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Thursday, 30 April 2009

Verdict due in "murder" trial of wife who "disappeared" WITH UPDATE SEE END

There are two high profile court cases making the headlines here in France at the moment.

The first is that of Jacques Viguier, a law professor accused of murdering his wife, Suzanne, nine years ago.

A verdict is expected on Thursday afternoon.

The other concerns the death in 2006 of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish man, who was kidnapped by a gang and tortured over a period of three weeks.

The trial of the gang-leader and 26 other accused opened in Paris on Thursday and is expected to last a couple of months.

You can read more about it here.

For the moment though, back to the Viguier trial and the accusation that he murdered his wife.

The main protagonists are Viguier, the husband with a reputation for being something of a "ladies' man" and Suzanne, a wife, tired of her husband's infidelities, who had taken a lover herself.

The last time anyone saw Suzanne Viguier was in the early hours of the morning on February 27, 2000.

That was when Olivier Durandet - her lover - dropped her off at the home she shared with her her husband and three children.

Viguier waited until March 1 before informing the police of his wife's "disappearance" and a week later an investigation was opened.

And suspicion quickly fell on Viguier, who was taken into police custody, and spent nine months in detention.

Because it was during the course of their investigations that the police uncovered a number of elements that not only gave the case something of the flavour of an Alfred Hitcock movie, but also pointed, as far as the prosecution was concerned, to Viguier's guilt.

The couple for example, although they still shared the family home, no longer slept together in the same bedroom.

Then there was the mattress for example - the one Suzanne slept on. It was nowhere to be found.

Viguier initially claimed he had sent it away to be cleaned in readiness for his wife's return, but later changed his story and insisted that he had thrown it away at a local tip.

When the police returned from the dump with a partially burnt mattress, which didn't exactly match the description, Viguier confirmed that that it was the one he had thrown away.

Police also found traces of Suzanne's blood on the staircase and the bath of the couple's home.

None of her personal effects were missing. In fact she had apparently even left the house without her glasses.

But the fact still remained - and does until today - that no body has been found.

Viguier has always maintained his innocence, and during the trial he has had the support of the couple's three children.

Clémence, now 19 and twins Guillaume and Nicolas, 17 have all testified over the past week solidly supporting their father.

"Just as others have done, I've tried to imagine that my father could be guilty but I just don't think he did it," Clémence told the court - a feeling echoed by both her brothers.

And even his mother-in-law, Claude Petit-Lamarca, the mother of the supposed murder victim, testified before the court that she believed Viguier to be innocent.

A verdict in the trial is expected on Thursday afternoon, with the prosecution asking for 15-20 years behind bars if Viguier is found guilty.

UPDATE

Viguier acquitted - found not guilty on all three counts; voluntary homicide, intentional violence towards his wife, and violence against his wife without the intention of killing her.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Chloé Mortaud's Miss France crown hangs in the balance

The reigning Miss France, Chloé Mortaud, could lose her title if a case which appeared before the courts on Wednesday goes against her.

The challenge isn't from any of the other 35 competitors Mortaud beat to win the crown on December 6 last year.

Instead it's coming from Marine Beaury, who is disputing Mortaud's eligibility for the final in the first place.

Beaury was the runner-up in the regional qualifying competition, "Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées", a contest won by Mortaud in September 2008 and which secured her place in the final.

In an interview with a monthly glossy magazine, which ironically appeared just after Mortaud had lifted the national title, Beaury claimed that the vote in the regional contest had been rigged.

Some members of the jury, she maintained, had close personal ties to Mortaud's parents and that contravened the regulations of the competition.

Her claims were rejected by the organisers of the regional pageant, but Beaury didn't let the matter lie there.

She got in touch with a group which represents disgruntled ex-Misses in France - yes such a thing exists, "Collectif des Miss en colère" and the upshot has been the case reaching the courts.

Should it go against her, Mortaud could be stripped of her title and forced to return any prize money she has earned or give back gifts she has received.

In recent years, the Miss France competition has been no stranger to controversy just ask the 2008 winner, Valérie Bègue (the former Miss Réunion).

She was involved in a tussle with the doyenne of the organising committee, Geneviève de Fontenay, after “suggestive” photographs of her appeared in the very same magazine to which Beaury initially took her case, just a month after her election December 2007.

Bègue was allowed to retain her title but banned from representing France at international competitions.

And the 2004 winner, Lætitia Bléger, was stripped of her title just six months into the job after she posed naked for a well-known monthly magazine.

A decision on the case "Beaury versus Mortaud" is expected on June 12.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Britain has got talent (apparently) but has France?

Have you ever tried making a tarte tartin?

It's a French speciality, much the same thing as an upside-down apple tart with the fruit being caramelised in sugar and butter before being baked. Delicious.

Well it acts as an admittedly rather tortured culinary metaphor for this country's version of Pop Idol, called la Nouvelle Star - although unfortunately it's far from being as appetising.

Because although all the ingredients are apparently there, somehow the oven has been set at too high a temperature and the whole thing looks as though it's going to be seriously burnt.

For those of you who might not have understood what the blazes I'm on about and think that perhaps I've been popping too many of those little green pills, rest assured I'm fine.

Although after an evening last week spent listening to the caterwauling that was supposed to pass for this country's "next big thing", I'm none too certain.

At the same time as Britain (and the world) was "discovering" Susan Boyle, France was unleashing the very best of the worst on viewers - and it's set to continue.

So if your ears are prepared to endure an excruciating assault (you can click on the links provided to hear what I mean).

A word of warning. Some of the "performances" (inverted commas absolutely vital) were horrible.

There are two alternatives. If you're really brave enough (or should that be masochistic?) then you hotfoot it over to the show's official website and can click on each of the candidates. All the videos are available, so they shouldn't have been deleted yet (although perhaps on reflection they should be).

Alternatively you can take a listen here to the so-called "highlights". Ahem. Just three minutes worth and you'll get more than a fair picture of what viewers had to suffer.

A word or two on la Nouvelle Star and how it functions.

It's now in its sixth season and has in the past thrown up some real surprises and introduced some singers who would probably have made it anyway, but were given the extra push by appearing on the show.

Amel Bent (season two, third place), Christophe Willem (season four, winner) and Julian Doré (season five, winner) have all been successful in the French-speaking world, and probably have the talent, voices and following to stick around for a while longer.

Many of the past winners seem to have slipped into obscurity such as Jonatan Cerrada (season one, winner - although to give him his due, he did represent France one year at the Eurovision Song Contest), Steeve Estatof (season two, winner) and Myriam Abel (season three, winner).

The jury is out on last year's Nouvelle Star, Amandine Bourgeois as she has yet to release an album.

And that provides a segué into the jury. Yes there is one, comprised of four "heavyweights" from the music industry.

Another serious clearing of the throat.

They spend several weeks holding auditions held up and down France for hopefuls from this country (of course) as well as Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, before whittling the choice down to the finalists - who then....well you probably know the rest of it.

There were 15 who made it through to the last stage in Paris. With one being eliminated by the voting public each week, Tuesday saw them down to the last eight.

The current make-up of the jury is André Manoukian, a jazz songwriter who has been with the programme since it started and makes rather wild and off the wall statements.

His most famous this year has been - quite rightly - after being subjected to one of the finalist's performances a couple of weeks ago he came up with the expression, "I have to admit that there has been an ETC - un erreur terrible de casting"

Then there's Lio, (real name Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos), a Belgian singer of Portuguese origin who had several (forgettable) hits in France in the 1980s.

Philippe Manœuvre hides behind his trademark sunglasses come rain or shine and brings yonks of experience as a rock journalist to the show.

Finally there's Sinclair (real name Mathieu Blanc-Francard) who is another singer-songwriter although most French would probably be hard pushed to name one of his hits.

The four have more or less done their job in choosing the finalists and have little say in what happens now as the voting is purely up to the public, although of course after each song they get to "rate" the performance with a "red" (bad) or "blue" thumbs up and are not averse to having a handbags at dawn moment or two when they disagree.

