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Monday, 31 August 2009

Sarkozy appoints new ministers - oops, no he doesn't

It was a rumour that had been doing the rounds of the Net for some time and certainly ever since the reshuffle at the end of June: the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was about to appoint three new ministers to a seemingly ever-increasing government.

And briefly on Friday the speculation seemed to be confirmed when the official website of office the prime minister, François Fillon, "appeared" to have made the announcement.

The names of Frédéric Lefebvre, Axel Poniatowski and Paul Giaccobi popped up as new junior ministers on Friday afternoon, visible to anyone who logged on to the site, curious to have a look around at the composition of the French government.

Some might have thought it odd that there hadn't actually been any official announcement of the appointment, but surely not as strange as what happened a couple of hours later.

Their names and profiles disappeared from the site. In other words the three "newbies" had barely been ministers for three hours before they were to all intents and purposes de-ministered.

Initially the explanation from the prime minister's office was that there had been a "technical problem", presumably a way of saying a "bug in the system".

But the blunder - because that's what it was - was later attributed (of course) to perhaps the much more credible "human error".

Apparently one of the webmasters had entered information she was filing into the wrong place, and rather than it being hidden, it was published "live".

Oops.

So no new job for the moment for any of the three men and Lefebvre is reportedly less than happy over the incident.

The spokesman for the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) had been hoping and expecting to be named to the government back in June.

But if media speculation is to be believed, he and the others - plus the rest of the country - will have to hang on until next March to discover whether there'll be another government reshuffle.

That's because Sarkozy is now thought to prefer to wait until after the regional elections before making any more new appointments.

Ah the wonders of the Internet. Great when everything runs smoothly and just as it should. A bit of an embarrassment when there's a glitch or someone presses the wrong button.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Mad summer speeding in France

This weekend in France is expected to be another busy one on the country's motorways as Aoûtiens, those who traditionally take their summer holidays in August, make their way back home.

Bumper-to-bumper tailbacks are forecast and it's unlikely that many motorists will have the chance to break the speed limit - even if tempted.

That hasn't been the case throughout the summer of course, and there have been two recent stories of the madness that seems to strike many once they get control of a vehicle.

They're not related, apart from the fact that they both took place here in France, and have to do with speeding.

Actually, maybe that's an understatement. Lunacy and wilful disregard for other road users might be better terms.

The first concerns a Belgian motorist who clocked up a whopping 245 km/h (or 152 miles per hour in "old money") on a stretch of the A39 motorway in the department of Saône-et-Loire.

The limit is 130 kilometres (or 80 miles) per hour, and the speed set by the 44-year-old trader was "a record" on that particular portion of the motorway according to local police.

His driver's licence was immediately withdrawn, the car immobilised and he had to stump up an on-the-spot €750 fine before being allowed to continue the rest of his journey...in a taxi.

He'll get his time in court though to explain exactly why he was travelling quite so fast.

Perhaps it had something to do with the make of car, which (surprise surprise) was a Ferrari.

Boys and their toys huh?

The second story of mad summer speeding took place further north in the nation's capital.

It was on the Boulevard Péripherique to be precise, the often delightfully congested ring road around Paris, where the maximum speed limit is 80 kilometres (around 50 miles) per hour and when the traffic is free flowing, the urge to give gas proves a little too tempting for some.

And that in spite of the strategically placed fixed radars.

This time around the speeding culprit was on two wheels rather than four.

Anyone who has the displeasure or misfortune of regularly travelling on the péripherique during rush hour will know that the habit of many motorcyclists is to "create their own extra lane" as they overtake virtually stationary cars stuck behind one another.

Motorists who fail to check their wing and rear view mirrors regularly, can often find themselves "cutting up" a motorbike as they attempt to change lanes.

Anyway this particular speeding infraction clearly didn't occur during peak traffic hours as the motorcyclist managed to notch up the fastest registered speed on the péripherique since 2004.

He reached a maximum of 190 kilometres (118 miles) per hour as the police gave chase.

