, Sarkozy's long-time buddy and political ally, finally gets his hands on the ministry he has wanted all along as he replaces MAM.

There are more musical chairs, of sorts, as the minister of education, Xavier Darcos, moves to employment, and Luc Chatel, while remaining the spokesman for the government will now take on Darcos's old job.

So although the reshuffle is perhaps bigger than many had expected it still includes many of the same faces.

While much of the media focus here has understandably been on Mitterrand's appointment, little attention has been paid so far to two pledges Sarkozy made when he first came to power; to include more women in the government and to make human rights a linchpin of French foreign policy.

The reshuffle illustrates that neither seems to be among his priorities at the moment.

Take gender parity for example, and just look at the figures, which surely speak volumes. There are now a total of 39 ministers in government - frontline cabinet and junior combined.

Before the reshuffle there were seven women in charge of ministries, now there are just four; at finance, health, justice and higher education.

But that's all right isn't it, because the number of women now holding junior ministerial posts has been bumped up from seven to nine.

Gender parity indeed according to Sarkozy's interpretation presumably!

But just as important is another pledge Sarkozy made back in 2007 to include the respect for human rights as a vital part of France’s foreign policy.

True to his word he created a position in government - appointing Rama Yade as a junior minister reporting immediately to the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

So what has happened in the reshuffle? Yade has been moved to the post of junior minister for sport and her old job.....wait for it.....has been done away with. That's right, it no longer exists.

Perhaps Yade should count herself lucky though that she has a job of any sort as she has had more than a few run-ins with her big boss over the past couple of years and has frequently been hauled in for private ticking-offs.

She also received a none-too-well-disguised public dressing down from Sarkozy at the beginning of this year after she refused to be pushed to stand for election to the European parliament, which would have seen her forced to leave the government had she been successful.

Still at least her former immediate boss, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, must be a happy man this morning.

In an interview with one of the country's newspapers last December, Kouchner 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".

Sarkozy, it would seem, now agrees.

The composition of the new government (in French)

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Belgium - Baby "forgotten" in car all day dies

Summer has arrived in Europe and with it once again another of what seems to be an all-too-often reported and at the same time incomprehensible tragedy - that of a baby left in a car all day.

On Monday police in the Belgian town of Louvain confirmed that an 11-month-old girl died last week of dehydration after her father had left her in the back seat of his vehicle while he was at work.

He reportedly forgot beforehand to drop his daughter Britt off at the crèche, and she remained in the car all day - with the outside temperature at around 21 degrees.

Her body was discovered later by her mother when, as was her habit, she went to take the baby seat from the husband's car before driving to the crèche to collect her daughter.

Reading or hearing reports of animals left in cars is surely bad enough. Ignorance perhaps could be an explanation as to why owners often mistakenly assume that a few moments spent away from the vehicle won't do any harm.

However as any animal lover will surely know, and even those who don't own a pet would probably realise, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise quickly, even when it's not high summer. And the outcome is inevitable.

But when it comes to "forgetting a child" it's perhaps harder to understand what's going through - or better put, not going through - the parent's mind.

Last summer in France within the space of a month three separate cases made the national headlines (you can read more details here).

Two of them mirrored last week's Belgian tragedy; professional fathers leaving their children alone in the car after being "distracted" or "forgetting".

In the third, that of a mother leaving her two-and-a-half-year-old girl in the back seat while she did some last-minute shopping, the actions of passers-by avoided the repetition of another family tragedy.

At the time those incidents gave rise to plenty of debate as to why or how they could have occurred.

Burn out, a moment of absence and the pressures of modern life seemed to be at least to be part of the explanation offered up by experts who said that such incidents were more frequent than might at first be imagined.

"For sure these are not isolated cases, but usually they don't end in such a dramatic way," the child psychiatrist Sylvie Angel said in an interview in the weekly news magazine L'Express after the death of two-and-a-half-year-old Yannis in July last year and just a week later that of three-year-old Zoé.

A view backed up at the time by Jean-Michel Muller, president of the Association of Paediatricians of Nice Côte d'Azur, who said that it could happen to anyone.

"If you ask those to whom this has happened, they know that children shouldn't be left alone in the car, but at that particular moment their minds are elsewhere, they have some other problem," he said.

That "moment of absence" was also how Eric Allarousse accounted for having left his son, Yannis, in the car when he appeared in court last December to face charges of involuntary homicide.

It was a trial, which in itself demonstrated a difference in approach between France and Belgium to what is undoubtedly in all cases a family tragedy.

In France both fathers were initially charged with involuntary homicide, with the case of Allarousse going to trial because the public prosecutor wanted to " make public opinion more aware of the dangers and prevent similar incidents happening."

In Belgium though, the justice system seems to be showing a little more compassion for the family with Louvain's assistant prosecutor, Philippe Fontaine, saying no charges would be made.

"This isn't a case of a child being mistreated, but one of a regrettable accident," he said.

Let's hope it's the last such accident to occur here, in Belgium or in any other country for that matter.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Medical mistake as surgeon removes woman's healthy kidney

It must surely be the fear of many when entering hospital - to be admitted for a routine operation and then a medical error changes your life.

Such is that case here in France of a 67-year-old woman who is now being treated in a Paris hospital because a doctor mistakenly removed a kidney she had received as a transplant back in 2003.

And at the weekend the family filed a complaint against the surgeon responsible, Philippe Rogé.

Sefika Altintas was originally admitted a couple of weeks ago to the Saint-François de Mainvilliers clinic near the city of Chartres, 96 kilometres south of the French capital, for an operation to remove an abdominal hernia.

It was a routine operation even though Altintas was diabetic, and had spent 11 years on dialysis until she received a kidney transplant six years ago.

But Rogé apparently made a vital error during the course of the operation and somehow identified a healthy kidney as tumorous and decided to remove it.

After the mistake had been identified, Altintas was flown by emergency helicopter to the Kremlin-Bicêtre hospital in Paris, where she's now in intensive care.

Even though her life is reportedly not in danger, the repercussions to her health will be enormous, according to the family's lawyer, Marie-Élise Pagnon.

The kidney that was removed is now too damaged to be re-transplanted and Altintas will have to await until another match becomes available before undergoing yet a further operation.

In the meantime she will receive further dialysis treatment - something she had put behind her six years ago.

Even though Rogé has admitted that a mistake was made, Pagnon insists the case raises a number of issues that must be addressed and questions that must be answered.

"Did the kidney really present any evidence of being tumorous and how is it possible to confuse the two?" she asks.

