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Friday, 31 July 2009

French government takes a break

You know summer is well and truly in full swing when the country's politicians pack up their bags and head off on their hols.

This year the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has given government ministers a three-week break.

Set aside the weather, disregard perhaps that it's the silly season for television and in particular for news, with so-called lighter stories dominating the bulletins.

Don't even think about the traffic chaos predicted for this weekend as juilletists (those who traditionally take their break in July) pack their bags and head home to be replaced by aoutiens (August holidaymakers) searching for sun: the two clogging motorway lanes, filling the airports to bursting point and battling for position at the major railway stations in the annual "crossover".

No, the real point of interest is how the country will manage for a couple of weeks as government ministers go on vacation.

Have no fears, this isn't a list of ALL 39 ministers and their chosen destinations. Instead it's a brief and less-than-serious look at where some of them are planning to spend the next few weeks, remembering all the time that a reported 51 per cent of French cannot afford to go away on holiday this year.

First up (of course) is the one person who isn't strictly speaking a minister; Sarkozy.

After his recent "malaise" - or "nerve attack" as it was first reported by some media outlets - he'll probably find it a little easier than might otherwise have been the case to follow doctors' advice and scale down his activities.

He'll be spending a quiet couple of weeks with his wife, Carla, at his parents-in-law's little pad in Cap Nègre in the south of France.

Not among his list of visitors presumably will be Jacques Laisné, the former prefect of the department of Var, where the Bruni-Tedeschi house is located.

Laisné lost his job a couple of months ago in the "septic tank" affair, in which he reportedly reneged on a promise to Sarkozy sort out a dispute over whether to replace the existing system of septic tanks with mains drainage and sewage system.

You can read more about that here.

Perhaps the minister who faces the toughest job come September when there'll be La Rentrée (the time when everyone gets back to work and schools reopen after the summer break) is the health minister, Roselyne Bachelot.

Without specifying exactly where she'll be passing her time, Bachelot has promised to remain "a maximum of one hour" from her ministry, ready to tackle any threat there might be from the expected H1N1 outbreak.

Another couple of government members for whom you could well spare a thought perhaps are the minister of finance, Christine Lagarde, and the minister of employment, Xavier Darcos.

They'll both be reportedly taking along work with them.

Ah such is the life for those in office.

And then there's the minister of industry, Christian Estrosi, who has recently faced a number of ongoing disputes, most notably the threat of of workers at the bankrupt New Fabris car factory in Chatellerault, southwest of Paris, to blow up the factory.

He says he'll only be taking long weekends because anything else would "be unreasonable".

Some though can apparently afford time for a proper holiday, and a couple of them could even bump into each other.

Both Eric Woerth, minister of budget, and the newly-appointed junior minister of housing, Benoist Apparu, will both be spending their time in the same place; Corsica in the Mediterranean.

And if they're very lucky they could enjoy a tête-à-tête-à-tete with the general secretary of their party ( Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, Union for a Popular Movement,UMP), Xavier Bertrand, who is also scheduled to be staying on “L'île de Beauté” or the island of beauty.

Sarkozy, along with many of his ministers look set to be following the French habit of tending not to travel abroad (90 per cent of them holiday in France). But there is an exception.

The prime minister, François Fillon, will once again travel south to Tuscany in Italy.

Oh well, there's always one, isn't there?

Thursday, 30 July 2009

More Trash TV hits French screens

French television viewers love reality TV programmes.

Uh hang about a moment, perhaps that should read that French television channels think that those tuning in are fans of the genre.

At least that's what could be concluded from the number of "variations on the same theme" and amount of airtime given over to them in the scheduling.

No sooner is one about to come to an end, and another is happily entertaining audiences daily, than a third makes its reappearance on the small screen.

The latest addition to the ranks is "Mon Incroyable Fiancé 2", on TF1, the country's largest private channel. It's is a gay variant of the first series from four years ago, "Mon Incroyable Fiancé" based on the US show "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance".

Meanwhile over on the other main private channel, M6, "L'amour est dans le pré" ("Farmer wants a wife") is coming to the climax of its fourth season.

And currently running of course on TF1, is Secret Story 3 (for more on that gem click here), which is in fine fettle, midway through its planned summer-long run.

Yep France has been awash with reality shows for several years now and there seems to be no end in sight.

You might have noticed that the main providers of such cultural delights are the country's two main national private terrestrial channels, TF1 and M6.

Public television in the shape of France 2 so far seems to have avoided producing such shows.

It all started back in 2001 with "Loft Story" (M6), which ran for two seasons and made instant stars of its contestants, most of whom enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame and then slipped back into everyday life.

There followed a slew of shows, most notoriously perhaps seven seasons of the admirable "L'isle de la tentation" (TF1), before it was cancelled, where couples' fidelity was put to the test against the flirting onslaught of a bevvy of buxom beauties and handsome hunks.

The same reality TV formula was used in the talent show "Star Academy" (TF1), which is threatening a return for a ninth year in the autumn.

It, of course, has given France and the world a handful of "stars" (to be counted on the fingers of one hand) and a whole heap of non-entities who presumably returned whence they came, or at the very least succeeded only in disappearing from the public eye once eliminated or after the show was over.

"Pékin Express" on M6 and TF1's "Koh Lanta" ("Survivor") have both attracted viewers by combining reality TV with a game show, and so-called personalities have also been dragged in to the act with a host of minor stars taking part in "Je suis une célébrité, sortez-moi de là!" ("I'm a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!") and "La ferme célébrités", both on TF1. The latter is due for a return to screen in the autumn after a gap of four years.

The list could go on of course, as France hasn't escaped what seems to have become a worldwide trend in relatively inexpensive-to-produce Trash TV.

But for the moment, back to "Mon Incroyable Fiancé 2".

Just as the first edition of the show four years ago, it's full of clichés as it tries apparently to entertain viewers with "humour".

The overweight and overloud actor who played the role of the intended in the last series has been replaced by one pretending to be gay.

Back in 2005, the "contestant" Adeline, was trying to fool her family into believing that she was marrying a vulgar oaf, played by Laurent Ournac. What she didn't know was that Ournac, and his equally objectionable family, were all actors.

Similarly the new series has heterosexual Christopher trying to convince his family that he has suddenly found love with another man, Emeric Dumont, and the two are planning to tie the knot in Spain, where same-sex couples may marry.

What Christopher doesn't know of course is that Emeric and the rest of the Dumont family are once again actors who have been coached, even though he must surely have been aware of the "concept" of the show (yes there is such a thing apparently) when it first aired in 2005.

Or perhaps he didn't have a television.

At stake is €100,000 worth of prize money.

Ah well, never mind that the programme relies on, and reinforces stereotypes.

It's all in the name of entertainment...and money of course.

Happy viewing.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Divisions in France of over dangers of H1N1 virus

There are two quite different perspectives that have appeared in France over the past couple of days on the same story: perhaps reflecting the attitude held by many people here and elsewhere over the real dangers associated with "swine flu" - or "grippe A" (influenza A) as it's called in France.

In Sunday's edition of le Journal du Dimanche there was an interview with one of this country's most well-known doctors and a member of parliament for the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) professor Bernard Debré.

