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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

French claim a breakthrough in the battle against snoring

A new device developed by a French orthodontist promises a good night's sleep for snorers...and their partners!

Help could be at hand for those among us who suffer from snoring - both the "culprits" who noisily sleep their way through the night and their partners who have to endure the rumblings and snortings coming from the other side of the bed.

On Tuesday a laboratory in the northwestern French city of Rennes launched an "innovate device" which promises to put an end to sleepless nights by reducing the level of snoring and the amount of sleeping apnoea (the temporary cessation of breathing while sleeping).

Ah yes, where have we - the long-suffering partners forced to share the night time with high volume snorts and grunts reverberating around the bedroom - heard that before?

There are countless devices out there on the market that claim to reduce snoring, endless tips on how to sleep soundly while making less of a racket and (as a last resort perhaps) surgery for those who snore.

But as the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association (yes there really is such a body) says on its website "There isn't a cure for snoring," only ways in which it can "be successfully controlled."

And that would seem to be the promise behind the product launched this week called the "Blue nocta".

It's a brace that has been developed by an orthodontist in Rennes, who spent more than 10 years testing several prototypes before coming up with the final product.

The brace itself isn't innovative, several others already exist apparently. But what is groundbreaking is "a screw that allows the patient to adjust the device before going to sleep," according to Denis Masquilier the head of the laboratory that'll be marketing it.

And here's the good news - no scrub that, GREAT news. It has been tested on around 500 people and has had a "one hundred per cent success rate".

"We mustn't forget that because of snoring and sleep apnea, sleep is disrupted," says Masquilier.

"People who snore are often people who wake up tired."

Ah M. Masquilier, that might indeed be very true, but they're surely not alone as anyone with a partner who could snore their way to Olympic gold would be able to testify.

All right so the cost of the brace at the moment is perhaps rather steep - €470 - and won't be reimbursed by the social security here in France, but it could be the answer to many people's prayers and the promise of a full night's sleep.

A Christmas present for the Superior Other One maybe?

Friday, 25 September 2009

Sarkozy reaches new heights

You have to hand it to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He's not exactly subtle about adding a few centimetres (or inches if you like) to his height when he deems it necessary.

For the second time in almost as many weeks, the French media - all right then, some parts of it - have focused on Sarkozy's height to poke fun at him.

Mind you, he does rather make himself an easy target.

At the beginning of the month of course it was Sarkozy's visit to a Belgian factory that was the source of comment, when an employee admitted that she (and others) had been invited to share the stage with him based on their height; ie they were shorter than the French president who measures in at around 1.65 (or five foot five inches).

And during his speech at the United Nations on Thursday, Sarkozy needed some more help as he was at the podium, as Yann Barthès the presenter on Le Petit Journal on Canal + was keen to point out.

While the US president, Barack Obama and Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown obviously didn't need to appear to be taller than they actually were (they're 1.85m and 1.80m respectively) the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev at 1.64 metres (and therefore shorter than his French counterpart) could have sought a little extra help on the podium.

Only he didn't.

But as you can see from the video, Sarkozy did; stepping up a couple of centimetres before speaking, and then down again at the end.

The wonders of stage management.

Racism in France - one man's experiences

It's hard to overlook a piece* written in Thursday's issue of the national French daily, Le Monde, by the journalist Mustapha Kessous.

It's another reminder as to just how racism persists here in France.

And of course it couldn't be more timely in light of the recent remarks made by the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux at the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party's summer conference at Seignosse in southwestern France at the beginning of the month.

Hortefeux was captured on video saying in the presence of Amine Benalia-Brouch, a young party activist of Algerian origin, that he (Benalia-Brouch), "Doesn't match the prototype. We always need one. It's when there are lots of them that there are problems."and the reaction there has been to them.

Many viewed the comment as a racial slur, but others shrugged it off and tried to explain it as part of the minister's "sense of humour".

Kessous of course begins his piece with a reference to that incident, describing how he first met Hortefeux for an interview in April 2008 when he was still the immigration minister.

"I had never met him before," he writes.

"We waited at his ministry and when Brice Hortefeux arrived, he shook my hand, smiled and said 'Do you have your papers?"

Kessous outlines some of the difficulties he has had even in his job as a journalist for such an illustrious newspaper simply because he is "of Arab origin with a slightly darker complexion and a Moslem."

He writes how he thought that his status as a journalist at one of the country's most respected newspapers would somehow shield him from encountering racism.

He was wrong.

When he covered the Tour de France in July 2008, one spectator refused to talk to him preferring instead to be interviewed by one of his colleagues, who later admitted that an employee for the organisers had also rung him to ask whether Kessous was his chauffeur.

Kessous tells of the time when he wanted to interview the director of a psychiatric hospital, and how he easily got an appointment with her when he introduced himself over the 'phone as Monsieur Kessous from Le Monde (dropping his first name).

"When I arrived, the director's secretary informed her that I was there," he writes.

