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Monday, 30 November 2009

La bohème "starring" Natalie Dessay

Actually that's not quite right as the current run of Giacomo Puccini's four-act work at the Opéra Bastille in Paris came to an end on Sunday.

But for many in the audience, Natalie Dessay's presence was probably the reason for theirs, regardless of the fact that she wasn't singing the main role, and it was something of a case of "move over Mimi, Musetta's here."

There's no doubt that without really trying Dessay somewhat stole the show but at the same time without upstaging the other singers.

Quite an achievement really.

That's not to say that the main protagonists in this production weren't good: in fact they were very good.

Massimo Giardino as Rodolfo and Inva Mula as Mimi in the final performance of the run (roles they shared with Stefano Secco and Tamar Iveri) more than held their own during the first act) with moving interpretations of the star struck lovers in those arias probably everyone knows "Che gelida manina" and "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì".

And the duet "O soave fanciulla" more than lived up to expectations.

But midway through the second act the audience seemed to lean forward collectively to watch and listen more attentively as the coquettish Musetta made her entrance and Dessay charmed everyone with "Quando me n’vò".

All right so perhaps it wasn't hard work for the 44-year-old French coloratura soprano to win over an already converted public.

Quite simply put she's a star here in France. Take two. She's an international star and her success has been built not only on the quality of her voice but also her ability to act.

In that sense Musetta, although a secondary role, is exactly suited to Dessay's knack of adding the lightest of comic touches where it's needed without falling into the trap of appearing ridiculous.

Add to that the fact that in interviews Dessay always comes across as completely grounded and totally "un-diva-ish" and it's not hard to understand her popularity.

For those who might have missed her this time around in "La bohème" there'll soon be another chance to see her.

Dessay will be back at Opéra Bastille in Paris from January 25, 2010 when she'll be reprising her role of Amina in Vincenzo Bellini's "La sonnambula" - a part she sang to great critical acclaim at New York's Metropolitan Opera earlier this year.

Friday, 27 November 2009

DSK for French president 2012 - the saga continues

The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK as he's more commonly known here), has been in Paris this week.

And the burning subject on the lips of everyone (oh all right then, journalists) was whether he wanted to be the Socialist party's candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections.

Not without reason perhaps the media was - and remains - enthralled by the prospect, and of course the subject came up in both television and newspaper interviews he gave while in the French capital.

He might be head of one of the most important organisations overseeing the global financial system, but the fact of the matter is that DSK's trips to Paris are significant on the domestic political front because he's considered by many as a potentially major political opponent to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, should he become the Socialist party's candidate for office in the 2012 elections.

The polls say so, and it's not something new.

Nor is it something that has escaped the attention of Sarkozy, who back in July 2007 quickly secured the agreement of other European Union leaders to nominate DSK as the head of the IMF when the job became available.

Every time DSK puts in an appearance here - be it in his official capacity, or on a private visit - the saga of the "return of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for 2012" is re-ignited.

And such was the case this past week when he faced the inevitable questions on his popularity among the French electorate and what the consequences might be.

Appearing on the mid-evening television news magazine "Le Grand Journal" on Canal + on Wednesday, DSK avoided all the questions about any presidential ambitions, and especially the possibility of resigning from his current job before reaching the end of his tenure, with panache.

"You have people who spend their lives living in the past or the future," he said.

"I live in the present," he added.

"Of course it's always pleasant when people like you, but there have been times when I've been less popular," he said.

"Maybe the fact that I'm far away (in Washington) contributes to my popularity."

If DSK remains for the moment somewhat loathe to discuss a possible presidential run, then others are certainly less hesitant about preparing the path for him.

They include a former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, who said in a television interview that Strauss-Kahn was one of the few Socialist figures who could "shoulder the responsibility of being president" and the leader of the party, Martine Aubry.

"If he proves to be the party's best candidate then he must return," she said during a political talk show on France 2 television.

"But it's still too early to say who is the (party's) candidate capable of winning the presidency," she went on to say, adding that she and Strauss-Kahn shared the same opinion.

Undoubtedly DSK and the 2012 presidential election is a story "to be continued".

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

French TV: when Sting becomes "string"

Ah the delights of live television and radio.

Mistakes are inevitably made: sometimes embarrassing, often amusing as long as they're not inappropriate.

After all who hasn't seen or heard one of those programmes poking fun at presenters' bloopers especially when terribly earnest anchors become tongue tied and mispronounce a name or a word with hilarious results?

And anyone paying attention to the Tuesday evening broadcast of this country's most watched prime time news, will undoubtedly have had a smile on their face courtesy of Laurence Ferrari.

The short report she voiced over was on British rock singer, Sting, who was in Brazil to meet Raoni Metyktire as part of a campaign to urge the country's government to listen to the concerns of indigenous peoples over the proposed construction of the massive Belo Monte hydro-electric dam in the Amazon.

Only Ferrari threw in an "r" into the former Police lead singer's name before making a quick correction and only just preventing herself from laughing (it doesn't matter if you don't speak French, you'll still be able to get the gist of what happened).

True professionalism and probably one many would wish to replicate under similar circumstance, especially those among us who have at one time or another been guilty of on-air giggles.