"And even if there had been evidence of a tumour (there wasn't) would it really have been necessary to remove it immediately?"

Not surprisingly perhaps, Rogé has been suspended from the operating theatre.

For the hospital, the case doesn't stop there and its director, Véronique Besse, has promised that there will be complete transparency during an internal inquiry as to what exactly happened.

Medical mistakes happen - that's for sure. And when they do they can have dreadful consequences for patients as the case of Altintas illustrates.

But Besse's reassurances aside, for the Saint-François de Mainvilliers clinic it's not the only high-profile case to have made the headlines this year.

In January, a baby died several hours after being born at the same hospital and the parents filed a complaint against four gynaecologists.

A decision is still being awaited in that case

Sunday, 21 June 2009

French television's not so "Secret Story"

It's not hard to tell that summer has arrived here in France; all the signs are pointing to the fact. Some of them obvious, others less so.

First up of course there's the date - a dead giveaway although the weather is still trying to make up its mind as to which season it is.

Then of course there's the dress code, which can still be something of a concern for fashion-conscious Parisians as shorts and simplicity threaten to replace chic and sophisticated.

There are the music festivals - including La Fête de la musique (World music day) on June 21, inaugurated in 1982 by the then culture minister Jack Long, and now very much a tradition up and down the country.

Other tell-tale signs include prime time television news reports focussing on the queues at airports and the number of passengers passing through the French capital's major railway stations, rather than hard news.

The inside lanes of the motorways start filling up with bumper-to-bumper traffic including more than their fair share of Dutch cars, trailers and caravans, busting at the seams with provisions for a month.

But the real clue that the whole shebang is underway has to be the reappearance on the small screen of "Secret Story".

It reared its less-than-attractive head on Friday evening on the country’s number one national channel, TF1, and is set to be in everyone's sitting rooms for the next couple of months.

In essence it's France's answer to Big Brother - only more downmarket. Impossible you might think, but sadly true.

Basically the idea is very simple. It starts with 18 people, strangers to each other - with the odd exception, as will become clearer later on - moving into a built-for-TV house, where they'll be under the watchful eye of the production team and the viewing public.

Each carries with them into the house a "secret" - and the idea is to keep it hidden from the others for as long as possible while trying to cajole out of fellow house mates exactly what they're trying to keep under wraps.

Off camera there is also the deep bass booming tones of The Voice (La Voix), dropping hints whenever he feels like it, setting playful if somewhat idiotic tasks with cash rewards should they be completed successfully without anyone else in the house realising.

Every week two candidates are nominated and television viewers get to vote in a ‘phone poll (at premium rates of course) on who should stay in. Original stuff huh?

Yes the country which so often likes to think that it has taken the cultural highroad, brought the world classics in the fields of literature, art and music, prides itself on its language and traditions, cuisine, fine wines and haute couture - now proves once again that it can mix it with the best and worst of what the world of reality TV has to offer.

The new series, which kicked off on Friday evening, introduced yet another bevy of brainless beauties and beefcake, each seemingly desperate for their "15 minutes of fame" and probably more than likely to do anything over the coming weeks to make sure they're remembered.

Should you feel so inclined, you can read about some of their real identities and secrets here (in English) and of course discover more on all 18 of them (in French) by surfing the Net (here's where to start perhaps).

As compulsive and trashy as Secret Story might be it'll still more than likely pull in the viewers and become its own story in itself as the nation tut-tuts and hisses in disapproval and indignation at the antics of the previous night's revelations.

Oh well. In the indomitable words of La Voix “C’est tout pour le moment."

Secret Story - this year's "hall of fame"

After last year's dubious dollop of "culture" introduced to the French public amongst others a lesbian couple from Belgium (who started off the series intending to get married, but ended up going their separate ways), a black mother and her white daughter, an Anglican minister, an undertaker and a teenage father, a Don Juan with more than 750 "conquests" and such similar secrets, the production team this year has stepped up a gear to ensure maximum in-fighting and hopefully high ratings.

Among those who will be gracing French sitting rooms over the next couple of months with their presence are the following.

Probably the best known housemate (at least in this country) is Rachel Legrain Trapani. She was Miss France in 2006 and has agreed to "dress down" and play the part of Rosa, a student.

Unfortunately for her (and the programme makers), the other contestants quickly noted the slightly-more-than-striking resemblance to her real self (now there's a surprise), and her secret looks sure to be the first to be revealed.

More alter egos are on supply in the shape of Louise and her husband Didier from the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion. They've entered the house together with their trusted friend "Alicia" - in reality Didier, who likes to dress up in women's clothing.

To guarantee harmony and calm within the house there's, Emilie from the northern French city of Lille, along with her "best friend" Vanessa. The two 21-year-olds probably have a few scores to settle as apparently (their secret) the latter tried to pinch the former's boyfriend

Vancouver native, Maya, who only eats fruit and vegetables and lives in a bus (perhaps there's a link- and apparently is more than happy with her lifestyle. The 29-year-old sounds as though she could be a bundle of laughs.

Beauty and beefcake in one - well at least as far as he's concerned - are supplied by 21-year-old Kevin who says of himself, "I know that I'm good-looking and I could be the son of Brad Pitt." Nothing like false modesty there then....and that's nothing like false modesty.

Bumping up the average age of the candidates by more than a few years (by now you'll have noticed how young most of them are and could therefore be forgiven for agreeing to take part in such a show in the first place) is 53-year-old Elisabeth Fanger.

At long last someone who has lived long enough to have perhaps a secret worth keeping.

Her story dates back to 1974, when as an 18-year-old student she met an fell in love with Sid Mohamed Badaoui.

In February the following year Badaoui held up a bank in Paris, but things didn't go quite to plan and there was a hostage stand-off during which one of the cashiers and a robber were killed, and it was Fanger (then known as Lili), who first hid him in her family home and then fled the country with him.

And so began life on the run, with Fanger "tracked by Interpol" eventually returning to France to face charges and being found guilty of aiding and abetting fugitives. She was sentenced but received a pardon, and then did what anyone would do under the circumstances - wrote an autobiography, which in 2004 was made into a film "À tout de suite" (Right Now).

A colourful past by anyone's assessment, and one, which given the average age of most of the other housemates, will more than likely remain a secret from them for a pretty long time - unless they're given copious clues by the production team.

Finally, just in case your appetite hasn't already been sufficiently whetted, here are some of the other not-so-closely-guarded secrets, as far as the viewing public is concerned.