Anyway, here's that promised selection of contestants who last week were still in with a chance of becoming the next Nouvelle Star - in the order in which they appeared.

First up Mahdi - a favourite of the jury, who was actually a contestant last year but dropped out before the finals for personal reasons. Sadly he didn't make that decision this year and last week decided to "murder" a Jean-Jacques Goldman number, Aicha.

Mélissa then karaoked her way through one of her favourite songs, the Pointer Sister's "Im so exicted.

"Doing the job of three," said Philippe Manœuvre, giving her the thumbs up. Maybe he should have taken his glasses off. I always find it helps me hear better.

Then it was the turn of the 17-year-old hairdresser Thomas - we know that's his profession because we're reminded of it at every available opportunity.

He can sing (now there's a surprise) but is terribly camp and insisted on wiggling and strutting his way through a song - this time "Onde Sensuelle".

"More Marlène Dietrich, less Liza Minelli next time," was the helpful advice of the jury afterwards. Huh?

Dalé sang what we were told was a Claude François song but in reality was in fact just the French version of a song written and performed by Johnny Nash back in the 1970s "I can see clearly".

Next up was Soan (pronounce that Swarn), who took to the stage in a dress and Doc Marten-type boots with the obligatory over-made eyes to give us his rendition of The Cure's "Boy's don't cry".

"Uh sorry - this was done way back when, and you'll never be a Robert Smith, so stop trying." That was the should-have-been fifth member of the jury - me - in case you were wondering.

There was momentary relief as Lary put in the performance of the evening with 10CC's "I'm not in love". Still it was hard to get past the hair.

Leila was next, and after a catastrophic wail the previous week, she "had to improve".

Her solution was to rework "Dès que je te vois" by the sublime Vanessa Paradis.

All right so she looked a little like Vanessa on steroids as she stomped around the stage, but you could tell the jury wanted her to perform well, and she was different enough to get my vote - no I didn't ring in - even if she was as nervous as the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.

Damien - he of the face made for radio and a voice for the dustbin - then massacred the Corgis "Everybody has gotta learn some time" which brought us finally (hooray) to Camélia Jordana (yes she has two first names).

She's only 16 and clearly the pick of the bunch as far as the jury is concerned, although this time around her rendition of Marilyn Monroe's "I wanna be loved by you" was not a wise choice.

The warbling was over and all that was left was the result of the vote with the show's presenter, Virginie Guilhaume, calling out each of the successful candidates one by one until there were just two remaining - Thomas and Mélissa.

"And the candidate who will be joining us here once again to continue the adventure," Guilhaime paused for the dramatic effect. "Is Thomas".

So Mélissa out, plenty of hugging and tears - and a huge sigh of relief that it was over for another week.

"Just seven candidates left," Guilhaume reminded us as the she hurriedly wrapped the programme up.

"Join us next week for another exceptional show."

What?

Will I?

It's on this evening and even though I know I shouldn't, I'm still wondering whether I will.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Url's Wurld is on the move

As of May 1, 2009 all the pieces I write about slices of life here in France, reviews of performances I've seen, trips I've made and all the nonsense "Other Stuff" which I've found hard to catgorise can be found over on my other blog France Today.




That's mainly devoted to news stories here in France, but - should my technophobic skills be up to it - I'll also be including a section entitled Url's Wurld (what else) in which all the pieces I would otherwise have posted here will appear.

So thanks for logging on here, and if you've enjoyed reading what I've written, try scooting over to France Today where you'll find more of the same....and then some.

Johnny

The future still isn't Orange - but here's hoping

In August last year I went through the rigmarole of trying to replace a defunct mobile telephone, after just six months of use.

And what do you know, I've just been through the same experience all over again, and the customer service offered to me by my provider Orange, served as a reminder that the company might be trying but they still haven't managed to live up to the advertising that the future is....Orange.

Let me take you back to Summer 2008 for a moment.

Back then I spent a holiday away from the beck and call of my mobile because it gave up the ghost.

It was bliss - only temporary mind you - but it reminded me of those halcyon days when I had a valid excuse for not being obtainable.

I couldn't make or receive calls or messages, which I'll freely admit a real pleasure.

But all good things must come to an end, and I knew I wouldn't be able to remain happily "out of touch" for too much longer. So I resorted to the good old-fashioned landline to put in that call to "get it sorted."

Here in France there are basically three main mobile operators, SFR, Bouygues and the biggest of the lot Orange - the all-powerful, customer-loving arm of the former state-owned but now private telecommunications company France Telecom.

I, along with millions of others, have the "pleasure" of being a subscriber to the last one.

In Ye Olden Days, the chances were that you when you wanted to get something done (about a 'phone) you would hang on the end of someone else's line for hours on end, waiting to talk to someone, and the company might or might not send a man round to "fix it".

At the very least there was a fair chance of talking to a real live human being (eventually) and even perhaps being able to put a face to the company.

Nowadays of course there's the multi-buttoned digital 'phone hotline which initially offers you tinny muzak followed by that belovéd computerised voice telling you to do something resembling the following:

"Press one for customer services, two for technical issues, three for billing, four for queries regarding the internet, five for mobile 'phones and six for other inquiries.

"If you would like to speak to one of our agents, please press nine."

Whatever happened to seven and eight you might well ask. Presumably they're still in the planning phase.

I put in that call to Orange customer services, listened to the lovely muzak, pressed what I thought were all the right buttons and eventually got through to a human voice to explain my predicament.

After asking me innumerable questions and checking through my records, I was informed that in fact my problem (or that of the 'phone) was a technical one and I would have to talk to someone from that department.

"Please hold the line and I'll transfer you," followed by some more muzak.

Moments later up popped another person, to whom I related my story, same questions but different record. Apparently they had no trace of my having changed my 'phone the previous year and as far as they were concerned I still had my old Motorola.

Before proceeding with my problem I would "have to contact customer services for them to update my details."

Ah yes privatisation and modern technology had certainly been compounded by French bureaucracy and simple human error - a lethal cocktail at the best of times.

So another call, more number pressing and of course a different person back at customer services to whom I could tell my story for the third time.

There then followed an interlude - no muzak this time around, just that eery silence that was the prelude to the creeping realisation that even in this modern era it was still possible to be "cut off" in one's prime.

The fourth attempt to an inevitably new voice actually yielded some results. Yes their records said I currently had a Nokia and they would ensure that the technical department was informed. Moreover if I had a problem with the 'phone they (customer services) could send me a replacement and would I like them to do that?

Well yes, that might be the solution I thought, and hastily agreed.

"But in the meantime you might want to check your SIM card in another 'phone (as if I had access to multiple mobiles) just to test whether that's where the problem lies. In which case you would need to contact the technical services to have them issue another one - SIM card that is."

Ah that little devil, the delightfully tripping-off-the-tongue named Subscriber Identity Module aka SIM card was perhaps at the root of my problems.

I thanked voice #4 for her assistance, hung up and called on the generosity of a friend to allow me to try my SIM card in his 'phone. It didn't work, which meant that the problem lay not with my soon-to-be-replaced, in-perfect-working-order 'phone but with my SIM card.

Call number five, a by now automatic explanation which I pretty much had off pat and within minutes a new SIM card ordered which "Would be with me by the end of the week sir."

"So as I don't need the new 'phone, how can I cancel its delivery?" I asked.

"That's no problem sir, we'll do it for you," was the cheerful and helpful response.

Perhaps I should have known better, as this was after all from the same department that had absolutely no record of my having changed my 'phone in the first place.

But still having faith in the spoken word leading to the deed, and that everything would be resolved by others, I waited for my new SIM card.

Next day "You have a new message" pops up on my computer and there's an email telling me that my new 'phone and SIM card are ready for collection at the nearest tobacconist (don't ask) on presentation of proof of identity and in exchange for my old 'phone.

Well that was then, and this is now. Roll the clock forward six months to April 2009, and I'm on a business-pleasure trip for a longish weekend across the Pond when what do you know?