Such as a certain person not a million miles away from this keyboard who once announced the result of a tennis match between Marc Rosset, then the Swiss number one, and fellow Swiss, Roger Federer, early on in his career, as a "straight sets" win for the latter.

Except the second "s" in "sets" was somehow replaced with an "x", followed by a quick correction and uncontrollable chortling before a jingle came to the rescue.

Just for the record, and to return to Sting, following the recent release of his album "If on a Winter's Night", the 58-year-old will be giving a one-date only concert here in France at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on December 15.

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's "yes" to Woody Allen film role

France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, has confirmed that she'll be performing in US film maker Woody Allen's next film.

The former supermodel and singer admits she doesn't know what role she'll be playing, but has nonetheless agreed to an offer made by the Oscar-winning director and promised him not to do a film with anyone else beforehand.

Appearing on the mid-evening French television news magazine "Le Grand Journal" on Canal + on Monday evening, Bruni-Sarkozy said that the possibility of working alongside Allen was too good to pass up.

"I am not at all actress and maybe I'll be hopeless," she said. "but I cannot miss an opportunity like this," she added.

When I'm a grandmother I'll be able to say I've been in a Woody Allen film."

Speculation of a possible role for France's first lady in Allen's next movie had been rife since the summer, when the 73-year-old director was in Paris to promote his most recent film, "Whatever works".

During an appearance on the very same Canal + programme back in June, Allen had expressed his desire to work with Bruni-Sarkozy, saying she was "an accomplished artist, very beautiful," and that he was "sure she had a gift for acting."

Bruni-Sarkozy has made a big screen appearance before - a brief one as "herself" in the late Robert Altman's 1994 fashion satire "Prêt-à-Porter" ("Ready to wear").

And of course her "character" recently made it to the small screen in an episode of the US animated television sitcom, "The Simpsons", as a rather unflattering "wine-swigging, chain-smoking man- eater."

In spite of Bruni's-Sarkozy's limited experience, perhaps Allen's faith in her potential could be based on what he describes as her "charisma" and also on the fact that she has a family acting pedigree.

Her mother, Marisa Borini, has appeared in several films and of course her older sister, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, is an accomplished film, television and theatre actress and director.

Filming for Allen's next movie is scheduled to begin in Paris next year.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The death of Jocelyn Quivrin and the rise of the "new monsters"

The omnipresent mobile 'phone complete with camera capability can capture moments that many, and not just those in the media spotlight, might wish to forget.

A quick "click" and the damage is done with videos and pictures making their way to a wider audience via the Net as everyone and anyone becomes a "photojournalist".

But sometimes there has to be a limit, as would hopefully appear to be the case in the recent death of the French actor, Jocelyn Quivrin.

Just over a week ago Quivrin was killed in a road accident as he apparently lost control of his car at the entrance to a tunnel on a motorway in a western suburb of Paris.

Quivrin, who most recently appeared in the French film LOL (Laughing out loud) alongside Sophie Marceau, was just 30 years old.

Initial media reports suggested that he had been driving his Ariel Atom, a high performance sports car, well in excess of the speed limit especially as the vehicle's speedometer had been blocked on impact at 230 kilometres per hour (143 mph).

Police however were more circumspect and their caution seemed to be warranted according to a report in the daily newspaper Le Parisien, which said that experts' analysis indicated that he had been travelling at 97 kilometres an hour before the accident happened.

But the exact circumstances around Quivrin's death remain unclear even though police have called for eye witnesses, and this is perhaps where the tale takes a more than slightly macabre turn with the presence of a mobile 'phone.

Because someone on the scene shortly after the accident occurred and before the emergency services arrived decided to use their 'phone to take some images of what had happened and then try to sell them to the highest bidder.

Thankfully though the French media didn't take the bait. In fact among those offered the film there was outright condemnation.

"Pure voyeurism," headlined the French news website, Le Post, which also informed readers that a deputy editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine had turned down the pictures saying they had "been taken minutes after the accident, but there's no question of our buying them and to be quite honest it's appalling."

And from Jean-Claude Elfassi, one of this country's most notorious paparazzi and therefore no stranger to controversy himself, came equally strong language and the description of such behaviour as that of 'the new monsters".

"This person is sadly like so many others," he wrote.

"He tried to negotiate (payment) for these pictures with my friend, Guillaume Clavières, the head of photography for Paris Match, a magazine that has published some of the biggest scoops of the century," he continued.

"But Guillaume didn't want to sell his soul to the devil, and I can understand that."

While the pictures haven't yet surfaced in the pages of a magazine, maybe it's only a matter of time before an editor somewhere decides that it's worth paying a euro or two in an effort to boost circulation figures.

Let's hope not.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Spend a night at the French hamster hotel

Here's a story that might have passed you by: the opening recently of a so-called "hamster villa" in the French city of Nantes.

For an introductory offer of just €99 a night guests can enjoy the experience of what it's like to live like a hamster.

That means they can run themselves breathless in a giant wheel getting nowhere quickly, eat organic grains (yum yum) and drink water from a specially made fountain, all the time wearing special hamster hoods - should they so wish.

