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Saturday, 28 February 2009

Changi airport - "Enjoy the elegance"

Flying isn't really that high up on the list of things I enjoy doing. In fact over the years I've taken a couple of courses to overcome a fear which I consider to be completely rational.

Nor am I the world's greatest fan of airports. They serve a purely functional purpose as far as I'm concerned, namely a point of departure, transfer or arrival - and basta.

All right so I'll admit that I get quite a buzz from pitching up at the arrivals hall to collect someone.

It's more than a little moving to see the pure joy with which people greet each other after time spent apart.

And of course I've become quite emotional when seeing couples cling hold of one another for the longest time until one of them finally has to make their way through passport control.

But that aside airports leave me pretty cold.

Or they did until this past week.

You see my recent "encounter" with Singapore's Changi airport has rather changed the way I feel.

Much has been written about the airport, its magnificent modernity and ample amenities (apologies for the alliterative overload there - I honestly didn't just swallow a thesaurus).

In fact it's probably hard to find anything new and original to say - apart that is from my own personal impressions as a first time visitor.

So with that in mind, and just in case you've never had the chance to pass through, here goes.

Over the past couple of decades there seems to have been the trend at many of the world's major airports (or at least the ones I've visited) for them to become a shopper's paradise.

Both Roissy-Charles de Gaulle (Paris) and Heathrow (London) - two airports I know particularly well - offer a bemusing array of choice for those in desperate need of a little retail therapy or simply the desire to flex a bit of plastic to while (or wile if you prefer) away the wait.

I have - in my rather superior way - tended to scoff at such unsubtle attempts to have me part with my hard earned pennies (or centimes).

Changi tests such resolve to the limits as you can quite literally "shop 'til you drop" or at least until the credit card has been maxed out.

Changi airport, koi pond

To start off with of course there are all the "usual suspects" - in the form of booze, ciggies and smelly stuff.

There's not just the chance to hang out at one duty free shop, but in the terminal I went through - three.

If it's CLOTHES you're after (and it has to be capitalised) and DESIGNER LABELS (so does that) to boot, then you're in for an enormous "treat".

Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana, Bally, Hermes, and Zegna. Gucci, Hugo Boss, YSL, and Esprit. even Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes have got in on the act - a none too gentle reminder perhaps that since last year Singapore has played host to the only night time grand prix on the Formula One (circus) circuit.

The list could go on and on and on, but you've probably got the picture.

Looking for a watch? Hello Tag Heuer, Omega, Swatch, Tissot or Longines....and once again I could go on, but.

Then of course there's the chance to buy luggage - just in case (ouch) you haven't already checked in far too much and are looking to reinvest in something sturdier, flashier, more designer-labelly.

Changi gives you the chance to do just that with a suitcase mantra that includes, Samsonite, Delsey, Victorinox, Mandarina Duck and heck let's face it, just about any clothes or perfume designer you care to mention that seems to have jumped upon the baggage accessory bandwaggon.

Now here's a thing. How exactly are you supposed to take on board a newly-purchased oversized piece of luggage that doesn't meet the carry-on restrictions? Search me.

For technology geeks there are stores galore and the chance to drool over the Apple Macbook Air (a fellah can dream) and hundreds of gadgets that do goodness knows what - I certainly didn't have a clue, I just knew I wanted them - all.

There's a specialist French wine shop (a bit "coals to Newcastle", but that didn't stop me looking) books in a variety of languages and regional crafts stores.

If shopping - real or window - isn't exactly what you're after, then there's plenty else on offer at the airport's spacious and carpeted - yes that's right in places it's almost wall-to-wall woven stuff - terminals.

Check out the space specifically dedicated for children (and adults) to scribble and trace to their hearts' content.

Changi airport - scribble and trace area

Golfers can practise their putting, there's a cinema, live music, a swimming pool (terminal One) and five separate, perfectly-maintained miniature "gardens" featuring ferns, orchids, bamboo, sunflowers and cactus. There's even a koi pond.

Hungry? There are restaurants everywhere featuring food from all "four corners of the globe". Thirsty? Ditto - including Harry's Bar - make mine a double and easy on the ice.

There's free - yes sorry to have to keep repeating myself, but FREE wifi access available and not just for business travellers. That's s bit of a novelty for any European who might be used to having to pay.

All that and much more (I've probably missed out a huge chunk) in an airport that is clean - oh sorry CLEAN - and easy to find your way around.

There are none of those bewildering signs that seem to point you in all possible directions at the same time (anyone who has had the misfortune of passing through terminal E at Roissy recently, where organised chaos and interminable queues are par for the course, will know exactly what I mean) and there's even someone to hand out sparklingly spotless trolleys (are they all brand new?) to help you lug your almost overweight carry-on around.

The blurb in the airport brochure runs "Enjoy the elegance" and that's exactly what Changi offers.

If you turn up far too early or have an overly long stopover, it doesn't really matter. You won't be bored.

And the beauty of it all is that you don't really need to shell out buckets full of dosh to enjoy yourself.

France - and spring is in the air

I couldn't resist it and forgive me if I indulge myself a little.

But after a two week break in search of winter sunshine half way around the globe, I'm back in France and there's a definite sense that spring is in the air.

Now it might be a little too early to get overly excited, after all it's just the end of February and there's still plenty of morning frost around and there's bound to be more rain, grey weather and who knows even snow.

But in the space of just a fortnight so much seems to have changed as nature struggles to free itself from its winter mantle.

And taking a proper look around the garden on my return there was all the evidence I needed that indeed change is afoot.

Bert (the resident mole) has surely resisted the freezing temperatures and has been merrily tunnelling his way through the winter months, so in a sense "all is well in the garden".

But he has now been joined by the very first crocuses, happily poking their heads above ground.

Ah yes this country and many others might be going through financial meltdown and the media is whipping us all into a panic with stories about the economic crisis deepening.