There's a millionaire in the house, someone who has decided to remain a virgin, a "genius" (presumably there's evidence to back that up), a survivor of the 2004 tsunami, a former mistress of a Ballon d'Or (European football of the year) winner, and of course the "mystery candidate" who has yet to enter the house.

The show will doubtless have the same sort of petty rivalries, squabbles and handbags-at-dawn stuff that characterised much of the previous two series. Indeed, that's exactly what it thrives on.

But breathe a sigh of relief because at least it’s all being done in the name of entertainment. And as much as some might question why and find it “outrageous”, there’ll probably still be millions tuning in.

Let’s also not forget there’s always the “off” button on the TV set or alternative viewing on other channels.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Do you believe Belgian teen's tattoo tale?

Kimberley Vlaeminck's story has been making its way around the world.

You might have caught a snippet of it in one of those "And here's a curious thing" segments at the end of a news broadcast.

Or perhaps you read about it here.

In case you're unfamiliar with the tale, Vlaeminck is the Belgian teenager, who last weekend , popped along to the local tattoo local parlour to have three little stars tattooed on her face and ended up with 56.

The 18-year old claims she fell asleep while the tattoo artist, Rouslan Toumaniantz, got on with the job and when she woke up she was horrified to find the left side of her face covered in 53 more tattoos than she had bargained for.

Anyway, as the story has made its way around the globe, there have been a fair few doubts cast on the veracity of Vlaeminck's version of events, with the often repeated question being how could she possibly have dropped off while having her face tattooed.

Disbelief is how many have reacted to the story including, as you'll clearly see from the accompanying clip, that of the French television presenter, Marina Carrère.

She's one of the hosts on the daily health magazine, Magazine de la santé, broadcast live on national television each on France 5.

On Wednesday, Carrère, along with co-host Michel Cymes, was giving a round-up of the latest health news stories and of course the case of Vlaeminck and her 56 tattoos.

Perhaps its a reaction that best sums up what many people think of the whole story.

Oh, and don't worry. You don't need to speak a word of French to understand what's going on.

It's one of those classic moments of television.

"Crocodile Dundee" needed in France

Hunting is still a pretty popular pastime in France, at least in rural parts of the country.

There's even a political party, Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Traditions (Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition, CPNT) which fielded candidates in the recent European parliamentary elections and whose leader, Frédéric Nihous, stood in the presidential election back in 2007, winning over 400,000 votes nationwide.

Deer, foxes, boars, rabbits, hares and birds are all fair game for what many still consider to be a "sport".

But this week in the village of Xertigny in the eastern department of Vosges, the hunt has been on for quite a different kind of creature - a crocodile.

It was apparently first spotted by an 82-year old man last weekend, but not wanting to be thought to be a little doolally by the rest of the folk in the area he reportedly kept quiet about what he thought he had seen.

Since then though, several other people stepped forward to say they too had seen it and the local authorities began to take the sightings seriously.

A plan has been put in place to try to capture the beast with a trap being set up in a large pond on the outskirts of the village.

The services of the fire brigade, police and officials from l'Office de la chasse et de la faune sauvage were also called upon, and according to reports in the local press they were within two metres of the animal on Wednesday morning as it lay on the banks of the pond.

But then it did what crocodiles supposedly do best, slipped into the water and disappeared out of sight.

So the beast, measuring around 1.5 metres in length is still on the loose

And local officials are now thinking about calling in a specialist team from the nearby city of Metz to try to help them out in their attempts to catch the reptile alive and have it transported to a crocodile farm almost 400 kilometres away in Pierrelatte in southeastern France or have it killed.

At this point you might be wondering how the crocodile came to be on the loose in the first place.

Well for the moment that remains a mystery, although a local farmer is reported to have seen a van around two weeks ago on the banks of the pond where the croc "could have been thrown into the water".

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Belgian teen's tattoo nightmare

Recently 18-year-old Kimberley Vlaeminck decided she would like three small tattoos on her face, "Just three little dots," she insisted.

So on Sunday she made her way down to the local parlour in the Belgian town of Courtrai, and told the tattooist what she wanted.

That was probably her first mistake because Vlaeminck lives in the Flemish-speaking part of the country and the tattooist, who was originally from France, only spoke French and English.

Somehow though the two apparently managed to understand one another and Vlaeminck eventually agreed to let him go ahead and give her three little stars because "It would look prettier," she said.

Mistake number two.

And that was quickly followed my mistake number three, as Vlaeminck told the Flemish daily Het Laatste Nieuws, because as soon as he started his work, she dozed off.

"When he started the tattooing I didn't want to feel the pain and so I went to sleep. I had got up at five in the morning," she said.

And when she woke up, Vlaeminck got more than a nasty surprise.

Instead of the promised three little stars, she discovered that she had in fact been given 56 (that's perhaps worth spelling out, fifty-six) of differing hues and sizes stretching along the length of the left of her face.

Horrified at what had happened, Vlaeminck now says she'll have to undergo costly laser treatment to remove them and plans to sue the tattoo artist, Rouslan Toumaniantz.

Now you could be forgiven for thinking there's something a little far-fetched about this story.

After all who could possibly agree to undergoing any form of tattooing on such a sensitive part of the body without being absolutely certain that they knew what they would end up with.

And how could anyone drop off in the process?

Well there is of course an alternative explanation and it comes from the tattooist himself.

Toumaniantz contests Vlaeminck's side of the story and said he had done exactly what she had wanted.

"She agreed to the 56 stars on the left hand side of the face and she was awake the whole time," he said.

"In fact she seemed quote happy with what I had done, and it was only after her father saw it that she changed her mind."

Toumaniantz says he's willing to meet half the costs of any laser treatment to remove the tattoos, but he's also adamant that he's not disappointed with having given Vlaeminck exactly what they had agreed.

"I don't regret anything," he said. "In fact it has all rather given me a good deal of publicity."

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Sarkozy and the affair of the "transferred" local official

Forget affairs of state, don't dwell on economic issues and ignore the recent results of the European elections, the ever-ready French president, Nicolas Sarkozy also has time to take care of domestic affairs of the household variety - or so it would seem.

And if things don't always go according to (his) plan, then he always has the option of having someone "replaced" "moved" or "fired".

Take the case of Jacques Laisné, the prefect of the department of Var in the south of France.

According to the French online site, Mediapart, Laisné has been fired because he failed to resolve an issue in which Sarkozy had a personal interest - that of the septic tank at the home belonging to a certain Mr and Mrs Bruni-Tedeschi.