"A woman on crutches passed in front of me and when I opened the door for her she looked at me without saying 'thank you' or 'hello'," he continues.

Then the woman, who was in fact the director with whom he had an interview, asked the secretary where the journalist was and received the reply that he was just behind her.

"'You have your press card? You have your identity card?'" was what Kessous was asked, reminding us that there had been no welcome yet.

Kessous writes of how he has had to put up with racism and insults from an early age.

"We were one of the few families of North African origin where we lived (in the centre of Lyon)," he says.

"In order to 'succeed' I requested to be sent to a catholic school, and there I went through hell being told to 'Go back to your country' from fellow pupils and teachers alike."

It was a racism that followed him through the education system to the time when he was taking a higher course at journalism school in 2007 and was faced by questions during his oral examination such as, "Are you Moslem" and "If you're a journalist at Le Monde, is it because they need to have an Arab on staff?"

Clearly those working in the field of education are just as prone to racism as the country's police force.

Who can forget the case of Abdeljalel El Haddioui, a 40-year-old police officer who in 2007 made it through to the final stages of a selection process for a higher grade and had to face questions from the board such as "Does your wife wear a headscarf?" and "Do you practise Ramadan?" or "Don't you find it strange that there are Arab ministers in the government?"

And apropos the police, Kessous ends his piece with an incident that occurred recently as he parked his scooter outside the building housing Le Monde and how he was approached by officers asking him what he was doing there and for proof that he was a journalist.

"I could recount any number of events like that," he writes.

"I'm described as being of foreign origin, a beur, rabble or riff-raff (racaille), an Islamist, a delinquent, a 'beurgeois' a child of immigrants...but never a Frenchman. In short, French."

*You can read the full article (in French) here.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A slice of life in France - Castres in Tarn

Here's a teaser for a piece that'll be coming shortly about the town of Castres, in the southwestern département of Tarn in France.

It's a beautiful place with a medieval centre and although its heyday as a textile town is well past, it's certainly worth a visit.

Perhaps most well known today for its top flight rugby team Castres Olympique, it should also be awarded a medal for a having a local hairdressing salon with what surely have to be some of the most confused opening hours around.

The salon is in the centre of the town, and all that can be said perhaps is that the good people of Castres (the Castrais and Castraises) must have more than a great deal of patience trying to work out when the place is open*...or closed.

Either that or they simply go elsewhere to have their hair cut!

*For those of you who don't speak French, mardi is Tuesday, mercredi is Wednesday and so on until samedi (Saturday).

The place is closed on lundi (Monday).

And France's best-dressed male politician is...?

Oh come on. You know you're interested. After all isn't it the most compelling part of politics...the fluffy celebrity side of things?

Read on, and you'll find out (eventually) who the French think is their best-dressed male politician, which you have to admit makes a change from those endless polls ranking political figures by their popularity.

Actually that in itself seems to be something of a national pastime in France. At least the media would seem to have us believe it matters, with polls coming thick and fast on a monthly basis.

Mind you, it has been fairly quiet on that front recently - probably something to do with much of the country having been on holiday for the month of August.

For sure those polls have been published as frequently as ever, but they haven't really made the headlines lately apart from the odd mention that the former president, Jacques Chirac, is the nation's favourite political figure with a 76 per cent approval rating ahead of the ever-popular foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner (70 per cent) and his former underling, Rama Yade (67 per cent) who was junior minister for human rights until the position was scrapped in June's reshuffle and now finds herself "elevated" (heavy on the irony) to sport.

For his part the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has dropped a point to 47 per cent, but has nonetheless managed to climb a place in the overall listings from July to 27th place.

Anyway back to that "style" survey conducted for the monthly men's magazine Optimum by l’institut Isama and the results of which are prefaced with proof that clothes maketh the man.

"The image of the politicians depends first of all on their position, what they have to say and what they do," runs the introduction helpfully.

"But it's also based on indirect elements or factors that have little to to with politics such as the individual's appeal, way of expressing himself (yes we're talking just male politicians here) or what he wears. In other words 'style'."

There you go, confirmation if you will, that appearances do matter.

And the winner is - (drum roll please) - none other than Dominique de Villepin.

Does the name ring a bell? It should do. He was a foreign minister and then prime minister under Chirac and his is the name on everybody's lips here in France at the moment as he's one of the key players embroiled in the so-called "Clearstream affair".

In a nutshell, de Villepin is a defendant in a trial that has just got underway, and is charged with "plotting to discredit" Sarkozy when the two were ministers under Chirac.

It's a complicated case that has taken up more than a few column inches in newspapers and is pretty much the story coming out of France at the moment.

There's masses of stuff about it out on the Net and to go into detail about it here would rather spoil the flippant tone of this piece, so without further ado let's take a look at who else figures on the list behind the dashing de Villepin.

In second place is the former (Socialist) culture minister, Jack Lang with the name once again of Kouchner (another Socialist - of sorts) popping up in third. They're followed by the prime minister, François Fillon, the (Socialist) mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë and a former (Socialist) finance minister and wannabe president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is currently head honcho at the International Monetary Fund.