He played down the dangers of the (H1N1) virus and accused the government of over-reacting and responding to media pressure.

The following day there was a reply from fellow UMP member and minister of health, Roselyne Bachelot, who insisted in an interview with the national daily, le Figaro, that the government's response was measured and appropriate.

The crux of the matter as far as Debré is concerned is that the current strain is no more dangerous than seasonal flu and in fact could be less threatening.

Part of the problem, he insists, is the reaction there has been to the latest outbreak in light of the so-called bird flu which he describes as "Being very dangerous to human beings with a mortality rate of 60 to 65 per cent but at the same time less contagious because it's difficult to cross from species to species."

"This (H1N1) flu isn't dangerous. We've even realised that it could be less threatening than seasonal flu," he said.

"At the moment there have been around 800 deaths worldwide and the southern hemisphere has undoubtedly reached its peak of contamination," he added.

"Of course the virus could become more virulent, but that's not the opinion that has been expressed by a majority of virologists."

Debré says that the reaction from the French government has to an extent only served to increase fear among the general public. But at the same time he admits that governments around the world have had their hands forced somewhat.

"From the moment the World Health Organisation started issuing daily reports and holding press conferences, governments really didn't have an option but to follow that lead," he told le Journal du Dimanche.

"It's my contention that the French government has come under pressure because of the political over-dramatisation within the media of the risks the virus presents."

The flip side of the argument of course comes from Bachelot, who told le Figaro that as far as she was concerned the government's reaction to the threat had been the right one.

"I treat this pandemic very seriously and I don't base my approach on the opinion of politicians or try to make a media splash," she said.

"From the beginning I've consulted the most renowned and respected experts - French and European - and if we look at what they have had to say in the media about the government's response to this health crisis, they point to it having been in proportion and correct."

In answering Debré's assertion that the virus isn't dangerous and is no more harmful than the possible effects of seasonal flu, Bachelot perhaps not surprisingly, is more cautious.

She admits that the virus might not be particularly harmful at the moment, but its ability to spread quickly requires that governments have a system in place that can cope with a wider outbreak.

And for Bachelot, the threat lies in the potential rate of infection based on statistics for those who catch seasonal flu.

"On average seasonal flu kills around 2,500 people in France - among 2,5 million people who catch it," she says.

"Some experts say that this virus could lead to around 20 million people becoming ill and that presents a potentially serious problem to public health even if the virus remains relatively harmless in many cases."

The number of cases of "grippe A" reported here in France so far has been 483, of which none has been deadly.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Kandinsky in Paris - battling the crowds

Art lovers will probably be very well aware that there's a major retrospective of the life and works of the Russian-born painter and art theorist, Wassily Kandinsky, showing in the French capital at the moment.

After its huge success at Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum, the exhibition is nearing the end of its run at the Centre Pompidou, where it has been since April 8.

Visitors get the chance to follow chronologically the artist's life in an exhibition which brings together around 100 paintings on loan from "three of the largest public holdings of Kandinsky's work": the Centre Pompidou itself, along with the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich and New York's Solomon R Guggenheim museum.

As with any major retrospective - and especially one that has been heavily marketed (there are umpteen special travel offers available for tourists to "come and admire") - it is something of a victim of its own success.

The exhibition has of course been "packing 'em in" and it's hard to choose a moment when you might really be able to appreciate it as you might perhaps wish.

For those hoping to spend time admiring Kandinsky's work in relative peace and quiet - forget it. You won't be alone - or probably anywhere near it.

The crowds seem to be enormous, no matter which day of the week you choose, and Sunday mornings especially would appear to be a time to be avoided at all costs.

That seems to be the occasion when young couples, complete with pushchairs and less-than-appreciative infants descend on the place, and even listening to explanations on rented headsets can be a little difficult over the background noise of wailing babies and parents "hushing" rather loudly.

Oh yes and a word on those headsets perhaps.

They are undoubtedly a great way for the lazier, ill-informed or time-pressed visitor to get up to speed quickly on the artist's intent and to put everything into its historical context and "meaning".

They're a common (and welcome?) addition to many a museum.

But as always they should come with a warning. Don't become a slave to them, no matter how convenient they might be.

At the Kandinsky exhibition the numbering sometimes seems a little haywire so you could, for instance, start off the whole tour inadvertently pressing a particular button and discover that you haven't actually begun at the beginning and there other recordings offering descriptions and explanations of earlier works.

It's an easy mistake to make, but fear not. A little wander around will put you on the right track and with a bit of luck, a deal of perseverance and patience, you'll be able to leave the exhibition more informed than when you arrived.

And there's no doubt that should you have managed to shut out all the unwelcome extraneous distractions and immersed yourself in Kandinsky's search for abstraction, you'll have spent a privileged couple of hours in the company of an undeniable master of his genre.

The Kandinsky exhibition runs at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until August 10.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

House-hunting in Paris - still a pricey affair

Everyone knows that the City of Lights can be an expensive place to live, and as in most capitals there always seems to be a shortage of reasonably-priced accommodation for rent and finding a deal when buying a property has never been easy.

For a while of course it was pretty much a "sellers market", and indeed last year was especially buoyant (again) with a reported increase in prices asked (and obtained) from November 2007 to November 2008 of around 12 per cent.

The average cost per square metre across the capital - and there were of course differences depending on the popularity and desirability of the area - was a handsome €8,500.

Or for those of you counting in $US - over 12,000!

With the credit crunch though has come a drop in demand and a corresponding fall in prices, around as much as 10 per cent according to some estate agents.

Still that hasn't stopped silly prices appearing in estate agents' windows (or on the Net) for accommodation that is sometimes no bigger than the proverbial broom cupboard.

Such is the case of one "apartment" currently for sale in the capital's ultra-trendy IV arrondissement or le Marais.

Should you get a chance to take a wander along the rue Rambuteau and stop to press your nose against the window of one particular agence immobilier to see what's on offer, you'll discover the following "charming" LITTLE (to be read in the biggest capital letters possible) flat advertised.

The description: one room, first floor, good location - price tag €47,000 ($US 66,700).

Seems reasonable? Well it certainly isn't a great deal of money, except the "one room" apartment also has in brackets "cabine" or cubicle/booth, which given the 6.6 square metres of "space" would seem more than appropriate although it might well refer to the presence of a shower.

Oh yes, a mighty that works out at...let's see €7,100 ($US 10,000) per square metre. Ha ha. A mere snip.

But according to the "details" it doesn't have its own toilet and the new proprietor would have to share one on the landing...presumably with owners of other similarly over-priced but all-importantly well-located "booths".

The trouble is of course that estate agents will probably tell you that any asking price is a "realistic" one so long as the market can maintain it and someone out there is willing to cough up the readies or find the required credit.

And indeed the booth from le Marais, while undoubtedly small, actually falls within the "accepted" range of prices being asked for what (admittedly) might turn out to be more habitable property.

For example there's a two-roomed 40m2 apartment for sale in the same arrondissement for €350,000 or €8,750 per square metre (around $US 497,000 or $US 12,400), and another one with just one room at an asking price of €200,000 ($284,000) for 21m2.