A record to be proud of indeed and one which will also undoubtedly result in a driving ban when he appears in court charged with (among other things) "deliberately putting the lives of others in danger".

Because when finally intercepted by the police, it was discovered that not only had he speeding (obviously) but that he also had his arm in a plaster cast!

No comment.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Fined for smoking at the wheel

Motorists who smoke beware!

Think twice before lighting up when taking the wheel of a car - at least here in France.

Because if the police catch you with a ciggie in your mouth, you might just end up facing a fine.

Well at least it could happen if the case of Yoni Bismuth is anything to go by.

The 28-year-old Parisian locksmith enjoys the more-than-occasional puff even when on the road, and that's exactly what he was doing when police stopped him last weekend for having run a red light.

He was of course handed down a fine for his first offence, but then to his surprise - and shock - he received another one for smoking.

"I asked the policeman not to fine me, telling him that now that I knew it was an offence I wouldn't do it again," he said.

"But all he said is 'I'm not listening, a fine is a fine'."

And it was indeed - €22 worth, although Bismuth didn't lose any points.

Well that's one side of the story but of course, as is typical in such cases, the forces of law and order have a slightly different tale to tell as to the version of events.

First of all there was the contravention of having run a red light at an intersection while driving in a bus lane, according to Frédéric Cheyre of the police precinct in the capital's 19th arrondissement, and then there was that issue with the cigarette.

"What the officer on duty saw at the same time as the driver not stopping at the traffic lights was that he had a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other," he said.

So did that make him incapable of driving? And more importantly did the act of smoking (or even the intention to) constitute an offence under the law?

Well the highway code in France is a bit fuzzy on the issue, unlike that of using a mobile 'phone while driving, which has been an offence since 2003.

And as far as Jean-Baptiste Iosca, a lawyer specialising in road traffic offences, is concerned, the police overstepped the mark.

"It's strictly stupid, illegal and above all abusive," he said.

"And something absolutely must be done about it."

Bismuth intends to contest the fine, just as a nurse successfully did in the Gironde department of southwestern France in January this year.

"I don't find it normal," he said.

"Even with a cigarette in the hand, you can drive without any problem. Millions of people do it every day," he added.

"Today I've had a fine for smoking, next time perhaps it'll be because I haven't shaved properly."

Anyone got a light?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

"How to divide belongings in a divorce" - according to one French man

Another silly season summer story from France, although clearly the ending could have been quite different had the police not turned up in time.

It could be one of those tales brought to you as a big screen comedy such as the 1980s film "War of the Roses" starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, in which material possessions became the centre of an outlandish divorce battle between the two main protagonists.

But last weekend, in what is apparently a true story, a husband here in France went to extremes and literally followed his wife's wishes "to the letter" that the couple's belongings be shared fifty-fifty in their divorce.

As reported in the daily newspaper serving the northeastern French regions of Champagne, Ardenne and Picardie, a marital dispute was reported to the police on Sunday.

When they turned up at the family home at Rocroi, not far from the French-Belgian border, they discovered the husband "armed" with a chain saw busily splitting the couple's goods in half - as per his soon-to-be ex-wife's insistence in the divorce proceedings.

He had already made his way through the couple's sofa, the dining room table and the computer, and fearing that his behaviour might escalate and take on more dramatic proportions - namely his previously "better half" - the police successfully sought to calm him down and restore peace, according to the newspaper.

How exactly the couple will share the furniture which came under the saw isn't clear. Presumably it'll be consigned to the local dump.

Nor is it clear how the husband would have intended splitting the chain saw in half once he had finished with everything else!

One thing's likely though. Reconciliation is probably not on the cards.

French reality TV's dubious standards

As some of you might be aware, there's a very Secret Story making its daily appearance on television screens here in France at the moment.

Or the "house of deceit" as one particular contestant perhaps more accurately described it a few weeks ago.

Just as a reminder, it's in essence the French answer to Big Brother - only more downmarket.

Impossible you might think, but sadly true.

If you're really interested, you can read more about it here.