My phone's screen flickers its last breath and disappears entirely.

I could still make calls if I knew the numbers (which because I have that sort of memory I do) but I couldn't access my address book, incoming calls were just not to be recognised (I always have the phone on vibrate and silent, so that wasn't working either) and messages - forget 'em.

Déjà vu in capital letters.

Arriving back in France I hotfooted it down to the nearest Orange shop - once bitten twice shy in terms of using the helpline.

I explained and demonstrated my problem - although how exactly you can show that something isn't there still perplexes me - and guess what!

They told me to ring the customer helpline (free from the shop) and describe what was wrong.

Now that's service for you!

Anyway, that's of course exactly what I did, managing to change my subscription and order a new 'phone, which arrived at that very same tobacconist a few days later, and I'm now the proud owner of an Apple iphone.

Even though I don't really have much of a clue as to how it works or how all the special bells and whistles it seems to have function, all I'm hoping is that it'll last longer than six months.

And should that turn out not to be the case for whatever reason, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my next encounter with my provider will prove that the future is just a little more Orange than it currently appears to be.

Excuse me one moment, I have a "call waiting".

Outreau affair judge reprimand - a new French justice fiasco?

On Friday, Fabrice Burgaud, the investigating judge at the centre of the so-called Outreau affair - arguably one of France's biggest miscarriages of justice, received an official reprimand for his handling of the case.

And the apparent lightness of the penalty handed down by the disciplinary body, le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature (CSM), has already brought swift reactions.

A former Socialist party justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, called the decision, "A new fiasco for (French) justice."

While Dominique Wiel, one of the defendants wrongly found guilty in 2004 and acquitted a year later said that he had expected Burgaud to have been prevented from working as a magistrate for at least a year.

"This type of decision is a bad example to young magistrates," he said. "It's telling them 'I can make a mistake but in the end I won't be punished for it'."

Burgaud was the investigating judge in the Outreau affair, dealing with an alleged paedophile ring in northern France.

And back in 1999 he began his inquiries that would lead to 12 innocent people being imprisoned, one suicide, two trials and the statement from the former French president, Jacques Chirac, declaring that the trial had been an "unprecedented judicial disaster".

When Burgaud took on the case, he was just 31 years old and it was his first job as an examining magistrate.

The allegations made by the two main protagonists in the case, Myriam Delay and her husband, Thierry, eventually saw 18 people - for the most part parents of children who had supposedly been the victims of paedophilia and incest - brought to trial in 2004.

Of the accused, four - including Delay and her husband - pleaded guilty and were sentenced, another seven insisted they were innocent and acquitted, while six others - all of whom maintained their innocence were all sentenced.

They appealed and a year later were also acquitted as the prosecution's case collapsed on the first day after a "coup de théâtre" with Delay finally admitting that they "had not done anything" and the she had lied all along.

The case made international headlines, threw the French justice system into the spotlight and led to that description from Chirac - not a man easily given to criticising the country's institutions that the affair had been "an unprecedented judicial disaster".

It also brought into question the exact role and power here in France of an examining magistrate - very much at the heart of reforms to overhaul the country's judiciary favoured by the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

All along unions have said that Burgaud had been made a scapegoat for police failures in the investigation process and even though the decision by the CSM is a relatively light one and is reportedly the lowest of nine possible reprimands his lawyers still aren't happy and it's likely that an appeal will be made on his behalf.

Burgaud is currently working in the Paris courts.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Rachida Dati giggles her way to the European elections

Earlier this week the French justice minister, Rachida Dati put in, what was by all accounts, a less-than-convincing appearance at a question and answer session during a meeting of young members of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party

The subject - Europe - as Dati is standing as number two in the list for Ile de France (the region of Paris and its surrounding area) for the party in the upcoming European parliamentary elections.

But was Dati just "playing a game" as she insists or did she in fact not know how to answer the questions?

To begin with, Dati turned up 90 minutes late and the way in which she answered some of the questions gave many commentators the impression that she hadn't really prepared in the first place.

Here's a sample

First question was one that didn't cause too many problems,

"After Paris, which is the most beautiful capital in Europe?" someone asked.

"After Paris.....Rome," replied Dati with intermittent giggles.

And then the question, "The most beautiful European monument outside of France?"

(Giggles) "I'll 'phone a friend," she responded.

And then with a questioning glance to the moderator, "Sagrada Família in Barcelona?" Followed by more giggles, smiles and an appreciative round of applause from the audience.

Later on though the questions became more difficult, and Dati's answers accordingly more incomprehensible.

When asked whether she was more in favour of wind power or the Iter project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) based in the south of France, Dati replied, "I'll say that 77 per cent of our energy comes from nuclear - that's right isn't it?"

A pause followed during which someone from the audience reminded her that it was "77 per cent of electricity (in France) and not energy."

"Electricity...you said energy," she replied to the initial questioner.

More giggles and then, "So nuclear, yes. And then of course it's necessary to invest in research for sustainable energy, which includes wind power," she continued.

"That's right isn't it?"

If that answer hadn't been entirely convincing, there was apparently more confusion to come later when Dati was asked whether she thought Europe occupied itself too much with international affairs.

Her reply was......well you judge.

"It gets involved in what we give it to be involved in. And then it gets involved in things we give it to be involved in with the people who are able to carry out the affairs with which they're involved," she replied turning to the moderator to check whether she had answered the question well.

Immediately after the meeting as the French media began reporting what had happened, the Socialist party described her performance as "the offhandedness of a minister in disgrace" whereas the UMP insisted it was a moment of "relaxation" in front of the party's young members.

There was no official statement from the office of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

And Dati, what did she have to say?

She claimed the meeting was supposed to be in the format of that popular television quiz, "Qui veut gagner des millions" (Who wants to be a millionaire) and she had only been playing her role.

"I was invited by the youth membership of the party to participate in a parody of the show," she said on national radio on Thursday.

"The idea was to take that tone in answering certain questions. So for example when there were questions about football, that's what I did," she continued.

"When it comes to energy, I know the sector perfectly well," she maintained.

"What we had organised with the members present was that I would ask to 'call a friend' - the audience - responding to the question as though I had been given the response. It was a parody."

And as far as the claim that she hadn't been particularly well prepared for the meeting Dati said, "I'm out there campaigning practically every day, except of course when I have ministerial duties to perform.

"The whole polemic doesn't interest me, and it never has," she continued.

"I think politics is like life and sometimes it's important to relax and laugh."

Dati is number two on the UMP list for the European parliamentary elections for Ile de France behind a fellow cabinet member, the agriculture minister, Michel Barnier.

If as expected they're both elected on June 7, they will both have to stand down from their governmental posts.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The world "according to" superhero Sarkozy

Ah the wonders of the Internet. Sometimes things take a while to get started but once they're up and running there's no stopping them.

What follows is a rather unkind (depending of course on your politics) look at the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, which has been doing the rounds of French blogs for some weeks now, but came to the attention on Wednesday of a certain Laurent Ruquier on his daily programme on national radio, Europe 1.

A word or two on Ruquier. He is in the mould of many a French entertainer - namely multi-talented - although he takes it somewhat to the extreme.

He's a journalist, satirist-comedian, who until recently hosted a daily television programme and a weekly one too, which is still running.

Add to that the fact that he's a lyricist, columnist, author and playwright with several theatre productions under his belt, and it's a wonder he still finds time to host a daily late afternoon show on national radio.

But he does.

It's a somewhat irreverent look at some of the stories making the headlines here in France.

Ruquier has his faithful band of fellow commentators guess "what the story is" by giving just the briefest of clues in the form of a question which doesn't give away too much of the answer.

In the introduction to yesterday's show, Ruquier took a look at a list which "proves" that the French president is indeed a "superhero".

Of course it relies on the fact that Sarkozy has the reputation of having something of an over-inflated ego. His alleged remarks on other world leaders just last week would perhaps be proof of that.

As Ruquier remarked, substitute the name Sarkozy with that of anyone else with a similar character, and it would still work.