If the names sound familiar then perhaps that's because they are in fact the parents of Sarkozy's wife, Carla. In other words the president's in-laws.

They live in Cap Nègre, a rather swanky part of the country on the Med and have for quite a while been embroiled in what is basically a local quarrel over whether to replace the existing system of septic tanks with mains drainage and sewage system.

While the Bruni-Tedeschis are in favour of the changeover most of the rest of the other house owners have steadfastly refused to agree, saying it would be too costly an undertaking.

So into the row stepped the president.

Apparently while Sarkozy was busy in his role as the Big Cheese of the European Union last August, he managed to find time to squeeze this all-important family matter into his busy diary - just before a trip to Russia to sort out that country's dispute with Georgia.

He paid a couple of visits to local meetings on the matter, agreeing that the state would stump up some of the readies and even hauling in Laisné to his in-law's pad to "seal the deal".

All well and good except that in the meantime Laisné apparently has done a volte face.

"He has changed his point of view on the matter to one which is much more in line with our thinking and less under the instructions of Mr Sarkozy," Jacques Huetz, a fellow property owner and one of those in favour of keeping the system of septic tanks, told Mediapart.

And according to the online site it didn't take long for Sarkozy to react. Laisné is no longer the prefect of the department.

But wait. Lest you be thinking that this tale is yet another expression of the French president's displeasure at the refusal of a local official to "toe the line", you would be wrong.

At least, that's according the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie,

Questioned on the matter on national radio on Monday, Alliot-Marie said that there was a completely reasonable explanation as to why Laisné was no longer prefect.

"Every week there are prefects up and down the country who change jobs and are transferred elsewhere," she said.

"As far as Mr Laisné is concerned he's not a 'career prefect' and in fact comes from the French audit court," she added.

"His transfer is not a sanction of any sort, he'll simply be returning to his area of expertise."

And to the suggestion that Sarkozy had in fact had Laisné fired, she had the briefest of replies.

"Pure fantasy," she said.

So there you have it. Laisné hasn't been sacked, he's just moving somewhere (as yet not revealed) to take up a new post doing more or less what he was doing before becoming prefect.

A completely credible explanation for what has happened surely?

Well it would be, were it not for the sense of déjà vu involved.

It wouldn't be the first time a local official has found himself out of a job at the seemingly at the president's behest.

Rewind to September 2008, when Dominique Rossi, the chief of security on the island of Corsica was fired just two days after the house of the actor Christian Clavier had been peacefully occupied by nationalists.

Clavier just happens to be a close personal friend of the French president.

And in January this year Jean Charbonniaud, the prefect of la Manche, found himself "transferred" elsewhere (read demoted) after just six months in the job following a rather fraught visit to the region by the French president during which protesters didn't exactly make Sarkozy feel at home.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Paris hippos refuse to move

Transporting hippos can't be the easiest job in the world. Just ask officials at Vincennes zoo in the east of the French capital.

They've had one heck of a time this past weekend trying to move Pélagie and her other half, Rodolphe.

So much so that they've abandoned plans for the moment and will try again in the autumn.

The reason the two were supposed to be on the move is that the zoo is closing down for a complete makeover.

Opened in 1934, it was one of the first zoos not to keep animals in cages, but instead had them in enclosures allowing visitors to get as close to them as was safely possible.

Its famous Grand Rocher (Big Rock) became something of a symbol, and it also built up a reputation over the years for the success it had in breeding elephants and giraffes in captivity.

But the years had taken their toll and by 2004 it was clear that something needed to be done when staff demonstrated at the deteriorating conditions.

And so began plans for its complete renovation, funded with both public and private money, which would mean of course closing its doors to the public and finding new homes for the animals while the work was in progress.

At the end of November 2008 it gave visitors one last chance to say "au revoir" to the residents and now for most of them it's their turn to say goodbye to the zoo as they are heading off to warmer climes and a new permanent home in Algeria.

Only the 30 or so baboons will still have to put up with European weather as they're bound for Edinburgh in Scotland.

Not going anywhere though will be the 15 giraffes, which the zoo wants to keep together, and which would also be difficult to transport.

"It's an unusually large number and normally there are just two or three to each zoo," said the head keeper Fabrice Bernard.

"They're remaining because we don't want to break up the social structure of the group," he added.

Also staying put, albeit only temporarily, are of course Pélagie and Rodolphe - for "bad behaviour" if you will.

When it came time to load all the animals due to move this weekend the zoo decided not to anaesthetise any of them.

"Asleep, they would have weighed much more to transport," said the zoo's director, Christine Morrier.

"Then of course there's always a risk involved when they come around," she added.

And not drugging them is where the staff's problems started as far as the two hippos were concerned.

Even though they had apparently undergone several weeks of "training" and getting used to going inside the transportation crates, as soon as the door was closed Pélagie started panicking and Rudolphe soon followed suit.

"They could have hurt themselves or broken out of their crates and the whole trip could have become dangerous, " said Morrier, perhaps somewhat stating the obvious.

So all attempts to move the two were abandoned and for now they're staying exactly where they are.

Staff will have another try at moving the two recalcitrant herbivores in the autumn.

Presumably there'll be some intensive crate-training sessions between now and then.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Chloé Mortaud keeps Miss France crown

The battle of the beauty queens here in France is over!

The reigning Miss France, Chloé Mortaud, is being allowed keep her title after a court rejected claims that she had been ineligible for the finals held last December.

They had come from Marine Beaury, the runner-up to Mortaud in the regional contest for Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées in September 2008, a win which had secured the 19-year-old her place in the final.

Beaury maintained that the vote in the regional competition had been rigged and that some members of the jury had close personal ties to Mortaud's parents and that contravened regulations.

But on Friday a court decided otherwise and ruled that there had in fact been insufficient proof to suggest that there had been any influence on the part of Mortaud or her parents on the jury's final decision.

Indeed it went further and ordered Beaury to pay €3,000 towards legal fees, although it stopped short of finding her guilty of "abuse of procedure" as had been counterclaimed by the Miss France organising committee's lawyers.

"The ruling is proof that there's no trickery involved in how the Miss France competition is run," said Geneviève de Fontenay, the president of the committee, who has been organising the contest for 53 years.

"My only regret is that the court didn't split the legal costs equally as this case has cost me a lot even though we won it," added the 76-year-old.

So that would seem to be the end of the matter and the way is now clear for Mortaud - who holds dual French and American citizenship; her mother, Brenda, is an African American who emigrated to France 25 years ago and her father, Jean-Marie, is French - to take part in Miss Europe, World and Universe, the three international beauty pageants later this year.

