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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Sarkozy's women in government - just - Rama Yade

In what is probably the most blistering attack on a government minister yet, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has very publicly criticised this country's junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade.

During a speech at the national convention of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP), party at the weekend, Sarkozy gave the minister a very public dressing down.

Even though he never mentioned Yade by name, and she wasn't present to hear what he said, the remarks were clearly aimed at her.

Yade had earned the wrath of the president by refusing to stand for June's elections for the European parliament, preferring to concentrate on domestic politics.

And Sarkozy wasn't shy of expressing exactly what he felt about her decision.

"What is this attitude which consists of saying that there are more important things for the future of our continent than the EU?" he asked the convention.

"Do you really believe we can continue politics (in this country) by ignoring Europe and the European parliament?" he continued.

"The way France can best maintain its role in Europe is by sending the 'best' to the European parliament.

"A political family is made up of those who are willing to lead by example, those who want to convince others and are prepared to take risks.

"We need winners not followers."

So how has it reached the point where Yade, for so long a very clear symbol of Sarkozy's policy of opening up the government to reflect better the political and ethnic diversity of the country, is now in danger of being closeted in a ministry with no real power? And how come she was the target of such an attack?

In this, the fourth in an occasional series looking at some of the women in government who are making their mark on politics here in France, it's time for a look at one who was seen as evidence of Sarkozy "delivering" on several levels.

It hasn't always been an easy ride though - either for Sarkozy or Yade.

When he came to office in May 2007 Sarkozy promised gender parity within the 15-strong cabinet.

Although Yade isn't a front-line minister she has certainly been one with a high profile.

One of Sarkozy's electoral pledges was to include the respect for human rights as a vital part of France’s foreign policy and true to his word he created a position in government - a junior minister reporting immediately to the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

In choosing Yade for the job, Sarkozy was perhaps making one of the most potent statements of intent possible.

Her inclusion in the government - along with Rachida Dati as justice minister and Fadela Amara as junior minister for urban policy - was to many proof that Sarkozy meant what he said.

Moreover Yade, born in Senegal and with a Jewish husband who also happened to be a former member of the Socialist party, brought with her all the personal credentials Sarkozy must surely have been looking for.

Yet that promise to make human rights a pivotal point of France's foreign policy soon ran into problems and Yade became for some the victim and for others the tool of Sarkozy's apparent backtracking.

The first very obvious example was during the visit of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to this country in December 2007.

While Gaddafi was busy signing cheques worth millions of Euros in contracts, Yade spoke out in public and criticised the Libyan leader's human rights record.

She was hauled into Sarkozy's office for a ticking off, but kept her job.

Fast forward to April 2008 and a state visit to Tunisia during which the same pattern of behaviour repeated itself somewhat, although this time Yade was to all intents and purposes "muzzled".

During the visit Sarkozy left international and local human rights groups aghast as he went as far as to congratulate his Tunisian counterpart, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, for the efforts he had made in "improving" his country’s human rights record.

Yade, who was accompanying him on the trip was prevented at the last minute from meeting representatives of a Tunisian human rights group.

Later that month of course there was an interview in the national daily, Le Monde, when Yade said that Sarkozy had set out specific conditions that needed to be met by the Chinese - after their security clampdown in Tibet - before he would decide whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing in August.

Yade claimed that she had been misquoted but the paper stuck to its guns and there were general rumblings in some quarters of the media as to why Yade had been allowed to speak out and then do an apparent volte face.

The more kindly interpretation was that it was Sarkozy giving the impression of being concerned about human rights without actually having to make a statement himself.

In a sense, it was suggested, Yade was playing the role of a "spokesperson" saying and retracting without damaging Sarkozy’s image.

The less generous version was that Yade was a loose cannon, who needed to be reigned in constantly.

Last December it was public knowledge that Sarkozy was trying to force Yade to stand in June's elections for the European parliament - a move which would have meant her leaving the government had she been successful in being elected.

Yade refused.

Her immediate boss, Kouchner, then fired his own salvo Yade's way when he said in an interview with one of the country's newspapers that it "had been a mistake to appoint a junior minister responsible for human rights as "foreign policy cannot be conducted only in terms of how human rights functions".

Which brings us full circle to last weekend's comments by Sarkozy, which Caroline Roux, a political commentator on the Canal Plus early morning show La Matinale said had been an unprecedented attack by any French president on a serving minister.

"To the best of my recollection this has never occurred before," said Roux.

And she went on to ask the two questions that many others have also been wondering, namely why Sarkozy hasn't already sacked Yade, or why she hasn't resigned herself.

The answer to both Roux's questions could be provided on Wednesday when the two protagonists are due to have a tête-à-tête after the weekly cabinet meeting.

Other stories on Sarkozy's women in government

Sarkozy's women in government - Christine Lagarde. Who would be a finance minister?

Sarkozy's women in government - MAM, a rough ride for even the toughest

Sarkozy's women in government - Rachida Dati, a star on the wane?

Monday, 26 January 2009

Travel chaos and more predicted during a French day of (in)action

Treat this post as a public service announcement if you like.

Because if you're thinking or planning to come to France on Thursday, maybe you shouldn't.

It won't actually be a holiday here, but you could be forgiven for thinking it will be, as plenty of people will be taking the day off work.

In case you haven't already guessed, it can only mean one thing - that a huge chunk of the French population is about to indulge itself in what could be seen as a national pastime - striking.

But setting all flippancy aside, it promises to be a mightily trying day for those who actually want to make their way into the office.

The strike has the official backing of the opposition Socialist party and many of the country's main trade unions throughout the public and private sectors.

It's a combination of protests over job losses, dissatisfaction with government reforms and privatisation plans amongst others, and if the unions are to be believed will be "a huge success" as many people stop work and take to the streets.

So it's a heads up for anyone thinking about coming here and then trying to get around the country.

Maybe it would be a better idea to stay at home and not even think about travelling to or around France.

If however you do, here's what you have to look forward to.

First up getting in (or out) of France by 'plane shouldn't be too much of a problem if you happen to be scheduled to arrive on an Air France flight, as the company's management isn't expecting too many delays.

That at least is what they're promising at the moment.

Other airlines of course should be operating normally.

But once you arrive the problems will begin.

There will be a restricted service on the railways as almost all unions representing train drivers and SNCF employees are backing the strike.

In Paris you can expect long delays on the metro as once again five of the eight unions representing RATP have called for action, and the situation won't be any easier in most of the large metropolitan areas around the country.

For the French in general it's likely to be a day of protests and headaches.

Primary schools will be closed and once again local authorities will have problems providing the "minimum service" guaranteed by the government. The result will likely be that many parents will be forced to take a day off work to look after their children.

Public television and radio won't be spared either as a 24-hour strike begins at protest against government reforms. Magistrates will also be coming out in protest over judicial reforms,

At La Poste (the post office) similar action is expected against government privatisation plans

Employees in the banking and financial services are also being urged by their unions to strike.

France Telecom will be effected too, as will hospitals. And so the list goes on EDF, GDF,and Suez, - the energy utilities, civil servants, car makers - just about every part of the public and private sector is expected to be touched in one way or another.

Even at the country's stock exchange - or la bourse - there have been calls from one union for action to protest job cuts.

And how do the French feel about all of this?

Well according to a poll published in the daily newspaper Le Parisien, they're overwhelmingly in favour with seven out of every 10 saying they "support" or "have sympathy" with the call for action.

As has been pointed out among the country's media, Thursday could prove to be rather a "baptism of fire" for the new minister of employment, Brice Hortefeux.

Who would have his job?

Bienvenue en France.

Rachida Dati - is she being pushed or is she jumping?

It was widely reported at the end of last week throughout the French media that the justice minister, Rachida Dati, would be resigning from the government.

There's still no word from the minister herself, or an exact date fixed for her departure.

But at the weekend, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, confirmed that Dati would be on the list of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP), party in June's elections for the European parliament.

Her inclusion means that she will have to step down from the government if, as expected, she is elected.

It was perhaps this country's worst-kept political secret (of the week), but is Dati really going of her own free will or did she simply have no choice in the matter.