The creators of the full-on hamster "experience" are interior designer Frédéric Tabary and set designer Yann Falquerho and the idea is, according to Tabary, "to give people the real feeling of what it's like to be a hamster."

"They're are supposed to come here for fun and to mess around," he says.

"We want them to smile and relax from a society which is often so rigid."

The room currently comes equipped with a conventional shower, a bed and even a most unhamster-like microwave oven, and there are plans to provide a Wifi connection and squeeze a flat screen TV into the 18 square metre space.

And why a hamster house? Well it's something of a personal childhood thing if Falquerho is to be believed.

"When I was small I had a real passion for hamsters and I was never allowed one," he says.

"Now I'm getting my chance."

The pair are no strangers to what even they admit is the slightly bizarre, although another room in Nantes they currently rent out is perhaps a little less strange in that the decor of "Captain Nemo's hut" is inspired by French novelist Jules Verne's fictional character of the same name.

But their next concept promises to make the hamster villa look positively "normal" in comparison, as Tabary says they're currently in discussion with investors for a project which will give people the sensation of "sleeping in their mother's womb."

Enough said perhaps.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Raise a glass, Beaujolais nouveau 2009 is here

Events on the pitch at the Stade de France in Paris on Wednesday evening, as the French qualified for the football World Cup finals in a rather dubious manner, rather overshadowed an annual tradition in this country as far as media coverage was concerned.

But while for many the debate raged, and continues to do so, over the merits of a result gained with the helping hand of Thierry Henry, for others there was more important business to attend to as the first bottles of this year's Beaujolais nouveau were uncorked.

And if many of the initial reviews and comments from the producers themselves are to believed, the Beaujolais wines in general this year will be good which should bode well for the quality and sales of Beaujolais nouveau too.

"This year's wine is one of the greatest vintages as far as I'm concerned, and my father, who has had a lot more experience than me thinks the same," said Édouard Labruyère a producer of one what is considered by many to be one of the leading Beaujolais wines, Moulin-à-vent.

"This is my first vintage and I've begun with a dream," echoed Remy Sandrin who has just joined his family's vineyard.

Traditionally Beaujolais nouveau is always released on the third Thursday of November at the stroke of midnight local time.

That meant of course that while more than 5,000 people had descended on the village of Beaujeu, in the heart of the Beaujolais-producing wine area, to celebrate the official release of this year's vintage in France, the Japanese had already been uncorking their bottles.

Many wine lovers and experts may dismiss the whole "event" as a mere marketing device that overshadows the quality of other wines produced in the region but according to Interbeaujolais, an organization representing wine growers and traders in the region, the importance of Beaujolais nouveau cannot be underestimated.

It has become a "prime mover" of other wines produced in the area, and the figures rather speak for themselves.

Of the 120 million bottles of all Beaujolais wines sold last year, Beaujolais nouveau accounted for one third (or 40 million bottles) with 15.5 million heading abroad.

And for this year Interbeaujolais reckons that sales of Beaujolais nouveau will be between 280,000 and 300,000 hectolitres, or over one third of the region's total harvest.

Enough statistics though, and to avoid becoming confused by the reviews that are already out there on the Net and in the press, and doubtless the many more still to come, perhaps your best bet is to grab a a glass (or a bottle) and try it for yourself.

It's a wine after all that needs to be drunk now.

So go on, judge for yourself.


Thursday, 19 November 2009

France Telecom's new monthly phone bill record: €159,000

If you've been following the story of astronomical mobile 'phone bills here in France, you'll know that in the past week two cases have made the headlines: One for over €45,000 and another for €39,500.

Well, if you thought you had heard the end of it or that those amounts were as steep as it gets, think again.

Now comes news of a bill that makes the others all but pale into insignificance - as if that were possible - one for over €159,000.

It's a case that dates back to May this year but has only just been made public and is hardly great public relations for Orange, the mobile 'phone network operator and Internet service provider of this country's main telecommunications company, France Telecom.

It involves Jean Spadaro, an accident and emergency doctor from Fontainebleau, a town 70 kilometres south east of the French capital, who back in November 2008 chose a subscription based on €30 a month which would allow him an Internet connection using a 3G key.

But as the months went by he noticed that both his use of the 'phone and naturally the size of his bills were increasing, so he decided to change his subscription.

"By April this year I saw that my monthly bills were as much as €860 so I opted instead for the business 'unlimited access' option at €50 a month," he said.

"But when I received the bill at the end of May, I couldn't believe my eyes: €159,212 for one month's worth of connection."

Just as in the other two cases that have filled column inches and airwaves in France this week, Spadaro had fallen victim to that "unlimited access" clause for users who had signed the Orange business contract, which in fact is anything but "unlimited" in that it only refers to the time spent using the 'phone and not the maximum one gigabyte volume allowed each month.

Spadaro insists that nobody had ever explained to him that "unlimited access" didn't exactly mean what it implied when he signed the 10-page contract complete with obligatory small print.

So what has France Telecom got to say about this and the other cases that have hit the headlines over the past week?

The man charged with that thankless task was the company's director of business markets, Jean-Paul Cottet.