Do the maths and you come out with a rate of €9,500 ($13,500) per square metre, which could lead you to thinking that the "booth" isn't such bad value after all!

Maybe not though.

Just for the record, all prices of course include agency fees. Well aren't you pleased about that.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Economic crisis? What crisis?

It's good to see politicians setting a good example to the rest of us, especially at a time when most countries are grappling with the economic downturn and in France, as elsewhere, the short term forecast at least is far from rosy.

As you might have read there was a government reshuffle here a couple of weeks ago, a chance for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to get rid of some ministers who hadn't been performing up to his standards, bring in some new faces and above all reward those close to him.

Among them of course was Brice Hortefeux, Sarkozy's long-time buddy and political ally who, back in June 2007 had been given the newly-created immigration portfolio, switched to employment five months ago and finally got his hands on the office (apart perhaps from that of prime minister) which he had been widely believed to have coveted when he replaced Michèle Alliot-Marie as minister of the interior.

With the change of ministry of course came a change of staff, offices, and cars.

Yes ministers need cars (plural) and chauffeurs to speed them from one appointment to another, departments need pool cars and they (the vehicles) have to be up to the job.

Fair enough, not just a simple perk of the job, but undoubtedly a necessity.

Except in its latest edition, the weekly car magazine Auto Plus, has a few harsh words for the reported decision of the newly-appointed interior minister, to order two new cars unnecessarily.

According to the magazine, Hortefeux, ordered two brand spanking new, top-of-the-range, luxury (enough superlatives?) Citroën C6 cars. Yes "luxury" exists within the French car industry too.

The cost - a cool €100,000.

As is often the case in stories such as these, the version from the ministry tells a different tale with a spokesman, Gérard Gachet, issuing a formal denial saying that Hortefeux hadn't ordered any new vehicle.

Hortefeux hasn't ordered new cars, "He's using the one that was already at the disposal of Michèle Alliot-Marie," he told the Le Parisien.

"The other car is a Citroën C6, ordered before he took over office and part of the regular renewal of vehicles," he continued.

"It'll be delivered at the end of this year and will replace a car that has been in service since 2007."

So a pretty open-and shut case with the denial suggesting that Auto Plus had got its story wrong.

No so, insists the author of the report, the deputy editor-in-chief, Pierre-Olivier Savreux

He's sticking by wrote saying that he has a source from the car manufacturer itself that the order for two (rather than one) cars was placed after Hortefeux took over at the interior ministry.

And Savreux even challenges the ministry to prove otherwise.

"If the ministry actually wants to send us a copy of the order (showing its version as to when it was placed) then I'll be prepared to make a correction in the next issue," he told the website Rue89.

So Auto Plus stands by its story while Hortefeux's ministry maintains its position.

Perhaps when the court of financial auditors makes public the accounts of the various departments for the year ending 2009, just as it did last week for the Elysée palace during 2008, we'll know which version is true.

But by then of course it'll be too late.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Royal breaks her silence, but the French Socialist party soap opera continues

In the midst of all the recent bickering within the French Socialist party, perhaps one thing stands out. Ségolène Royal has been keeping a relatively uncharacteristic low profile.

But on Tuesday she spoke out and against all expectations, lent her support to the woman who narrowly beat her in last year's battle for the leadership of the party, Martine Aubry.

"I support all Socialists including Martine Aubry, who is working, who is making an effort and who is trying lift the party up again." she told journalists at a conference on Tuesday.

"I just don't accept that we reduce the future of a great political force of the Left to a daily series of media gossip."

Perhaps not a ringing endorsement, but at least it wasn't Royal "putting the knife in" as she has shown herself willing and able to do on more than one occasion in the past.

Don't forget that Royal has been the proverbial thorn in the side of many within the Socialist party for quite some time. She was of course its candidate in the 2007 presidential election, and the focus of much furore in last year's leadership fight.

That went down to the wire after 233,000 card-carrying party members failed to choose a leader at the Congress of Rheims in November and later in the same month were forced to vote twice to separate Aubry and Royal.

Even though the nod finally went to the mayor of Lille, Royal (and her supporters) characterised the vote as "rigged, fraudulent and flawed". You can read more details of that particular soap opera here.

Royal can perhaps afford to be "gracious" at the moment as there's another high profile figure in the party providing more than enough material for political headline writers - Manuel Valls.

And he just happened to be one of Royal's most loyal "lieutenants" in her unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the party last year.

In a nutshell, although nothing is ever that simple with the French Socialist party, Aubry sent the outspoken 46-year-old parliamentarian and mayor of the Parisian suburb of Evry, a letter last week in which she basically issued him an ultimatum: "Stop criticising the party, or leave!"

Naturally it found its way into the national media, and Valls was quick to respond, telling anyone who would listen that he had no intention of being dictated to.

"I'm not going to leave the Socialist party," he told Le Monde (amongst others). "And I'm not going to keep quiet."

And on Monday he took the row one step further writing an article in the British daily, the Financial Times, in which he reiterated his fears for the future of the party.

"The French Socialist party is at risk of dying out," he wrote. "Following three unsuccessful attempts at the presidency, the recent crushing defeat in the European elections speaks of a party in deep crisis."

Anyone even only slightly familiar with the political landscape in France will be aware that the Socialist party has been tearing itself apart for quite some time now, and usually Royal has in the thick of things.

Even when silent though she has still managed to make an impression, as the French business daily, Les Echos expressed in the form of a riddle: "She's absent and omnipresent at the same time. Who is she?"

So what of this apparent solidarity with Aubry, a women with whom she hardly sees eye-to-eye?

Cynics might say that it's all part to a longer-term strategy, after all Royal's ambitions are hardly a secret.

There are regional elections due in France next year, and Royal undoubtedly wants to retain her home power base by gaining re-election as president of her region, Poitou-Charentes.

That would be just the first step in her campaign to be the Socialist party's candidate for a much more important election in 2012 - for the president of the country.

And one in which Royal would dearly love to win the keys to the Elysée Palace.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The German pornographic TV commercials that "weren't"

It's a story that has created a buzz on the Internet in recent days; two commercials for a soft drink, allegedly made in Germany and banned in that country for being unsuitable for television - read "pornographic".

As is often the case, both videos quickly attracted the attention of the social media worldwide, being uploaded on to YouTube and other sites and bloggers making their own assumptions and writing their own headlines based on what everyone else was talking about.

"Sprite Oral Sex Ad Banned In Germany", ran a story on Monday on the Huffington Post, which was far from being alone in deciding that two plus two equalled five and at the same time neglecting to think that there might be something more behind the story.

And according to the website of the weekly alternative newspaper, the New York Press, that was exactly the case.

Neither of the two videos was made in Germany (although the language heard on them certainly is German, albeit it with English subtitles) but in Brooklyn and similarly neither was intended for television broadcast.

Instead the goal, according to one of the "actors" featured in the first video, a 23-year-old musician John Jones IV, was to create a buzz and draw attention to the product.

"It's a spec commercial—it's not even real," he told the newspaper, explaining his reasons for agreeing to appear in what is by any stretch of the imagination far from suitable family viewing as, "I moved (to New York) to break into the music industry, but anything that'll pay my bills, I go with."