Just yesterday for example on French television there was a report about the danger of deflation with the apparent mayhem it could cause if a recession turns into a depression.

Unemployment is rising, there's the threat of more job losses to come and all the signs are that another nationwide general strike scheduled for March 18 will go ahead.

But hang about, somebody forget to tell nature, because she's not having any of it - at least not here on the edge of the largest forest surrounding the nation's capital.

That solitary crocus from two days ago has now been joined by another, the trees are in bud and daybreak is now at 7.00am - a full 45 minutes earlier than it was two weeks ago.

All right it may all be a rather premature start to a season that should really be making its proper appearance some time in March, but what the heck!

It serves as a reminder that the simple things in life can still make an impact, not just to this forty-something man but maybe to anyone else who is willing to take a little time out to look around them and appreciate.

Admittedly it may seem a little childlike to be quite so enthusiastic, but as a wise man told me just this morning, "It's good to keep some of the child in us alive. It's healthy for the mind and body."

Have a great weekend.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Going in search of the winter sun

Not surprisingly perhaps school vacations dictate when many of the French are able to take time off work for their holidays.

Right now we're all in the middle of the school winter break, and although it's staggered regionally, a fair chunk of the country (or at least those who can afford it) will at some point this month be taking advantage of the weather here (snow, snow and more snow).

For those who might ordinarily be heading for the sun in the shape of the overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, recent strikes have meant a bit of a rethink, with reportedly more than 10,000 cancelling their travel plans.

All right so it's well known - here in France at least - that the country has the tradition of closing down over the summer. The French even have two words - or categories if you like - for those who take their holidays at certain times.

Les juilletistes - for those slipping away from the rat race for most of the month of July, and les aôutiens for - well you've probably guessed and I probably don't need to spell it out. But just in case - it's for August.

But winter - and February in particular - is another time when much of the country seems to decide to "down tools" - and not necessarily because they're indulging in what might appear to be to the outside observer, as the national pastime of striking.

France has a reasonably-priced (well in comparison to Switzerland and Austria) ski resort "industry" and the infrastructure and organisation to cope with the hordes.

It's also blessed with the Alps, the Pyrenees and even the Massif Central - each offering something suitable to fit most sizes of wallet.

For those who aren't too keen on the white fluffy stuff (me) there are the affordable sun alternatives in the form of the overseas French departments, such as the Caribbean Islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, (or for those with deeper pockets Saint-Barthélemy) and the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion.

They're all "part" of France.

But the Caribbean, or French Antilles, are a bit of a "no-no" for tourists at the moment as there have been a series of strikes in Guadeloupe for the past month and they have spread to Martinique this last week.

Part of the outcome has been that thousands of (French) tourists have cancelled their planned holidays at the last moment and there's now a last-minute scramble to look for alternatives.

Anyway. I'm lucky enough to be able to choose when I take my holiday as there are no children involved - just a dog and house sitter required.

By the same token, I also tend to buck the trend, staying at home during the summer when the capital is at its glorious best, calm and fairly empty (of locals) apart from tourists wondering what all the fuss is about as the Parisians still around seem charmingly chilled.

I work through the summer months and take my "proper" break in the winter avoiding the crowds by heading for destinations they're least likely to choose.

Of course I never seem to get it right.

Last year it was Egypt and I still managed to bump into a fair few French as I dragged my old bones around along the lines of one old ruin visiting several others. Still it was a real eye-opener as I tried to convey in some posts here when I came back.

This year it's - well I ain't saying yet, just in case all my good intentions of taking stunning photos with my state-of-the-art camera come to nothing.

But it's far away from here and there probably won't be a news outlet in sight which makes me wonder how exactly I'll manage.

No news can be good news maybe. I'll get a chance to write (rather than ramble) and READ books rather than surf the Net.

Which brings me nicely to the pick of the best (or perhaps the worst), I've chosen to take with me on my wanderings.

You see I really haven't been able to avoid shoving a recently-bought copy of "Belle-Amie" into my case. It's a "warts and all" sort of read (apparently) by two French journalists, Michaël Darmon and Yves Derai, about this country's justice minister, Rachida Dati.

They've been doing the rounds this past week of television and radio promoting their book in which they trace the rapid rise of Dati from the humblest of beginnings to high political office, "dish the dirt" somewhat on her apparently "manipulative" character and "reveal" the name of the father of her daughter Zhora.

Hmmmmn

While I'll have my nose buried in a book it doesn't of course mean that France is going to come to a standstill. There'll be plenty of news around.

Those ongoing strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique haven't been resolved yet and could spread to French Guyane and even the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion unless the French government manages to come up with a solution to the protests.

There's another "good read" that has just been released - this time an unauthorised biography on how the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, met the (now) first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, written by the man who brought them together.

So if you fancy seeing how the French react to revelations about the private lives of public figures, that might be worth taking a peek at, especially as once again it rather breaks the mould of how this sort of stuff was "handled" in the past.

On the political front, Sarkozy is due to meet union leaders next week in an effort to avoid another general strike scheduled for March 19.

For now though - catch y'all in a couple of weeks. And I'll be thinking of you as I'm happily knocking back some cocktail in paradise. - NOT.

Pip the toodle!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Rama Yade tops French political popularity poll

In what might seem to be something of a turn up for the books, the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, is this country's most popular political figure, according to a new poll released on Tuesday.

With a 60 per cent approval rating, the 32-year-old even beat out her immediate boss and perennial favourite among the French, the foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, to top the rankings.

The survey, carried out by Ipsos market research on behalf of the weekly news magazine, Le Point, placed Yade ahead of Kouchner and the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe, in joint second (59 per cent).

Another junior minister (for urban policy), Fadela Amara, was in fourth (56 per cent) and the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (among others with 53 per cent) in fifth.