Let's look at some of the facts as objectively as possible, and then you can judge for yourself.

First up Dati was not the first choice to head the list in Ile de France region (the area around Paris) for those European elections in June.

Sarkozy had been trying to persuade the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, to take on that role, but she refused with the now rather famous comment here that the order was rather "like being forced to marry Prince Albert (of Monaco)".

Furthermore Dati won't actually be heading the list, instead she'll be number two to Michel Barnier, the current agriculture minister and himself a former European commissioner.

He too will be stepping down from the government, and the date for his departure has already been fixed for the beginning of May - roughly a month ahead of the June 7 elections.

Just in case you were wondering at this point, that's the rule in French politics.

An individual cannot serve simultaneously in the European parliament and remain a government minister.

Hence there'll be two posts up for grabs when Barnier and Dati leave.

So back to Dati - not number one on the list as might have been expected, but at number two still a shoo-in.

Even though Sarkozy praised her over the weekend at the UMP's national convention, when he announced the double act that would be leading the party's push in the elections, many could interpret his remarks as having something of a hollow ring to them.

After all Dati has in a manner of speaking been "out of favour" with the French president for several months now, to the extent that she was excluded from the so-called "G7" or inner circle of ministers consulted over future government strategy.

Mind you the prime minister, François Fillon, with whom Sarkozy does not have the closest or easiest of relations, has also been outside of that group, so Dati has not been alone.

That was in stark contrast to the protection Sarkozy provided her throughout her first months in the job.

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

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

Dati had previously held no elected office, although she has since run for, and secured, the post of mayor of the VII arrondissement of Paris in last year's local elections.

Throughout her time in the job as justice minister, she has often been ridiculed in the media and certainly by the opposition Socialist party as being incompetent.

Her management skills have been the source of many a news story as her ministry haemorrhaged staff with more than a dozen members leaving over the course of just 12 months.

Then of course there has been her apparently rather "extravagant" lifestyle. Dati has graced the front cover and inside pages of several weekly magazines, and came in for criticism all round when she admitted in March last year that her department had blown two-thirds of its annual €200,000 entertainment budget in just three months.

Most tellingly though perhaps has been the flak she has received from the judiciary itself - magistrates and lawyers - who have accused her of pushing through reforms to the system with insufficient consultation.

There had been rumours circulating for several months that Sarkozy would try to move Dati to another ministry and away from the firing line.

By moving her to a European level while promising her a return to the national scene at some undisclosed future date, Sarkozy has also been able to present it as proof that his party was leading the way in promoting political "diversity" in a way that no other French party had done.

"The decision to put Michel and Rachida at the top of the list of the biggest region (in terms of population) in France is historic," he told the UMP convention on Saturday.

"No other party in France had dared to do this so far."

Finally perhaps, if you've been following French politics recently, you were expecting some comment on Dati having recently given birth and returning to work after five days, and you're maybe wondering whether that had some role to play in her quitting the government.

The general consensus in France - given the coverage that aspect has received within the media in its reporting of Dati leaving government, would probably have to be "no".

The 43-year-old single mother certainly came under fire from some groups for returning to work so quickly after giving birth to her first child at the beginning of this month, but there has been no suggestion that it was a factor in her decision to run for the European elections.

Or put another way her agreement to follow Sarkozy's instructions.

So is she being pushed or is she jumping?

You decide.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

French government minister "comes out"

It's perhaps not startling news - depending on your attitude towards homosexuality - but it's not often that a leading politician "comes out" here in France.

And it's even rarer for a government minister to.

In fact this is the first time a serving government minister has.

But that's exactly what Roger Karoutchi, the junior minister for parliamentary relations, has done ahead of the publication of his book "Mes quatre vérités" at the end of this month.

Furthermore Karoutchi is due to speak about his sexuality (amongst other things) in a popular weekly news magazine programme "Sept à Huit" broadcast on the country's main television channel, TF1 at the weekend.

What was commonly known within the political world up until now, has since his announcement on Friday become public knowledge.

But as usual the French media isn't reporting it in a sordid fashion, but instead rather soberly as information passed on to them from the man himself.

In other words it's "news" but not a "scandal".

And that perhaps says a lot about the way private lives of public figures are on the whole treated here in France.

Karoutchi is a close personal friend of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and was part of his election campaign team in 2007.

He says he actually sought Sarkozy's advice before coming out, and the French president apparently saw no problem with it.

Indeed Karoutchi says he and his partner have been frequent guests at private receptions held for ministers and their spouses at the president's official residence, the Elysée palace.

And it has also been a pattern of behaviour repeated by the prime minister, François Fillon, for receptions at his official residence, Matignon.

So if Karoutchi's sexuality was known and accepted by those who mattered professionally and personally, why has he chosen now to come out?

After all, Karoutchi is 57 years old, and although a government minister, he's not exactly one of the most high-profile ones.

Plus there had been no indication that he was about to be "outed" any time soon. It's just not the way things are done in France.

Of his decision Karoutchi says that the support of both Sarkozy and Fillon was important, but more than that, he is also comfortable with his sexuality.

"Yes I have a life, which I'm neither denying nor showing off," he told Agence France Presse.

"I'm saying it in a completely natural manner. I have a partner and I'm happy," he continued.

"And as I'm happy I don't see any need to hide my homosexuality."

Of course a cynic might perhaps say that he's looking for publicity for his soon-to-be-released book.

But a closer look at the political landscape here in France could also provide some sort of other explanation and lead an even bigger cynic to perhaps come to a different conclusion.

You see Karoutchi also has his eyes on being the number one candidate for his party - the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) in regional elections to be held in Ile de France (the area around Paris) in 2010.

Only he's also up against another candidate for that post - and one who has a much higher national profile - in the shape of Valérie Pécresse.

She's the young, dynamic, minister for higher education and research - a frontline cabinet member - brought into government by Sarkozy.

While Karoutchi is certainly making the news today and will make several television and radio appearances over the coming week, maybe he can look to the last high profile politician to "come out" in a similar fashion.

In November 1998, Bertrand Delanoë announced his homosexuality on a national television weekly news programme.

Delanoë went on to secure the Socialist party nomination for the post of mayor of Paris in the 2001 local elections and defended his position last year to secure a second seven-year term.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Chirac's dog's bite is worse than its bark - apparently

Sad news from France - of sorts.

In the same week that the former president, Jacques Chirac, ranked second in a poll of this
country's most popular political figures, there now comes word that he has been bitten by his dog.

All right, don't all pass out in astonishment, It's maybe not the most important story to appear here.

But it's the end of what seems to have been a particularly long working week, and the weather outside is very "January". So why not a doggy yarn?

After all the world's media has been keeping close track of canine developments on the other side of the Pond, and hasn't "Marley and Me" been packing 'em in at cinemas across the US recently?

Anyway, so what about this French doggy tale, I hear you (not) clamouring.

Well, it doesn't concerns a poodle or a labrador, or even for that matter a hybrid of the two - virtually unknown to these shores - the labradoodle.

Instead it centres on a "charming" little maltese (bichon) who goes by the rather inappropriate moniker of Sumo (named in honour of the former president's passion for the Japanese sport).

In an interview with the weekly magazine VSD (Vendredi Samedi Dimanche) Bernadette, the wife of the former president said that Sumo was on anti-depressants and was not taking to life away from the political limelight too well.

"He has got into the habit of nipping a little. Not everyone and not all the time," she said.

"But he bit my husband, which is rather a surprise as he (Jacques) adores the dog.

"I think he obviously misses the garden, the other animals in Paris and the walks, but it's not just that," she went on to explain.

"He also had a lot of freedom in the gardens of the Elysée palace (the French president's official residence). He was very happy and there were always plenty of people around. Now he sees far fewer people."

The story has perhaps for many been taking up far too many column inches in the French press during a week when there have been plenty of other news stories around, but that didn't stop the website of the left-of centre weekly news magazine, Nouvel Observateur, bringing its readers further revelations.

It quotes an interview given by Bruno Legrand, the man who gave Sumo obedience classes with the animal welfare foundation 30 millions d'amis.