Perhaps though, as the French website pointed out in its coverage of the story, it didn't actually take a rocket scientist to work out what was behind the two videos in the first place.

"As yet we've not managed to find any proof that these videos were destined to be broadcast on television," said the site.

And there was hardly uproar in the German media over the alleged television ban, with bloggers from that country quickly realising that the whole thing was more "fake" than "real".

Ah well. That's the beauty of the Internet.

Oh yes, here are those two videos for those of you who are interested. And yes, they're far from being your run-of-the-mill television commercials.

So maybe try to keep the children from watching them.

Beach time in the City of Lights

Paris Plages is back for the eighth time. It's a month-long event that transforms part of the banks of the river Seine that runs through the French capital into beaches - as the name suggests.

Organised by the City authorities it's described as a "Seine-side holiday" and doubtless will come as a welcome distraction for the increasing number of French - Parisians included - who, given the economic downturn, won't have the spare centimes to afford an annual break.

Indeed "summertime solidarity" is the theme the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is stressing for this year's event, which officially opened on Monday and will run until August 20.

Love it or loathe it, there's no denying the mark Paris Plages has made on the French capital since it was inaugurated back in 2002.

For sure motorists who have the misfortune of discovering their regular routes blocked because the busy voie Georges Pompidou is closed to traffic and finding alternative routes can be a nightmare, might be less than happy.

But even the grouchiest city dweller working through the month of August (yes, Paris might traditionally all but "shuts shop" for a month, nevertheless there are still some who make the journey to and from their offices each day) would be hard pushed to find fault in a concept which has welcomed an ever-increasing number of visitors every year.

And let's face it, if it were such a bad thing, then other cities, such as Toulouse in the southwest of France or the Belgian capital, Brussels, wouldn't end up copying the idea.

Sand, palms trees, deck chairs and ice cream - all the elements necessary for a beach holiday - slap bang in the centre of one of the world's major capital cities!

However even if the idea of Paris Plages is to give those living in the region a taste of what they might be able to experience in traditional seaside locations, it isn't just about beaches.

Sure visitors can practise their canoeing skills, take in a game of pétanque, or enjoy any number of water sports (and others too) that might be on offer elsewhere, but there are also a whole host of cultural and educational events organised to run throughout the month.

Every Sunday for example there are guided walking tours offering visitors the chance to learn more about the capital and its history. And a number of concerts from artists such as Charlie Winston and Amadou and Miriam have also been scheduled.

If, in your opinion, exercise and culture all require a little too much effort - and of course the weather plays ball - then there's always the option of simply relaxing on a deck chair on one of the beaches to soak up the sun.

A couple of points worth mentioning if you're planning a trip to Paris intent on enjoying the beaches.

Swimming in the Seine itself is not allowed. Instead there's a floating pool for visitors to splash around in.

And although allowed on many other beaches up and down the country, nude sunbathing is a big no-no, as is what would be considered "indecent or inappropriate clothing".

So be careful what you wear and don't take off all your garb.

Bonnes vacances.

Monday, 20 July 2009

A new challenge for Rachida Dati - mayor of Paris?

Well if the latest report in the national daily, le Parisien, is to be believed, that's exactly what the former French justice minister and recently-elected European parliamentarian has in mind.

Dati apparently wants to be the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire's (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP), candidate for the post of mayor of the capital in the next municipal elections, due in 2014.

Yes it might seem years away, but Dati is reportedly gunning for a return to the domestic political arena.

She's already mayor of the capital's VII arrondissement, having won election in March 2008 after being parachuted in as the UMP's candidate for what was to all intents and purposes a shoo-in for the party.

And now apparently her sights are set on even bigger things.

The paper reports that Dati rang the French prime minister, François Fillon, at the weekend, and left a message on his answerphone making clear her motivation and determination to make a return to the domestic political scene.

"Dear François, I just wanted to tell you that the position of mayor really interest me and there's a strong possibility that I'll put my name forward," she's reported as saying.

"Especially as the last time we spoke about it, you said you weren't interested."

Fillon, says the paper, responded shortly afterwards with an sms saying he had listened to her message.

There are perhaps a couple of major obstacles standing in the way of Dati's ambitions.

Not least of them is the fact that she doesn't have an easy relationship with some advisors close to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Indeed they are widely thought to be behind the distance Sarkozy put between himself and his erstwhile protégée last year.

Remember he brought Dati into the government in June 2007 as the first person, let alone woman, of North African descent to hold a top ministerial position.

It was generally seen as a pretty smart choice by Sarkozy as part of his policy of "opening up" the government and French politics to make it better reflect political and ethnic diversity in the country.

But her management skills, extravagant lifestyle, departmental overspending and perceived incompetence (from political critics and the judiciary alike) often saw her become the focus of media ridicule.

She gradually lost favour with the president to the extent of first being excluded from the so-called "G7" or inner circle of ministers consulted over future government strategy and then being "strongly encouraged" by Sarkozy himself to stand for election to the European parliament.

Granted, he was reported as promising her a return to the national scene at some undisclosed future date, but it was hard to overcome the feeling that she had in fact been pushed into standing.

Another no-less substantial hurdle perhaps to any chance Dati might have of becoming the party's candidate for the position is the decision by Fillon of exactly what he wants to do in the future.

He is also being touted as being in the running for the same job as the UMP attempts to wrest control from the Socialist Party in 2014. That party's current incumbent, Bertrand Delanoë is thought unlikely to seek a third term.

Mind you Fillon's name has also been linked to a possible job in Europe as a commissioner, or better still as the first President of the European Council, should the Lisbon treaty ever see the light of day.

But that of course is all speculation and a still a way off.

For the moment the focus is once again on Dati and, says Le Parisien, she wants to show how serious she is about remaining a serious contender for the post in 2014 by involving herself - either directly or indirectly - in regional elections scheduled in France for next year.

Dati may only be freshly installed in Brussels and Strasbourg, but that doesn't mean she's going to stay out of the headlines back home.

A royal cocktail almost stumps English cricket bosses

A potentially embarrassing clash of two Great British institutions was only narrowly avoided last week and, as has often been the case in the past, the culprit was in a sense French.

On Friday Queen Elizabeth II was a guest at Lords in north London, the "home" of cricket, to attend day two of the second test in the Ashes series between England and Australia.

And as is befitting whenever and wherever the Queen is invited, every effort was made to ensure that things were "just right".

Except the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which owns and runs the ground had overlooked one particular regal request ahead of the visit - a bottle of Dubonnet, that ruby red, French aperitif with a spicy aroma, reputed to be one of Her Majesty's favourite (lunchtime) tipples.

When the Powers that Be realised there was none on the premises, an MCC committee room steward, Brian Levitt, was promptly dispatched to buy a bottle. But when he dropped in at the local off-licence he was reportedly told it wasn't in stock as nobody had asked for it for 30 years.

Levitt had better luck at a nearby supermarket and, bottle in hand, hotfooted it back to the ground.

But he probably hadn't reckoned on a notoriously over-eager gate steward zealously imposing rules set by the MCC itself; spectators are permitted to bring only small amounts of beer and wine into the hallowed ground, but certainly not spirits of any kind.