For the moment though, put aside whatever judgements you might have as to the quality and value of the programme, and what the high ratings say about the television viewing habits of the French public over the summer.

Instead let's look at just how the production team deals with personal issues and in particular family tragedies that might occur during the period in which candidates are effectively cut off from the real world.

It surely says a great deal about what reality TV programme makers now apparently consider to be acceptable.

During an interview this week with the Internet entertainment site Purepeople.com, the programme's artistic director (yes there really is such a person) Angélique Sansonetti, revealed that although there was a strict rule about candidates having no contact with the outside world during their time in the house, exceptions were, and had been made.

She told the site that the production team had received a call from the mother of one of the candidates at the end of July informing them that there had been a death in the family - that of his grandfather, to whom he was reportedly very close.

"I took the call and immediately asked the candidate to come to the 'phone so that he could talk to his mother," said Sansonetti, who went on to describe what any responsible production team would do under the circumstances; calling on the services of a psychologist who works on the show and allowing the candidate to attend his grandfather's funeral accompanied all the time by a member of the production team "to ensure that none of the rules of the game were broken."

None of the other participants in Secret Story were told what had happened.

The compassion shown towards the 21-year-old candidate didn't end there though.

He was given the choice of leaving the game permanently or returning to the house after the funeral.

"It was his decision to remain in show," said Sansonetti.

"He thought it would be easier to deal with being surrounded by people who weren't aware of what had happened," she continued.

"We respected his choice and that of his family. There was never any question of creating media hype over what had happened. That simply goes against our principles."

Ah so the production team not only has an expert on hand in the form of a psychologist able to help and advise a young man through the grieving process, it also has principles.

Presumably exactly the same principles that have ensured that another of the candidates, a 32-year-old woman, has had little or no contact with her eight-year-old daughter ever since the "adventure" began back at the end of June.

But that of course is another story.

Vive reality TV!

British tourist discovers the true meaning of "hôtel de ville"

Oh all right then, it's still summer, and even though the French are gradually returning from their holidays, it remains nevertheless pretty much the silly season as far as news is concerned.

And the latest daft tale comes to you courtesy of a British woman who managed to get herself locked in a town hall last Friday, thinking she was checking into a hotel.

Huh?

A word of explanation perhaps, even though those of you with only a smattering of French will find it hard to credit that the woman in question managed to find herself in such a predicament.

In French "hôtel de ville" means "town hall", but the bungling 30-something Brit to the eastern French town of Dannemarie showed her command of the local language to be less than comprehensive when she mistook the building to be somewhere to spend the night; in other words a bona fide "hotel".

Ahem.

Apparently just before making her way to the check in (that wasn't), she decided to pop into the loo.

While going about her business, the town hall officials who had been attending a meeting in another part of the building, finished their get together, left the premises and locked up behind them.

Hard to believe perhaps and not an April fool - it's the wrong time of the year for that obviously.

But a story confirmed by the mayor of the town, reported in the French media, and also picked up by the venerable BBC.

"There had been a meeting of local officials at the time," said Paul Rumbach, the mayor of the town of just 2,500 inhabitants.

"When it finished some participants heard a noise coming from the toilets but didn't really pay much attention to it and locked the doors of the building behind them."

And so when the woman emerged, she found herself to be locked in with no means of escape and worse still the dawning realisation that the "hôtel de ville" was anything but a local lodging.

In spite of efforts to draw attention to her plight, which included switching the lights of the town hall on and off and leaving a message stuck to the inside of the building's glass doors in which she (in a standard of French which had led to her mishap in the first place) outlined her plight and sought help, she was forced to sleep overnight on a chair in the lobby.

It wasn't until nine o'clock the following morning that the local chemist who was passing by saw her message and was able to contact the mayor to secure her release.

And the moral of the tale? Well there isn't one really, apart perhaps from at least learning the rudiments of a language before setting out on holiday, especially of you're travelling alone as was the case of this woman.