All right, all right, so these things come out with seemingly alarming regularity and perhaps shouldn't be given too much weight in the grand scheme of things.

Just last month for example, the weekly (glossy) magazine, Paris Match, published a similar survey carried out on its behalf by the Institut français d'opinion publique (French Institute of Public Opinion, IFOP) which placed the former president, Jacques Chirac in second (behind Kouchner) - 26 places ahead of his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

And there'll likely be another poll in March reflecting more ups and downs.

But for the moment, back to this current poll and why it could be seen as surprising.

You see, Yade has been having a pretty tough time of it politically speaking recently.

She has been somewhat sidelined in her job and has come under fire from both Kouchner and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the past couple of months.

In December for example, Kouchner said in an interview with the national daily, Le Parisien, that is had been a mistake to appoint a junior minister for human rights as "foreign policy cannot be conducted only in terms of how human rights functions".

And Sarkozy was on her case last month after she refused to stand for the European parliamentary elections scheduled for June, criticising her, if not by name then by implication, at a speech he made to the national convention of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP).

The two have since had a tête-à-tête (at Yade's request) and the air seems to have cleared somewhat given Sarkozy's comments towards the end of his 90-minute televised interview last week when he said of her decision, "I think she has understood that she was wrong, but I believe I can count on her talent."

In reality though the new poll probably means very little. After all it's unlikely to get Yade an immediate promotion or a financial bonus of any sort.

But all the same it might give Sarkozy some "food for thought".

Yade was, and arguably still is, the most powerful symbol of how he wanted to change the face of French politics.

Born in Senegal and with a Jewish husband who also happened to be a former member of the Socialist party, Yade was given a job created by Sarkozy as part of his promise to make human rights a pivotal point of France's foreign policy.

That might not have worked out quite as he intended (or perhaps it did) but maybe Sarkozy will be looking at those polls when it comes to a meaningful reshuffle later this year.

If the European elections go as expected he'll have to replace two front-line cabinet ministers - Michel Barnier at agriculture and Rachida Dati at justice.

Perhaps there'll be room made for Yade somewhere (else).

Pure speculation of course, but worth keeping an eye on.

For the record - as you're doubtless dying to know, Sarkozy is once again dropping in the popularity stakes.

According to the same Ipsos poll, he had an approval rating of 36 per cent - nine points down on last month and perhaps not especially good news after his "reassuring" interview last week.

Ah polls - perhaps to paraphrase from "Winnie the Pooh",

"The wonderful thing about polls is that polls are wonderful things.Their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs"

"..................but the most wonderful thing about any poll is that it's not the only one."

Monday, 9 February 2009

Paris airports close as France awaits storm

All three of the French capital's airports, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget, are to suspend traffic this evening from eight o'clock until Tuesday morning at 10 o'clock local time.

Storms with winds of up to 120 km/h are expected in the Paris region overnight as weather is is once again making the headlines here in France.

This country's national meteorological service, Météo-France, is forecasting storms over a huge part of the country from Monday evening.

It has predicted high winds with gusts of up to 140 km/h to hit the west and southwest of the country at around six o'clock local time moving across country throughout the night and into Tuesday.

In total, Météo-France has put 61 (of the 96 in mainland France) départements (or administrative districts) on orange alert (see affected areas here).

"Vigilance has been advised" and a huge swathe of the country is expected to be affected with winds predicted to be as strong 120 -140 km/h in western coastal areas.

Further inland, as the storms move from west to east, they should drop to 100-120 km/h before moving in to neighbouring Belgium on Tuesday.

In its wake of course, the storm (or tempête Quentin as it's being called) is expected to create plenty of damage, fallen trees, localised traffic problems and rail and air transport delays throughout the day on Tuesday.

Along with the wind, there'll also be rain - as if many parts of France haven't had more than their fair share already The risk of flooding or rivers breaking their banks isn't thought to be a major threat in most parts of the country, apart from the southwest where water levels are already very high and some local communities have been warned to expect the worst.

One ray of sunshine (sorry - completely unintentional, but you have to look for the positive in all of this too) is that according to Météo-France, the storm will not be as intense as the one that devastated parts of southwestern France on January 24.

But that'll probably be of little comfort to those just recovering from one weather front, now being warned of another one.

January's storm (tempête Klaus) caused an estimated €1.2 billion worth of damages, brought down power lines to 1.7 million households and killed 11 people.

The calm before the storm - weather warning as tempête Quentin approaches

UPDATE: As of four o'clock Monday afternoon, Méteo France has increased the number of départments on orange alert to 58.

W
eather is is once again making the headlines here in France, with this country's national meteorological service, Météo-France, forecasting storms over a huge part of the country on Monday evening.

It has predicted high winds with gusts of up to 140 km/h to hit the west and southwest of the country at around six o'clock local time moving across country throughout the night and into Tuesday.

In total, Météo-France has put 35 (of the 96 in mainland France) départements (or administrative districts) on orange alert (see affected areas here), although Meteo Consult, a commercial meteorological research bureau has put the figure as high as 44.

Whatever the exact number, "vigilance has been advised" and a huge swathe of the country is expected to be affected with winds predicted to be as strong 120 -140 km/h in western coastal areas.

Further inland, as the storms move from west to east, they should drop to 100-120 km/h before moving in to neighbouring Belgium on Tuesday.

In its wake of course, the storm (or tempête Quentin as it's being called) is expected to create plenty of damage, fallen trees, localised traffic problems and rail and air transport delays throughout the day on Tuesday.

Along with the wind, there'll also be rain - as if many parts of France haven't had more than their fair share already, but apart from a few isolated regions, the risk of flooding or rivers breaking their banks isn't thought to be a major threat.

One ray of sunshine (sorry - completely unintentional, but you have to look for the positive in all of this too) is that according to Météo-France, the storms will not be as intense as those that devastated parts of southwestern France on January 24.