Speaking on France 2 television's lunchtime news programme on Wednesday, Cottet once again explained the real meaning of "unlimited access" admitting that there was probably still work to be done in clarifying to business customers exactly what each option available offered, and the limits contained within each contract.

But while acknowledging that in Spadaro's case there had been an error in issuing the bill that hadn't taken into account the request to change the terms of the customer's contract, the problem of exorbitant bills wasn't a widespread one.

"There have been problems with only one per cent of the 4,000 users who've opted for the business formula with the 3G key," he said.

"Around 30 contested bills are currently under review and we'll deal with each customer on a case-by-case basis."

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A new case of mobile phone bill madness in France

Just another news-making day in France for Orange, the mobile 'phone network operator and Internet service provider of this country's main telecommunications company, France Telecom.

And that of course can only mean an astronomical bill for someone, somewhere.

Or at least, so it would seem, based on recent evidence.

Following hot on the heels of the story of Eric Gernez, who received a demand for payment courtesy of Orange, of over €45,000 for one month's worth of Internet charges comes the case of Christophe Aupy-Fagues.

When the company director in the town of Saint-Herblain in western France opened the most recent bill for his firm's mobile 'phone just last Friday he too, just as Gernez before him, received a nasty surprise.

The sum charged was a whopping €39,500 a figure, which Aupy-Fagues said, represented almost 10 per cent of his company's annual turnover.

Just to make matters worse Aupy-Fagues pays his 'phone bill by standing order so the money would have already left the company account had he not immediately contacted the bank and blocked the transfer.

All right, so it wasn't quite as much as the monstrous bill Gernez had been sent, but the period for which Aupy-Fagues had been charged was shorter - just 15 days - which meant that he had run up daily costs of...well you do the maths.

So what's going on here?

Well, the "offender", if you will, had been his business partner who had been on a trip to Spain and taken the 'phone with him.

But as far as Aupy-Fagues was concerned the real culprits were the 3G 'phone, Orange itself and the "unlimited access" contract he had signed with the company.

It was - and is - only valid for use in France, a vital detail of which, Aupy-Fagues maintains, he had never been informed, and the astronomical charges accumulated were a result of that infamous "roaming".

"If we had known that unlimited access was confined to France, my business partner would never have taken the 'phone with him," said Aupy-Fagues, who also blames Orange-France Telecom for not providing its customers with sufficient information or alerting them when charges appear to spiral out of control.

"Nobody got in touch with us or sent us a warning that the charges we had accrued were of such enormous proportions," he said.

Aupy-Fagues is still waiting for an explanation from Orange and hopes there has been some sort of mistake, but in the meantime he intends to try to find other "victims of the 3G key" in France

What's the betting he and Gernez are not the only ones?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Row continues over Ras Dumisani "singing" South Africa's national anthem

In Toulouse last Friday the French national rugby team took on the might of the reigning world champions South Africa - and won 20-13.

A fantastic victory for Les Bleus over the Springboks, but not the only reason the game made the headlines.

Instead the focus has been on the rather wayward singing (and that's putting it politely) of the visiting team's national anthem before the game started as self-styled "South Africa's biggest reggae man" Ras Dumisani gave what everyone seems to agree was an unforgettable performance of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika".

"Mauled, mutilated and murdered" is pretty much the description that summed up what most on the pitch, in the stadium and commentary boxes or at home in front of the small screen thought of Dumisani's rendition.

After the match the Springboks' trainer, Peter de Villiers accused French organisers of having shown a lack of respect by having someone sing the South African national anthem who clearly wasn't up to the job.

"I just want to say that the South African national anthem was performed by someone who didn't know how to sing properly," he said

But as far as the French were concerned the fault lay not with them, but with South Africa for having "chosen" Dumisani in the first place.

"Every time we host an international match we ask the embassy here in France of the visiting country to suggest someone to sing their anthem," said Joseph Maso, the manager of Les Bleus.

"It was therefore the South African embassy which put forward his name and we respected that choice," he added.

The tale might have ended there except that over the weekend it continued making headlines in South Africa with commentators going as far as to blame Dumisani for the Springboks' defeat.

On Monday the country's rugby federation expressed its "shock and horror at the interpretation of the national anthem" in a letter addressed to its French equivalent, and some South African politicians even stepped into the debate calling Dumisani's interpretation a "vocal misfire".

A Facebook page to "Ban Ras Dumisani From Ever Singing Again" already has over 3,000 "fans".

In fact the whole incident has taken on almost diplomatic proportions after the South African embassy in Paris issued a statement on Monday saying that its role had been limited to supplying information on South Africans living in France who might be able to sing the anthem.

And while it had provided the organisers with Dumisani's name it hadn't necessarily "constituted a recommendation because nobody had ever attended any of the singer's concerts and he was not, moreover, a renowned artist."

As for the main protagonist in the tale, well his version of events seems to have changed as the story has escalated.

At first he insisted that he couldn't see (or hear) much wrong with his performance.

"Nobody told me they were upset with the singing," he insisted.

"The Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika has been my tune since a baby," he said. "How can I not know the words?"