A right royal dilemma and all the potential of becoming an ignominious affair for the venerable MCC was avoided with a quick call to its chief executive, Keith Bradshaw, who gave the green light for the bottle to be brought into the venue.

So an "incident" was avoided, the Queen got her drink and, as should befit such occasions, never had the slightest inkling of the behind-the-scenes last-minute kerfuffle.

For those of you unfamiliar with the drink, after all it's perhaps not as popular today as it once was (although its manufacturer insists that it's "the number-one selling aperitif brand in the United States"), Dubonnet is a fortified wine-based aperitif blended with herbs and spices and created in the mid-19th century by the Parisian chemist Joseph Dubonnet.

It was originally used to mask the taste of quinine taken by French Foreign legion troops in North Africa to prevent malaria, but has also become a mainstay in cocktails and aperitifs.

Just for the record, the Queen apparently gets her love of the drink from her late mother, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and A BBC television documentary broadcast a couple of years ago "The Royal Family At Work" showed her butler mixing her favourite tipple, Dubonnet and gin.


Sunday, 19 July 2009

Alvin Ailey in Paris - dancing with attitude

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AADT) is back in Paris, playing to packed houses in a three-week stint at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

Even those with only a passing interest in contemporary dance are likely to have heard of Alvin Ailey, and if you haven't and are lucky enough to catch one of the company's performances either here in Paris or the other European venues during its international tour, you'll be in for a treat.

It's all part of the company's 50th anniversary celebrations and coincides with the French capital's festival of dance "Les Etés de la Danse", now in its fifth year and aimed at (so the promotional material goes) bringing "quality dance performances to fans" and at the same time "allowing a wider section of the public to discover an art form all too often reserved for those 'in the know'".

Indeed what better introduction could there be for anyone to dance than the AADT? Its founder, the late Alvin Ailey is one of those choreographers acclaimed for bringing both African-American cultural expression and the tradition of American modern dance to stages around the world.

And its current artistic director, Judith Jamison, who took over the reigns when Ailey died in 1989, has very much continued along the same vein, ensuring that the 30-strong company retains its legacy of being a "cultural ambassador to the world".

But how do you possibly reduce 50 years into a couple of hours? Well the answer is you don't. It's just not possible.

Instead what Paris audiences are getting at the moment is a selection of some of the most memorable routines, either choreographed by Ailey or inspired by him, and to an extent what you see depends on which of the three different performance you've booked.

This past weekend saw the company performing programme B, and although it didn't include the roof-raising classic, "Revelations" - arguably Ailey's most recognisable work, setting dance to spiritual, gospel and blues music - there was still more than enough for those in the audience to catch a glimpse of the genius of the man, the legacy he has left us through the work of other choreographers he influenced, and proof that music in not the only "universal language".

From the force and energy of Twyla Tharp's choreography in "The Golden Section" to accompany music by David Byrne, when the dancers power their way through a series of seemingly effortless moves which to mere mortals would surely be impossible, to Hans van Manen's three-man "Solo" with its stunning agility and grace set to Bach.

Then Camille A. Brown's work "The Groove to Nobody's Business" in which the dancers add a new dimension (is it possible) from the very opening strains of Ray Charles' music and a score by Brandon McCune as "strangers meeting at a subway station"

And finally - sadly all too soon - "Love Stories", choreographed by Jamison herself along with Robert Battle and Rennie Harris with some reworked music of (Little) Stevie Wonder, touches that had the audience predictably on its feet demanding more and getting just the briefest of encores.

The whole performance (with breaks) runs just short of three hours. The dancers make the transitions in musical styles appear effortless if the expressions on their faces are anything to go by. But of course it's surely far from being that even though each sequence slips seamlessly into the next.

The AADT will be performing here in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet until July 26, then it's off to the Tivoli concert hall in the Danish capital Copenhagen from September 14-20, winding up the international tour in Athens from September 24-27.

There's really only one recommendation to make. Go see it if you get the chance.

Friday, 17 July 2009

A French end-of-school marking mix-up

The academic year is over in France, the baccalauréat exams have been sat and the results published, and students up and down the country have, depending on how they fared of course, been rejoicing (or not) and making plans for their future.

Except for around 800 of them in the Ile de France region, the area including and surrounding the capital, who received the wrong results and will have to wait a little longer to find out how they did.

Even the most brilliant of students can crack under exam pressure, but when around 800 end up with grades totally out of keeping with their academic records, suspicions are, not surprisingly, quickly roused.

Such has been the case in and around Paris over the past week, where the results of students having sat the baccalauréat, or bac as it's more "affectionately" and popularly known here, didn't quite tally with what had been expected.

Last Friday the results were published on the Internet, and there were some surprises, not necessarily pleasant ones, not just for the students, but also parents and teachers, in the results the French paper - of all things.

And among the schools left scratching their heads over what could have happened were some of the capital's most prestigious lycées including Henri IV, Louis-le-Grand, Claude-Monet and Stanislas.

"Around a dozen students rang to say how surprised they had been to find out that they hadn't done as well as they had expected," said Daniel Chapellier, the director of the Stanislas lycée.

"Similarly there were those who had pretty average results throughout the academic year who were surprised at how well they had done," he added.

Then there was the peculiarity of two students (again) from the Stanislas lycée, who were informed that they had been absent from the exams, even though they had in fact sat them!

A case not unfamiliar to those who remember a similar story covered here a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of anomalies and subsequent complaints might well be expected, especially as around 331,000 students sat the bac in France this year. But when there are around 800 cases, all concentrated in one particular area, there's likely to be something awry.

In stepped the le service interacadémique des examens et concours, which discovered that lo and behold there had indeed been a mistake in the marking process.

"Investigations show that the results entered by a person, not a machine, had been attributed to the wrong candidates," said Stéphane Kesler, the director for the Ile de France examination centre said on Thursday evening.

"It's unfortunate what has happened, but the error will be corrected and the proper results released as soon as possible."

So those 800 students will have to wait a little longer to find out exactly how they did, the previous set of results - released on the Internet - will not count, and obviously for some there'll be disappointment.

It surely makes those of us whose school years are a dim and distant recollection, glad that those days are behind us.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

It was all "in a kiss" - Gasquet returns to the tennis circuit

France's former number one tennis player, Richard Gasquet, has been given the all clear to rejoin the ATP tour after the International Tennis Federation (ITF) on Wednesday accepted his explanation of events surrounding his positive control for cocaine back in March.

It decided to impose a two month and 15 day suspension retroactively from May 1, effectively clearing him to return to competition immediately.

You might remember reading about Gasquet testing positive for cocaine during a tournament in Miami, one in which he didn't actually participate. He was scheduled to, but withdrew before his first round match because of a shoulder injury.

Instead the 23-year-old went partying to a nightclub, one in which the use of illegal recreational drugs - including cocaine - was well known, and where according to Gasquet, he had been "inadvertently contaminated" while kissing a girl.

He maintained his innocence at a hearing of the ITF's three-man independent anti-doping tribunal in London at the end of June. And on Wednesday the panel delivered its decision, accepting that Gasquet's version of how cocaine traces had been found in his urine was "more plausible than not" and it had "found the player to be a truthful and honest witness, and a man of integrity".