The whole case might not exactly have done the reputation of the Miss France contest much good, but there again it has been no stranger to controversy in recent years.

Although she kept her crown, the 2008 winner, Valérie Bègue (the former Miss Réunion), was banned from representing France at international level after "suggestive" pre-competition photographs appeared in a monthly glossy magazine.

And the 2004 winner, Lætitia Bléger, was stripped of her title just six months into the job after she posed naked for a well-known monthly magazine.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Salim Sdiri breaks French long jump record

It's one of those stories that by any stretch of the imagination surely brings a warm glow along with a fair amount of admiration.

Last week, French long jumper Salim Sdiri set a new national record when he leapt his way to 8 metres 42.

So what you might be asking.

Well so a great deal in fact.

Even though you might not be familiar with his name, you might well remember what happened to him during a Golden League athletics meeting in the Italian capital of Rome back in July 2007.

Because Sdiri was injured in a freak accident during the event and the pictures quickly made their way around the world.

While the long jump was taking place in one part of the Olympic stadium, the javelin throwers were warming up not too far away.

And when the Finn, Tero Pitkamaki, launched a throw it went off target hit Sdiri and penetrated 10 centimetres into his body.

He was rushed to a local hospital where it was discovered that the javelin had in fact touched his right kidney, but although his life wasn't considered in danger and he didn't need an operation, the accident left invisible as well as the obviously visible scars.

He spent several months out of both competition and training, lost physical condition and more than seven kilogrammes and reportedly even contemplated putting a premature end to his career.

Thankfully though that didn't happen and in February 2008, Sdiri returned to competition during the French national indoor games in Bordeaux.

And that brings us bang up to date and last week's record-breaking jump during a meeting at Pierre-Bénite in the Rhône department in eastern France.

Photograph from Wikipedia, author - Jmex60, licensed under Creative Commons

"It's unbelievable but something I've been wanting to do for a long time, and I really felt up for it, he said afterwards.

For a while now I've felt that I had it in me, but equally it's taken some time for me to do it," he added.

"Now, I've put on a series of jumps including one of 8 metres 42, and it's just such a good feeling."

The next big test for will be when he represents France at the European Team Championships in Leiria, Portugal on June 20-21.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Chirac's chivalry - old habits die hard

Ah yes they do indeed.

Here's a video that has been creating quite a buzz on the Net here in France this past week after it first aired on the television channel Canal Plus on Wednesday.

It's hard not to smile, and it really doesn't matter whether you speak French.

All you need to know as background is that Chirac, has quite a reputation "gallantry" towards the "fairer sex" might be the best way to describe it.

Indeed in a book published shortly before he left office in 2007, he admitted that there was more than a little truth to the widely held belief that he was something of a "Don Juan".

At the same time his wife of 53 years, Bernadette, has been seen down the years as a woman with the proverbial patience of a saint.

And a recent incident shows perhaps just how much of a sharp eye the former French first lady still keeps on the wandering one of her 77-year-old husband.

It occurred as Bernadette was about to give a speech in front of an invited audience and in the first row behind her is the former president, happily ready to sit up and take notice.

But that's not exactly what happens.

Rather than listening to what his wife has to say, Chirac is seen to be apparently more concerned with making an effort to find a seat for a woman who doesn't appear to have a place.

Once an extra chair has been found (at his request) and placed next to the former president, Chirac then proceeds to engage the woman in a none-too discreet whispered conversation.

All the while of course, Bernadette continues to try to give her speech and maintain her composure....until she turns around and gives him "that" look, which says just about everything you need to know.

Justine Henin - from centre court to centre stage

Belgium's former world number one tennis player, Justine Henin, will take to the stage later this year when she makes her theatre debut.

According to the Belgian news agency Belga, Henin is slated to play the part of Chloé in the play "Arrête de pleurer Pénélope!" from October.

It's a long-running comedy that has played to packed houses throughout France and which revolves around the lives of three 30-something women "waving goodbye" to their youth.

The role of Chloé is described as "an intellectual who's always asking question about love and never understanding it."

Although it'll be Henin's first attempt at treading the boards, it won't be her first stab at acting.

In May this year she appeared in an episode of the daily French soap opera "Plus belle la vie", although regular viewers might be forgiven for having missed it as she popped up on screen for just a few seconds to deliver her lines.

And she has also recently appeared on Belgian television in a programme entitled "Les douze travaux de Justine Henin", which as the name suggests challenged her to undertake certain tasks such as "singing" (you can judge for yourself whether you think the inverted commas are necessary) alongside singer-songwriter Salvatore Adamo.

Ahem. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is that her performance was one which didn't exactly live up to her abilities on the tennis court.

And if it's an indication of what theatre-goers to the Belgian capital can expect later this year, maybe now is the time to rethink her job options.

Henin of course had a glittering career in tennis, winning seven Grand Slam titles, including four at the French Open. She also picked up the gold medal at the Olympic games in Athens in 2004.

The only title that eluded the 27-year-old, in spite of two appearances in the tournament's final, was on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

To the surprise of many in the tennis world, she quit the professional circuit in May 2008 just weeks before she would have defended her title at Roland Garros.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

French soulstress, Miss Dominique, is back

France might well have a new star in the making after Soan Faya walked away with this country's Nouvelle Star (Pop Idol) earlier this week, but another former contestant from a previous edition of the show has recently been making the music headlines.

This week saw the release of the album "Si je n'étais pas moi" from Miss Dominique or Dominique Michalon to give her her real name, the runner-up in season four of the talent show.

But it's not just her voice and music that have been creating a buzz. It's also her new look.

Physically speaking, Michalon is quite literally a shadow of her former self, having lost around 50kgs (or 110 lbs) since starting a strict diet and exercise regime.

Michalon is a singer with a huge voice able to tackle pop, soul and gospel classics.

When she appeared on la Nouvelle Star she blew away both the show's jury and viewers week after week with powerful and rousing renditions of songs such as "I'm every woman," "I feel good" or "I will survive".

But in the tradition of all great singers, Michalon was also able to do more than justice to ballads including "Calling you" or Edith Piaf's "L'Hymne de l'amour".

It was the sort of voice that probably hadn't been heard on the small screen regularly in France since the days of the late (US) singer Carole Fredericks.

Her appearance in the final couldn't have come as a surprise to anyone watching, and she would more than likely have won had she been up against anyone else other than Christophe Willem, a contestant whose voice and look was equally quite unlike anything the French had seen and heard for quite a while.