The mayor is apparently considering having signs made with a translation of "hôtel de ville" in both English and German...presumably just in case.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Hortefeux to take legal action over two Citroën C6 car claim

Yes it's still summer and government ministers here in France are due back at work this week, but that hasn't stopped silly stories making the headlines.

This time around it's the ongoing saga of the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, and the report by the weekly car magazine, Auto Plus, back in July that when he first took over his new job the month before, one of Hortefeux's first acts was to order two spanking brand new luxury Citroën C6 cars.

You might remember the magazine revealing that cost of the two vehicles was a cool €100,000 (read story here) - hardly the best example of political budgeting in a time of financial restraint.

A spokesman for the ministry issued a formal denial, but the author of the report and the magazine's deputy editor-in-chief (one and the same), Pierre-Olivier Savreux, stuck to his guns issuing a challenge which to all intents and purposes amounted to his saying, "Prove that the story isn't true".

Well, if the reports carried in the French media this week turn out to be true, then Savreux could in a roundabout way have his wish granted.

The national daily Le Figaro is reporting that Hortefeux is prepared to go to court to defend his name. That's right, the interior minister is apparently preparing legal action declaring that the magazine's report "propagated false information".

Now Hortefeux might well be best buddies and a longtime political ally of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, but does he really need to emulate his boss by resorting to the courts?

Apparently so although it's unlikely that he'll get anywhere near approaching the lengths to which Sarkozy has taken since coming to office.

You might remember that Sarkozy spent quite a chunk of time in court during his first 18 months of office.

All right maybe he didn't actually pitch up himself, he had a lawyer to do that, but all the same he managed to resort to French justice to pursue civil suits more than any other president in the history of this country's Fifth Republic - six in total.

The infamous case of the voodoo doll seemed never-ending while others, for example the alleged text messages to his former wife, were dropped before they reached the courts.

Maybe Hortefeux, who'll surely have better things to do with his time in the upcoming months, has nonetheless decided to take a leaf out of the president's book.

Or perhaps he'll let the matter drop once the only new car ordered (by his predecessor in the job, Michèle Alliot-Marie, according to a ministry spokesman back in July) makes its apparition at the end of the year as scheduled and the other one fails to materialise.

Presumably that'll all the "proof" necessary for Auto Plus to retract its original story and print an apology.

Watch this space.

It's official, Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport is the world's worst

To anyone who regularly (or even infrequently) has the displeasure of passing through Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, France's major airport, the findings by the independent Canadian-based website sleepingairports.net that it ranks as the worst in the world will come as no surprise.

Back in April this year even this mild-mannered Brit was forced to bash away at the keyboard to share with others some of the horrors offered up by what has to be the biggest mess and work in progress, Terminal E (read more about that here).




But according to the website the problems experienced by passengers at CDG aren't just limited to one terminal.

The site asked its readers to rate airports on what it calls the "four Cs"; comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service. And Roissy failed to deliver the goods on all counts.

All right so it might not be the most scientific poll ever taken, but the results, albeit only for the first six months of this year, and the comments, aren't far off the mark, as anyone regularly faced with the prospect of passing through CDG will know.

Filthy, noisy, unwelcoming and full of outright rude and unhelpful staff were just some of the comments made as Roissy beat out Moscow's Sheremetyevo, New York's JFK, Las Angeles' LAX and Delhi airport in India for the least coveted title of the world's worst.

The findings haven't gone unnoticed here in France, although the perhaps Aéroports de Paris (ADP), the authority that owns and manages both Roissy-CDG and the capital's other major airport, Orly, might wish that they had.

But at least they had one defender (of sorts) in the form of Jacques Attali who, among many other hats he has worn, was an advisor to the former French president, François Mitterrand.

Even he had some difficulty though in downplaying the arguments and comments of what is after all an independent website and whose contributors hadn't exactly been coerced into making their remarks.

He argues that although the reputation is without doubt unjust as there are plenty of ADP staff at both Roissy and Orly who "do their best to welcome, help and make the experience of passing through the airport a pleasurable one" there is also some substance to the findings.