Probably. But for the moment it's Sarkozy's name that features, and here are 10 of the best.

For the full list so far, click here (sorry it's in French).

Nicolas Sarkozy can circle his enemies all by himself.
Nicolas Sarkozy is capable of leaving a message before the beep.
Nicolas Sarkozy knows how to slam an already closed door.
When Google can't find something, it asks Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Swiss aren't neutral. They're just waiting to find out what Nicolas Sarkozy's opinion on a subject is.
Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't wear a watch. He decides what time it is.
Nicolas Sarkozy can divide by zero.
God said, "Let there be light!" And Nicolas Sarkozy replied, "We say 'please'."
Jesus Christ was born in 1955 before Nicolas Sarkozy.
Some people wear Superman pyjamas. Superman wears Nicolas Sarkozy pyjamas.


Just for the record in a post which has probably already given far too many name checks than one person rightly deserves, the most recent batch of opinion polls on Sarkozy's popularity ratings throw up some pretty mixed messages.

He's still not doing too well, at around 36 per cent for the month of March according to one carried out by Ifop that appeared in the centre-right national daily Le Figaro recently.

Just last week though, the same paper was quoting a poll that had appeared in another national daily, Le Parisien, and conducted by CSA showing that 42 per cent of the French had "confidence in the way Sarkozy was handling the (economic) crisis."

Then of course there's that other yardstick or "poll of polls" if you will, in the form of Paris Match, a weekly magazine that mixes national and international news with a healthy dollop of celebrity lifestyle features.

Its latest poll (once again carried out by Ifop) has former president Jacques Chirac back at the top of the list of France's most popular political personalities, with the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, and her immediate boss the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, sharing second spot.

Sarkozy is down in 33rd place a few places ahead of Ségolène Royal, who according to (yet) another poll conducted by Opinionway for Le Parisien is the person seen by the French as having the best stab at challenging him for office in 2012.

Confused?

Well there will probably be plenty more polls open to equally muddled interpretation over the coming weeks here in France as the parties jockey for position ahead of the European parliamentary elections in June.

Oh yes one last superhero Sarkozy characteristic, just to round off this post.

Nicolas Sarkozy has already counted to infinity - twice.


Sarkozy superhero

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

France's Nouvelle StAAAAARGH - I beg your pudding!

Have you ever tried making a tarte tartin?

It's a French speciality, much the same thing as an upside-down apple tart with the fruit being caramelised in sugar and butter before being baked. Delicious.

Well it acts as an admittedly rather tortured culinary metaphor for this country's version of Pop Idol, called la Nouvelle Star - although unfortunately it's far from being as appetising.

All the ingredients are apparently there, somehow though the oven has been set at too high a temperature and the whole thing looks as though it's going to be seriously burnt.

For those of you who might not have understood what the blazes I'm on about and think that perhaps I've been popping too many of those little green pills, rest assured I'm fine.

Although after an evening listening to the caterwauling that is supposed to pass for this country's "next big thing", I'm none too certain.

So if your ears are prepared to endure an excruciating assault (you can click on the links provided to hear what I mean) and your eyes are ready to skim through this post, here goes.

Or alternatively you could do, as perhaps I should have done yesterday evening and...Zap.

Still here?

All right - a word of warning. Some of the "performances" (inverted commas absolutely vital) were horrible.

You now have two choices.

If you're really brave enough (or should that be masochistic?) then you can click on the link next to the candidates name for the full length version of their offering for the evening.

All the videos are on the programme's official website so they shouldn't be deleted (although perhaps they should be).

Alternatively you can take a listen here to the so-called "highlights". Ahem. Just three minutes worth and you'll get more than a fair picture of what viewers had to suffer.

A word or two on la Nouvelle Star and how it functions.

It's now in its seventh season and has in the past thrown up some real surprises and introduced some singers who would probably have made it anyway, but were given the extra push by appearing on the show.

Amel Bent (season two, third place), Christophe Willem (season four, winner) and Julian Doré (season five, winner) have all been successful in the French-speaking world, and probably have the talent, voices and following to stick around for a while longer.

Many of the past winners seem to have slipped into obscurity such as Jonatan Cerrada (season one, winner - although he did represent France one year at the Eurovision Song Contest!), Steeve Estatof (season two, winner) and Myriam Abel (season three, winner).

The jury is out on last year's Nouvelle Star, Amandine Bourgeois, as she has yet to release and album.

And that provides a segué into the jury. Yes there is one, comprised of four "heavyweights" from the French music industry.

Another serious clearing of the throat.

They spend several weeks holding auditions held up and down France for hopefuls from this country (of course) as well as Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, before whittling the choice down to the finalists - who then....well you probably know the rest of it, so I shan't explain.

There were 15 who made it through to the last stage in Paris. With one being eliminated by the voting public each week, Tuesday saw them down to the last eight.

The current make-up of the jury is André Manoukian, a jazz songwriter who has been with the programme since it started and makes rather wild and off-the-wall statements.

His most famous this year has been - quite rightly - after being subjected to one of the finalist's performances a couple of weeks ago when he came up with the expression, "I have to admit that there has been an ETC - un erreur terrible de casting"

Then there's Lio, (real name Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos), a Belgian singer of Portuguese origin who had several (forgettable) hits in France in the 1980s.

Philippe Manœuvre hides behind his trademark sunglasses come rain or shine and brings yonks of experience as a rock journalist to the show.

Finally there's Sinclair (real name Mathieu Blanc-Francard) who is another singer-songwriter although most French would probably be hard pushed to name one of his hits.

The four have more or less done their job in choosing the finalists and have little say in what happens now as the voting is purely up to the public, although of course after each song they get to "rate" the performance with a "red" (it stinks) or "blue" (thumbs up) and are not averse to having a handbags at dawn moment or two when they disagree.

Anyway, here's that promised selection of contestants still in with a chance of becoming the next Nouvelle Star - in the order in which they appeared on Tuesday night's programme.

First up Mahdi - a favourite of the jury, who was actually a contestant last year but dropped out before the finals for personal reasons. Sadly he didn't make that decision this year.

Here he is murdering a Jean-Jacques Goldman number "Aicha".

Melissa then karaoked her way through one of her favourite songs, the Pointer Sister's "I'm so excited".

"Doing the job of three," said Philippe Manœuvre, giving her the thumbs up. Maybe he should have taken his glasses off. I always find it helps me hear better.

Then it was the turn of the 17-year-old hairdresser Thomas, we know that because we're reminded of it at every available opportunity.

He can sing (now there's a surprise) but is terribly camp and insists on wiggling and strutting his way through a song - this time "Onde sensuelle".

"More Marlène Dietrich, less Liza Minelli next time," was the helpful advice of the jury afterwards. Huh?

Dalé sang what we were told was a Claude François song but in reality was in fact just the French version of a song written and performed by Johnny (good name that) Nash back in the 1970s "I can see clearly".

Next up was Soan (pronounce that Swarn), who took to the stage in a dress and Doc Marten-type boots with the obligatory over-made eyes to give us his rendition of The Cure's "Boy's don't cry".

"Uh sorry - this was done way back when, and you'll never be a Robert Smith, so stop trying." That was the should-have-been fifth member of the jury - me - in case you were wondering.

There was momentary relief as Lary put in the performance of the evening with 10CC's "I'm not in love". Still it was hard to get past the hair.

Leila was next, and after a catastrophic wail the previous week, she "had to improve".

Her solution was to rework "Dès que je te vois" by the sublime Vanessa Paradis.

All right so she looked a little like Vanessa on steroids as she stomped around the stage, but you could tell the jury wanted her to perform well, and she was different enough to get my vote - no I didn't ring in - even if she was as nervous as the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.

Damien - he of the face made for radio and a voice for the dustbin - then massacred the Corgis "Everybody has gotta learn some time" which brought us finally (hooray) to Camélia Jordana (yes she has two first names).

She's only 16 and clearly the pick of the bunch as far as the jury is concerned, although this time around her version of Marilyn Monroe's "I wanna be loved by you" was not a wise choice.