With four of the first six coming from the ranks of the Socialist party, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that if looks really counted for anything supporters of the party would choose one of them as the next presidential candidate in 2012 - even though two of them (Lang and Kouchner) currently at 70 years of age might be considered a bit long in the tooth by then.

So with de Villepin getting the thumbs up for style, what of the plaintiff in that Clearstream affair (sorry to have to return to that) and the man who would least likely be described as his best friend...Sarkozy?

After all the 54-year-old, all action French president is a keep fit fan (we see pictures of him jogging regularly) and he's married to a former clothes horse.

In fact some commentators have remarked on how sharp his dress sense has become since he and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy tied the knot.

Well Sarkozy scrapes into the top 10 - even though he surely won't be pleased once more to find himself behind his prime minister - with a rating of 5,32 and Isama pointing out in its summary that his style appeals to all age groups apart from the 18-24-year-olds, who rank him just 32nd.

There's a message there somewhere isn't there?

So that's the men done and dusted.

We now await with bated breath a similar poll for France's female politicians.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Titi the croc - another French reptile tale

Police in the northern French town of Maubeuge found exactly what they were looking for when they raided the cellar of a squat last Friday.

For there, among the stolen stereo systems, scooters, and motorcycles was a vivarium.

No big deal you might be thinking, especially as it was only half full with water and pretty much hidden from view.

Except it contained a baby crocodile.

Even though drugs and illegal firearms were also found in the cellar, it was actually the croc the police were after.

They had reportedly got wind of its existence from children who had been paying regular visits to feed it with live fish.

Just as well perhaps that someone had been taking care of "Titi", as the baby reptile has been named, because the owner or owners of the croc hadn't apparently been looking after him.

His only company among all the stolen merchandise was 300 grammes of cannabis and €2,000 in cash - hardly an appropriate diet for a fast growing and hungry reptile.

Why exactly Titi was being kept in the cellar remains as much a mystery at the moment as the identity of the person or persons to whom he belongs.

But police have dismissed one story doing the rounds that his eventual fate would have seen him being used been to be used in combat in dog fights as a rumour.

For now Titi has been "released" from the confines of the cellar and taken to the zoo in Maubeuge, where he'll stay until a permanent home is found for him.

Ah the French and their croc stories.

Perhaps flushed with success, the police in Maubeuge could give their colleagues in the village of Xertigny in eastern France a hand.

Authorities there have been trying to hunt down a crocodile on the loose since June, and even though they've drained a local pond all they've came up with so far has been a 94-centimetre pike.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Police suspect admits he was behind Sarkozy death threats

French police seem to have "got their man" in their long-running hunt to find the identity of the person nicknamed "le corbeau" (the crow) in the French media.

A 51-year-old man taken in for questioning at the weekend has reportedly admitted that he alone was behind a series of letters and death threats sent to a number of leading politicians, including the French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The suspect, Thierry Jérôme is, according to the weekly French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, an unemployed husband and father who lives in the Hérault département the south of the country.

According to investigators, he's apparently "someone who is unbalanced" and a member of a local gun club.

The paper says his arrest came on Sunday following a DNA match with a sample taken for the stamp on one of the anonymous letters which had been sent from the region since the end of 2008.

That was when Sarkozy as well as several government ministers (past and present) as well as high profile media figures started receiving threatening letters, some of them accompanied by a bullet.

Over the past couple of weeks, says the paper, police have been taking DNA samples from members of local clubs in an effort to find a match and identify the suspect.

On Monday police extended Jérôme's custody although they released his wife, Ariane and are now questioned his 27-year-old daughter Angélique, to have a "clearer understanding of the character of her father".

Should Jérôme be charged, it would see the end to an investigation which has seen 12 other people taken in for questioning this year.

In March a military reservist from Montpellier was taken in and held after being "denounced" by his former girlfriend, but later released without being charged.

And at the beginning of this month police swooped on around 20 homes in l'Hérault taking 11 people in for questioning before releasing them.

Hijo, the dog who went missing during a Paris stopover

Lost luggage is one thing, but imagine how difficult it must be, in spite of all the regulations and procedures in place, for an airline to lose man's best friend and the sheer desperation owners must feel when they're told their dog has gone missing.

Sleeping at an airport might not be everyone's idea of time well spent, but a Lebanese-Spanish couple did just that last week as they waited for news on the disappearance of their dog.

Their enforced stopover began last Wednesday when they arrived on an Air France flight from Beirut in transit for the Chilean capital of Santiago.

That's when they discovered that their boxer dog "Hijo" (or "son" in Spanish) who had made the journey with them, albeit as “accompanied baggage” in the cargo hold, was missing.

According to the airline, there had been something wrong with a handle on the transportation kennel and Hijo had escaped from it after the 'plane landed.

But as far as his owner Alain Daou was concerned, the baggage handlers (and as a consequence the airline) had somehow been at fault.