Ah the good old days when la Nouvelle Star actually lived up to its name!

Michalon might not have won, but she certainly wasn't forgotten. A record deal saw the release of her first (solo) album, "Une femme battante", which went double gold, several singles and a series of concerts and television appearances.

Then, as often appears to be the case, she seemed to disappear from the spotlight.

Until, that is, a couple of months ago when she first revealed what has been described by many in the media as her "physical metamorphosis".

"I always accepted my size," she said in an interview in April.

"I had 'zero complexes' about it and in fact in a way I was actually proud (of my size). But then my doctor sounded the alarm and said my weight was a health risk and I had to do something about it."

And so she began to diet and exercise; always under careful medical supervision dropping from a size 58 to 32.

While health reasons were undoubtedly in her words at the root of the decision, it probably won't have done her musical career any harm either, as the weekly French tabloid Gala points out.

"The record company must be rubbing its hands," says the magazine.

"Miss Dominique now fits into the mould of (looking like) a much more commercial product."

Whatever the case, Michalon might have lost the weight but she hasn't lost the voice, and this new album, for which she penned most of the tracks herself, is a humdinger.

Soul and groove à la française, if you will.

And she's not afraid to offer up explanations in some of the lyrics as to how she feels about the new look especially in the track "Le poids de ma différence".

"What's difficult to take is not the (physical) weight per se, but the burden of how others look at you," she says.

"When I say that 'I weigh the weight of all my differences', it's a way of saying that I'm aware of the way others might have seen me.

"I don't realise I've lost weight, rather that I was once 'rounder'".

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

France has a "Nouvelle Star" - really?

Soan Faya must be pinching himself this morning.

The 28-year-old is France's "Nouvelle Star" (Pop Idol) after winning the final in the traditional televised head-to-head on Tuesday evening.

It was the climax to a programme which started with 25,000 hopefuls attending auditions and ended with Soan (pronounced Swarn), the former busker, beating the 18-year-old Leïla to clinch a recording contract with one of this country's major labels.

This year's final - a dismal affair - attracted only 3.8 million viewers, down from four million last year.

But that hasn't stopped the private channel M6 from announcing plans for a 2010 edition.

Ah - la Nouvelle Star - a long and often, for the viewer, tortuous journey through the supposed landscape of fresh French musical talent.

A word or two maybe on how the show functions.

Even though the Pop Idol format is a familiar one to many television viewers around the world, the French version has its own peculiarities.

For starters of course, the repertoire of songs from which the contestants have to choose is on the whole based on French "standards".

It makes sense really as it means that most viewers are at least familiar with many of the tunes each singer is taking a stab at "making their own".

There are also a fair number of attempts at interpreting popular English language songs, but more often than not the results are less than convincing (and that's putting it politely).

What perhaps doesn't make sense though is the system of voting, which opens immediately the show starts, and thus isn't really a judgement on the performances, but from the outset a popularity contest based on....well who knows?

In any case, one thing's for sure, it's not necessarily on musical talent.

This year was the seventh edition of la Nouvelle Star, and it has in the past thrown up some real surprises and introduced some singers who would probably have made it anyway, but were given the extra push by appearing on the show.

Amel Bent (season two, third place), Christophe Willem (season four, winner) and Julian Doré (season five, winner) have all been successful in the French-speaking world, and probably have the talent, voices and following to stick around for a while longer.

But many of the past winners, such as Jonatan Cerrada (season one), Steeve Estatof (season two) and Myriam Abel (season three, winner) after the initial "15 minutes of fame" seem to have slipped into relative obscurity, or at least haven't exactly taken the music world by storm.

The show of course has a jury of four "heavyweights" (a serious clearing of the throat) from the music industry.

The longest-serving member is André Manoukian, a jazz songwriter who has been with the programme since it started and makes rather wild and off the wall statements.

His most famous this year came after being subjected to one performance which he described as being evidence that there has been "An ETC - un erreur terrible de casting"

Then there's Lio, (real name Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos), a Belgian singer of Portuguese origin who had several (forgettable) hits in France in the 1980s.

Philippe Manœuvre spent the series hidden behind his trademark sunglasses and bringing yonks of experience as a rock journalist to the show.

Finally there was Sinclair (real name Mathieu Blanc-Francard) who is another singer-songwriter although most French would probably be hard pushed to name one of his hits.

Their initial task was to hold auditions up and down France for hopefuls from this country (of course) as well as Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, before whittling the choice down to the final 15.

There then followed the seemingly interminable and, often for the viewer, painful rigmarole of live weekly televised broadcasts as the finalists took to the stage.

The first show of the season, back in April, saw the voting public choose nine contestants to go through to the second round, with the jury picking one of the remaining six to join them.

After that of course the judges had a purely advisory role, assessing each performance, squabbling among themselves and generally putting on a show that at times was far more entertaining than that offered by those hoping to become la Nouvelle Star.

You know the score. It's not exactly original TV.

So back to this year's winner, Soan. A singer who, over the past couple of months has apparently built up enough of a following in spite of often forgetting the lyrics.

In fact "not singing" the whole song became something of a trademark as he relied on the admittedly excellent musicians to help him through each show.

So what exactly did he have going for him that has made him la Nouvelle Star?

It certainly can't have been his voice - one which sounded like something in between a groan and a shout as week in, week out he monotonously but relentlessly warbled his way to victory.

Well maybe it was the innovative use of far too much make-up as, eyes heavily blackened, he glared into the camera.

Or perhaps it was the Gothic garb he wore, including his "favourite dress" and Doc Marten type boots that wowed the viewers.

There again it could have been his successful attempts to ruin Edith Piaf's "L'accordéoniste", ridiculously "punk up" France Gall's "Poupée de cire, poupée de son," or attack Georges Brassens' "La mauvaise réputation".

Oh but wait, there was also the non-too original rendition of the Sid Vicious version of "My way", The Cure's "Boys don't cry", and U2's "One"...and many, far too many, dated and clichéd interpretations of songs in both English and French that left the viewer wanting "more".

Whatever the case, Soan is la Nouvelle Star, and next up is the real test as to whether he's able to come up with an album that anyone actually wants to buy.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The future looks rosé for French wine

Unexpectedly perhaps France has won its battle with most of the rest of the 27-nation European Union to prevent the introduction of proposals that would have seen a change to the traditional way in which rosé wine is made in Europe.