But as the furore in South Africa continued, he changed his tune (sorry) somewhat and blamed the organisers for having provided him with outdated material in the form of an old cordless microphone and monitor.

All right so you've read all about it. Now it's time to hear what players, spectators and television viewers were subjected to as Dumisani belted out his rendition of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika".

This and other videos of the same performance currently circulating on the Net, should perhaps carry some sort of health warning, and surely even the most tone deaf among us couldn't fail to recognise just how much of a hash Dumisani made of it.

Or as the South African commentator says (more kindly) at the end, "This is a highly experience South African team, but none of them will have experienced their national anthem being sung quite like that."

Happy listening?

For those of you who managed to make it through the clip and can't hear anything wrong with it, maybe you're unfamiliar with how the South African national anthem usually sounds, here's a - how to put it - more traditional version.

Or in other words - how it should sound when sung properly.

Monday, 16 November 2009

One Frenchman's monster €45,000 Internet bill

Those of a certain generation and background will doubtlessly have been raised with the idiom ringing in their ears, "If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves."

Ah yes the lesson of thrift and sensible budgeting, universal surely in its application.

Sadly though for some the temptation to spend, spend, spend is just too great and the availability of credit makes it easy to build up debts that may prove impossible to repay.

This wasn't the case though for Eric Gernez who took over the running of a bar in Petite-Forêt near the northern French town of Valenciennes in February this year.

He took a while to decide which Internet operator he would use and eventually plumped for Orange, the mobile 'phone network operator and Internet service provider of this country's main telecommunications company, France Telecom.

Gernez signed a contract which, as far as he understood, allowed him unlimited Internet connection and 'phone calls 24/7 for a monthly tariff of €95.

Except when he received his bill last month for the period August 3-31 he had a nasty surprise.

Instead of the €95 he had been expecting to pay, he was greeted by the sum of almost €46,000 or to be exact €45.923 and 61 centimes.

"At first I had to laugh when I saw the bill," he said.

"But I'm not laughing any longer because I've been asked to pay up and have been sent me a reminder," he added.

"I've even received a proposal to repay the amount over a 40-year period."

Gernez says that not only was he not informed that he had a monthly volume limit, but the bill also included international calls which he "had never made".

"This obviously isn't an attempt to rip off a customer," said Laurent Vitoux, the regional director for France Telecom - Orange.

"For the moment we've frozen his account until we have found a solution," he added.

"The contract he signed is adapted to a certain type of user and this was perhaps not the case for Mr Gernez."

Given the circumstances perhaps something of an understatement and a warning to all of us that "unlimited access" doesn't always means what it implies.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

French woman marries her dead fiancé

Yes you read the headline correctly.

Out of France this past weekend comes the touching if somewhat unusual story of Magali Jaskiewicz and Jonathan Goerge.

The couple were married on Saturday afternoon in the village of Dommary-Baroncourt in the départment of in north-eastern France.

Nothing extraordinary in that perhaps except that after Jaskiewicz said "I do" in front of the mayor, Jonathan Goerge didn't - or rather couldn't.

He died last November in a road accident two months before the pair were due to wed.

Such a so-called "posthumous marriage" might be rare but it does happen from time-to-time and there are a dozen-or-so such weddings in France every year.

French law allows them to take place only if one of the future couple dies after all the official formalities have been completed to an extent that show "unequivocally the intention of both to marry."

The final decision as whether to grant permission for a posthumous marriage is at the discretion of the French president, and after all the necessary documents had been filed earlier this year, Nicolas Sarkozy finally gave his accord in September.

"Magali's case to marry posthumously was a strong one," said the mayor, Christophe Caput, who oversaw the ceremony and had been instrumental in assembling all the information necessary to be sent to Paris for official approval.

"They had been living together for several years, had two children and the wedding had already been arranged and the dress bought."

Not surprisingly perhaps the weekend's ceremony wasn't exactly a festive occasion, least of all for the bride.

"I'm not really in the mood for celebrating," she said afterwards.

"We'll go and drink a coffee and then I'll thank everyone who has supported me," she added, saying that she would also be putting the wedding bouquet on the grave of her husband.

Friday, 13 November 2009

French support gay parents' adoption rights

According to a survey carried out by BVA for the television channel Canal +, 57 per cent of those questioned think gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt while 41 per cent are against.

In a similar poll carried out three years ago only 48 per cent of the French were in favour of gay couples having the right to adopt.

Coming just days after a court in the eastern French town of Besançon overruled a regional assembly's decision which had prevented a 48-year-old lesbian from adopting child, the issue on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt now seems to be a matter of public debate.

Reaction to the latest survey from the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party came swiftly as its leader, Xavier Bertrand, was the invited guest on the Canal + early morning news magazine, La Matinale.

And as far as Bertrand was concerned there would be no change in his party's opposition to allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

"There's a lot of talk today about the right to have a child, but for me the priority has to be the rights of the child," he said.

"In a society where there's constant upheaval and change a child needs to have a point of reference, and that means having a mother and a father," he added.

While Bertrand's views might reflect those of many in his party, there are others who at least want the issue debated.