Legrand says a great deal of the fault for Sumo's recent erratic behaviour has to be laid fair and square at the hands of the former president.

"What happened is typical of hierarchical aggression," Legrand explained.

"When I was giving obedience classes to the dog, it was principally with Madame Chirac and on the rare occasions when Monsieur Chirac was there, he was overly kind to the dog," he continued.

"In other words he broke some of the most elementary rules required in the education of a dog."

The solution now he suggests would to be to re-establish the correct hierarchy within the country's former first family.

So there you have it. Quite literally the end (for the moment) of a shaggy dog story.

Are there (political or domestic) lessons to be learned by the current incumbent at the Elysée, Nicolas Sarkozy, from his predecessor?

After all when Carla moved in she also brought with her Tumi the chihuahua - property of her son Aurélien.

And looking further afield, let's just hope that a certain family newly ensconced in the White House doesn't make the mistake of choosing a similarly ill-mannered mutt (as Sumo) in their much-reported search for the perfect pet pooch.


Thursday, 22 January 2009

Sarkozy's "Bling Bling" jibe at Obama's celebrations


Could there be a slight tinge of envy on the part of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy over the festivities surrounding Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as US president?

And doesn't it smack somewhat of "someone in a glass house throwing stones"?

Sarkozy you see, apparently found the celebrations to a tad OTT.

His comments allegedly came at the weekly meeting of the French cabinet on Wednesday, according to the national daily, Le Parisien.

The paper reported that although on the one hand Sarkozy welcomed the "historical event" of Obama's investiture, he also had some less than generous words about the way in which the US had celebrated - which he had followed on television.

"What would we have heard here in France if I had done a tenth of all of that?" he is reported as saying.

And Le Parisien wasn't alone in covering Sarkozy's remarks.

Le Figaro - a centre-right national daily, not exactly a million miles from the president in its political leanings, also ran with the story, quoting Sarkozy as having said (with humour!),

"They're in the bottom of a hole, confronted with enormous problems, and none of that prevents them from partying over three days. With concerts, balls and all that 'Bling Bling'.

"And nobody asks how much it all cost."


Sarkozy, you might remember, has almost since he became president of France in May 2007, been portrayed and mocked as the very essence and personification of everything that is "Bling Bling" in this country.

Indeed there was even a rapping video made in November last year, "Le King of Bling Bling" which soon became a hit on the Internet at home and abroad.

All of which has led the website Le Post to wonder out loud over his latest reported comments whether "the president of the (French) republic wasn't just a little jealous of the worldwide fervour there had been over the investiture of Barack Obama?"

There's nothing like good neighbours - again

A mother and her two children were discovered dead this week in their apartment in the southern French city of Marseille.

It's a sad story - the sort which frequently seems to make the headlines and one that would otherwise probably go relatively unnoticed had it not been for one particular aspect.

According to preliminary investigations the three bodies had been lying undetected in the flat for the best part of a month.

Just as in the case of a 70-year-old man, whose mummified body was discovered in his apartment after three years last August, so this latest incident surely makes anyone wonder "where were the neighbours?"

The body of the 39-year-old woman was found on her bed, and next to it those of her two children, her eight-year-old daughter and a baby girl of a couple of months.

The decomposing bodies were discovered by the woman's former partner and father of the two children. The couple had been estranged for almost a year.

According to local police the bodies were in a state of "advanced decomposition" and an autopsy to be carried out on all three would reveal the exact cause of death.

For the moment, investigators are following three different paths. Either the mother killed her two children and then committed suicide, or all three were murdered, or the deaths were accidental.

Police said that the woman had been in severe financial difficulty and the rent on the apartment had not been paid for several months.

The father has been taken in for questioning and is being held in custody for "failure to render assistance to a person in danger."

But whatever the outcome of those investigations, there still remains the question of why neither neighbours nor anyone in the local community noticed.

Perhaps the report carried on Wednesday's lunchtime news on France 2 television sheds some light on how a woman, living in this country as an illegal immigrant (sans papiers) who by all accounts very much kept herself to herself, and her two children could die and their bodies remain undetected without anyone realising.

"I knew she had been pregnant and had given birth. I heard the baby crying from time to time," a neighbour living on the same floor told reporters.

"After that we heard nothing and we simply thought she had left, preferring to flee the apartment with all the financial problems she had."

Not surprisingly perhaps the woman didn't want to show her face to the cameras.

And from a local shopkeeper who had seen the daughter a couple of times when she had come into his store and tried to pay with a cheque, there was a similar sort of "explanation".

"As she was a young girl of around eight years of age I told her I couldn't accept the cheque and she would have to return home and ask an adult - one of her parents - to come along with the cheque and proof of identity. Neither she nor one of her parents returned," he said.

"We didn't realise," said another shopkeeper. "We lead our lives without realising the dramas that go on around us."

It's certainly not the first time this sort of sad story has occurred, and it probably won't be the last - either here in France are elsewhere.

But it surely still leaves more than just a bad taste in the mouth.

Once again it's probably worth reflecting on a campaign that began here in France back in 1999 "La Fête des voisins" or "Neighbours day".

From humble beginnings with just 10,000 participants taking part in 80 buildings dotted around the country's capital, the event has grown to more than six million people in 600 local authorities throughout France, according to organisers' figures for 2008.

Since 2004 the concept has been exported to many other parts of Europe with Journée européenne des voisins (European neighbours' day) in around 150 towns and cities.

Sadly, for the mother and her two children such neighbourliness isn't "celebrated" until May.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sarkozy outdistanced by Chirac in popularity

How does that old saying go? "What goes around comes around".

You know - where past actions - good or bad - have a habit of coming back to haunt you or perhaps put another way bite you where it hurts most.

Well that's very much how the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, could be feeling right now.

You see, during his time in office - 20 months now - he hasn't been averse to criticising his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, quite openly. Last year for example he went as far as to say "he (Chirac) hadn't governed the country properly".

And earlier this month during his New Year message to parliament, Sarkozy was at it again when he said he would "rather be described as an 'omnipresident' than an idle King" - a none too thinly veiled reference to Chirac's second term as president during which even the most generous political commentator would probably agree, the country hobbled along with very little political direction.

Now it transpires that Chirac is "back in favour" - at least with the French.

According to a poll carried out by the Institut français d'opinion publique (French Institute of Public Opinion, IFOP) Chirac is the second most popular political figure among the French - way ahead of his successor.

All right, so the poll was conducted on behalf of the weekly (glossy) magazine, Paris Match, which is hardly the handbook of political commentary in this country by any stretch of the imagination.

There again the magazine does carry domestic and international news stories as well as a number of lifestyle features, and its front cover and inside pages have been graced on more than one occasion by several current prominent government ministers. So it carries some weight.

Anyway according to the latest poll, Chirac ranks a long, long way ahead of his successor - 26 places to be precise - and just narrowly missed out on the number one slot, which is as usual filled by France's favourite humanitarian and currently the country's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

What makes the result even more surprising perhaps is that Chirac has had virtually no media presence over the past couple of months - with the exception of course of that reference made to him by Sarkozy as the "idle king".

In all truth though, Sarkozy probably has little to fear from the unexpected rise in popularity of his predecessor.

At 76 years of age Chirac will not be making any sort of political comeback, although it should be interesting to see how the two men fare at the annual Salon de l'Agriculture (Agricultural show) which opens in Paris next month.

It was the scene of Sarkozy's now infamous response to a man who refused to shake his outstretched hand during a visit to the show; "Casse toi alors, pauvre con."

Just a few days later when Chirac pitched up, the contrast in the reception afforded the two men couldn't have been greater.

While Sarkozy had raced around the event in little more than an hour, Chirac was clearly in his element as he spent almost four hours, eating, drinking chatting with the public and slapping the rumps of some of the fine beasts on display.

Ah nostalgia!

Just for the record, and for the sake of political balance, the Paris Match poll places the current mayor of Paris and one time pretender to the leadership of the opposition Socialist party, Bertrand Delanoë in third place, while Martine Aubry, the party's newly-elected leader is tenth.

Ségolène Royal? Well she's back in 33rd position.