"The cage was brand new," he said. "They must have dropped it."

Air France apparently offered the couple, who were without visas and for obvious reasons didn't want to leave for Chile until Hijo had been found, one night at a hotel.

But that was the extent of their responsibility, according to Daou, who had less than kind words about what had happened.

"The airline did nothing during those three days," he said. "As far as it was concerned our dog was simply a piece of luggage."

Although the story ended well, the couple surely deserves sympathy for having spent so long at an airport which a poll back in June revealed was far from being a joy for any traveller.

Published by the independent Canadian-based website the poll ranked the airport as the world's worst, and the comments made by those who had voted for (or should that be against?) it, had more than a ring of the familiar about them to anyone who has had the displeasure of passing through the French capital's main airport.

According to statistics released in March by the airline watchdog, the Air Transport Users Council (AUC), losing luggage happens with frightening regularity.

"Airlines mishandled 42 million bags worldwide in 2007," said the AUC, "Compared with 34 million in 2006 and 30 million in 2005."

As if you needed telling, that's an awful lot of disgruntled passengers. But there was worse.

"Of the 42 million mishandled in 2007, 1.2 million bags, or around one bag for every 2,000 passengers, were irretrievably lost."

And the inconvenience of arriving at a destination while the luggage failed to make the same journey, hit this particular traveller hard earlier this year when he touched down in New York with just his carry-on after a flight from Paris.

Monday, 21 September 2009

A French high school's "short" protest

La rentrée, the time of the year when the French return from their summer holidays and get back to everyday life, has of course come and gone.

And it hasn't been without its problems. This year perhaps first and foremost has been the accompanying and much-predicted rapid spread of the H1N1 virus, especially as children started the new academic year.

But for students at the Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire lycée or high school in the town of Etampes in the département of Essone, 48 kilometres south of the French capital, another completely different issue has been occupying their minds.

Last week more than 200 of them refused to follow a "request" made by the school's principal to dress "correctly" in other words for example to wear skirts that dropped beyond knee level or refrain from attending school in Bermuda shorts.

Instead they organised "The day of shorts" and turned up at school "inappropriately" dressed.

The move was undoubtedly inspired by the film "La journée de la jupe" (Skirt day) released in March this year in which among other things, the main character of the teacher Sonia Bergerac, (played by Isabelle Adjani) wears a skirt to school and in the process breaks a rule set by the principal.

Back to reality though, and the result of the demonstration was a three-day suspension for the main organiser of the "day of the shorts" which had quickly gathered support among students through social networking sites and of course text messages.

Far from being the beginning of a 1968-type student revolution, the action was, in the words of one student, "A way of making a point in as light-hearted a fashion as possible," especially as the weather was particularly hot.

And the protest is unlikely to rest there if some students have anything to do with it.

Another "event" has been planned and once again the Internet could prove to play a vital role in spreading the word as quickly as possible.

A Facebook group "The right to kiss" has been set up with over 300 members who apparently will be taking the opportunity to do exactly as the name suggests at the school on Tuesday.

Could the world of French tennis turn to Disney?

Tennis fans worldwide and lovers of tradition could be in for a fright if the French Tennis Federation (Fédération française de tennis, FFT) sees through plans that are apparently in the pipeline.

The French Open, one of the four prestigious Grand Slams in tennis could be on the move from its current home at the Stade de Roland Garros (Roland Garros Stadium) on the outskirts of the capital's 16th arrondissement to Disneyland.

Yes, you read correctly. Mickey and friends are in the running to play host to future winners of a tournament that has been one of the sporting highlights of the part of the French capital's sporting calender since 1891 (at Stade Français) and from 1928 at Roland Garros.

Of course there's nothing new in the rumour, as a move of some sort has been the subject of discussion for some time especially as the tournament expands and the space available at its current location is limited.

Redevelopment and extension plans of Roland Garros have apparently been agreed, but for Jean Gachassin, the president of the FTT, it's simply unlikely to be enough in the long term.

"We're looking for 20 hectares and there has already been interest expressed," he told the sports daily, Le 10 sport.

Indeed according to Gachassin there are two confirmed candidates in the running; one at Sarcelles, a northern suburb of the French capital and the other, in Marne-la-Vallée, 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the East and of course home to Disneyland Europe.

But wait. For those of you about to throw your hands up in despair. There's hope. And it comes from the director of the tournament, Gilbert Ysern.

He downplayed the rumours of a move although he admitted that negotiations to expand the current site and build a new stadium (Georges Hébert) close to the existing venue, weren't without their difficulties.

"It's more than a little premature to be talking about such a project (as Disneyland), he told the sports daily L'Equipe.

"The possibility of it happening cannot be ruled out but as yet no negotiations (for such a move) have been started," he added.

"We're still actively working on sorting out the Georges Hébert project but there are distinct political and technical difficulties that need to be overcome and the worst case scenario would see us unable to complete the project and being forced to leave Roland Garros entirely."