The warbling was over and all that was left was the result of the vote with the show's presenter, Virginie Guilhaume, calling out each of the successful candidates one by one until there were just two remaining - Thomas and Mélissa.

"And the candidate who will be joining us here once again to continue the adventure," Guilhaume paused for the dramatic effect. "Is Thomas".

So Mélissa out, plenty of hugging and tears - and a huge sigh of relief that it was over for another week.

"Just seven candidates left," Guilhaume reminded us as the she hurriedly wrapped the programme up.

"Join us next week for another exceptional show."

What?

No, sorry Virginie, don't think so.


No, sorry Virginie, don't think so.

Christophe Willem, Jacques a dit

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ségolène Royal apologises to Spain on behalf of Sarkozy

Yes you read the headline correctly, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist party candidate in the 2007 French presidential election, has written to the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, apologising for remarks made by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, last week.

And her letter has led to a wave of protest from the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement (Union for a Popular Movement Populaire, UMP) left the Socialist party leadership not quite knowing how to respond and dominated the French headlines for the past couple of days.

Perhaps you remember that Sarkozy is alleged to have made comments during a meal at the Elysée palace (his official residence) in which he criticised some other world leaders.

In a story that made many of the world's newspapers Sarkozy purportedly said for example that Zapatero wasn't particularly clever, German chancellor Angela Merkel lacked vision, and US president Barack Obama was inexperienced.

At the weekend Frédéric Lefebvre, the spokesman for the UMP rejected the story which first appeared in the left-of-centre national daily Libération, saying that it was a "tract" by the paper in an attempt to ruin the reputation of the country.

"This daily, after having lost a number of readers, is also losing its credibility," he said.

Even though some people present at the meal have denied that Sarkozy made such a statement, Libération is standing by its story and the paper's publishing director, Laurent Joffrin has even written to the Elysée palace requesting an apology.

Enter centre stage Ségolène Royal and her "apology" to Zapatero on behalf of the French president - a move which has had the centre-right virtually fuming with indignation and some strong language.

Immediately after news of the letter surfaced, the UMP big wigs and "friends of Sarkozy" started firing their salvoes and attacking Royal.

Xavier Bertrand the president of the party accused her of being "a specialist of manipulation".

Yves Jégo, the junior minister for overseas department put in the boot saying "she has ridiculed and dishonoured our country."

A long-time friend of the French president and now minister of employment, Brice Hortefeux went on the offensive saying that Royal "should apologise for all the silly statements she had made."

And Lefebvre perhaps said what many in the party seemed to be thinking in launching the most personal of attacks and suggesting on national radio that Royal had "lost her marbles" and perhaps needed "psychological help".

So the Socialist party was making headlines again - or more accurately Royal was - as it was her name that was on everybody's lips and featuring prominently within the French media.

Indeed the reaction from the Socialist party itself was mixed. The leadership - namely Martine Aubry, the woman who beat Royal in the race to become the party's general secretary last December, remained silent.

But others - most notably Vincent Peillon, one of Royal's "lieutenants" and most loyal supporters was willing to speak out saying "It's not by getting used to the habit of Sarkozy insulting ipolitical partners that France will rediscover its credibility."

Pierre Moscovici a member of parliament for the Socialist party commented that he was sorry for what were "extremely sexist remarks on the part of the UMP" and Jean-Marie Le Guen, another French Socialist party parliamentarian weighed in by insisting that the rhetoric about who should apologise for what had been a more than a little muddled.

"It's not the declarations of Ségolène Royal that are offensive," he said. "But those of Sarkozy about Spain, Merkel etc."

Into Monday and the debate still raged, this time with a former Socialist party education minister and culture minister, Jack Lang, stepping into the fray.

"I want to say to our Spanish friends, 'forgive her'," he said on national radio.

"How can one react to unsubstantiated rumours that have even been denied by those who were present at the meal and write to the prime minister of Spain 'in the name of France'?" he asked.

"It's completely disproportionate and inadequate," said Lang describing Royal's behaviour as a "faux pas".

So what is everyone supposed to make of Royal's actions?

Perhaps the answer lies in a report made by François-Xavier Bourmaud, a political journalist for the centre-right national daily, Le Figaro.

While the debate continues over whether Royal was right or wrong to do what she did, one thing is for certain. She is back in the limelight and once again using the tactic of "provocation" - a strategy that has proven to be typical of her behaviour in the past, according Bourmaud.

"She lost the leadership battle (in December) but with 50 per cent of the membership behind her she still has a voice that counts - as the polemic surrounding her current statements proves." he says.

"When François Hollande (her former partner) was leader of the party, he responded 'what do you expect me to do? She doesn't behave in the same way politically as the rest of us.' And now the party is seeing yet again that she refuses to play the political game in the same way as the rest of them," he added.

"But in the long term it could help her to establish herself as being far and away the strongest opponent (to Sarkozy) because in two years when the Socialist party is choosing its candidate, it'll probably be based on a series of polemic and one thing is certain - Royal is not going to stop."

Monday, 20 April 2009

The Martha Graham Dance Company in Paris

In fact it has been a decade since, what is the oldest and probably without doubt most significant American contemporary dance company has appeared in Paris.

A regular visitor to these shores in the 1980s and 90s, the company was back last week for a special five-day programme at the Théâtre du Châtelet, featuring a selection of works from a choreographer whose impact upon the world of dance was arguably incomparable.

Indeed in the introduction to each performance, the current director of the company, Janet Eilber, herself a former dancer for the company, explained how Graham ranks alongside some of the last century's greatest innovators in terms of the influence she had in her particular field - that of modern dance.



The visit here - all too brief - received rave reviews throughout the national press and anyone lucky enough to have caught any of the performances was treated to just a taste of some of the highlights from a woman whose career - as a dancer and choreographer - spanned most of the last century.

Saturday's matinée selection was performed to a full house and offered up five different movements created from various periods of Graham's life.

That introduction from Eilber before the dancers took to the stage, was more than enlightening in terms of putting what was to follow into perspective.

The performance began with Errand into the Maze, taking as its inspiration the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur and which was first performed back in 1947 in New York.

Dancers Elizabeth Auclair (Ariadne) and David Martinez (the Minotaur) were both powerful and moving: Auclair as mesmerising in the role as she has been in New York and Martinez (as required) made to dance most of the time with a rod all but immobilising his arms.

Diversion of Angels (from 1948) was altogether much lighter and more flowing "the feeling of dancing without gravity," is how Eilber put it beforehand and indeed it was much more balletic and in a sense more poetic.

Most of the company takes part in a piece which represents three women at different stages of their lives. Or is that one woman at three different stages of her life? Graham always left it to the audience to interpret as they wished.

Lamentation Variations was based on Graham's 1930 Lamentation, only reinterpreted by three other choreographers in 2007 in memory of the September 11 attack.

The opening video sequence (a trend in much modern dance nowadays) was more than a little perplexing as there was no music and the only sound that could be heard was the round of accompanying coughing from the audience.

But the second variation, featuring Katherine Crockett showed just how much strength and power is required in appearing to move very little and remaining virtually still for periods.

The third and final variation featuring the whole company was powerful in a different sense with the haunting music accompanied by dancing that evoked the fear, incomprehension and panic that must have been present on the day in question., and which most of us have only seen in television news broadcasts.

After the break it was back to more Greek tragedy this time in the shape of Cave of the Heart - essentially a woman (Medea) spurned by the man she loves (Jason) for a younger woman (the princess) with the inevitable "Greek tragedy" outcome.

Most remarkable in this performance perhaps was that of Tadej Brdnik, as Jason, who proverbially has muscles in places where most men probably don't have "places" and could possibly have put Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame in his heyday. Except of course Schwarzenegger didn't dance.

Finally to round things off and leave the audience humming a happier tune, there was Maple Leaf Rag - set to the music of Scott Joplin of course.