YouTube Video



But that'll probably be of little comfort to those just recovering from one weather front, now being warned of another one.

January's storm (tempête Klaus) caused an estimated €1.2 billion worth of damages, brought down power lines to 1.7 million households and killed 11 people.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Boys who "disappeared" with their father 11 years ago speak out

In 1998 two boys, aged six and seven, were declared missing after their father, Xavier Fortin, abducted his sons rather than return them to their mother who had custody of both.

At least that was how the story was first reported when the boys were "discovered" last week in the village of Masset in the département of l'Ariège in the southwest of the country, where they had been living with their father.

It's a tale which has lasted more than a decade but has been unfolding over the past week.

Fortin is currently in police custody.


The two boys, Théo and Manu (they changed their names during their years "on the run" from Okwari and Shahi-Yena) now 17 and 18 respectively, have spoken publicly for the first time about how they went "missing and their desire now to see their 52-year-old father released.

In an interview with the regional daily, La Dépêche du Midi, they gave an insight into their "secret" life, how they had chosen to remain with their father all those years ago rather than return to their mother, and maintained that they hadn't been held against their will.

Before the boys disappeared they said that they had always lived a marginalised kind of existence but it had been a happy childhood in a solid family structure.

"When relations between our parents started to deteriorate we were seven and eight and our mother wanted to remove us from what we knew - just like that," they said.

"We weren't able to see our father, our mother worked and we lived in an apartment and we were looked after by a childminder."

When in December 1998 Fortin was allowed access rights during the Christmas holidays the "adventure" began for the two boys.

"At that age it wasn't possible to make a choice between our mother and our father, we just opted for a life which would make us happiest," they said.

"When it started, we treated it as a game."

The boys reveal that over more than a decade they frequently changed both location and name.

But they insist they were far from being social outcasts and on the contrary had met an incredible number of people.

"It has been an enriching experience," they told the newspaper.

They explain how their father, a qualified teacher, gave them lessons at home and they insist that they'd had a first rate education.

"Those who think we were in some way modern day Mowglis, our answer is that we are 10 times more mature than others of our age."

And moreover Fontin had never prevented them from getting in touch with their mother.

"Our father made us write to her often. She never replied," they said.

Their goal now is to rebuild a relationship with their mother and to see their father released from police custody.

So a very different perspective to the one that might have initially appeared in the media on what happened over the course of a decade from those whose story it, after all, is.

But wait, there is of course another side to all of this - that of the mother, Catherine Martin.

And the day after Théo and Manu gave their exclusive to La Dépêche du Midi, Martin's response and reaction could be read in the national daily, Le Parisien.

The 45-year old said she had spent the last decade hoping to hear from her two sons and contrary to what they had implied in their interview, they had not written directly to her over the years.

"There were only four letters addressed to the magistrate (following the case) dictated by Xavier Fortin and copied by the children," she said.

"And just once there was a letter posted from Morocco when their photos had been published, to say that there had been no "abduction" involved."

Although Martin had custody of the two children and had the full force of French justice on her side, in that the two boys were taken and hidden from her without her consent, she is not going to press ahead with a civil suit in which she would be the "victim"

Instead she wants to help pave the way to building a relationship with both of them.

She has entrusted the delicate task of going about rebuilding a relationship with the two sons she hasn't seen since 1998 to their brother and her oldest son, 24-year-old Nicolas.

"Every word, every false move could hurt them, and a compromise has to be found," she says.

"They still feel divided. It has become their obsession to support their father and prevent him from being imprisoned.

Martin said that in a recent discussion she had with Théo and Manu, one of them told her that they had always been on the move, staying with travellers or the circus.

"He (Fortin) told everyone around him that he was a widow and the boys were instructed to say that I was dead."

For her though the lost years are not as important as now looking forward to the future.

"None of that really matters now," she said

So there you have it. The same story told form different perspectives and a mother beginning to rediscover two of her sons after more than a decade of separation.

Their father, Fortin, is due to appear in court on March 17

Friday, 6 February 2009

Sarkozy "reassures" the French in the face of a "worldwide crisis"

"It's the crisis of the century and it's without precedence," said the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, early on in a special interview broadcast live here on national television and radio on Thursday.

"In addition I have to protect as much as possible those who were in some way excluded when the world was benefitting from economic growth."

During the course of 90 minutes Sarkozy defended his government's policies and sought to "reassure" the French that the correct measures had been taken over the past couple of months to address the "understandable concerns" many have in this country for their future livelihoods.

More than 15 million viewers tuned in last night to hear what Sarkozy had to say about his government's handling of the economic crisis.

And although his office had said beforehand that there was no connection between his decision to appear "before the nation" and last week's national strike, it was clear from the outset that the day of action had been the catalyst for what was only Sarkozy's third televised interview since coming to power in May 2007.

But his interpretation of that strike could perhaps be regarded not so much as doublespeak as making the facts fit the argument.

"I have to make sure that France exits the economic crisis as soon as possible, " he said.

"My job is to listen to those who took to the streets, but also to listen to those who didn't - those who were working on that day and are also suffering."

What was perhaps disappointing, although hardly surprising, was that none of the four journalists present challenged him on his "explanation" by pointing out that polls also showed that 70 per cent of the French supported the strike - whether they took part in it or not.

Sarkozy will meet union leaders and representatives of the employer's associations on Feb. 18 to discuss the possibility of increasing unemployment benefits.

So what to make overall of what he had to say? After all 90 minutes is one heck of a long time to condense into just 700 words or so.

Well here is the very broadest of outlines.


(For those of you who understand French, there are links at the bottom of the piece to some of the sites of the major daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. As you can probably imagine it has been the major news story within the French media today.

Read collectively they should give a balanced overview of how the interview was received and interpreted.)