So not exactly full backing Gachassin's seeming enthusiasm to embrace Mickey and friends.

Maybe Ysern together with the local authorities can come up with a solution that'll prove that the lyrics from the track "One God" on the British alternative rock group Beautiful South's 1996 album "Blue is the colour" really weren't as prescient as they might have appeared at the time.

"The world is turning Disney and there's nothing you can do".

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sarkozy sidesteps minister's racial slur

It's a story that has been making the headlines here in France for over a week now; the incident when the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, apparently made a remark which many interpreted as being racist.

It occurred at the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party's summer conference at Seignosse in southwestern France at the beginning of the month.

Hortefeux was captured on video saying in the presence of Amine Benalia-Brouch, a young party activist of Algerian origin, that he (Benalia-Brouch), "Doesn't match the prototype. We always need one. It's when there are lots of them that there are problems."

When the video made its way on to the Net, the reactions and criticisms came thick and fast.

The opposition Socialist party and groups representing ethnic minorities and those campaigning against racism roundly condemned the remarks, with some calling for the minister's resignation.

And the spokesman for the Socialist party, Benoît Hamon questioned what Hortefeux was "still doing in the government".

But just as quickly, colleagues of Hortefeux leapt to the minister's defence.

The prime minister, François Fillon, told national TF1 television that the interior minister had been "the victim of a fairly scandalous campaign of defamation," and that, "I reiterate that he (Hortefeux) has my full support."

The environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo insisted that "Brice Hortefeux is anything but a racist," and Fadela Amara the junior minister for urban policy and herself of North African origin, shrugged off the remark as being part of Hortefeux's "sense of humour".

It seems that Hortefeux is well known for making jokes that aren't always appreciated.

From Brussels though came a somewhat dissenting voice within the UMP in the shape of the reaction from a former cabinet colleague, Rachida Dati, also of North African descent.

Now a member of the European parliament, Dati said on national radio that although she hadn't seen the clip but had only read the transcript in the newspaper, she still found the remark inappropriate.

"I don't agree that it is humourous rather that it's tactless," she said.

"For me racism has nothing to do with humour."

For his part, Hortefeux has not apologised for the remarks he made but has said that he "regretted" the resulting controversial and "unnecessary" debate that followed.

And he had the support of Benalia-Brouch, who said that he didn't understand why there had been such a debate surrounding the video and that there had been no racist intent in what the minister had said and no offence taken.

But noticeably quiet up until now has been the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The two men are close political allies and long-time friends, and indeed it was Sarkozy who brought Hortefeux into the government in June 2007 as immigration minister, then appointed him at the beginning of this year to employment before offering him the job of interior minister in June's reshuffle.

Sarkozy is keen to keep Hortefeux in government, and twice in recent months has taken steps to ensure that he remains there; first by preventing him from taking up the seat he won in June's European parliamentary elections and then by insisting that he should not run in next year's regional presidential elections.

So what has Sarkozy's comment been on the whole matter?

Well according to the national daily, Le Figaro, the French president had rather a different reaction to most on seeing the video.

"When you're a minister you are always on duty," Sarkozy reportedly told him.

"And when you're minister of the interior that counts double," he continued.

"You should have been wearing a suit and tie and not have put in an appearance so casually dressed."

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Local French politician caught napping

Oh dear, we've all been there haven't we?

Attending some meeting perhaps where the subject was as dry as stale bread, or back in our student days battling the heavy-lid syndrome as the lecturer attempted to bring new meaning to the word "boring".

Whatever the cause might have been, a quick forty winks when inappropriate never really used to be that embarrassing or much of a problem as there was usually a helpful person sitting next to you able to give a discreet prod when necessary.

But those days it seems are long gone, and the ease with which anyone can now take a compromising photo' or video with a mobile 'phone or digital camera and then distribute it on the Net leaves us all vulnerable.

And such perhaps, is the case with a certain local politician here in France, who was quite literally caught napping caught on the job..

Jean-Marie Albouy-Guidicelli is the deputy mayor of the town of Montereau-Fault-Yonne in the département of Seine-et-Marne, south east of the French capital.

At just 38 years of age, the member of the governing centre-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) is a busy man with a packed schedule; take a look at his website for proof of that.

A website that's evidence that he's more than aware of how he can promote himself via the Net and backed up by the fact that he can also be found on Facebook.

In other words Albouy-Guidicelli belongs to a generation which is certainly more than au fait with modern technology, its uses and abuses and its potential pitfalls.

Posted on the video hosting service site Dailymotion on Tuesday, the 42-second clip shows Albouy-Guidicelli losing the battle to concentrate during a meeting in the town hall.

All right, so he doesn't have the profile of the interior minister Brice Hortefeux, who was captured on camera (a mobile 'phone) making what many in France consider to be a racist comment at the UMP’s summer conference at Seignosse southwestern France last week.

But perhaps the polemic that surrounded that particular incident might have encouraged Albouy-Guidicelli to be a little more vigilant.