For the full ranking 1-50 click here.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Katy Perry - Rihanna mix-up at French music awards

"And the winner of this year's award for best song by an international artist is......Katy Perry for 'I kissed a girl'."

So went the announcement during the NRJ Music awards ceremony broadcast live on national television in France over the weekend.

And on to the stage tripped Perry applauding herself to the strains of.... "Disturbia" by Rihanna.


Had the television production team scheduled the wrong song?

After all Rihanna along with Coldplay "Viva la vida", Estelle and her "American Boy", "Beggin" from Madcon, and of course Perry were among the five artists shortlisted.

Unperturbed, Perry went on to thank the Pussycat Dolls, who had pulled her name out of the magic envelope, "everyone who had voted for her" of course, and told the packed auditorium in the southern French town of Cannes and the millions of viewers following the live broadcast on national television,

"I always love coming to France, and it's great to be in Cannes and I'm really ***ing nervous right now" (translated for more sensitive Gallic ears as "I feel really VERY nervous").

And well she might have been - "nervous" that is. Because she could have taken her cue from the production team.

You see there had apparently been something of a cock-up in the distribution of the winning envelopes.

Indeed while Perry had also been nominated and would later go on (rightly) to collect the prize in the best international album category for "One of the boys", it was in fact Rihanna who should have been on stage at that moment to collect the gong for best song.

The two awards followed each other in the evening's schedule and in a joint statement issued afterwards by TF1 and the national music radio station NRJ, the muddle was put down to a "simple human error."

"The two envelopes, as in the case of all those carrying the names of the other winners had been verified and sealed beforehand," read the statement.

"We apologise to both Rihanna and Katy Perry for the mistake, as well as the whole of the public."

Viewers might not have made the (dis)connection at the time between Perry receiving the award to the music of Rihanna, as in the time honoured tradition of events broadcast live "the show went on".

It wasn't until the closing minutes that the presenter, Nikos Aliagas announced that there had been an error and that Rihanna had in fact won.


The awards, organised annually, are based on the votes of the public in a poll carried out on NRJ's website in the weeks prior to the ceremony.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Oh to be in London during Carmina Burana – or not! A review

It’s not often that "Carmina Burana" is performed professionally in Europe and last weekend was the chance for British audiences to see a rare staging.

Franz Abraham’s self-proclaimed “Carmina Burana Monumental Opera” swept in from Berlin to make a made a two-day stopover at the O2 Arena in London.

But as anybody knows, not all monuments are in fine fettle and this production was one that rather resembled an infrequently visited, but much-touted ruin.

If you need proof of how seldom Carl Orff’s classic can be seen this side of the Pond, grab a copy of “Musique & Opéra autour du monde” – the handbook and bible for opera and classical music fans worldwide. The 08-09 season has precisely zero performances listed.

I know because every year when it thumps through the letterbox, I scour the pages looking for somewhere close at hand where I might be able to see and hear the work performed.

So there was an appropriate tremor that struck the house when the email popped up from O2 last year autumn informing me of the weekend spectacle.

I was straight on the blower, booked tickets – performance and train, reserved the hotel and pulled out the well-scratched LPs (for those who are too young those would be the pre-pre-cursor of the CD, almost back in Ye Olde days just after electricity had been discovered) and wallowed in anticipation.

Now this is not going to be a critical analysis of Orff’s piece, written in the 1930s and first performed by the Frankfurt Opera in June 1937.

For an understanding of the history behind the music, score, interpretations and where it stands in the great scheme of things – there are plenty of other sources.

This is a simple and very personal review.

“Lose yourself in some gorgeous music with a spectacular show at The O2, London” is what we were promised in a production “performed by the world-renowned Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Brighton Festival Chorus and Youth Choir.

First up then a prelude to the main act was 40 minutes of Verdi’s “Greatest Hits”.

After all what better way to warm up for Orff than the Italian genius – other perhaps than Wagner?

Ah yes and apropos of “warm up” maybe now is the best time to mention something of the O2 arena’s suitability as a classical venue.

Because throughout Verdi and the main feature of "Carmina Burana", the air conditioning in the place seemed to be turned up to maximum.

That might in fact be a (more than) welcome feature when the temperature rises during a heaving rock ‘n pop show from the likes of Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Coldplay or Boyzone – all of whom are scheduled to perform there in the coming months.

But for a classical music concert, when everyone remains seated, the continuous blast of cold air was far from necessary and left huge swathes of the audience in their coats, scarves and even gloves for the duration.

Back to Verdi though, although once again maybe the production should think about trying Wagner in the future –because there were a few problems with what was on offer.

Oh yes it was strong stuff, and popular – but the volume levels were just too much for the sound engineers at the O2 obviously, and not enough checks seem to have been made during rehearsals.

Hence, although there was a fair amount of head-bobbing and audible humming from the audience during “Va pensiero” (Nabucco) and “Gloria all Egitto” (Aida), the pleasure was rather ruined by the distortion as the microphoned singers in the chorus reached their climax.

Any notion that the ears would be relieved from the hissing of the loudspeakers during the high and mighty notes of Verdi as the interval was announced, was soon dispelled as the air-conditioning hummed its way into reanimated urgency.

What’s clear about the O2 arena is that it appears to offer all the comfort of an outdoor one with none of the atmosphere of say the Arena di Verona.

Of course it would be more than a little unfair to compare it to any of the great opera houses, although once again, the producers had said of the venue “Why should rock and pop fans have all the fun? Classical fans will love the excitement of this big, explosive gig”

Quite frankly they got it wrong. It’s not suited to holding such an event.

On to the main act though, and that promised “explosive gig”.

Anyone familiar with the work will know it’s a grand, thumping powerful piece. And that’s very much how it started – with a lot of glitz thrown in.

This production, which was first performed in Munich in 1995 and has been lumbering its way around the globe ever since, bills itself as “Carmina Burana Monumental Opera”.

In the programme we’re told that “Mihail Tchernaev’s magnificent stage architecture with its fascinating light projections and enchanting fire effects creates a unique scenery for this spectacle with 30 dancers in 300 different costumes, with choir big orchestra and soloists.”

And therein lie many of the production’s failings

It is from start to finish all very “Las Vegas”. There are fireworks, flames, glitter – in fact all the paraphernalia on which the production prides itself. It’s gloriously – or perhaps not quite so gloriously – over the top.

Oh yes and there are those costume changes – so many of them and seemingly necessitating constant breaks in the action.

Granted that when Orff wrote the piece he insisted that there was no plot – believable or otherwise – in the conventional operatic sense, and that instead there would be a series of vignettes represented musically and dramatically.

Much of the time during the performance it was quite impossible to see what link could be drawn between what was happening on stage as the dancers rather heavily bounced about, and the wonderful music and song booming from the orchestra pit and choir stall.

The choreography was, to put it kindly, rather pedestrian and it added nothing extra to the music other than an often unwelcome, visual distraction.

Just one example which pretty well serves for much of the one hour and 20 minutes was a scene towards the end when one of the dancers was “acting” out the role and miming the lyrics, while the guest tenor (in this case Michal Pavel Vojta) belted out the aria from the side of the stage.

The two just seemed to work independently (well at least the tenor “worked”; the dancing was just something for the eyes to focus on) and so it continued.

The sad fact was that the music and dance seemed so often to run parallel to one another rather than being complementary and in fact the best way to really appreciate what was going on would probably have been to have closed your eyes and just listened.

The reception afforded by the audience at the O2 was polite but lacklustre applause – reflected in the hurry in which many appeared to be to leave the venue – but that could also have been in a desperate attempt to beat the rush to the nearest tube station and make their way back into the night.

Should after all this, you still wish to catch the show, the next staging will be in Qatar at the beginning of March and then a month later it’ll switch continents yet again for open air performances in Brazil and Paraguay before moving on to Chile and Peru.

Europeans will next be able to catch it in Vilnius, Lithuania in June.

Let’s just hope that the acoustics have been sorted by then.

Alternatively you could go out and buy a CD – try the 1979 recording by Riccardo Muti with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus along with solosists Arleen Auger, John van Kesteren and Jonathan Summers.