On the issue of his €26 billion stimulus package announced in December, Sarkozy was unrepentant, repeating once again that it had been the right move to resist the global economic slowdown and would protect jobs by shoring up the country's motor and construction industries.

He insisted that emergency loans to banks hadn't cost the French taxpayer one single centime (yes the French still call the smallest unit of the Euro currency by its old name).

In fact he went further to suggest that the state would actually earn over €1 billion from the interest on the loans it had made this year.

Sarkozy also announced that from next year, local taxes on business would be scrapped but companies have to pledge to keep operating in France and not close down plants to relocate to another country.

As far as the general direction and pace of reform was concerned, Sarkozy said there would be no change. When running for office he had campaigned on a promise to reduce taxes and trim down the country's large public sector and that was a promise he would be sticking to.

And one final note perhaps just to round off this post - on the "problems" Sarkozy has been having with a few of his ministers recently.

On Rachida Dati, the justice minister, who'll be stepping down if as expected she's elected to the European parliament in June, he said she "has done a remarkable job. Rachida will go to Europe and she will find her place once again in the government."

On Rama Yade, the junior minister for human rights, who refused to stand for those same elections he said, "When you're 32 years old and you're proposed a seat in the European (parliament), I find it a shame not to take advantage of that.

"I think she has understood that she was wrong, but I believe I can count on her talent."

And on the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who has been the target of a recently released book which "questions" his work as a consultant to some of Africa's dictatorial regimes Sarkozy offered his full support.

"Monsieur Kouchner has problems with the police? The justice system?" he questioned.

"Someone writes a book in which he says that M. Kouchner has done nothing illegal," he added.

"I've known M Kouchner for a long time and he abandoned those (consultancy) activities when he entered the government.

"I'm not the sort of person to drop someone just because there's a book based on rumours.

"He's a man in whom one can have complete confidence".

So there you have it. In a nutshell - and with plenty left out of course - 90 minutes worth of television.

Someone's hand aches from all the note-taking that went on while watching - and there were no advertising breaks.




Those promised links

Le Point
Libération
Nouvel Observateur
Le Monde
Le Figaro


And for those you you brave enough to watch the whole interview in French - handily broken down into four manageable parts.

Face à la crise part 1
Face à la crise part 2
Face à la crise part 3
Face à la crise part 4

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Remembering Karen Carpenter - a voice of "chilling perfection" *

I'm sad to say I missed it - and perhaps you did too - the anniversary this week of the death of Karen Carpenter, who died on February 4 back in 1983

She was one half of the brother-and-sister pop duo The Carpenters, who had a string of hits in the 1970s from the remake of the Beatles' "Ticket to ride" through "Sing", "Jambalaya" "Please Mr Postman" and many, many more.

From the outset I'll own up - this is rather a personal post as it takes me back to my dim and distant youth. But what the heck. I'm not proud.

Carpenter was just 32 when she died. She had suffered for several years from anorexia and her death was from heart failure later attributed to complications she had suffered as a consequence of her illness.

Maybe Carpenter didn't have the impact of a Janis Joplin or the King in terms of name recognition and her place in the music's Hall of Fame, but she played a very special part in my teenage years.

"Guilty as charged" and not ashamed, I was a huge fan of the Carpenters in my youth.

Yes I've given away my age and admitted to what some out there might consider rather dubious musical tastes.

While the rest of the boys at my school were strumming their air guitars along to Pink Floyd, waving goodbye to Glam Rock or later pogoing as the decade welcomed Punk and the Sex Pistols, I bucked the trend and listened to what my mother would have called (and in fact did so at the time) "proper" singing.

A mellow voice and a diction that was pure pleasure to the ears. Karen's voice not mine I hasten to add.

And those ears were ones which it has to be said were jammed between the two speakers in the days when 45s were in fashion and C and D were simply two letters next to each other in the alphabet and tapes - cassettes that is - were only just making their mark.

What I was listening to as the turntable spun, might well have been dismissed as somewhat cheesy and certainly all-American apple pie stuff at the time (and probably even now) - but at the very least it was definitely something I could wrap my tonsils around as I caterwauled along in unison.

And that's exactly what I did as Karen launched into to "Close to you" accompanied by her brother Richard and then continued with "Goodbye to Love," "Only Yesterday" or "Yesterday Once More."

How sad and how telling perhaps that more than three decades later I can still remember all the lyrics (if not necessarily the melodies) as I hold forth with my party piece, much to the "delight" of friends and family.

Apart from the music - which I think I've probably waffled on about for long enough now - the most important thing about Karen's life, and in particular her death, was the awareness it brought to the problems of those suffering with eating disorders.

Her death focussed media attention on an illness that had received little exposure beforehand.

Anyway, I hunted around YouTube and came up with the accompanying video, which will allow those of you out there who are interested and up for a great voice to take a listen.

YouTube Video


Thanks for taking time out to read this post and allowing me the indulgence of writing it. And of course to Karen wherever you are, thanks for that voice.

Sorry for forgetting.



* "Hers is a voice of fascinating contrasts, combining youth with wisdom; chilling perfection with much warmth."
A quote attributed to Rolling Stone Magazine

Sarkozy addresses the nation

Anyone sat in front of the small screen during prime time viewing here in France this evening will be hard-pushed for choice as the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will be appearing live simultaneously on three national channels in a "special" (maximum) 90-minute programme.

He'll be facing questions from four selected journalists from the two major national channels, TF1 and France 2, along with one from M6 and another from the radio station, RTL.

It's being billed as Sarkozy's response to the economic crisis France (and much of the rest of the world) is going through, the credit crunch, the recession, call it what you will.

"Face à la crise" (surely no translation is necessary) is also likely to be a direct reaction to last week's general nationwide strike, although his office insists that there is no immediate connection between the two.