Some of the moves were breath-taking. You could hear it from the gasps in the audience. And it was performed at times at a fast and furious pace.

Apparently Graham used to ask her musical director, Louis Horst, to play the Maple Leaf Rag to "cheer her up" - and that's exactly the effect that came across to those in the audience.

And then the two hours were up.



The curtain calls were met with the inevitable rapturous applause before the dancers left (to prepare for their final performance in Paris in the evening) and the buzzing auditorium emptied.

There are no more European dates for the Martha Graham dance company scheduled at the moment

So those of you here who want to catch them performing will have to hotfoot it across the Atlantic to New York.

One plea from a confirmed fan though, would be please don't leave it another 10 years before you pop over the Pond.

Next up in July though - the Alvin Ailey dance company.

Ailey just happened to be a former pupil of Graham's.

Now that too promises to be something of a treat.

Sarkozy's women in government - Roselyne Bachelot - a woman who breaks the mould

Time for another slab of French politics with part five in an occasional series looking at the women in the French government.

Perhaps not before time as there's likely to be a cabinet reshuffle before or just after the European parliamentary elections in June.

If, as expected, two serving ministers - Rachida Dati and Michel Barnier - are successful in winning seats, they'll have to step down.

So before all that happens, it's time for a look at the minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot.

As mentioned in previous pieces, when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, came to power in May 2007 he promised parity within the government, and he duly lived up to that pledge by appointing seven women to the 15-strong cabinet of front-line ministers - plus several others to junior ministerial portfolios.

Bachelot's appointment at the time came as something of a surprise to many even though the 62-year-old was no political beginner.

She first took her seat for the centre-right Rassemblement pour la République (Rally for the Republic, RPR) which later became today's ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party in the National Assembly in 1988.

And she served in government as the minister for the environment, ecology and sustainable development from 2002-2004 under two successive governments of the prime minister at the time, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

But she has always had the tendency to buck the trend and speak her mind, most notably back in the 1990s when she was the only member of her party to vote in favour of the Pacte Civil de Solidarité (Civil Pact of Solidarity, PACS) and she's also an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage and gay couples being allowed to adopt.

Bachelot has often been poked fun at - in a tender way - by French commentators and humourists - not least for the way she fairly warbles her way through interviews on the airwaves and is sometimes spoofed on telly as having no clue as to what she is doing.

That indeed might be true somewhat for her sporting ministerial hat.

In fact she struck quite an amusing figure during France’s hosting of the rugby world cup in 2007 with a definite twinkle in her eye as the players grappled each other for the ball on the pitch.

And before last year's Olympics in Beijing she made a wager with the French team. "Bring home at least 40 medals and I'll wear a pair of pink Croc sandals to the first cabinet meeting following the games," she challenged.

The team duly obliged - just - and Bachelot kept her word (take a look here).

She’s also not averse to putting her foot in it - handsomely, just as she did several years ago when she let slip that former president Jacques Chirac was slightly deaf in one ear.

Old habits clearly die hard for Bachelot, and she made another blunder early on in her current ministerial portfolio when she named someone as a new recruit in the post of junior minister before Sarkozy or the proposed candidate had given their approval.

The appointment was never made.

There is of course a more serious side to Bachelot and she has had to face a fair number of problems.

Hospital staff shortages and medical mistakes have rather dogged Bachelot since she took over the ministry and things rather came to a head over the Christmas period last year.

That was when, within the space of five days, there were two deaths, which many healthcare professionals and commentators said should have and could have been avoided.

They highlighted some of the problems and pressures felt by those working in hospitals: too few staff on occasions, and breakdown in co-ordination.

On Christmas Eve, a three-year-old child died in a Parisian hospital after being given the wrong drug.

And just a few days later a 53-year-old man died after suffering multiple heart attacks because the emergency services failed to find him a hospital bed - even though there were apparently some available at the time.

On the purely social side or health issues, campaigns have already been launched to fight obesity, and lower the rate of alcohol consumption by prohibiting its sales to anyone under 18.

A ban on television advertising for a range of products during children’s programming is just part of the multi-pronged approach Bachelot has taken to cut down on child obesity.

She also wants sweets withdrawn for supermarket checkouts and there are plans afoot for
a Gallic-style Food Quality Agency to monitor a complete overhaul of what’s on school menus with new dietary and nutrition plans due to come into effect at the beginning of the next academic year in September.

Most recently Bachelot has been battling to push through reforms to hospitals and the country's health insurance system.

Many within the ruling UMP and opposition Socialist party feel an overhaul is necessary, but there's profound disagreement as to exactly what needs to be done.

The country's healthcare and health insurance system is one the French pride themselves on and many now see as coming under threat.

Bachelot - and her boss, Sarkozy, want to balance the health insurance budget (by 2012) by, for example, encouraging public hospitals to group together (on a voluntary basis).

Just last week she was forced to respond to a petition signed by 25 leading doctors from the capital's hospitals who, among other things, were particularly critical of the number of jobs under threat from the proposed reforms and the potential for administrative chaos there could be.

They claim the reforms marginalise the medical aspect of healthcare and makes hospitals first and foremost about the "business" of health, balancing budgets and meeting targets.

Those employed in the health sector have been at the forefront of public sector workers demonstrating during the two national strikes that have already been held this year.

And there's the threat that there could be a strike among administrative staff at hospitals in the French capital later this month protesting job cuts.

While Bachelot has undoubtedly faced a tough time of it over the past couple of months as the reforms made their way through the National Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament - in the process requiring around 500 amendments according to Bachelot - the next month could prove even tougher.

Those strikes are scheduled to take place at exactly the same time as the reforms are debated in the Senate.

Maybe after all Bachelot was a wise choice to help push through such controversial reforms.

She doesn't create the same sort of "loathe or love" feeling as say Rachida Dati or Rama Yade, two much younger colleagues who are often hitting the headlines and appear high in the list of the country's most preferred politicians.

And she doesn't follow the usual pattern of iron-fisted politics clothed in a velvet glove.

But the following month and how she handles opposition and any concessions she might need to make before the reforms are passed could have an influence on any decisions Sarkozy takes when he announced that much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle.




See also

Sarkozy's women in government - just - Rama Yade

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?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Facing racism in the business world

Toufik Bellahcene is looking for a job. In fact he has been looking for one for over a year now.

And last month he took the step of trying his luck on eBay* and bringing his plight to the attention of the national press.

But he didn't auction himself as another young graduate, 23-year-old Yannick Miel,** had done in February.

Instead Bellahcene chose to try to sell his "ethnic origins" to the highest bidder.

"It was," he says. "An attempt to draw attention to racial discrimination in the job market as I think we don't talk enough about the subject."

Just in case you hadn't realised, 27-year-old Bellahcene is of North African origin - Algerian to be precise - one of three children brought up in the inner city of Strasbourg in Eastern France to a working class family.

All three children did well at school and graduated from university, but while his brother and sister both became teachers, Bellahcene decided to enter the business world, one which he says poses many more problems in terms of racial discrimination for those from ethnic backgrounds.

And based on his experience, he might have something of a point.

Since graduating from one of the top 10 business schools in the country, Bellahcene has applied for almost 800 jobs. He has been called for an interview just five times.

"According to statistics published by my university, 95.8 per cent of its graduates find jobs within four months," he says.

"The average length it takes is two weeks."

As well as placing an advertisment on eBay, Bellahcene sent an email to the left-of-centre national daily, Libération, giving a little more background to his unusual step.

"According to Adia (a French employment agency) my chances of finding a job are three times lower than a Frenchman with generations of roots in the country," he wrote.

"And my chances are even further diminished (seven times lower) because I'm after a position which matches my (graduate) qualifications here in Eastern France," he added.

"The conclusion I draw from that is that I have to say to children from the area in which I live and with a similar background, that there's no point in trying to do well at school and getting qualifications because they will more than likely be subjected to discrimination."

To illustrate the sort of difficulties that Bellahcene has faced, Friday morning's edition of La Matinale on Canal + television offered up the story of how, when he rang one company and gave his name, he was informed that there was no job available and the person the other end then hung up.