Hortefeux, you might remember, was filmed saying to a young activist of Algerian origin, Amine Benalia-Brouch, in an apparent reference to North Africans that, "He doesn't match the prototype. We always need one. It's when there are lots of them that there are problems."

The video inevitably found its way on to the Net and hit the headlines with opposition calls for the minister's resignation.

For his part, Hortefeux has not apologised for the remarks he made but has said that he "regretted" the resulting controversial and "unnecessary" debate that followed.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

High speed birth on Paris-Brussels Thalys train

Taking the high-speed train that links Paris and Brussels isn't usually a dramatic affair, but on Monday the Thalys service experienced a "first" since it started operating in 1996 as a baby girl was born on board shortly before the train reached its destination.

As Thalys (the equivalent of the Eurostar service only it connects the French and Belgian Belgian capitals) leaves Gare du Nord in Paris, it doesn’t waste much time in picking up speed and zapping through the notoriously flat northern French countryside.

In fact the landscape passes in such a giddy blur that it's just as well passengers can fit in a spot of work during the journey. That's made easier by the wifi Internet connection (free in first class, a small supplement in second) which is a must-have for a service that has become the usual way for businessmen and politicians to travel - almost "commute" between the two cities.

In peak hours, trains leave from Paris every 30 minutes - and it has become an even more important link between the two cities since Air France stopped flying the route because it simply couldn't compete.

The train reaches a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour, and that apparently was how fast it was travelling when a woman went into labour on Monday.

Luckily for both the expectant mother and the baby there was a doctor on board, and as the train manager Michel Pauly said, the birth really was a maximum velocity one.

"The birth went very smoothly, I didn't realise it could happen so quickly," he said.

"After the woman contacted me I made an announcement and we were lucky enough to have two nurses and a doctor on board who helped in the delivery," he added.

"The little girl was born without any complications...she was clearly in a hurry to discover the country."

It was all over by the time the train pulled into Brussels, where the mother and baby were transferred to hospital - both in fine fettle according to reports.

And should the as yet unnamed girl wish to take the train again, she won't have to dig deep into her pockets as the boss of Thalys, Olivier Poitrenaud, has offered her a life-time pass to travel free with the company.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A slice of life in France - Rigoletto at Vaux-le Vicomte

Name a château in France and the chances are pretty high that somewhere near the top of the list will be Versailles, 20 kilometres southwest of the capital Paris.

Sorry folks from the outset, this piece isn't about that most royal of palaces, but its popularity owes a lot to another château, this one lying 55 kilometres east of Paris near the town of Melun in the département of Seine-et-Marne; Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Sports and television fans might remember the name from a wedding back in July 2007 (O7/07/07) held there as French basketball ace, Tony Parker, and Desperate Housewives' star, Eva Longoria, tied the knot in front of a star-studded guest list.

French history buffs will doubtless be more familiar with its significance as setting a model for what would become the Louis XIV "style", if you will, of building a palace.

At the weekend it was the turn of opera lovers to enjoy the splendour of Vaux-le-Vicomte for an outdoor performance of Verdi's Rigoletto.

Yes admittedly it's rather late in the year to be attending an opera "à la belle étoile" so-to speak, the season in Europe naturally tends to be confined to July and August.

On Saturday though the Gods were smiling, sort of, for the third and final performance at Vaux-le-Vicomte of Verdi's operatic "masterpiece of treachery and vengeance."

The principle of Opéra en plein air is undoubtedly a noble one, to bring opera to a wider audience at an affordable price and to stage performances at settings which in themselves, reflect the culture and heritage of France.

While the singers and the orchestra put in sterling performance, the one thing organisers could inevitably have no control over was the weather.

And therein lies the problem of performing outside at night so late in the year.

Perhaps many in the audience were hoping that Gilda would die the inevitable death a little sooner that planned because, simply put, it was so ruddy cold.

"If it rains, then please remain seated until the performance resumes," announced Tristan Duval the producer and organiser of Opéra en plein air, in his introduction.

There were some doubtful groans from many in the audience already shivering in their sweaters and coats.

"There'll be no intermission and spectators are requested to stay in their seats until the end so as not to disturb the performers," the audience was further informed.

Yes the setting was spectacular, but did it really lend anything to the production? The jury is maybe out on that and besides it's always going to be rather subjective.

The voices were good, although perhaps when Gilda went for those high notes, there might have been some listening who thought she might not quite make them. She did.

And what was it with a portion of the audience which couldn't resist humming along as the Duke of Mantua broke into the opera's most famous aria "La donna è mobile"?

Seriously though it was hard for even the most ardent fan to concentrate when the real focus was not on what was happening on stage but whether blood could be brought back to all limbs after two-and-a-half hours sitting in the cold.

Now in its ninth year, previous seasons have taken productions of among others, Offenbach's "The tales of Hoffmann" (2008), Rossini's "Barber of Seville" (2007) and Mozart's The magic flute (2006), around the county, to perform in front of more than 40,000 people in some of the most spectacular settings.