Instead it's being touted as a chance for Sarkozy to "explain" and put into perspective the government's handling of the economy during the credit crunch in France over the past couple of months and to "reassure" the French that the correct measures have been taken.

That "reassurance" is perhaps something many of those who took to the streets last week will be seeking, especially in light of the €360 billion fund (or stimulus package) the government has given to guarantee banks at a time when many small and medium sized businesses are still having problems securing loans.

Then of course there's the problem of purchasing power - or rather how to increase it, which was after all a campaign pledge when Sarkozy was running for office and an oft-repeated goal since he came to power.

Job losses, cuts in the education budget, pension and judicial reforms are also likely to be on the agenda in the first live television interview Sarkozy will have given since June last year, just before he started his six-month stint at the head of the rotating presidency of the European Union.

When he came to office in May 2007, Sarkozy said that there would be no formal or regular structured "message to the nation" as there had been under previous presidents and that he would pop up on our screens if and when he saw fit.

Tonight's format will be similar to the televised interview Sarkozy gave last April.

Back then he answered questions on a range of issues and admitted that "errors in communication" had been made in the way policy reforms had been introduced, namely that they hadn't been explained sufficiently well - and he promised more transparency.

The difference this time around though is that there's unlikely to be an admission of error, but instead an attempt to set people's minds at rest that the policies and measures the government has been pursuing over the past couple of months have been the right ones and in the interests of the country as a whole.

The country awaits with baited (sic) breath n'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Will it be "France nul points" at Eurovision?

All right, so it might only be February but that hasn't stopped all Eurovision Song Contest eyes and ears from pointing towards the warblings promised in May in Moscow.

And France has already chosen its representative - and the song.

Patricia Kaas will be singing "Et s'il fallait le faire", a track lifted from her latest album "Kabaret" when she takes to the stage of the Olympiyski Indoor Arena in Moscow on May 16, and hopes are high - in France at least - that she will prove to be this country's not-so-secret weapon for victory.

YouTube Video



The United Kingdom might have had the temerity to choose a song penned specifically for the annual Jamboree by the internationally renowned composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber and American Grammy Award-winning lyricist Diane Warren to fly the flag in Moscow in the shape of Jade Ewen (who?) singing "It's My Time".

But France has gone one better - perhaps - in terms of cheek.

You see Kaas, who counts among her hits songs such as "Mademoiselle chante le blues" and "Mon mec à moi" has been a star since the late 1980s not just in France, but throughout Europe and most importantly - as far as the French are concerned for this year's contest - also in Eastern Europe and Russia.

And that could prove vital in a contest which has become as well-known for its apparently "politically-influenced" bloc voting over the years as much as it has for the musical "merit" of (some might say) rather cheesy songs.

A brief resumé for those of you (un)lucky enough not to know what the Eurovision Song Contest is all about.

It all started innocently enough way back in the 1950s - 1956 to be precise - in Switzerland, when just seven countries entered.

But since then, under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which came up with the idea of an international song contest in the first place, it has....well mushroomed would be putting it mildly.

So much so that when Dima Bilan won last year with "Believe" he had to face competition from songs representing 37 other countries in the semi-finals before making it through to the final.

YouTube Video



That has been the pattern ever since 2004 as the number of countries clamouring to compete has grown, and the EBU has been forced to split the contest into semi-final and final stages.

Only the so-called "Big Four" - Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and France - gain automatic qualification to the final round - no matter how poorly they might have done in the previous year's competition, because they're the biggest financial contributors to the EBU and without them the production costs to mount to contest would be prohibitive.

The country with the winning song (the voting procedure is cumbersome and protracted) then goes on to host the following year's contest.

Hence when Bilan chirped his way to victory in Belgrade last year, Russia was assured of organising this year's Songfest.

Still following?

Anyway enough of the history - there's plenty of other info out there (including more, much more on the all-important process of voting) in the Blogosphere if you're really that interested. Just follow the links.

When the curtain goes up on May 16 on an event reportedly watched by an estimated audience of 100 million people (where do they get these figures you might ask) it'll be Kaas out there representing this country.

The hopes are that after last year's poor performance for France by Sébastien Tellier, whose song "Divine" caused a storm-in-a-teacup row here because it was sung mainly in (horror upon horrors) English and notched up just 47 points to finish 19th (out of 25), Kaas will be able to fly the tricolour all the way to the top in Moscow.

Although France has never had the ignominy (or honour) of racking up the now infamous "nul points" at Eurovision, who knows, with Kaas, the country could join an illustrious list of past underachievers.

Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Roll on May! (?)

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Move over Bernstein, Gershwin's in town - Paris that is

There's another show about a very special "American in Paris" currently running in the French capital, and rather appropriately it's called "Good morning, Mr Gershwin."

For those of you still missing the far too clever link (self praise is no praise) the 1951 musical film of that name was of course inspired by the 1928 orchestral composition by the great man himself.


Anyway back to the present day and it's more dance and a review of a show from an already self-confessed possessor of the proverbial two left feet.

What a show and what a performance!

In fact it's a great deal more than "dance" as perhaps would be expected from the choreographers José Montalvo et Dominique Hervieu.

Quite simply put the pair are magicians who give new meaning to tripping the light fantastic.

What they manage to put together in this (and other productions) breaks barriers and leaves anyone lucky enough to get to see one of their creations jaw-to-the-floor in open-mouthed admiration.

"Good morning, Mr Gershwin" is of course a tribute to the life and times of the 20th century American composer, and as always with Montalvo-Hervieu it combines modern and classical dance with their trademark visual effects - more on that in a moment.

What is particularly extraordinary about this production is that it blends a variety of dance styles, which would on paper at least, seem incompatible - tap with ballet, hip hop with mime, or jazz with break - all set to the music of Gershwin of course.