The ruling was also relatively lenient one. The ITF could have handed down a two-year suspension as it did most notably to Martina Hingis in 2007 after she tested positive for cocaine; a decision which led the former women's world number one to announce her retirement.

In reality Gasquet's punishment is more along the lines of one given in 1995 to the former top-ranked Swedish player Mats Wilander and his Czech doubles partner, Karel Novacek, who tested positive for cocaine at the French Open but denied deliberately using it. They were both suspended for three months.

"Given the unique characteristics and likely 'exceptional' circumstances of this case, it would have been unjust and disproportionate to have imposed a 12-month ban on Gasquet," read the statement issued by the ITF on Wednesday.

And that was a decision greeted with relief by the national technical director of the French tennis federation, Patrice Dominguez.

"Richard has been punished but within reason," he said.

"Of course we were concerned because there had been the risk of him being banned for two years, but the tribunal decided that would be have been disproportionate," he continued.

"It's excellent news and will allow him to return to his highest level of play."

By deciding to suspend him for a limited period from May 1, Gasquet is effectively eligible to return to the ATP tour immediately and in particular begin preparations for the US Open, the final Grand slam tournament of the year which begins at the end of August.

He has already missed both the French Open and Wimbledon.

Gasquet of course is happy that he'll be able to play once again and that his name has been cleared, but for him the past couple of months haven't been easy.

"It has been intense suffering for the past two and a half months for me, and it was terrible not to be able to play either the French Open or Wimbledon," he told national radio.

"My name has been dragged through the mud in the media but I thank all of those who have supported me throughout the whole experience."

Ah yes, it really was "all in a kiss."

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Rude, arrogant, mean and moaning. Who? The French on holiday

Guess which nationality figures yet again amongst the most unwelcome when on holiday abroad - the French

For the third consecutive year they rate poorly in a survey of hoteliers carried out on behalf of the Internet travel agency

Overall they're second from bottom, and are generally seen as rude, mean, complaining and arrogant.

So no clichés there.

Time maybe for the French to take a lesson from the Japanese, British and Canadians, those nationalities that filled the top three slots.

Bastille day (July 14) might have been an excuse for the French to show off their military might with the traditional parade down the Champs Elysées; this year's guest of honour was India.

And there was blanket morning television coverage, exhorting the wonders of the French defence capability and generally revelling in national pride.

All of course in memory of the storming of the Bastille 220 years ago and part of the country's celebration of...well...being France.

But there's perhaps a characteristic the French would like not to dwell on which has nothing to do with fierce nationalism and everything to do with how they're apparently perceived when abroad.

French tourists are pretty much the worst in the world, according to a recent study conducted amongst 4,500 hoteliers by TNS Infratest on behalf of

They ranked 27th (out of 28 countries) well behind those that headed the list and the worst-placed Europeans.

Only one nationality ranked lower than the French - the Chinese.

The survey questioned hoteliers worldwide about how they found the behaviour of guests from different countries in a number of categories including , general attitude, politeness, discretion, tendency to complain and elegance.

The result doesn't make for pleasant reading as far as the French are concerned.

For a country which likes to think of itself as having a legendary "savoir-vivre" and gallantry, simple manners and good behaviour seem to be more myth than reality, if the survey is to be believed.

The French are the least generous - leaving smaller tips - top the class in complaining and are generally perceived as "impolite (read "rude").

A simple "hello, thank you and goodbye" would not go amiss from the French, and that of course in the local language, which is seen as part of the problem when they decide to venture abroad.

"On the whole we don't speak English or at the best very little," says Timothée de Roux, Expedia's marketing director, adding with remarkable perspicacity, "We speak French which not a great deal of the rest of the world does."

Evidently the French are not quite as willing (or able) to make the effort of the top-ranking Japanese.

Apart from that perennial language problem though, there's also the claim that the French are "mean". But de Roux says the "lack of generosity" might just be a cultural thing, especially when it comes to tipping, as it's simply not a tradition among the French.

In France, "service" is usually included in the bill, whereas in the United States it's common practice to leave (at least) 15 per cent.

"In comparison with other nationalities, the French tend not to travel abroad (90 per cent of them holiday in France) and when they do hoteliers find that they're not very generous and spend less," he said.

"And there's no longer a habit of leaving a tip in France."

One bright note perhaps as far as the French are concerned is that when it comes to "discretion" they rank fourth. Apparently they make less noise than their Italian and Spanish neighbours.

But on the whole they still have a long, long way to go to match the Japanese, and for the moment at least have yet again earned the tag of being among the world's worst tourists.

Friday, 10 July 2009

French government - the comings and goings

The dust has settled somewhat on the government reshuffle announced here in France a couple of weeks ago. The new members have started to get on with their jobs as have those somewhat familiar faces that simply changed ministerial portfolios. And some of those "dismissed" have had the chance to react.

Perhaps now though is the time to reflect on whether it was, as some political commentators have suggested, simply a game of musical chairs among the favoured, the entry into government of a selected few, and if the French president's insistence in an interview with the left-of-centre weekly, Nouvel Observateur, that it was proof of his continued policy of "diversity within government", really holds up.

Of course much of the domestic and international media focussed on the new culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of the former Socialist president, François.

Although not exactly an example of a further opening up of the government to reflect all political persuasions, the name in itself resonated and was enough to capture the imagination of several headline writers.

Perhaps though the most newsworthy aspect of his appointment - apart maybe for some the fact that he is openly gay - is that Mitterrand rather forced his new boss to announce the reshuffle a day earlier than scheduled by inadvertently confirming to the French media ahead of time that he had been offered the new job.

He later apologised for his faux pas.

So Mitterrand aside, what of some of the others that left or entered the government and the rejigging of ministries.

Well first up there was the rather unceremonious departure of the former housing minister, Christine Boutin.

Whatever you might think about her very strongly pro-life (anti-abortion) views and somewhat "socially conservative" stance on homosexuality, there was understandable indignation from the now former minister in the way she learned of her dismissal; at the same time as the rest of the country when the official announcement of the "comings and goings" was made live on national television.

Appearing on the early morning show of a national radio station a few days later Boutin was in suitably combative form, saying that she somewhat miffed (to put it mildly at the way in which she had been treated.

"I learned about my dismissal along with everyone else," she said.

"I had expected to remain in government and had a meeting in the afternoon with François Fillon (the prime minister) who told me the job of housing minister 'wasn't certain' but when I said that I would be interested in the prisons portfolio, he said he would talk to the president about it and get back to me," she continued.

"I'm still waiting for that call from the prime minister."

So one more-than-aggrieved woman - and her ministry, for so long one of the declared priorities of the French president, has in a sense also been "demoted", because it's now in the hands of Benoist Apparu, who entered the government as a junior minister.

Another victim of the reshuffle was, as expected, the former culture minister Christine Albanel.

There again the close ally of the former president, Jacques Chirac, (with whom Sarkozy had always had a strained relationship) probably saw the proverbial writing on the wall, as she had been charged with trying to see through Hadopi, a bill to crack down on Internet piracy, which although passed by politicians was eventually thrown out by this country's constitutional court.

It's now back, in a revised form, once again making its way through parliament.