Turn the volume up to maximum, sit back and relax and get ready for blast off in the comfort of your own sitting room.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Sarkozy plays musical chairs with a handful of ministers

Fancy a bit of French politics for a Saturday read? Then here goes.

Don't worry it's not tremendously weighty (heaven forbid) and won't be too long - promise.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has tinkered a little with his government this week as expected, "splitting" difficult couples, springing one slight surprise in the process and promoting a "buddy".

Oh yes and he has also continued his policy of opening up the government to reflect better the political landscape.

Or another way of putting it, depending on your political perspective, could be seen as him maintaining his strategy of dividing and conquering the opposition.

What's happened isn't exactly a cabinet reshuffle, but more - in his own words - an "adjustment", as Sarkozy has ever so slightly conducted a game of musical chairs in making the changes.

So who are the not-so-new faces who've switched jobs or moved ministries?

Shuffle the cabinet

Well first up, the way was paved for that "adjustment" by Xavier Bertrand stepping down from the government to take over the leadership of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party.

Bertrand is one of Sarkozy's "favourites" and, in many political commentators' eyes, a potential future prime minister should the current one, François Fillon drop out of favour.

To fill the seat that has become vacant at the employment or labour ministry Sarkozy has turned to his "buddy", Brice Hortefeux.

No surprises there as his likely move had been anything less than a well kept secret.

Hortefeux, who had never been particularly keen on his previous job as minister of immigration when it was created in June 2007, is a long-time friend and close political ally of the French president.

His new post will also see him take on extra responsibility as the outspoken Socialist politician, Fadela Amara will be working alongside him.

She'll keep the same portfolio she has had until now of junior minister for urban policy but switches bosses from Christine Boutin, the housing minister with whom she has had a less than comfortable relationship, to Hortefeux.

Amara has been a vital member of the French government and a potent symbol of Sarkozy’s desire to break with the politics of the past, but it hasn’t stopped her from speaking her mind whenever it suits her.

So it should be fun to see how she gets on with Hortefeux, whose legislation for voluntary DNA testing of would-be immigrants she famously described as "dégueulasse" (disgusting) when it was being debated in parliament.

Amara and Boutin, who've rarely seen eye to eye, aren't the only couple to have been split.

It's also the case of Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who had been a junior minister of ecology under the super ministry (transport, energy and environment) headed by the larger than life Jean-Louis Borloo.

Kosciusko-Morizet (or NKM as she's known in the "meeja") and Borloo didn't get on, so she has been given a new job - perhaps the only real surprise among the appointments - as wait for it, junior minister of prospectives and evaluation of public policies (please don't ask) reporting directly to the prime minister, François Fillon.

That (mouthful of a) job became vacant because Eric Besson is moving to become minister of immigration (Hortefeux's old job - remember?).

It's a rapid promotion for a man who "jumped political ships" so to speak during the 2007 presidential campaign when he was still a member of the Socialist party and an advisor to Ségèlone Royal before resigning from both.

And there basically you have it.

The music has finished and the chosen few called to the floor to circle the chairs have all found their seats.

Perhaps the real surprise in all of this comes in the form of two ministers that have remained very much were they are - against all expectations.

Rachida Dati is still hanging in there as justice minister, and there's no word as to whether she'll head the party's list for the European parliamentary elections in June.

Oh and also let's not forget that other tricky customer, Rama Yade, the junior minister for human rights.

She's also staying put for the moment, somewhat confounding the experts who had predicted her dismissal after a) she refused "orders" to head the list for the very same European parliamentary elections (a request she likened to being forced to marry Prince Albert (of Monaco)".

And b) being rather pointedly slapped down in public last December when her immediate boss, the foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, turned around and said that it had been a mistake to appoint a junior minister responsible for human rights as "foreign policy cannot be conducted only in terms of how human rights functions".

There you go, a promise made is a promise kept.

The End

Bon weekend à tous et à toutes.

Restrictions remain on gay male blood donors in France

There's a shortage of blood donors here in France at the moment. Indeed we're constantly being reminded of the fact by reports and advertising campaigns by the Etablissement Francais du Sang (French National Blood Service) stressing both the need and simplicity of giving blood.

And in an effort to encourage more people to be "eligible" the health minister, Roselyne Bachelot has announced that the age limit for donors will be increased from 65 to 70 years of age.

But as you've probably noticed from the headline there's one group in France which is still being barred from giving blood - homosexual men.

In an interview with the national daily newspaper Libération this week, Bachelot emphasised how important it was to remind people of the need to give blood especially at this time of the year when there's traditionally a shortage and blood banks around the country are making appeals for donors to step forward.

However she also said there would be no change in the restriction preventing gay men from giving blood - even though one of her predecessors in the job, Xavier Bertrand, had promised a review.

Gay rights groups have been particularly critical of Bachelot's decision as it comes from a woman who herself says "Everyone knows my personal engagement".

Back in 1998 when the French parliament was debating a change in the law to recognise same sex partnerships (PACS), Bachelot was one of the few from her party or indeed the whole of the centre-right to speak out in favour, and she has also made her position clear on gay marriage and homosexual couples being allowed to adopt children.

Her decision in the matter of whether gay men should be allowed to donate blood is, she insists, one based purely on the professional advice she sought and is founded on solid medical expertise.

"As far as AIDS or HIV goes there are two elements that have to be taken into account. First of all the time delay between someone being in contact the HIV virus and for it to be detectable in the blood. - that poses a real problem," she said.

"And then the figures speak for themselves. Between 10 to 18 per cent of gay men are HIV positive, whereas among heterosexual men and women the percentage is 0.2 per cent. Therefore there's a risk - and that risk is too great to take," she added.

Gay rights groups though contest Bachelot's thinking.

Act-Up argues that Portugal for example has recently opened up blood donorship for homosexual men without creating a health risk, and the group maintains that Bachelot is promoting "fictional discrimination."

Her reasoning is discriminatory "borderline homophobic" it insists on its website.

"According to Bachelot there are groups 'at risk', when in fact there are only sexual practices at risk," it maintains.

And it also contests the figures quoted by the minister, saying that ""today two-thirds of (HIV) contamination in France takes place among heterosexuals."

Bachelot though said her decision was purely one taken to ensure health safety.

"It's not a philosophical option," she insisted. "We'll keep monitoring (the trends) and if there's a change the restrictions will be amended accordingly."

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Court delivers verdict in human growth hormone scandal

In what has been surely yet another example of the wheels of French justice turning slowly - very slowly - a French court on Wednesday "cleared" six defendants who had been accused of gross negligence and involuntary manslaughter.

The case concerned the deaths of 117 people who had been treated with infected growth hormones in the 1980s - growth hormones that had been taken from human corpses.

The first victim died in 1991 at the age of 18 and the last in August 2007 at the age of 29, although the group representing the victims' families, l'Association des Victimes de l'Hormone de croissance (the French Association of Growth Hormone Victims, AVHC) maintains that the most recent death was that of a man on Christmas day.

Those who had brought the case, were the families who had sought treatment for their children’s below-normal growth patterns, but instead lost their loved ones to an agonising death from Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome (CJD).

And just how slowly the wheels of French justice really can turn is reflected in the length of time it took for the case to be heard and a ruling to be handed down.

It took almost 18 years before the trial finally opened in February last year.

In the dock were seven doctors and chemists – now mostly retired - from Pasteur Institute and France Hypophyse.

After hearing four months of testimony, the court then took another seven months to deliver its decision, during which one of the defendants died at the age of 85.

The court's ruling on Wednesday was that "it had not been established that the defendants involved were aware at the time of the risks patients were being exposed to in contracting CJD."

But as far as the AVHC was concerned, families of victims had been misled and ignored over the years. They had argued that they had been subjected to deceit and flagrant disregard for what should have been considered norms of ethical medical practice, even at the time.

When they questioned some of the symptoms their children were displaying or even started suggesting the possibility themselves of CJD, they were at best fobbed off with excuses, or at worst completely ignored.

United States researchers at the time had already alerted their French counterparts of the risks that might be associated with using growth hormones extracted from corpses. They preferred to follow the practice of using synthetically manufactured hormones – now a medical standard.