But it's a mix that more than works, blurring the lines of rigid categorisation and making anyone watching appreciate that dance is a language in itself.

Actually that's probably one of the real beauties of Montalvo-Hervieu. Their productions break all those linguistic barriers that might make film, theatre or even lyrical music impenetrable or at least leave something lost in translation.

With "Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" - and probably dance in general - there's little fear of that happening, with the interpretation being left entirely "in the eyes of the beholder".

And that's a fact worth remembering given the (minority) reaction of one little ol' lady who clearly felt she had "missed the point" (as if there were one) when she was heard to mutter audibly on leaving "Well that was a waste of an afternoon".

Horses for courses.

"Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" also has of course those visual "effects" - Montalvo-Hervieu's trademark use of video as a backdrop.

Sometimes it's synchronised with what's happening on stage, other times it adds a completely different dimension, which might leave the onlooker wondering what the connection is.

One thing's for sure though, it never detracts from the overall enjoyment of the performance, although it has to be admitted that at times it would be useful to have more than one pair of eyes.

Scene follows scene, but it's not just dance. There are moments of humour that leave the audience grinning from ear-to-ear, such as one performer mockingly gargling along to one of Gershwin's best-known tunes, or the temptations of a chocolate eclair (via video) which is almost made to perform its own dance routine away from the expectant mouth of the woman salivating to enjoy.

A good chunk of the second act is dedicated to "Porgy and Bess" - so it's a bit of a reworking of last year's production by the same company at the Opéra de Lyon.

But something worth seeing once is just as good second time around, so there can be few complaints on that front.


The one down side perhaps is the venue itself.

Le Théâtre national de Chaillot is housed in the Palais of the same name, (re)built in the 1930s and looking every much "of its time" from the outside.

The setting couldn't be more stunning, perched at the edge of arguably the French capital's swankiest arrondissements (XVI) with an impressive view of the Eiffel Tower.

The inside of the building leaves something to be desired though, stark and uninviting, and the auditorium for the performance is somewhat "industrial" in its overall feel, with uneven steps leading down a pretty steep drop with the whole framework juddering as people make their way to their seats.

Maybe Montalvo-Hervieu will breath much-needed new life into the building though as well as the productions performed there as last year they were appointed joint directors with the emphasis being to promote dance.

"Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" continues its runs at Le Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris until February 7.

YouTube Video - La Bossa Fataka de Rameau

Move over Bernstein, Gershwin's in town - Paris that is

There's another show about a very special "American in Paris" currently running in the French capital, and rather appropriately it's called "Good morning, Mr Gershwin."

For those of you still missing the far too clever link (self praise is no praise) the 1951 musical film of that name was of course inspired by the 1928 orchestral composition by the great man himself.


Anyway back to the present day and it's more dance and a review of a show from an already self-confessed possessor of the proverbial two left feet.

What a show and what a performance!

In fact it's a great deal more than "dance" as perhaps would be expected from the choreographers José Montalvo et Dominique Hervieu.

Quite simply put the pair are magicians who give new meaning to tripping the light fantastic.

What they manage to put together in this (and other productions) breaks barriers and leaves anyone lucky enough to get to see one of their creations jaw-to-the-floor in open-mouthed admiration.

"Good morning, Mr Gershwin" is of course a tribute to the life and times of the 20th century American composer, and as always with Montalvo-Hervieu it combines modern and classical dance with their trademark visual effects - more on that in a moment.

What is particularly extraordinary about this production is that it blends a variety of dance styles, which would on paper at least, seem incompatible - tap with ballet, hip hop with mime, or jazz with break - all set to the music of Gershwin of course.

But it's a mix that more than works, blurring the lines of rigid categorisation and making anyone watching appreciate that dance is a language in itself.

Actually that's probably one of the real beauties of Montalvo-Hervieu. Their productions break all those linguistic barriers that might make film, theatre or even lyrical music impenetrable or at least leave something lost in translation.

With "Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" - and probably dance in general - there's little fear of that happening, with the interpretation being left entirely "in the eyes of the beholder".

And that's a fact worth remembering given the (minority) reaction of one little ol' lady who clearly felt she had "missed the point" (as if there were one) when she was heard to mutter audibly on leaving "Well that was a waste of an afternoon".

Horses for courses.

"Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" also has of course those visual "effects" - Montalvo-Hervieu's trademark use of video as a backdrop.

Sometimes it's synchronised with what's happening on stage, other times it adds a completely different dimension, which might leave the onlooker wondering what the connection is.

One thing's for sure though, it never detracts from the overall enjoyment of the performance, although it has to be admitted that at times it would be useful to have more than one pair of eyes.

Scene follows scene, but it's not just dance. There are moments of humour that leave the audience grinning from ear-to-ear, such as one performer mockingly gargling along to one of Gershwin's best-known tunes, or the temptations of a chocolate eclair (via video) which is almost made to perform its own dance routine away from the expectant mouth of the woman salivating to enjoy.

A good chunk of the second act is dedicated to "Porgy and Bess" - so it's a bit of a reworking of last year's production by the same company at the Opéra de Lyon.

But something worth seeing once is just as good second time around, so there can be few complaints on that front.


The one down side perhaps is the venue itself.

Le Théâtre national de Chaillot is housed in the Palais of the same name, (re)built in the 1930s and looking every much "of its time" from the outside.

The setting couldn't be more stunning, perched at the edge of arguably the French capital's swankiest arrondissements (XVI) with an impressive view of the Eiffel Tower.

The inside of the building leaves something to be desired though, stark and uninviting, and the auditorium for the performance is somewhat "industrial" in its overall feel, with uneven steps leading down a pretty steep drop with the whole framework juddering as people make their way to their seats.

Maybe Montalvo-Hervieu will breathe much-needed new life into the building though as last year they were appointed joint directors with the emphasis being to promote dance.