Albanel has remained quiet since leaving her job, although as the weekly magazine, Le Point points out, it probably came as a relief to her as her job had not been an easy one, especially after Sarkozy rather unexpectedly announced in January 2008 that he wanted to see an end to all advertising on public television - a policy which also falls within the remit of the culture minister.

It's clear that women didn't fare that well in the reshuffle. There were seven in frontline jobs before, and just four afterwards.

Alongside Boutin and Albanel, the third woman to leave the government was the former justice minister, Rachida Dati.

Her two years in office are of course well documented, she was seldom out of the headlines. And it was known in advance that she would be leaving the government to take up a seat in the European parliament after the June elections.

But this is where it gets interesting and shows a certain inconsistency in the way Sarkozy treated his ministers before and after the reshuffle.

Dati and the former agriculture minister Michel Barnier were both obliged to step down after those June elections.

Sarkozy had made it a rule, if you like - a minister couldn't be in two places at the same time.

Plus he argued that it was a signal that the "best" were being sent to Brussels and Strasbourg, and was proof that France took its role within the EU seriously.

But somehow that seemed to be "forgotten" in the reshuffle as the case of Brice Hortefeux, a long-time friend and close ally of the French president, illustrates. He rather unexpectedly found himself elected to serve for the next five years in Brussels and Strasbourg, but will not take up his seat.

Instead, he has become the new interior minister - a job he has long wanted - replacing Michèle Alliot-Marie, who takes over Dati's old job at the justice ministry (stop the music and find your seats).

And if that were not enough, a new member of the government, Nora Berra, will also have problems fulfilling her obligations to Europe. She too won election to the European parliament.

Because she has entered the government in the newly-created post of junior minister for the elderly.

But this is where it gets really interesting perhaps, because as Sarkozy himself says, Berra is proof of the very ethnic diversity in government in which he seems so proud.

The 46-year-old is the daughter of an Algerian soldier and (cynics might say) in a sense a less controversial and more suitable "replacement" for the now-departed Dati.

And of course if you're really looking for confirmation that diversity remains high on Sarkozy's list of "must haves" for a French government, you need look no further than the fate of Rama Yade.

Granted, she might no longer be the junior minister for human rights - the post no longer exists even though when Sarkozy came to power he said that respect for human rights had to be a vital part of France’s foreign policy, and created a ministry.

Instead she has been become junior minister for sport, a post from which even Yade might have difficulty making her usual controversial statements.

Of course Fadela Amara is still around as a potent symbol of Sarkozy's desire to break with the politics of the past and demonstrate diversity within government. The Socialist politician of Algerian Kabyle descent has kept her job as junior minister for urban policy and has a reputation for speaking her mind.

So there you have it. One interpretation of some of the changes in the French government, but let's leave the last word to the president.

"France needs a team that's diverse", said Sarkozy in that interview with Nouvel Observateur, and as far as he's concerned that's exactly what the reshuffle demonstrates.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Missing French rambler alive and well - safe and talking

By any stretch of the imagination, it's an incredible story.

A French rambler who went missing on the Spanish side of the Pyrénées has been found safe and sound.

And that after having become separated from the groups she was with, falling into a ravine and then becoming completely disoriented and lost - for 11 days with little or nothing to eat or drink.

Thérèse Bordais was discovered by Spanish rescue services in the Ordesa national park on Monday alive and well, and although the 61-year-old is still in hospital recovering she has already given her first interviews describing her ordeal and her feelings at being found.

An impassioned and experienced rambler, two weeks ago Bordais was back in an area she had visited before, but became separated from the rest of the group she was with.

"There were 14 of us and it was the beginning of the afternoon," she told Le Télégramme as she described what had happened.

"We were looking for a path we had already taken several years ago but we couldn't find it, and that's when we decided to retrace our steps."

But that was also the time when Bordais admitted she made what turned out to be a decisive mistake.

"I left the group and went ahead of the rest," she said.

"In doing so I committed an error I shouldn't have made."

Night began to fall and Bordais realising that it was unlikely she would be found immediately, looked for somewhere to sleep and in doing so slipped and became completely disoriented.

I broke a tooth and I started bleeding," she told French national radio. "I didn't have any more water and I was cold during the night especially when it started to rain."

Even though rescue teams continued searching for her, and she heard helicopters passing overhead, Bordais spent the following 10 days all by herself, gradually all but giving up hope of being found.

And then on Monday - salvation as rescue teams spotted some of the clothes she had laid out on the ground.

"I was lying down, sheltering, and then suddenly there was a helicopter right above me and I quickly assembled my belongings and was ready to go within 30 seconds," she said, recounting the moment when she realised that she had been found.

Relief for Bordais, but also for her husband Marcel, who had spent the first three days after her disappearance helping to look for her, before returning to the couple's home in Brittany in northwestern France.

"It's an incredible story and one difficult to believe," he said.

"To spend 11 days with very little to eat or drink ...and it was horrible to think that we might never have found her again."

And Bordais, who is due to be released from hospital and will be able to fly home at the weekend says that even though the experience hasn't put her off rambling, she has no desire to tackle the mountainous region again.

"I would go rambling once more," she said. "But the mountains - never again."

A new song from Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Music lovers pin back your ears, the rumours have been confirmed.

France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, has been back in the recording studio.

This time around though it has not been as a singer but as a songwriter.

Bruni-Sarkozy has written one of the tracks for the upcoming album of one of this country's first "girls of rock 'n roll" and now a long-established star of the French musical scene, Sylvie Vartan.

A former wife of (French) rock music icon Johnny Hallyday, Vartan's new album, "Toutes peines confondues" is due for release on September 14, and among the tracks composed especially for her is "Je chante le blues" penned by none other than Bruni-Sarkozy.

In what is probably one of this country's worst-kept recent music industry secrets, an extract from the recording was played on national radio on Tuesday morning with the "revelation" that it would be "Vartan's first single to be taken from the upcoming album.

What's more it's Bruni-Sarkozy first "new" song since becoming first lady and taking up residence at the president's Elysée palace. Although she released her own album - her third - "Comme si de rien n'etait" last July, the bulk of those songs were written before she had even met the French president.

Even though Vartan's decision to release the track as her first single might have been something of a scoop for radio listeners on Wednesday morning, the same cannot be said for the news that the two women had been working together.

Back in March, the weekly news magazine, L'Express, told its readers that the Bulgarian-born 64-year-old (Vartan) had asked the Italian-born 41-year-old (Bruni-Sarkozy) to write a song for her and that the deed had been done and the track recorded.

There's even an extract that has been up and playing on YouTube since March, although it has so far only received a little over 10,000 hits.

For Bruni-Sarkozy lovers and/or those of you who enjoyed the breathless, gasping sounds of the French first lady's voice and gentle guitar strumming on "Comme si de rien n'etait" the new single from Vartan will have more than a familiar ring to it.

Except that is for the voice, which as you can hear is most definitely NOT that of the model-turned singer-turned first lady.

All that can be hoped perhaps is that Vartan's album, with other tracks written by well-known and successful French singer-songerwriters such as Marc Lavoine and Didier Barbelivien won't have the same lacklustre record sales as Bruni-Sarkoy's last offering.