Of course when he rang back 15 minutes later and gave a "typically" French name "Nicolas" he was told there was no problem and advised to submit a formal application.

Anecdotal perhaps, but given his qualifications, lack of success in finding a job and ethnic origins, not unimaginable even in a supposedly multi-cultural modern democracy such as France.

But there again, perhaps it's not really racial discrimination after all.

There are bound to be some out there who would argue the contrary.

* The advertisement on eBay has now been withdrawn.

**The plight of Yannick Miel reached the ears of Martin Hirsch, the junior minister for youth and active solidarities against poverty, who offered him a position. Miel accepted.

Bellahcene is still looking for a job.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Any idea as to when England's St George's day falls?

The answer is April 23 - in other words this coming Thursday.

That's the day set aside for the patron saint of England (among other countries around the world), but I won't expect too many people "back home" to be celebrating.

You see it's not a national holiday and barely gets a mention, but even though I'm not especially patriotic and certainly not an English nationalist (heaven forbid) I thought I would bring it up all the same as it rather highlights how nonchalant the English are about the whole thing.

Land of Hope and Glory ?



I don't just own dogs, I'm also a bit of a mutt myself - a British one I mean.

My mother was Irish, my father Welsh and I was born and brought up in London, which of course makes me English as well as British.

As yet I've not managed to trace any Scottish ancestry, although family legend has it that when my grandparents on my mother's side took the boat from Eastern Europe bound for the United States, they were quite literally "sold up the river" and landed in Dundee.

Anyway that's all rather beside the point, except maybe that it means when following rugby and football internationals I can switch allegiances depending on who's winning.

There are of course patron saints for each of the countries making up the UK.

For obvious reasons I have to give Scotland's St Andrew's day a miss (November 30), which I believe is a national holiday there.

But I do remember St David's day for Wales (March 1) although I rather baulk at the idea of wearing a leek, and I could never forget St Patrick's day (do I really need to give the date?) - and yes I realise that Ireland (Eire) isn't part of the UK, but Northern Ireland is, and he's the patron saint of all the Irish.

Like many fellow Englishmen and women however, I invariably forget St George's day.

In fact I would even go as far as to say that I actually had to check before writing this piece as to which day it falls on.

Just for the sake of reminding myself, it's April 23.

All right so I won't be flying the flag of St George (a red cross on a white background) outside my house as a) I live in France and b) I'm not really given to displays of fervent nationalism.

Mind you I doubt whether there'll be many to be seen across the channel either as it's not really the sort of thing the English "do" - well apart perhaps from during international sporting events.

In recent years there have been moves from organisations such as English Heritage and the Royal Society of Saint George to encourage the English to don their glad rags and celebrate, but as always mostly the calls have fallen on deaf ears.

It seems that as a whole the English are predisposed to almost complete indifference about the day and perhaps on reflection that's not too bad a thing.

Isn't their just something a little over the top about all that flag-waving and "pride" in one's nation?

After all do the English need to define themselves by having a national day to remember who they are? And anyway what does being English actually mean especially in what is supposed to be a multi-cultural society?

Cricket, warm beer, roast beef, yorkshire pudding, bangers and mash, fish and chips, scones and tea with a "nuage du lait" (not all at the same time of course)?

Besides didn't I read somewhere recently that the most popular dish in England now is chicken Tika Masala?

And what does it actually say on my passport? English?

No.

I'm British and therefore a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

When all is said and done though, maybe I'll try to find a red rose to stick in my lapel or if I'm not wearing a jacket somewhere equally appropriate.

Just try to annoy my French friends who haven't a clue what I'm on about and anyway think that Britain is England and vice-versa.

Oh yes and maybe I'll break into a rousing rendition of Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory" or better still Blake's/Parry's "Jerusalem", just to confuse them even further.

"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?"

Or maybe I'll simply forget.

Or Jerusalem?



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Well at least the Mayor of London was celebrating

A clear case of racism within the French police

The following story first began well over a year ago, and although it has only now been partially resolved, it shows perhaps that racial discrimination within the French police is still very much alive and a force with which to be reckoned.

The least that can be said is that this country's highest administrative court and the one that provides the government with legal advice, the Conseil D'Etat, has taken an exceptional step in an effort to stamp out racism.

In 2007 Abdeljalel El Haddioui, an officer in the French police, applied to enter an examination which would allow him to move up a grade.

He was one of 700 original candidates nationally for just 27 posts and after completing six of the seven required stages with an average which put him in the top 20, he was one of 50 remaining candidates to be called before a jury for the final oral phase.

And that's when his problems began and racial discrimination appeared to rear its ugly little head.

The 40-year-old, who had been in the police since 1998, was the only remaining candidate with a name that marked him out as being obviously Moslem.

And here's a taste of just some of the questions he claimed the jury chose to put just to him during that oral session.

"Does your wife wear a headscarf?"
"Do you practise Ramadan?"
"Don't you find it strange that there are Arab ministers in the government?"
"What's your view on corruption within the Moroccan police force?"

As he pointed out afterwards the other candidates were apparently not asked whether they celebrated Christmas.

El Haddioui's score for the oral was just 4/20, which meant that he had failed.

When he made an initial complaint, the president of the jury at the hearing, Jean-Michel Fromion, refused to comment.

But El Haddioui didn't let the matter lie there and instead found himself a lawyer and took his case to the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission (Halde) saying that, "The jury had based its questions on his ethnic origins and his religion in order to eliminate him as a candidate."

With Halde's backing the case finally reached the Conseil d'Etat, which has now taken the unprecedented measure of recommending that the results for all the candidates be annulled.

The final decision as to the fate of the "class of 2007" and the future of El Haddioui lies with the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie.

She has yet to make an official statement on the matter.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Olivia Ruiz - taking charge of her destiny

April 15, 2009

Monday saw the release in France of the much-anticipated third album from Olivia Ruiz, Miss Météores.

It's the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed and million-selling 2005 La Femme chocolat, which took this country by storm, helped earn Ruiz two prestigious Victoires de la musique awards in 2007 and become one of the year's most successful female French singers in 2008.

After a break from the limelight the 29-year-old is back, promoting her latest album and the first single from it and has a schedule of concerts lined up.

This time around though she is being careful not to get too caught up in the marketing machine which she says somewhat roller-coastered out of control after the success of her second album.

"When I first became successful I wasn't particularly well-advised," she says.

"I wanted to stop the round of promotion, but after every concert (she gave more than 200 at the time) my management wanted me to go to Paris for interviews in the morning and the afternoon, and then I took a car back to wherever I was performing in the evening."

Ruiz first came to the attention of the general public in one of this country's reality talent TV programmes.

In her case it was the first edition of Star Academy back in 2001.

She didn't win, being knocked out in the semi-finals to the eventual winner, Jenifer, but her voice was distinctive enough for her to secure a recording contract.

Her first album, J'aime pas l'Amour, in 2003 sold moderately well, racking up sales of 75,000 copies.

But it was the release of La Femme chocolat, a mammoth concert tour and the subsequent singles that allowed her to stamp her mark on the French music scene.

With the release of Miss Météores, Ruiz is much more in control of which interviews and promotional tours she does.

She has already refused to appear on one weekly national television programme infamous for its "grilling" of guests by two of its interviewers.

But on Tuesday she was at the microphone of the early morning programme on Europe 1 national radio admitting that after the success of her previous album she felt a certain pressure this time around, particularly as she had penned most of the tracks herself.

"It's normal to feel like that when a record is just coming out," she said.

"And especially as there's a lot of emotion put into this album, of course I hope people will like it."

Ruiz might have moved on from the first glimpse much of the French public had of her in Star Academy, but of course it still doesn't stop her being asked about how she felt at the time and what effect she feels it has had on her career.

"I was assigned a role and a sound that wasn't exactly mine," she said.

"It's a programme in which there is a lot of talent, and in a way it's a shame I spent over two months until I was eliminated. I would like to have come out earlier," she continued.