Most notably the junior minister for family, Nadine Morano, who said on national radio earlier in the week that while there were no government plans to change the law, it was nonetheless something that warranted discussion.

"The debate needs to be opened," she said.

"Why not during the next presidential election in 2012?" she added.

"France needs to deal with its hypocrisy," she continued, perhaps a reference to the fact that adoption by single gay men or lesbians is allowed in France and there are currently 30,000 children living in single-parent gay families.

Another member of the government, Hervé Morin, who is leader of the centre-right Nouveau Centre (New Centre) and also the French defence minister went further saying that he was in favour of homosexual couples being allowed to adopt.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

French polls: Rama Yade's popularity and Sarkozy's poor showing

Another week another poll or at least so it seems here as the French have been asked yet again to name their most popular political figure.

And topping the list is none other than the junior minister for sports, Rama Yade.

The poll comes courtesy of the weekly news magazine, Le Point.

Once a month it publishes its ranking according to a survey conducted on its behalf by Ispos "to measure the popularity of the major players in the political arena".

In the latest poll, Yade has a 61 per cent approval rating. Just behind her is the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, (59 per cent) and in third place another Socialist politician in the shape the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (54 per cent).

All right so opinion polls are open to interpretation and they are perhaps just snapshots, if you will, of current popular opinion rather than giving the full picture.

But Yade's obvious and sustained popularity must be giving her bosses the proverbial food for thought especially as it's the fourth month in a row that the Ipsos-Le Point poll has had her topping the list.

It almost seems as though Yade's popularity among the public increases as often as, and in parallel to, the criticism she receives from government and her centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party colleagues for refusing to toe the line or be a team player as in the recent example of her opposition to a government policy to abolish tax breaks for sportsmen and women.

As the French media puts it, "The more she is the target of criticism, the more popular she is."

One dark cloud perhaps for the 32-year-old is that her popularity among supporters of the UMP party is apparently on the decline.

So Yade on the up and up - or at least enjoying a high level of support among the general French population - but what of her big boss the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy?

Well, the latest poll appears to confirm the slump in his approval ratings over the last month at just 39 per cent.

But the news probably won't come as too much of a surprise to him.

After all just last week in another poll carried out this time by Ifop on behalf of the weekly news and celebrity lifestyle magazine, Paris Match, only 39 per cent of those questioned thought he was doing a good job, compared to 45 per cent at the end of September.

And the French president, who reached the mid-point of his five-year mandate last week also admitted in an interview that he had made a number of mistakes during his presidency.

They included his highly criticised break just after his election aboard the yacht of his millionaire friend Vincent Bolloré, which he conceded had been an "error of taste", the choice of Patrick Devedjian to head the UMP party in 2007 and most recently support for the candidature (now withdrawn) of his second son, Jean, for the top job at l'Etablissement public d'aménagement du quartier d'affaires de la Défense (Epad), the development agency for business district of La Defense on the outskirts of Paris.

It wasn't the first time during his tenure that Sarkozy has acknowledged mistakes or publicly expressed his "mea culpa".

And perhaps the more humble approach will see an improvement in his approval ratings when the next slew of opinion polls, of which the French media seems to be so fond, are published.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

France steps up H1N1 vaccination campaign

A large proportion of a still sceptical French public will decide for itself this week whether to be inoculated against "swine flu" (H1N1 or influenza A as it's more commonly called here) as the government's vaccination campaign steps up a notch.

On Monday the health minister, Roselyne Bachelot, announced that over one thousand special centres would be open from November 12 and around six million French would be receiving letters this week encouraging them to go along and get vaccinated.

Among those given priority in the next stage of vaccinating the population at large are parents and childminders of infants under six months of age, health workers who haven't yet had the jab and the "more vulnerable" among the French especially those with respiratory problems.

From the second half of November until the end of the month letters will be sent out to other sectors of the population according to their perceived level of risk.

Pregnant women, who are also considered a priority, will have to wait until the vaccine that doesn't contain the chemical additive adjuvant is given the government's green light, while vaccination of the country's 12 million school children is scheduled to begin from November 25, with the education minister, Luc Chatel, stressing last weekend that it would be entirely voluntary with the decision being left to parents.

Adults over the age of 18 and in good health will be the last to receive a letter inviting them to be vaccinated.

So all well and good with the government finally delivering on its promise to be in a position to vaccinate the entire population.

It has in total ordered 94 million doses of the vaccine.

But in spite of the government's campaign and an increase in the both the number of confirmed cases in recent weeks and deaths reported linked to the H1N1 virus, the French seem to remain largely unimpressed with the most recent poll indicating that only 21 per cent of them intended to get themselves vaccinated.

And although Bachelot remains upbeat about the 10 per cent of health professionals who have so far voluntarily turned up for the jab since the vaccination became available to them as a priority last month, even she has had to admit that the figure is "insufficient".

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Paris sways to the sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir

Audiences at the Théâtre du Châtelet in the French capital this past week have been delighting in the sights and sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

In a run lasting just six days, the group has been serving up its own mix of traditional African gospel songs along with US spirituals, reggae and popular music all combined with the colour and power of dance in what is described on its website as "sharing the joy of faith through music with audiences around the world."