But for some reason, the French ignored the warning and compounded their error with unacceptable procedures such as extracting, maintaining and distributing the growth hormone in conditions far from sterile and sometimes taken from putrefying corpses.

Without knowing it the parents, rather than providing a solution to their children’s below-normal growth pattern, were in fact allowing them to be injected for years on a daily basis with the very hormone that would prove to kill them.

The defence of the accused - all of whom had pleaded not guilty - was that there had been no knowledge at the time of the potential dangers involved.

Despite Wednesday's ruling, the case is probably far from being over, certainly not as far as Jeanne Goerrian, the head of the AVHC is concerned.

"For our children who died, for our dead husbands and wives, we cannot let this go unpunished," she said.

Over 1,600 children were treated under the hormone programme, and the AVHC fears that many more deaths from CJD could occur over the coming years.

The Paris prosecutor will challenge the verdict for three of the remaining six defendants, while a lawyer representing the victims' families will ask the justice minister, Rachida Dati, to force an appeal.

The reactions after the ruling (video in French)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

29,796 - a magic figure for Brice Hortefeux

That's the total number of illegal immigrants "expelled" from France last year, as announced by the minister of immigration, Brice Hortefeux, on Tuesday.

The figure was higher than the "target" - yes there really is such a thing here in France - set by his big boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, and represented a 26 per cent increase over the previous year.

"I'm proud to have respected and applied the law," said Hortefeux.

During the course of a one-hour press conference, he provided a long list of figures and statistics which as far as he was concerned were proof that the government's policy to crack down on illegal immigration was working.

"The fight against illegal immigration of course takes place within the realms of respecting an individual's fundamental rights," he said.

"For the first time in a generation, the number of illegal immigrants in France is on the decline," he added.

Of course groups involved in fighting for the rights of illegal immigrants or those here "sans papiers" were far from being in agreement with Hortefeux's message.

And they also cast some doubt on whether the claim that there were now fewer illegal immigrants in France was accurate.

Exact figures on how many people are living and working illegally here in France are reportedly hard to come by, and estimates range from 200,000 - 400,000.

Perhaps the feelings of many of Hortefeux's detractors - and there are plenty of them - were best summed up in the words of the humourist, actor and political commentator, Stéphane Guillon, in his rather cutting assessment during his broadcast on national radio France Inter.

"It's much better than the objective set by Nicolas Sarkozy, which was 28,000*," he said.

"Brice managed 1,796 extra expulsions. Everyone applaud. Please......It's proof that sometimes there are things the government does, that work....let's be fair," he added, no less critically.

Tuesday's press conference was probably Hortefeux's last in his current job.

Hortefeux himself wasn't too keen on the job he was given when Sarkozy came to power in May 2007.

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

He has come in for plenty of criticism during his tenure, especially for pushing through government legislation in October 2007 to approve voluntary DNA testing of would-be immigrants seeking to join their family here in France.

But now he's expected to replace Xavier Bertrand as minister of employment - another contentious and delicate social policy portfolio - in a mini cabinet reshuffle this week.

Bertrand is stepping down from the government to take over the leadership of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party.

Hortefeux's likely replacement as minister of immigration is Eric Besson - a former Socialist party member and advisor to Ségolène Royal during her 2007 presidential bid, until the two fell out.

*some reports say the "target" was actually 26,000

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

French justice maintains an "innocent" man is still "guilty"

Sometimes it must be hard for those outside of France to understand the workings of this country's judicial system.

But there again for those living here, it's surely not always particularly easy.

Last year two separate cases - those of Loïc Sécher and Marc Machin - showed how innocent men had spent time behind bars for crimes that had either never taken place (Sécher) or for which they had been wrongly sentenced (Machin).

And on Monday, once again the French system showed how reluctant it is to admit possible miscarriages of justice.

The latest case concerns Antonio Madeira - now 55 - and his daughter, Virginie.

In 2001 Madeira was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being found guilty of raping his 14-year-old daughter. She testified that he had sexually abused her from the age of six.

But in 2006 Virginie, then aged 21, not only retracted her accusations, but published a book "J'ai menti" ("I lied") in which she admitted that she had made the whole story up.

"I decided to write this book to show that my father is innocent and this is the only solution I've found," she said in interviews at the time.

To attract the attention of her classmates, Virginie said she had "pretended to have been the victim of sexual abuse," and it was a story she had repeated to police and the courts before her father was found guilty and sentenced.

After serving six years behind bars Madeira was released - conditionally - and his lawyers sought to have the case retried based on new evidence.

But that first request and the most recent one, to the commission of revision of the penal judgments were both turned down.

This time around it was because as far as the commission was concerned, the retractions of the daughter and her battle over several years to prove the innocence of her father, including the publication of a book were "not credible when compared to the accusations".

It also insisted that Madeira had at one point admitted the crimes of which he had been accused and that the testimony from experts that showed gynaecological tests proved Virginie was a virgin were "inconclusive".

The overturning of a sentence through a retrial has only taken place six times in France since 1945. The most recent case was that of Patrick Dils, who in 1989 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two children.

A retrial was ordered and in 2002 he was found not guilty.

For Madeira's lawyer, Michaël Doulikian, his client's case is a clear example of how slowly the French judicial system works, and how unwilling it is to admit an error has been made.

"Instead of recognising that there had been a miscarriage of justice and ordering a retrial, the commission has compounded the initial mistake," he said.

"Madeira will be found not guilty because his innocence and the virginity of his daughter have both been established," he added, promising that there would be a third request for a retrial submitted soon.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Hallelujah pour la télécommande...zap

This is a follow-up piece to one written here several months ago.

Back then, I tried to "tell it as it is" for a jet-lagged, snooty foreigner let loose in a hotel room with the television remote control in New York City.

And that, after not getting a moment's shut-eye on the transatlantic flight.

Pure delight, as I remember.

This time around I'm turning the tables.

There's still that air of suitable superiority, as I hail from a country - Britain, which often tells itself (and the rest of the world) that it has the best telly available.

But I remain a foreigner or "étranger", happily living in France and therefore perhaps fittingly qualified to cast a somewhat critical eye on what's on offer on the small screen here.

Why now? Well, after the longest of introductions there is - believe it or not - a news angle to all of this.

You see last Monday saw the beginning of the end for advertising on public television here in France.

It was "stage one" in a plan announced by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, back in January 2007.

The eventual goal is a complete end to advertising on all public TV in an effort to "allow state-run channels to make better quality programmes."

The necessary legislation didn't quite make it through parliament in time for the cut-off date, so the head honcho of France television, Patrick de Carolis, was "advised" to take matters into his own hands, and stop advertising after eight o'clock in the evening from January 5.

Hence the term "stage one".

If everything goes according to plan, all advertising on public television will disappear by 2011.

The immediate effect though has been a change to the evening's scheduling on France 2, 3, 4 and 5 - the main national public channels, and some early manoeuvring from the private channels such as TF1 and M6 to compete for the now available extra advertising revenue.

"So what sort of impact has the initial changeover made so far?" You might (not) be asking.

Well it's early days yet - in fact probably far too early to make any definite predictions - so they're best left to one side.

But what it gives me is a "window" to open, to invite you to share with me some of the "pleasures" of French TV as is, as you settle back and take an evening's wander through zapping - à la Française.

I'll keep it short - promise.

Crisps at the ready? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Choose a day - any day will do. But for the purposes of this post (and the fact that I spent the particular evening going square-eyed in front of the box), let's say Thursday. And this is what was on offer.

Remember as you read that commercials after eight o'clock on public television are now a thing of the past.

So what better way than to begin with TF1 - the country's main channel (and private), commercials galore in a measured sort of French way and a tribute to the very "best" of what's available here.


First up "A prendre ou à laisser". Back after a two-year absence and obviously sorely missed, it's a game show which features 24 contestants, each with a box containing a certain amount of prize money from €1 to €500,000 or a "booby prize".

One of the lucky 24 is invited centre stage to choose the order in which the boxes are opened and the one he or she is left with is what he or she wins.