"But of course it gave me a push at the time although since then we have gone our separate ways and I've had the chance to really do what I wanted to do."

You can see and hear Elle Panique, the first single to be released from the latest album here.

It's in French (of course) although Ruiz will probably also be releasing the album in Spanish as she did her previous ones.

YouTube Video

The end of a childhood horror story for eight brothers and sisters

It's a shocking story and one which hit the headlines on Tuesday afternoon here in France.

A couple have been taken into police custody and charged with neglecting and mistreating their children after police and social services discovered the wretched conditions in which they were living.

The case first came to the attention of the local authorities just last Friday in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the southwestern French department of Pyrénées Orientales.

One of their children was seen rummaging through dustbins. The 16-year old was bleeding from the head and visibly emaciated.

Passers-by informed the police and when questioned, he explained that he had been hit on the head with a pot by his mother and beaten on the arms with a stick.

He had been punished, he told the police, because he had stolen a lump of sugar.

The boy weighed just 32 kgs (71 lbs) for 1,65m (five feet and five inches) and was immediately taken to hospital for treatment.

When the police arrived at his home to question his parents, they found an apartment almost bare of furniture according to the regional daily newspaper, Le Midi Libre.

There were no beds, just covers that served as mattresses. The kitchen and the sitting room were locked and the fridge was virtually empty.

There were also seven other children in the apartment - one boy and six girls - ranging in age from seven to 17. They all showed scars and traces from having been regularly beaten.

Two of the girls, aged 13 and 15, weighed just 22kgs (48lbs) and were immediately taken to a nearby hospital.

The remaining children were taken to a foster home and on the way "the police stopped at a fast food restaurant and the eyes of the children lit up as though they had discovered another world," is how Le Midi Libre describes their journey out of hell.

The parents were immediately taken into police custody.

The father, a 50-year-old devout Moslem, reportedly told investigators that for him the condition of his children was a sign of the success of their education, and that he wanted to "purify them".

"This is a case of a family that lived outside of reality and totally cut off from the rest of society," Jean-Pierre Dreno, the public prosecutor of Perpignan told reporters.

"The father's behaviour was exactly as one would expect from someone who treated his own family as a sect," he added.

Only three of the children were sent to school, the rest had dropped out once they had reached puberty because the education authorities refused to allow them to attend wearing headscarves.

Under French law there is a ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools at both primary and secondary levels;

"There had been a conflict in the past between the mother and the school authorities especially about absenteeism " said Dreno.

"The only affair that we had in this department in 2003 about the wearing of the headscarves at school involved this family and theoretically the children were following lessons by correspondence," he added

The father and his 49-year-old wife have been charged with putting at risk the health and lives of their children and failing to provide them with the appropriate education and security.

They also have a ninth child who is no longer living at home.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Girl in custody battle back in France with father

This is a follow-up to a piece that first appeared here last month.

You might remember the story of Elise, the three-and-a-half-year-old girl who was abducted in the southern French city of Arles on March 20.

Her father, Jean-Michel André, was left badly beaten, an alerte de l'enlèvement (the equivalent of an amber alert) raised and French police put out a nation-wide search, which was later extended throughout the whole of Europe for the girl and her Russian-born mother, Irina Belenkaya

On Sunday Elise was found safe and sound in Hungary, close to the border with the Ukraine.

Police there detained the mother and Elise was reunited with her father on Monday, with Victor Gioia, the lawyer for André confirming that his client had flown to Hungary to collect his daughter and said that the goal now was "to try to avoid yet another trauma in the girl's life."

Elise has been abducted three times since the couple split in 2007.

"The father's intention was not to start another battle with the girl's mother, but to find a solution that would allow their daughter to have a more-or-less normal life," Gioia told French media.

He also added that his client would not be pressing charges against Belenkaya who is due to appear before a court in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, on Wednesday.

And on Tuesday afternoon André and Elise arrived back in France.

While the story seems to have had a happy end - at least as far as the father and French law are concerned - it still leaves a lot of issues unresolved.

The case remains particularly complex because both parents have been awarded individual custody of Elise by courts in their respective countries.

Similarly both are liable to prosecution for abduction in one another's countries; Belenkaya in France and André in Russia.

According to the national daily, Le Figaro, the French authorities will be getting in touch with their Russian counterparts in the coming days to "try to find a solution for the family that is in the best interests of the child."

For its part Russia says although it judged Elise's return to her father to have been "premature" it has proposed to France that the two countries try to co-operate to find a solution to the dispute between not just the two parents but also the two countries' legal differences.

"We have a case which is very complicated from the judicial perspective," said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday.

"That's why we want to propose to France that experts from both sides undertake a concrete consultation process."

Monday, 13 April 2009

French rosé winemakers see red

There has been a row brewing between France and the European Commission since the beginning of the year and it's all likely to come to a head at the end of this month.

It concerns the status - or more accurately the composition - of one of this country's most hallowed traditions - wine-making.

And more precisely what exactly should constitute a rosé.

In essence the dispute threatens to pit France against the other 26 members of the European Union, all of which agreed collectively in principle in January with a European Commission directive that would change the rules by which rosé wine could be produced in Europe.

At the moment it's created in the traditional way from red wine grapes which have been left to soak for a shorter time than would be necessary to make red wine.

The alternative practice in some other parts of the world is "blending", the simple mixing of red and white wines.

Brussels (home to the European Commission) now wants blending to be allowed in Europe to create rosé.

France - and in particular the large lobby of vintners in this country - wants the existing method of production to remain as it is and says any change would seriously threaten a tradition and livelihoods.

But the European Commission sees things rather differently. The French business daily Les Echos explains that as far as the Commission is concerned a change in the rules would open up the whole process of making rosé wine more flexible and less bound by tradition.

In doing so it would allow Europe to exploit emerging markets such as China and make its wine industry as a whole more competitive with those from other parts of the world such as Australia and South Africa.

Both countries already produce rosé using the blended method of production.

The economics are certainly something that haven't escaped wine-makers attention - both in Europe and internationally.

Rosé wine consumption is up - both at home and abroad - and has seen a steady rise over the last 15 years.

And heading the list of rosé wine producers are three European countries, all of which use the traditional method; France - 29 per cent of the global production at 5.9 million hectolitres, followed by Italy and Spain with 4.5 million and 3.8 million hectolitres respectively.

If the directive were to be universally adopted throughout the EU, France would be forced to make that change in the way it produces rosé.

Vintners here are worried. especially in the region of Provence a part of the country renowned for its rosé , that not only a tradition is under threat, but also livelihoods and jobs.

"It would be a terrible blow to the consumption of rosé which has grown considerably in the last decade and a half," according to François Millo the director of Provence winemakers' association (conseil interprofessionnel des vins de Provence).

And that's a view shared by Linda Schaller, the commercial director of Château Les Crostes in
Lorgues, in Var, Provence.

"Blending would mean that the wine would no longer be a rosé (in the real sense)," she insists.

"If the directive were adopted, then it would take something away that belongs to our tradition."

The French agriculture minister, Michel Barnier (who coincidentally will be heading the ruling centre-rightUnion pour un Mouvement Populaire, Union for a Popular Movement, UMP's list in the Ile de France region for the upcoming June European, parliamentary elections) remains optimistic that a compromise can be found that will also satisfy French wine producers.

"It's true that we're somewhat isolated in our stance to wish to preserve the traditional methods whereas the majority of our partners favour authorising blending," he admits.

"We're perhaps on out own here, but I hope that at least there'll be a change of heart and an agreement can be reached."

Part of that agreement could involve a two tier system of labelling as suggested by French wine makers, which would distinguish between "blended" rosé and that made using the traditional production methods.

"We are aware of the worries of producers from certain regions (in France) and in particular Provence, and those expressed by Michel Barnier. and we're going to look into how to react," says Michael Mann, a spokesman on agricultural affairs at the Commission.

A final decision on exactly what form the directive will take is expected on April 27.
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