"Good Morning, Mr Gershwin" continues its runs at Le Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris until February 7.

YouTube Video - La Bossa Fataka de Rameau

Monday, 2 February 2009

Bharati in Paris - a taste of India with a serving of kitsch: A review

Have you ever had the sensation that even though apparently you're watching or experiencing the same thing as everybody around you, somehow and in some way, what you're feeling isn't exactly in keeping with the overriding sentiment?

You've perhaps missed something or maybe everyone else has got it wrong.

Such was the impression of one particular member of the audience - currently sitting not a million miles from this keyboard - at the Bharati spectacle in Paris this weekend.

YouTube Video



First up it has to be admitted that this certain someone was clearly in the minority if the reaction of the rest of the 3,500 plus people who had packed into the main auditorium at Le Palais des Congrès on Saturday was anything to go by.

Just for the record, Bharati is described variously in reviews elsewhere as a modern day fairy tale bringing to today's audience centuries of Indian history and culture with the colour, verve, and entrancing music, singing and dancing that might be expected from over 100 performers.

Those reviews have been overwhelmingly favourable as the show has been on the road now for over two years entertaining audiences and playing to full houses in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria.

The current run in Paris is the show's second appearance in the French capital. And from the general reception it was given, it has more than struck the right note, riding the wave of interest in all things Indian which seems to be very much à la mode at the moment.

The whole spectacle - because that's what it is - is a multi-coloured marvel combining all the elements of (Indian) dance, acrobatics, costumes and music you could wish for in the very best Bollywood fashion.

There was general whooping at the vigourous dancing, spontaneous clapping as the music ratcheted up a notch and enthusiastic applause after every number and there's no denying that it was all very much a feast for the eyes.

The rhythm and beat are without doubt infectious, the singing wafts you away and of course the highly synchronised dancing is a pure delight. The men are manly and the women.....well womanly.

It has, to say the least, a rather limp narrative, which is almost redundant apart from giving the performers a deserved break from their exertions and time to catch their breath.

The (rather enormous) programme describes the show as "a musical extravaganza, a delectable composite mix of the varied dances, music and folk traditions of India."

And over the course of one and a half hours we're promised "a glimpse...at the hidden treasures of this vast and enchanting land; its regional, linguistic, historical and philosophical diversity; its myriad peoples, life-styles and traditions."

Therein perhaps lies the problem - at least for one obviously grumpy old man - because the show is all very Bollywood (at its best and worst) and leaves you with the sense that there is more, so much more to India than the clichés on offer.

But there again, maybe that's exactly what people want.

Given the number of flashes that seemed to twinkle around the auditorium each time a new number was presented or a costume change made, along with the time many people seemed to be spending watching the show through their camera lens as they recorded huge chunks of the proceedings, maybe Bharati and Bollywood is all they wish to know about India.

Bharati will be at Le Palais des Congrès until February 15 before transferring to Brussels and then going on tour around France.

On March 11 it'll cross the channel for a performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, and there are also plans to take it to North America at some point this year.

YouTube Video

Bharati in Paris - a taste of India with a serving of kitsch

Have you ever had the sensation that even though apparently you're watching or experiencing the same thing as everybody around you, somehow and in some way, what you're feeling isn't exactly in keeping with the overriding sentiment?

You've perhaps missed something or maybe everyone else has got it wrong.

Such was the impression of one particular member of the audience - currently sitting not a million miles from this keyboard - at the Bharati spectacle in Paris this weekend.

YouTube Video



First up it has to be admitted that this certain someone was clearly in the minority if the reaction of the rest of the 3,500 plus people who had packed into the main auditorium at Le Palais des Congrès on Saturday was anything to go by.

Just for the record, Bharati is described variously in reviews elsewhere as a modern day fairy tale bringing to today's audience centuries of Indian history and culture with the colour, verve, and entrancing music, singing and dancing that might be expected from over 100 performers.

Those reviews have been overwhelmingly favourable as the show has been on the road now for over two years entertaining audiences and playing to full houses in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria.

The current run in Paris is the show's second appearance in the French capital. And from the general reception it was given, it has more than struck the right note, riding the wave of interest in all things Indian which seems to be very much à la mode at the moment.

The whole spectacle - because that's what it is - is a multi-coloured marvel combining all the elements of (Indian) dance, acrobatics, costumes and music you could wish for in the very best Bollywood fashion.

There was general whooping at the vigourous dancing, spontaneous clapping as the music ratcheted up a notch and enthusiastic applause after every number and there's no denying that it was all very much a feast for the eyes.

The rhythm and beat are without doubt infectious, the singing wafts you away and of course the highly synchronised dancing is a pure delight. The men are manly and the women.....well womanly.

It has, to say the least, a rather limp narrative, which is almost redundant apart from giving the performers a deserved break from their exertions and time to catch their breath.

The (rather enormous) programme describes the show as "a musical extravaganza, a delectable composite mix of the varied dances, music and folk traditions of India."

And over the course of one and a half hours we're promised "a glimpse...at the hidden treasures of this vast and enchanting land; its regional, linguistic, historical and philosophical diversity; its myriad peoples, life-styles and traditions."

Therein perhaps lies the problem - at least for one obviously grumpy old man - because the show is all very Bollywood (at its best and worst) and leaves you with the sense that there is more, so much more to India than the clichés on offer.

But there again, maybe that's exactly what people want.

Given the number of flashes that seemed to twinkle around the auditorium each time a new number was presented or a costume change made, along with the time many people seemed to be spending watching the show through their camera lens as they recorded huge chunks of the proceedings, maybe Bharati and Bollywood is all they wish to know about India.

Bharati will be at Le Palais des Congrès until February 15 before transferring to Brussels and then going on tour around France.

On March 11 it'll cross the channel for a performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, and there are also plans to take it to North America at some point this year.

YouTube Video

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