This year has been the turn of Rigoletto, with performances at, for example, the Château du Champ-de-Bataille in Normandy, Château d'Haroué in Lorraine and the Cité de Carcassonne in south-central France.

Vaux-le Vicomte was the penultimate venue for this year with performances on three consecutive nights, and the opera will now move on to Château de Chambord in the département of Loir-et-Cher for the final staging on September 19.

A piece of advice to those who'll be attending the sold-out performance would have to be to "wrap up warm" just in case.

Château Vaux-le-Vicomte welcomes the opera

No comment on the parking

Rigoletto - get your programme


Take a bow

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Stockholm shines - even in the rain

Stockholm's long summer days with warm and pleasant temperatures certainly provided more than a welcome break from the heatwave that hit much of continental Europe this year.

There are, of course, those short winter days, where the average temperature in the Swedish capital in January and February is a bracing -1 degree Celsius. But no need to dwell on that for the moment.

Right now Sweden holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.

So you might be expecting it to put on something of an effort to promote the fact especially in the capital, but instead it seems to be keeping rather a low profile (in Stockholm at least) with barely a sign that it's currently "in charge" of the 27-nation bloc.

But maybe that's just a case of forward thinking and not wanting to be too closely associated with being the country that was at the helm should the Lisbon treaty shortly be dealt its final blow: the Irish will vote for the second time next month on whether to accept or reject the treaty.

Mind you, the EU probably isn't uppermost in most visitors' minds to the city.

So when you touch down at the rather dated Arlanda airport, what can you expect?

Well a warm welcome to begin with (even if the outside temperature isn't exactly playing ball and it's raining) and for English-speakers the delight that you'll pretty much be understood wherever you go.

Should you decide to plump for a taxi rather than public transport to make the 40 kilometre trip to the city centre, don't be surprised to be riding in a hybrid car.

Perhaps Swedes took to heart a finding back in 2007 that the country had "the highest level of pollution-emitting cars in Western Europe." Something to do, according to the New York Times, with their "love affair with big, comfortable cars."

Whatever the case, Stockholm at least certainly seems to have cleaned up its act, with a recent report from the Austrian-based Central European Institute of Technology (CEIT), heaping praise on the fleet of "eco-taxis" which "make up 35 per cent of those" serving the airport.

When you hit the city itself, perhaps the most striking thing is the architecture - a perfect and surprisingly colourful blend of traditional and modern, with of course a healthy dollop of respect for the environment thrown in.

Royal palace

As over 30 per cent of the Stockholm is made up of waterways and the city is built on 14 islands, what better way to take a look at it than from a boat - and that's especially true when the heavens open in an effort to dampen your spirits.

Fear not though, from the shelter of one of the many companies offering boat tours, you'll be able to take in the sights and history of the city.

Probably the most informative and comprehensive is the two-hour "Under the bridges of Stockholm" that picks you up from either Stromkajen or Nybrokajen and takes you (not surprisingly perhaps) under 15 bridges and through two locks.

Or maybe you fancy the "Historical canal" or "Royal canal" tours - no prizes for guessing what they specialise in - which maybe try to pack a little less in to the time allotted.

Whichever one you choose, a boat trip is as essential for visitors to Stockholm as it would be say for those going to the "real" Venice in Italy.

While rain probably isn't the ideal accompaniment to a short break, when the sun puts in an appearance, the real beauty of the city shines through. Well let's face it, "good" weather always helps doesn't it?

Taking care not to get caught up in a passing horsebound royal military parade


(this is a country with a monarch after all) and avoiding being almost mown down by the olde worlde Djurgården tram,


now's the chance to flex those leg muscles, and don some sensible footwear as you head off to see the Old Town.

On the way though, you should try to drop in at Saluhall market, housed in a late 19th century red brick building and a veritable feast for the eyes and tantaliser for the tastebuds.

Try to get there just before the lunch hour rush begins as that'll give you the chance to wander around gaping at the fresh produce on sale (including the most gruesome-looking monkfish - is there any other sort?) before grabbing a seat and tucking in to some traditional Swedish fare.

Don't be surprised if you share your table with complete strangers as places are at a premium.

Once again though the Swedes show just how hospitable and friendly they are by helping you with any questions you might have about those unpronounceable dishes on the menu and they don't mind answering politely when you point to their plates and ask, "What is that?"

A good tip is to arrive hungry and leave stuffed, ready to pound the pavements (or take the metro) as you head off finally to the Old Town or Gamla Stan.

It's a maze of medieval streets, where you'll find (amongst other things) the city's cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Nobel Museum and innumerable souvenir shops in which you can of course pick up that Pippi Longstocking doll you've been "requested" to take home.

Pippi Longstocking, the fictional heroine of Astrid Lindgren's books for children

A weekend certainly isn't enough to do Stockholm anywhere near the justice it warrants.