On Monday the European agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, said that Brussels was abandoning plans to adopt the "blending" practice, or simple mixing of red and white wines, used by producers in some other parts of the world.

France, and in particular the powerful wine producing lobby in this country, had wanted the existing method of production to remain "as is" and had maintained that any change would seriously pose a threat to both the traditional way of making rosé wine and livelihoods.

The dispute had pitted France against a majority of the other EU members who had collectively agreed in principle in January with the Commission directive.

In April though, bowing to French pressure, Fischer Boel agreed to review the proposals before taking a final decision.

At the time the French agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, remained hopeful that a compromise of some sort could be found even though he admitted that the chances of France "winning" were slim.

"It's true that we're somewhat isolated in our stance to wish to preserve the traditional methods whereas the majority of our partners favour authorising blending," he said.

"We're perhaps on out own here, but I hope that at least there'll be a change of heart and an agreement can be reached."

In the end though the arguments of both the French and Italians, the two largest producers of rosé wine in the EU, "won the day" with Fischer Boel apparently taking on board the arguments of both countries.

"It's important that we listen to our producers when they are concerned about changes to the regulations," she said in a statement.

"It has become clear over recent weeks that a majority in our wine sector believe that ending the ban on blending could undermine the image of traditional rose.

While maintaining tradition might well have played its part in the EU's decision to drop the proposals, economic factors were probably also taken into account.

Rosé wine consumption is up - both at here in France and abroad - and has seen a steady rise over the last 15 years.

Heading the list of rosé wine producers are three European countries, all of which use the traditional method; France - 29 per cent of the global production at 5.9 million hectolitres, followed by Italy and Spain with 4.5 million and 3.8 million hectolitres respectively.

"Common sense has prevailed," said Roque Pertusa, the president of the Fédération des caves coopératives du Var in the south of the country.

"Full liberalisation just to try to compete with countries outside of Europe wouldn't have been a good idea," he added.

"It wouldn't have been worth it to put 30 years worth of work at risk to try to compete with the two million hectolitres of (blended) wine that enter the EU every year."

Santé, as they would say here in France.

Sarkozy's European dilemma

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is in a bit of a quandary at the moment as to what to do with the employment minister, Brice Hortefeux.

The problem arises from the ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party's "success" in Sunday's European parliamentary elections here in France.

Against all expectations, Hortefeux has found himself elected to serve for the next five years in Brussels and Strasbourg.

According to the "rules" set by the UMP itself, any minister successfully standing for election to the European parliament is expected to step down from government.

Such will be the case with the agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, and the justice minister, Rachida Dati, who were respectively number one and two on the party's list in the Ile de France constituency (including Paris and the surrounding region).

But for Hortefeux apparently, an exception to the rule could well be made.

Sarkozy's "dilemma" began after the results came in on Sunday for the Massif Central-Centre constituency where Hortefeux had been third on the UMP list.

The party actually won a big enough percentage of the constituency vote (28.4 per cent) to send three, rather than the expected two, candidates to the European parliament.


In steps the UMP leader, Xavier Bertrand, who, when questioned, said that Hortefeux was "needed" in government and implied that he shouldn't be required to quit.

But hang about a moment. You might be wondering what Hortefeux's name was doing on the list in the first place if neither he nor anyone else ever intended to him to have to honour his obligation (to leave the government and take up his seat in the European parliament), no matter how slim his chances of being elected might have been.

Ah well, Bertrand, came up with a rather convenient explanation for that on national radio on Monday morning.

"We knew that Michel Barnier and Rachida Dati would be leaving because we placed them top of the list," he said.

"In Brice Hortefeux's case, his participation in the campaign was not to get elected but to lend his political support to the list," he added.

All right then, so Hortefeux wasn't standing to be elected.

Now some might see that as a rather peculiar and contemptuous comment perhaps on how the French government really perceives the role of the European parliament in spite of Sarkozy's determination that the EU's institutions should be reformed and bolstered.

But there is of course a domestic political agenda at play in all of this.

Sarkozy and Hortefeux go back a long way.

A long-time friend and close ally of the French president, Hortefeux took over the newly created ministry of immigration in June 2007.

At the beginning of this year, when Bertrand stepped down from the government to take over the leadership of the party, Hortefeux replaced him as employment minister.

But most importantly perhaps is that he is one of those being tipped to be Sarkozy's next prime minister (when the president manages to give the current incumbent François Fillon the shove) and his credentials for the job would certainly be better served being based in Paris rather than Brussels and Strasbourg.

According to the national daily, Le Monde, Sarkozy has given himself a week or two to "reflect" on what to do before making an official statement, but already the signs are that Hortefeux will stay exactly where he is.

Isn't politics a wonderful thing.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Low turnout "wins" European elections in France

What to make of how the French voted in the European parliamentary elections?

Well at face value the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP), and Europe Ecologie (Greens) were the big "winners" here while the Socialist party and the centre party, Mouvement démocrate (MoDem) were the "losers".

But the most telling factor of Sunday's vote perhaps was the high abstention rate, with 51 per cent of France's eligible 44 million voters not bothering to go to the polls.

Of course it's not a trend isolated to this country, but France was one of the founder-members, is a major EU player and only last December was coming to the end of its spell as the EU "big cheese" as it handed over the six-month rotating presidency to the Czech Republic.

The overall results of the European parliamentary elections appear to reflect a general shift to the centre-right throughout the 27-nation bloc, and France would seem at first sight to have been no exception.

Indeed the results here are widely billed internationally as the governing UMP having "thrashed" the Socialist party.

And it's certainly true that the UMP of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy did well with almost 28 per cent of the votes and 29 seats while the Socialist party put in a poor performance to win just 14 seats and garner a little over 16 per cent of the popular vote.

But there were a number of factors at play and of course the interpretation put on what happened also depends to a great extent on political spin.

First up before looking at the results here and what they might or might not mean, it's important once again to look at the voter turnout.

As predicted and feared by many political pundits and politicians, it was abysmal. Just 41 per cent nationally - the lowest ever for a European parliamentary election in France.

So in a real sense none of the parties managed to convince the electorate that the issues at stake were worth voting for.

A shame really as the new parliament will have an even bigger role in shaping legislation that will have an enormous impact on the everyday lives of all EU citizens.

Still that's a message that parties in France (as elsewhere) failed to get across and indeed in the last weeks of what was, by any assessment, a lacklustre campaign, the focus was either on domestic issues such as security, or personal attacks on other members of political parties.

Simply put though the results from Sunday's vote suggest there were two big winners in France; the centre-right UMP and Europe Ecologie (Greens).