"Certainly not unique" began perhaps rather harshly the review in the French national daily Le Monde, pointing out that there are dozens of gospel choirs in South Africa.

"And not necessarily perfect either" it continued, maybe not too far off the mark as the sound levels weren't always faultless although that might well have had more to do with the venue than the voices.

But the sheer energy and enthusiasm from the choral ensemble complete with some powerful dance moves demonstrated clearly why the group has quickly built up an international reputation since it was formed in 2002, garnered two Grammy awards for its albums and won plaudits and fans around the world.

As even Le Monde had to admit, there's no getting away from how impressive the Soweto Gospel Choir is, or its appeal.

"The depth and quality of voices, the fascinating energy of the dances, the shimmering colours; with the Soweto Gospel Choir, all conspire to seduce the public," it enthused.

And the Paris audience certainly seemed to be seduced.

Even as the group made its way through the first selection of African traditional songs which might not have been familiar to an initially rather polite and unnecessarily restrained public, any inhibitions those in the audience might have had were quickly cast aside as they began clapping in time and warmed to the rhythm.

That's surely the strength of the choir: its ability to make an audience relax and (collectively) get to its feet to join in.

From African traditional the group switched to songs that had no religious undertones but were nonetheless "spiritual" and familiar to anyone.

Bob Marley's "One Love" was given the gospel treatment and a rendition of "Bridge over troubled water" had the two lead singers giving inspirational rafter-raising performances of the Simon and Garfunkel classic.

Some more traditional gospel songs, a sketch "In the canteen" which illustrated the group's ability to add humour to the performance, the instantly recognisable "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and some more spectacular dancing.

Throughout the choir swayed, leaned, shuffled, and clapped in rhythm. The audience too got in on the act keeping time to the beat. Clearly the exuberance and enjoyment of those performing on stage was infectious.

And then all too soon it was the final song "World in Union" made famous by, among others of course, the South African male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


The audience demanded - and got - a two-song encore: more magnificent dancing accompanied Johnny Clegg's "Asimbonanga" and the gospel standard that probably everyone knew, "Oh Happy Day", which inevitably brought the whole theatre to its feet.



It's hardly surprising then that wherever it performs the Soweto Gospel Choir elicits descriptions such as "Spirited and spectacular", "Sheer jubilation...earthy and unrestrained...the rhythm of life" or "Sparky, spiritual and spellbinding".

And few at the Paris performances will have found fault with any of those and similar reviews - probably hoping that it won't be too long before the choir makes a welcome return.

The Soweto Gospel Choir completes its short run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris with a final performance on Monday November 9.

Friday, 6 November 2009

A slice of life in France - a hunting tale

November 6, 2009

Ah yes, it's hard not to mention it but living in France, and especially outside any of the metropolitan areas, means facing the passion many in rural areas still seem to have for la chasse.

France is after all a country in which values of the countryside and family are still promoted and hunting, it would appear, remains an integral part of rural life.

It's perhaps ironic that given the grand debate launched this week by the immigration minister, Eric Besson, on "national values and identity" that a story so quintessentially "French" or at least representative of "life in the country" hardly caused a stir in the media.

All right, so it dates back to 2007, but is nonetheless highly topical and although perhaps only "small" in stature, from an outsider's point of view it illustrates a part at least of what "being French" is about.

Last week an appeals court in the southwestern city of Toulouse upheld a ruling made last year against Jérôme Lagarrigue.

In November 2007, Lagarrigue, who was responsible for a pack of hunting dogs, pursued a stag right into the home of Peter and Patricia Rossard (and their children) and killed it in their kitchen.

You can see a photo of the slaughtered animal here - attention it isn't for those with a weak stomach.

The couple took him to court for trespassing on private property and endangering the lives of others, and a year later he was found guilty, fined €1,000, ordered to pay a similar amount in compensation to the couple and had his licence to lead a pack of dogs revoked for two years.

But Lagarrigue, with the support of a local branch of a hunting organisation, l'association de la vénerie nationale et la fédération de chasse du Tarn, appealed the decision, insisting that killing the animal - even on private property - had been an act of hunting.

Now whatever you might think about the rights or wrongs of hunting, the case surely illustrates a part at least of what rural life in France is like.

Maybe what shouldn't be so astonishing for those living here is the fact that although the original court hearing the case handed down a judgement, the hunter saw fit to appeal and had support in his defence.

After all let's not forget France is a country in which there's even a political party Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Traditions, (Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition, CPNT) which since it was founded in 1989 has fielded candidates in two presidential elections and whose very aim is to "defend the traditional values of rural France."

Although CPNT doesn't currently have any representatives in the National Assembly or the European parliament, back in the 1999 elections to the latter it won six seats.

An anecdote related recently to me from a couple looking to buy a property in the very same part of France in which the stag in this story met its end, included words of wisdom they had received while house hunting and once again it goes some way to demonstrating how much hunting remains an important component of rural life.

The vendors of a house in which they were interested told them that if they were serious about giving up city life and starting over in the country they would have to "learn the ways of the locals".

"When you eventually buy a house with some land, don't post 'no hunting on this property' signs all over the place even if you are against it,'" they were advised.