But it serves as just a taster to an experience well worth repeating regardless of the weather - and perhaps not a moment too soon.

Stockholm Old Town - photos

Old town shoppers

Stora Gråmunkegränd

Royal palace


Some sign that Sweden holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU


Shopping in Stockholm - some photos

Even the rain and gloomy weather doesn't detract from the architectural beauty of the "Venice of the North". And when the sun shines, the place comes alive.

Feast your eyes at the Saluhall market in Stockholm

Arrive hungry, wander around and gawp at the fresh produce and then find somewhere to eat at Saluhall market

Stockholm waterways snapshots

As over 30 per cent of Stockholm is made up of waterways, what better way to get a take a look at it than from a boat - especially when it's raining.

Begin your journey at Stromkajen...

...or Nybrokajen

Under the bridges of Stockholm

Even the rain can't spoil the splendour of the Royal Palace

Passing through a lock

Old and new side by side

AF Chapman floating youth hostel

Monday, 7 September 2009

A slice of life in France - Saint Amand-Montrond in Cher

A recent headline in the daily French regional newspaper Le Berry républicain read something along the lines of "Bumper harvest, happy farming" ("Moisson copieuse, agriculture heureuse". Somehow it sounds better in French doesn't it?)

Not surprising really perhaps that agriculture should feature so strongly as the paper serves a region that in all senses of the word is very much at the heart of the country - both in where it lies and what happens there.

Grab a map of France and stick a pin roughly into the centre of what the French affectionately refer to as the "Hexagon" and you'll find the département of Cher.

It's one of six départments (along with l'Eure-et-Loir, l'Indre, l'Indre-et-Loire, le Loir-et-Cher and le Loiret) that make up the region known as Centre.

Although Cher is far from being the tourist magnet of much better known potential holiday destinations in France it has its distinct charm and is nowhere the backwater that it perhaps at first appears.

The largest town with a population of just 72,000 is Bourges, the "capital" of the département, complete of course with its 12th-13th century Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World heritage centre described as "one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art" and "admired for its proportions and the unity of its design".

The town is also home to the annual spring music festival "Les printemps de Bourges" and of course it's just a 45 minute drive to the medieval hilltop town of Sancerre famous worldwide for its...well there's probably no need to go any further.

Travel 32 kilometres northwest of Bourges and you'll hit the département's second largest town, Vierzon, population 28,000 and with its share of chateaux (this is France after all) and a 12th century church.

Welcome to Apremont-sur-Allier

But drive towards the south of the département, and not forgetting on the way to stop by the charming Apremont-sur-Allier, one of the "most beautiful villages in France" (if you need proof of that epithet, these photos should help allay any doubts) and you'll come across a smaller and possibly less well-frequented town, Saint Amand-Montrond.

There you'll find a town packed with centuries of history, and one that while certainly not ostentatiously oozing wealth and prosperity, perhaps reflects a more authentic side of French life.

With a population of just 11,600, it's far from being a bustling metropolis, but that doesn't mean it has nothing to offer the curious visitor.

It's packed with history, and once you've left the main shopping thoroughfare and found your way to the streets of the old town, you're in for a real treat.

You can take in the Saint Vic museum or admire the sculpture of the 12 century Gothic church.

Wandering through the streets, you can follow an itinerary provided by the local tourist office, with a route offering explanations that'll help the development and history of the town come alive as you dwell in front of the Maison d'Angle or make your way to the Cours Manuel.

Maison d'Angle, Saint Amand-Montrond

All in all it's the kind of town where even the most hapless of photographers would be hard pushed not to take at least some snaps worth sharing.

History apart, there's also the proximity of Saint Amand-Montrond to the huge and immensely beautiful Forêt de Tronçais, which is actually in the neighbouring départment of Allier and, for nature lovers, definitely worth a trip in its own right.

The forest has over 10,000 hectares of trees, a majority of them oak with just under a dozen classified as being at the ripe old age of 350 years plus. There are 40-odd natural springs, four lakes and fauna and flora galore.

Indeed the official site promoting the forest and surrounding villages probably quite rightly heralds it as "the most beautiful oak forest in Europe".

And a great place to begin your discovery of the forest is the étang domanial de Tronçais (click here for a couple of photos)

As well as its history, Cher is renowned for its unspoilt natural surroundings and numerous waterways and Saint Amand-Montrond certainly fits the bill as being a gem for both lovers of history and nature.

And if you fancy discovering a part of France that is undeniably French, then it might well be a town worth considering.

Just don't tell too many people about it.

Apremont-sur-Allier, "one of the prettiest villages in France"

Chocolate box pretty, it certainly is, and as you arrive in Apremont-sur-Allier, you quickly realise why it's known as "one of the prettiest villages in France".

It has maintained its medieval charm and with its chateau, parc floral and simply idyllic setting along the banks of the Allier, it's a "must see" for anyone visiting the département of Cher.

How to get there and what there is to see can be found on this website.

Here are a few photos to whet your appetite.

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