It could be half of (the prize has to be shared with a television viewer) or it could be half of a booby prize.

Intellectually stimulating and informative, where are the commercials? Oh here they are...zap

Over to France 3 and another game show, this time the perennial favourite, "Questions pour un champion".

Ah that's more like it, the contestants actually need to "know" something.

It has been running for donkeys years - and will probably continue to do so. Candidates have to answer questions on general knowledge for the chance to win a less-than magnificent prize (it's public television remember, so the financial resources aren't really available) and is well...quaint would seem to be the most appropriate word.

Think it would probably help to be French to answer some of those questions...zap

Back to the dumbed- down comfort of TF1 and "La Roue de la Fortune" or "Wheel of Fortune" - so no explanations needed for North American readers.

For those unfamiliar with the format however, here's a link to an explanation...zap

Over to M6, another private channel and "Un dîner presque parfait" or "An almost perfect dinner" - a French version of the British cookery programme, "Come dine with me".

Perhaps the change in title was to discourage the French from thinking that they really are the bees knees when it comes to matters culinary...zap

Back to France 2 and Julien Courbet's "Service Maximum". It's a consumer programme, which since it started in autumn last year, has taken a fair amount of stick, not least from the minister of culture, Christine Albanel, for apparently not fulfilling the remit of a public service broadcaster...zap

TF1 and commercials. Oh good I was wondering when they would be on. Time to go to the loo.

Er - did my enthusiasm for the arrival of the advertisements sound as though my surname was Sarkozy?

Sorry I forgot. TF1 is owned by Martin Bouygues, one of the French president's closest friends and someone who maybe, just maybe will benefit from the end of advertising on public television.

Ooops - how cycnical.

Loo break over...zap

More ads on France 2 just before the "watershed" then it's into hyper-zapping mode because it's eight o'clock and that means - well bedlum.

TF1 - weather followed by prime time news and more weather. There's a lot of it at the moment here in France.

France 2 - ditto

France 3 - regional news and weather over just in time for a highly successful French soap opera "Plus belle la vie".

Haven't a clue what that's all about. But isn't that supposed to be the beauty of such a series? Viewers can tune in (and out) sporadically and make complete sense of the "plot" within 20 seconds...zap

Canal Plus - in the middle of arguably the best daily news programme of the lot - Le Grand Journal - only available because at this time of the evening the channel isn't encrypted.

And the excellent satire to follow in the shape of Les Guignols...zapping ceases until it's over because the mocking wit of the puppets is just too good to miss.

A break for les Guignols - not the day in question, but always funny

Oh I'm flagging - and it's barely halfway through the evening.

News over (on all major channels) and weather repeated - a few commercials on TF1 and then straight into a French detective series - Julie Lescaut. Great, but no thank you...zap

France 2.....ah finally French television at what it probably does best.

"Envoyé Special", or "Special Correspondent" - a weekly current affairs programme that looks at issues in a little more depth than the two-and-a-half minutes provided in a regular news broadcast.

There's a fascinating piece on Pierre Cardin, who's still going strong. I had no idea he was born in Italy.

And then some French tourists on a package tour of....wait for it....Iraq.

Go figure!

Because as one of them, explains, "He wants to find out the real story behind the news."

Er. There's just so much idiocy that can be withstood by this particular viewer as the 20 or so French holidaymakers try to justify why they decided to spend their Christmas hols in a war zone - against the better advice of the French foreign ministry...zap

Now's the time I wish I had a subscription to Canal Plus satellite - because it's the second series of "Dexter".

I've no idea what it is as I didn't see the first one (obviously), but it has been all over the media pages of the press today - so it must be good.

But unless I want to continue watching a blank screen that reads "you are not currently subscribed to this channel," it has to be the inevitable...zap

To Arte. Ah Arte. Zzzzzzzzzzz. Culture galore - a French-German venture with some wonderful opera from time to time, fascinating documentaries and great films that nobody really wants to watch, which results in an average nightly audience share of around 0.00001 per cent. Ok so I exaggerate, but you get the drift.

Tonight it's a documentary - in Italian with subtitles - on...well it's getting late and my Italian is a bit rusty at the best of times, so it's rather easy to lose track. So a quick...zap

M6 again "Mutant 2" - just about says all that's needed...zap

And that last minute frenzied zapping session when the lids are heavy, but the legs unwilling to climb the stairs.

Zap...zap...zap through some of the other 50 or so channels available that leave you (me) wondering just who can possibly watch that much television.

They include those 24-hour news programmes (in French) LCI, BFM, France 24, the multilingual Euronews or the international news broadcasters such as CNN and BBC, filling the airwaves with something the cynical might say is often little more than air.

Oh and how about a dose of German telly? We get that too on satellite here in France, along with Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Polish Tunisian, Moroccan, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Chinese...zap

No it's really too late, and anyway, where are the commercials?

Plus tomorrow is Friday - a work day, and you know what?

After all is said and done, this really isn't as much fun as zapping in the US.

So goodnight...zap.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Sex on legs again and a billiard cue - Tango Pasion

Hot on the heels - so to speak - of last September's sensual tango spectacle "Tanguera", audiences here in Paris have been treated to another show of pure dance delight in the form of "Tango Pasion".

It has just wrapped up a string of dates at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, playing to packed houses every evening, and now moves on to pastures new.

But as the curtain falls here at least, on some fast, furious and fabulous footwork, it's time to share some of the magic that the company has brought to the French capital over the past couple of weeks.

The performance currently on tour is billed as the company's new Ultimo Tango which "traces aspects of the history of Argentina over the decades".

So you know from the start that you're not only in for some of the raunchiest and mind-boggling dancing imaginable - but also a history lesson.

That in itself could leave some wondering why history in schools never seemed to be brought alive to quite the same extent. But that's quite another subject altogether.

The whole performance is highly stylised - almost to the point of possibly being termed "contrived", and the dancers - six couples plus one extra man - are togged up to the nines in the sharpest of costumes and caked with enough make-up that it might be hard at first sight not to mistake them for mannequins.

But this IS theatre, and the lighting can sometimes be a cruel friend.

The setting is Argentina - a club - where else? And as the orchestra strikes up the first chords, the place comes alive.

Oh and a word on that music. Well it's played by an eight-piece orchestra, led by Luis Stazo, who at the age of 78 seems to be having just as much fun as everyone else as he counts the musicians in with a vigourous and audible "Uno, dos tres, quatro" and we're off for a two-hour spin across the dance floor.

Any notion that these are anything other than living, breathing human beings is cast to one side as feet, legs, arms, hands - heck complete bodies take over and the audience is transported.

Some of the fancy legwork leaves you wondering how many bruises must be incurred during practice, and (without wishing to appear sexist) the women really do seem to have the longest legs imaginable - going up to their ears and then some.

The performance is bewitching. Mostly in couples, the dancers twist, twirl, turn and at times offer a display of virtual aerial acrobatics.

It's frenetic, intricate, perfectly timed and above

In separate numbers both the women and the men prove that it doesn't always take two to tango.

One routine sees the women, in formation, strut across the stage from left to right clad in suits, and then right to left in dresses.

While in another the men dispense with their female partners in favour of a cue - go figure - as they dance their way through a game of billiards. It has to be seen.

The show is a masterpiece - and has been described by many critics as such.

In fact drag out all those superlatives you would normally associate with tango, add some more and shake 'em together in a frenzied fashion and you've just about got the mix that is Tango Pasion.

The performance might well leave you feeling as though you've just done 12 rounds with a champion boxer - punch drunk with admiration, hands sore from ecstatic clapping and face-muscles aching from a perma-grin of enjoyment.

Don't believe me? Then go see for yourself.

2009 will see the company continuing its tour through Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United States.

And if you're lucky enough to be in one of the towns or countries where the company is performing - there's really just one two-letter word that's appropriate.


Sex on legs again and a billiard cue - Tango Pasion

Hot on the heels - so to speak - of last September's sensual tango spectacle "Tanguera", audiences here in Paris have been treated to another show of pure dance delight in the form of "Tango Pasion".

It has just wrapped up a string of dates at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, playing to packed houses every evening, and now moves on to pastures new.