Even though it officially achieved domestic sales of over 185,000, that figure took into account albums still on stock in the stores, a common practice for the music industry to massage the real figures (you can read about that here).

Vartan's new single and album are to be released to coincide with a series of concerts she'll be giving in Paris in September.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

An iceberg in Paris

Anyone in the French capital on Tuesday might have done something of a double take as they passed along the river Seine.

Because not far away from the city's world-famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, they would have seen an iceberg.

It was, of course, not a natural phenomenon, but a 16-metre one constructed by the environmental organisation Greenpeace, and was meant to serve as a timely reminder to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other world leaders that global warming and climate are issues that need to be tackled.

Timely as well as symbolic, because it came as Sarkozy, along with United States president, Barack Obama, Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and leaders of Britain, Canada, Germany Italy and Japan along with European Union representatives were preparing to meet in L'Aquilia, Italy for the G8 summit which opens on Wednesday.

At the base of the structure, Greenpeace had also placed placards reading "Sarkozy : climate leadership now!" and "G8 : climate leadership now!", once again a call for leaders to show action to back up their promises as far as the environmental organisation was concerned.

And the director of Greenpeace, France, Pascal Husting, had few words of praise for the "efforts" of the French president, who has made environmental issues a centrepiece of his domestic political agenda.

"Nicolas Sarkozy has made a number of speeches and claims to be the champion in the battle against global warming," he said in a statement.

"But he has so far failed to show the political will to really do anything about it."

Husting also insisted that Europe could "and should" take the lead in the battle against global warming "in light of the current inability of the Barack Obama, to fulfil that role."

Climate change will be one of the issues topping the agenda during the G8 summit, and many environmental experts expect leaders to make their strongest statement yet on global warming with an agreement that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 50 per cent by 2050.

Once again heavy on the symbolism perhaps, the Greenpeace iceberg is due to be taken down on Wednesday, the day the G8 opens.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Mathieu Montcourt - death of a tennisman

His name probably isn't one that is on the lips of many a sports fans, but on Tuesday, French tennis player Mathieu Montcourt made the headlines for the saddest of reasons.

The body of the 24-year-old was found in front of his apartment in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt in the early hours of the morning, and police are investigating the circumstances of his death.

Initial reports suggest that Montcourt died of a pulmonary embolism.

According to police the body of the 24-year-old was found in the early hours of Tuesday morning by his girlfriend on the staircase of the apartment block in which he lived.

An autopsy is due to be held on Wednesday to discover the exact causes of the player's early death.

Montcourt turned professional in 2002 and although his wasn't a glittering career on a par with his better-known French contemporaries such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils or Gilles Simon for example, Montcourt was placed 119th in the world in the latest rankings released on Monday.

More regularly seen on the Challenge tour in Europe, his most recent appearance in a Grand Slam tournament was in the French Open at Roland Garros in June, where he made it through to the second round.

Perhaps part of the explanation for Montcourt's failure to progress more quickly in the rankings was that a cloud had been hanging over his career for several months.

In August last year he was fined and suspended for eight weeks by the ATP for betting on tennis matches back in 2005.

He took the case to appeal and in May this year the Lausanne-based Court of arbitration for sport reduced the suspension to six weeks.

Interviewed on national radio, Michael Llodra, fellow French tennis professional and a close friend of Montcourt on the professional circuit, expressed his shock.

'It's horrible, tragic," he said.

"I've been upset ever since I heard the news. To go like that at 24 years of age is terrible."

Monday, 6 July 2009

A slice of life in France - as seen through the back door - Joigny

Many French have been on the move this past weekend - quite literally so.

It was the start of the summer holidays: the period when the capital's major railway stations are usually chock-a-block with travellers, the airports witness a surge in those looking to make a quick getaway and there's the almost traditional chaos on the country's motorways.

The first weekend of July this year proved to be no exception to that rule with national radio reporting at midday on Saturday alone, a peak of around 400 kilometres of tailbacks as many took to their cars.

In spite of the busy start, this year is expected to be a tough one for the country's tourist industry.

Indeed studies carried out a few months ago repeatedly indicated that many here would be tightening their belts with anything up to 51 per cent saying they would be "staying at home" rather than taking to the skies for far flung destinations.

Whether that'll turn out to be the case of course will become clear as the summer progresses and the official figures start rolling in.

For the moment though, the juilletists, those who take their break in July, have begun their customary break, while the aoûtiens, who surprise, surprise, plump for August, are still at work.

France of course is a country steeped in history, with some spectacular scenery, and even the most incapable of photographers is up to the job of snapping at least one picture worth sharing especially in the days of the digital camera.

While the south has some of the best weather and never fails to attract millions of sun worshippers, the western coastline is also pretty much of a tourist magnet. Both the mountain regions of the Alps and the Pyrénées offer stunning all-year-round possibilities to vacationers, and so the list goes on and on.

In fact the visitor is spoilt for choice and perhaps best of all, wherever you choose to go there'll be the chance to sample the local tipple and tickle those tastebuds.

But away from the most obvious destinations, there's also a way of seeing another side of France - through the back door if you like - via the network of canals that run the length and breadth of the country.

They offer a more relaxed and slightly slower alternative and it's a way to sample much of the natural beauty France has to offer as well as soaking up more culture and history than you can probably manage.

There are plenty of companies offering boats for hire and a cruising holiday can perhaps most be compared to being a sort of caravan-on-the-water experience - without the traffic jams - where you can change location as much (or as little) as you like and dictate the pace yourself.

It's also the kind of holiday that opens up the chance to visit places that might otherwise not appear on the traditional tourist's agenda.

One such is the case of the area around Joigny on the river Yonne in northern Burgundy, just where the rolling hills of the countryside begin and the food and drink starts getting very interesting.

It's just over two hours (by car) from the capital and in these belt-tightening times is the ideal place for a weekend break or a longer more relaxed stay.

It's the sort of town which perhaps in more prosperous times, when Parisians were willing and able to dig a little deeper into their pockets, might have been second-home territory.

With just over 10,000 people, it's small but with some stunning architecture that reflects its history throughout the centuries.

The grand half-timbered medieval buildings, almost lean in towards each other along the town centre's narrow streets, although many could do with a little bit of TLC.

It can also be the starting point for a trip up the river towards Sens, passing lazily through Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, or heading off in the other direction to Auxerre and the beginning of over 1,000 kilometres of navigable canals.

Whichever you choose, you can determine for yourself how fast and how far you go as there really is no rush to get anywhere in particular

The locks are easy to negotiate and manageable for even the most vehement couch potato, so you can sit back, relax and simply enjoy the scenery...oh yes, and try your hand at taking some snapshots.

A slice of life in France - Joigny


Some snapshots of Joigny, Villeneuve-sur Yonne and the river Yonne in Burgundy France.

Joigny - attractions

Joigny - market day

Joigny - back street

Joigny - view from port

Joigny - la Maison du Pilori


Villeneuve-sur-Yonne - Pont Saint Nicolas

Villeneuve-sur-Yonne - dungeon

Hotel/restaurant on the river at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne

Locks are easier to navigate than you might think

Armeau - on the river Yonne

Bon voyage

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