"Try to reach a friendly understanding' with the locals as to how you felt about hunting and they would probably leave you alone."

Probably but not definitely as the Rossards discovered.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Rama Yade under fire - again

It hasn't been an easy time recently for France's junior minister for sports, Rama Yade, who is trouble again.

This time around it's over her opposition to the government's plan to abolish the droit à l'image collective (DIC) des sportifs professionnels: a tax break if you will, which currently saves rugby and football clubs in particular millions of euros each year as up to 30 per cent of a player's income can be treated as "image rights".

Yade has refused to toe the line, warning that the change would be "dangerous for the competitive status of French sport".

This latest clash comes just a couple of weeks after she broke ranks with the rest of the government by expressing disquiet publicly over the proposed nomination (later withdrawn) of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy's second son, Jean, to head Epad, the development agency for business district of La Defense on the outskirts of Paris.

The reaction, and in particular criticism of Yade from her own party, the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) , over her opposition to the DIC amendment, has been swift.

"(Rama Yade) has failed to show solidarity within the government," the prime minister, François Fillon, said on Tuesday.

"I have told her that the consequences will have to be faced."

Those consequences could see Yade losing her job entirely.

Already there have been rumblings from the Elysée palace (Sarkozy's office) that she doesn't "know how to be a team player" and that there will more than likely be another government reshuffle after next year's regional elections in March.

Oh yes - and therein lies another issue.

The UMP party wants Yade to contest the Val-d'Oise département in the Ile de France region surrounding the French capital.

But Yade is resisting the pressure saying she doesn't want to be perceived as an "ethnic parachute" and would prefer to stand in another Ile de France département, that of Hauts-de-Seine, where she is already a local representative.

Yade of course is no stranger to controversy.

Indeed during her time as junior minister for human rights from June 2007 until summer this year she almost seemed to court it, often at loggerheads with government colleagues and in particular Sarkozy.

She had more than a few run-ins with her big boss and was frequently been hauled in for private ticking-offs such as during the visit of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to this country in December 2007 for example, when Yade spoke out in public and criticised the Libyan leader's human rights record.

Yade was also the object of a more public dressing down when she refused to stand for election to the European parliament, preferring to concentrate on he domestic political career.

In June this year of course things came to a head. The position she had previously held was scrapped entirely and Yade became junior minister for sports: a post widely interpreted as a demotion and a way of keeping her quiet but not getting rid of her entirely.

The thinking perhaps was that while keeping her in government, after all she regularly ranks in opinion polls as one of the country's most popular figures, there was little she could do from such a position to draw attention to herself!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Rachida Dati's latest front cover

When the former French justice minister and now member of the European parliament, Rachida Dati, makes the headlines in France it's hard to know whether it'll be for political reasons or because she's a - well for want of a better word - celebrity.

It was only a matter of time perhaps, but in terms of content and true to form it's rather the latter which marks her "return" with the front cover of last week's copy of Gala, showing a smiling Dati with daughter, Zohra.

And of course a photo spread and complete interview can be found within the pages of the weekly glossy, with Dati answering some personal and professional questions.

Dati, you might remember, was on paper at least, a pretty smart choice when she was appointed justice minister back in June 2007.

She was the first person, let alone woman, of North African origin to hold a top government post and she was seen as a symbol of just about everything the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy could wish for as he set about the task of "remodelling" the political landscape of the country.

But her time in office went slightly pear-shaped as her department haemorrhaged staff during her tenure, she went wildly over-budget in her entertainment expenses at a time when the government as a whole was recommending economic frugality, and her attempts to reform the antiquated French judicial system weren't helped by her personal style with her being lambasted as incompetent by many within the profession and the political opposition.

She was also mocked untiringly by the weekly satirical le Canard Enchaîné, and so long seemingly protected by Sarkozy, she gradually found herself exiled from the inner circle of ministers consulted over government strategy.

Even though she was successfully parachuted in to a safe seat for the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) in last year's local elections to become mayor of the seventh arrondissement of Paris, Dati's days in government were numbered.

And the final straw perhaps was her highly-publicised pregnancy; she isn't married and refused to name the father of her daughter born in January.

Her rapid return to work just days after giving birth to Zohra and the appearance of "business as usual" gave rise to the inevitable polemic as to whether she had "done the right thing" and a couple of weeks later Sarkozy quashed all speculation about what would happen to her political career (in the short term at least) by announcing that Dati would be running for a sure-fire seat in the European parliamentary elections in June, a move which would see her leave the government.

Dati might now be based in Brussels and Strasbourg for her job and her appearances within the French media less frequent, but she can still sell a few extra copies of a magazine.

And that's especially true when there's an "exclusive interview" and she promises to describe how motherhood has changed her life, her "painful" departure from government, possible aspirations to become her party's candidate for mayor of Paris in 2014 and more, much more (readers are promised).

But if you're hoping for revelations about the identity of Zohra's father, you'll be disappointed.

Dati is standing firm in her decision not to divulge his name.

"I'm not playing," she says. "It's my choice and our decision," she tells the magazine.

"Those that I love are reliable people."
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