And there were of course two big losers, the Socialist party and the centre MoDem.

There's no doubt the UMP did better than many had expected, but there still has to be a doubt as to whether the result can really be said to have been a vote of confidence in the government and its policies.

Even if Sarkozy tries to use the results as a ringing endorsement of the government's policies and a springboard for more legislative reform, they're surely far from being that.

Few "European" issues were addressed during the campaign no matter how much "spin" is put on the results, and Sarkozy's domestic popularity remains low.

The other big winner was undoubtedly Europe Écologie (Greens) which garnered more than 16 per cent of the vote to finish in third spot just behind the Socialist party although the two will return exactly the same number of MEPs - 14.

The reasons for its success are probably three-fold.

Firstly, the undoubted failure of the Socialist party to overcome its internal differences and present a united front to the electorate.

Secondly the charismatic leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the inclusion of both Eva Joly and José Bové on the party's list.

In the end though it may well have been the leader of MoDem, François Bayrou, trading insults with Cohn-Bendit last Thursday that helped the Europe Ecologie do well and simultaneously damage MoDem's chances, and thus making it one of the "losers".

Before the two sparred off against each other, MoDem had been ahead in the polls and had been predicted to gain anything between 11 and 14 per cent going into the election.

Instead it has ended up with 8.45 per cent of the vote and just six MEPs.

That's being largely seen as a backlash and a reaction to the criticism there was the day after Bayrou accused Cohn-Bendit of "defending paedophilia" and being a personal friend of Sarkozy.

And Cohn-Bendit's barb that Bayrou was only interested in being president in 2012, which "you'll never be because you're pathetic," might well have had the ring of truth about it for many a voter.

Along with MoDem, the other big "loser" was of course the Socialist party.

But perhaps that's no real surprise, even to its most ardent supporters.

The party has been in turmoil for several years now and of course the infighting reached its pinnacle at the end of last year when Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal fought a bitter battle for the leadership.

Aubry "won" but Royal never really accepted "defeat" and even though the two women publicly buried the hatchet in the run up to Sunday's election, it was widely seen as a rather poorly stage-managed and unbelievable peace pact.

In addition the Socialist party has also been criticised for failing to put across any specifically European political programme during campaigning (admittedly it was not alone in that).

Before the election Aubry had set the target of 20 per cent as a result to aim for.

The party won just a little over 16 per cent, which might not be as bad as its worst ever performance back in 1994 (14.49 per cent) but must still be sending alarm bells ringing over its prospects in the 2012 French presidential elections.

Alongside the four main political parties, there'll also be representatives from both the far-left and the far-right from the French political spectrum in the new European parliament with four seats for the former and three for the latter (including Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine).

And along with the one member from Libertas France (a combination of Mouvement pour la France, and Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Traditions, CPNT) a total of 72 French MEPs will take up their seats when the next session gets underway.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Happy Mothers Day - from France

Those of you in other parts of the world may well be scratching your heads at the moment, thinking that I've got my dates mixed up.

But I haven't, as Sunday (June 7) was indeed Mother's Day in France.

Mind you, anyone living here could be forgiven for being more than a little bewildered.

Most years (in France) it falls on the last Sunday in May (which would have been last weekend) unless that happens to be Pentecost in which case it's pushed back a week.

And that of course is exactly what has happened this year.

Still Confused? Well perhaps there's a good reason to be.

The problem is that there's no one single day set aside internationally to pay tribute to what's often described as one of the most thankless and least appreciated jobs on the planet.

Just looking at when different countries "celebrate" or "remember" or "pay tribute" shows maybe how out of step we are with one another.

This year for example in Norway apparently it fell on February 8.

Back home (for me) in Britain it's always the fourth Sunday in Lent - which was March 22 this year.

In North America and a whole chunk of Europe - including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands - along with many other countries throughout the world such as Australia, Brazil, Pakistan and South Africa to name but a few - it was as it always is, the second Sunday of May (10).

In fact rather than list every single place in the world, I would be better off providing a link to wikipedia - so so here you are.

When my mother was alive and I lived in Germany, I (understandably perhaps) got into a right pickle trying to remember the date back "home".

She insisted that it didn't matter if I forgot, but deep down I knew she was dead chuffed when I remembered.

Mind you, she had to put up with some of the most horrendous gifts down the years, especially when I was a young.

Encouraged by teachers I would put a rather dubious artistic bent to full use and pitch up with a painting resembling.....well very little really apart from colour splattered on paper.

Or, if I had been allowed to watch Blue Peter (a long-running BBC television programme for children), she was presented with a useless piece of nothing made from plastic bottles, egg cartons and sticky-backed plastic.

Eventually I moved on from "art" and one year - I must have been around 10 years old - I put what I thought were burgeoning culinary skills to use and my poor mother's tastebuds to the test when I decided to tackle a 10-egg (yep you read correctly) pancake complete with several tablespoons full of.....salt (rather than sugar - far too high a quantity of anything in any case).

I realised my mistake before the monstrosity made its way to the table, and in an effort to compensate emptied the best part of a container of pepper into the mixture.

My childlike logic told me that pepper would cancel out the effect of salt - I clearly wasn't the brightest spark.

My ma, when she finally made it down to the smoke-filled kitchen (which of course she would later have to clear up) showed stoicism, patience and the utmost love as well as a huge amount of courage in both praising my gastronomic stomach-turner and even attempting to eat (some of it).

Teenage years saw a return to "art" of sorts (I clearly never learnt from my earlier efforts) with a selection of wooden "thises" and metal "thats" from craft classes, ranging from a chopping board, a cheese grater (she proudly kept it until she died, although I never saw her use it) and a blunt knife. Oh yes, I was full of thoughtful presents.

With hindsight it must have come as something of a relief (to her) when I started earning and actually bought presents - although unimaginatively perhaps I stuck to chocolates and flowers - a safe bet.

Anyway this post - and just as importantly the accompanying video* (the former is also an excuse to share the latter with you) is to tell my ma, wherever she might be, "Thank you" and to pass on belated reminder to those in France who might have forgotten and whose mothers are still around that Sunday was Mothers Day.

And hey, even in those countries where it wasn't officially Mother's day, how about turning around all the same and telling them just how much you love 'em.

* The accompanying (probably timeless) video is a rendition of a song with lyrics written and originally performed by the US comedian Anita Renfroe set to the music of the finale of Rossini's William Tell Overture.

It's fast, furious and has something of a ring of truth to it.

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