But as the curtain falls here at least, on some fast, furious and fabulous footwork, it's time to share some of the magic that the company has brought to the French capital over the past couple of weeks.

The performance currently on tour is billed as the company's new Ultimo Tango which "traces aspects of the history of Argentina over the decades".

So you know from the start that you're not only in for some of the raunchiest and mind-boggling dancing imaginable - but also a history lesson.

That in itself could leave some wondering why history in schools never seemed to be brought alive to quite the same extent. But that's quite another subject altogether.

The whole performance is highly stylised - almost to the point of possibly being termed "contrived", and the dancers - six couples plus one extra man - are togged up to the nines in the sharpest of costumes and caked with enough make-up that it might be hard at first sight not to mistake them for mannequins.

But this IS theatre, and the lighting can sometimes be a cruel friend.

The setting is Argentina - a club - where else? And as the orchestra strikes up the first chords, the place comes alive.

Oh and a word on that music. Well it's played by an eight-piece orchestra, led by Luis Stazo, who at the age of 78 seems to be having just as much fun as everyone else as he counts the musicians in with a vigourous and audible "Uno, dos tres, quatro" and we're off for a two-hour spin across the dance floor.

Any notion that these are anything other than living, breathing human beings is cast to one side as feet, legs, arms, hands - heck complete bodies take over and the audience is transported.

Some of the fancy legwork leaves you wondering how many bruises must be incurred during practice, and (without wishing to appear sexist) the women really do seem to have the longest legs imaginable - going up to their ears and then some.

The performance is bewitching. Mostly in couples, the dancers twist, twirl, turn and at times offer a display of virtual aerial acrobatics.

It's frenetic, intricate, perfectly timed and above

In separate numbers both the women and the men prove that it doesn't always take two to tango.

One routine sees the women, in formation, strut across the stage from left to right clad in suits, and then right to left in dresses.

While in another the men dispense with their female partners in favour of a cue - go figure - as they dance their way through a game of billiards. It has to be seen.

The show is a masterpiece - and has been described by many critics as such.

In fact drag out all those superlatives you would normally associate with tango, add some more and shake 'em together in a frenzied fashion and you've just about got the mix that is Tango Pasion.

The performance might well leave you feeling as though you've just done 12 rounds with a champion boxer - punch drunk with admiration, hands sore from ecstatic clapping and face-muscles aching from a perma-grin of enjoyment.

Don't believe me? Then go see for yourself.

2009 will see the company continuing its tour through Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United States.

And if you're lucky enough to be in one of the towns or countries where the company is performing - there's really just one two-letter word that's appropriate.


Tango Pasion

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Rachida Dati's five-day baby break

The French justice minister, Rachida Dati, went back to work on Wednesday, attending the first cabinet meeting of the year along with the rest of her colleagues and packing in four other appointments.

"Business as usual" perhaps for the 43-year-old, except her busy schedule also raised quite a few eyebrows here in France, and started off a whole "polemic" within the media and the blogosphere as to whether she had "done the right thing".

The reason? Well, as you might remember, Dati gave birth to her first child just last Friday, and many have been questioning whether she was wise to return to work so quickly.

On Wednesday morning Dati was discharged from the clinic in which she gave birth last week by caesarian section 15 days ahead of her due date, handed over her five-day-old daughter, Zhora, to her two sisters, and hurried off to the cabinet meeting.

The debate over Dati's decision perhaps raged most strongly in the (French) blogosphere, with arguments coming down in favour and against her decision.

Some accused her of trying to be a "Superwoman" balancing work and motherhood to the detriment of her newborn child.

To one reader in the comments section of the website of the centre-right national daily, Le Figaro, Dati's mistake was clear. "A baby is not like a spot on the nose, you actually have to look after it a little Madame Dati."

Another rather ironically asked "Should she be applauded? What a heroine!".

Even among those who thought that on the whole Dati had made the correct decision there were often reservations and concern that it also represented a "slap in the face" for those who had struggled to have maternity leave made part of employment legislation in France.

Statutory maternity leave entitlement in this country is currently set at a minimum of 16 weeks.

"She perhaps wants to get the message across (that a woman can be a working mother) but maybe she's going about it the wrong way, and thinks she's indispensable," wrote one reader.

But it wasn't just the blogosphere that held forth on Dati's decision. Radio, television and the national press also debated the issue.

One national radio channel, Europe 1, devoted much of its Drive-time programme to Dati's return to work, inviting listeners to react and encouraging them to "vote" in an admittedly unscientific poll as to whether they had been "shocked by" or "supported" the minister's move.

The result - well probably pretty much as would be expected from many of the comments made - split evenly between those who supported her and those who didn't.

During the course of that programme, Isabelle Germain, the president of the association of women journalists, raised the issue of the problem that many (professional) women face when they have children, and said Dati's case illustrated a dilemma.

"A woman is often forced to choose between taking time out of work to raise her children and also taking into account what impact it might have on her professional career," said Germain

"That's as true for women in politics as it is in business, as the time when many people make the most progress within their careers is between 30 and 40 years of age, and that coincides with the moment when many women choose to have children," she added.

On the political front, several of Dati's cabinet colleagues came out in "support" of her decision, in terms of congratulating her publicly and saying how well she looked.

Her big boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, was reportedly full of smiles and "felicitations" - as well he might be.

Dati - although seemingly out of favour over recent months with the French president, still head an important ministry, and Sarkozy is pushing forward with plans to change the French judiciary system to bring it more into line with the one used in the English-speaking world.

Furthermore, he's also rumoured to be hoping that Dati will head the list for the governing UMP party in this year's European parliamentary elections.

Dati herself, immediately the meeting finished, smiled at the assembled journalists, said "Very well thank you," when asked about how she was feeling, and hurried off to her next appointment.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Légion d'honneur - thank you but no thank you

It doesn't happen that often, and when it does, it tends to go rather unnoticed.

But two recipients of this country's highest decoration, the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) have declined the award.

Françoise Fressoz et Marie-Eve Malouines are journalists whose names appeared in the latest list published on January 1, and they have both decided to turn down the award.

Apparently neither knew ahead of the list's publication that they had been included as they hadn't been informed ahead of time, and weren't exactly thrilled at being "among the last to know."

"On returning from holiday I was surprised to see my name among those being awarded the honour," said Fressoz, head of political section at the centre-left national daily Le Monde.

"I see nothing in my professional career so far that justifies receiving such a distinction and I also think that to be able to function in the role freely, a political journalist needs to remain outside of the honours system."

That was a sentiment echoed by Malouines, who is also head of a political section, but at France Info, one of the country's national public radio stations.

She too had been surprised at her inclusion and made it clear that she felt "honour-bound" to decline the offer.

"This list is made public, and I would like to make clear that I had never sought to have my name put forward," she said.

"I too believe that there is nothing in my professional career that justifies the honour and therefore I feel obliged to reject it."

Whether the two women were right to decline the award is of course up for debate.

They are certainly well within their rights and from what they've both said on the subject, felt that there was a conflict of interests involved between retaining their integrity as (political) journalists, and accepting an award with perhaps perceived political undertones.

Both reportedly had their names put forward by the association representing parliamentary journalists.

And over the years there have been plenty of other (political) journalists who have been named and accepted the award.

On the publication of the New Year's list in 2007 for example, the name of Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette appeared.

At the time she was the editor-in-chief of the centre-right Le Figaro magazine and is now head of the political section of the weekly magazine Le Point.

As Pierre-Brossolette told the website Rue 89, there could be a moment's hesitation in accepting the award as a journalist, but in essence it shouldn't become the issue of a "polemic".

"My point of view is quite simple and can be summed up in three points," she said.

"The Légion d'honneur is not something one asks for, nor is it something one refuses and it isn't a medal one wears."

The award, with its five different levels, was created in 1802 by Napoleon as an order of merit to recognise "outstanding services rendered to France or a feat befitting humanity."

Lists of those to receive the country's most prestigious awards appear on January 1 and July 14 (Bastille Day).

Probably the most high profile recipient among the list of those announced last week was the former government minister, Simone Veil.
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