He imagines arriving in France for the first time and seeing rather "hideous and vague signs, reminiscent of East Berlin".

"No human being there with whom to interact and no welcome," he writes.

"And it's worse for those arriving early in the morning when there are in general just a couple of police at passport control doing their best to deal with thousands of passengers arriving from North America and Asia."

Ah yes, Monsieur Attali, ADP and sleepingairports.net, there's many a horror tale this (and I'm sure other) user(s) of Roissy-CDG could tell.

Perhaps some will comment here and recount their stories or even (now this really would be a surprise) others will come to the airport's defence.




One thing's for sure, Roissy-CDG is a far, far cry from Singapore's Changi airport, which has consistently received rave reviews, regularly rates as the world's best, and charmed this traveller when he passed through for the first time earlier this year.

A holiday in its own right.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The tale of the family that never went missing

The mystery of a mother and her two children who "disappeared" last week has been solved.

They have turned up in the south of France where they had apparently been on holiday "taking a break" from the rest of the world.

The 45-year-old mother and her two children, aged, 14 and 15, were first reported missing last weekend.

They had been on holiday in the mountains in a village near le Grand-Bornand in the Haute-Savoie in southeastern France.

The alert was first raised by the estranged husband and father of the two teenagers on Saturday, reportedly concerned that he had heard nothing from his family.

When police went to investigate the apartment in which the three of them had been staying, they found it empty and the car missing.

An official inquiry was launched and the story quickly became the focus of media attention with speculation throwing up possibilities of a suicide, an accident or an attempt by the mother to flee the country with the children: speculation perhaps fuelled to a large extent by the authorities saying that no line of inquiry had been ruled out and that the mother "was known to be someone with depressive tendencies."

And so the story quickly gathered momentum of its own, with no sign of life and no clue as to their whereabouts.

Until Monday that is, when an employee at a camping site over 100 kilometres away in the south of France confirmed having seen the three "missing" family members, and records of cash withdrawals in the area surfaced.

On Thursday came the official confirmation that the investigation had been closed and an interview with the mother on national radio where she gave her version of events and expressed her astonishment at how much had seemingly been made of so little.

The 45-year-old said she was surprised that she and her two teenage children had been at the centre of a nationwide search as all they had been trying to do was to take a break "without listening to the news and without being able to be contacted".

"We weren't aware of anything and one day in the car I thought that perhaps we should listen to the news on the radio as it had been quite a while since we had tuned in," she said.

"I was very surprised that there was a report on me and I was a little bewildered. I immediately called my brother."

Her main concern, she insisted, had been to give her children a proper break and she didn't really understand why her family, and in particular her estranged husband, had overreacted.

"I was a little fed up having to ask him constantly to get in touch with his two children, and so I just decided to cut ourselves off from anyone being able to get in touch," she said.

"They (the children) wanted to see the sea and I wanted him to make an effort to try to get in touch with them, but I never wanted the whole thing to take on the proportions it has."

So a happy ending to a story, which in the words of the national daily, Le Figaro, in reality turned out to be "Much ado about nothing"...and perhaps a reminder to us all not to jump to conclusions until the story has been told.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

French town seeks elephant ban from beach

Yes you read correctly. The mayor of a French town wants to slap a ban on elephants tramping along its beach.

On the northwestern coast of France in the department of Manche there's a small town called Granville - population around 13,000.

It dates back to the 12th century and is of course steeped in history, much of it military and religious, plus it has plenty of sites worth more than a cursory visit.

There's also a harbour and a beach, which all-in-all makes it a pretty good holiday destination for many especially as the country is in the midst of a heatwave.

The ideal place to combine culture with a suntan and grab some relief from temperatures in the mid-30s.

A visiting circus is about to throw open its doors, which of course under normal circumstances wouldn't hit the national headlines.

That is if it were not for the mayor of the town attempting to take a decision that quite frankly meets most of the criteria necessary for filling column inches and making the airwaves during what is traditionally the season for silly news.

You see Daniel Caruhel wants to ban elephants from walking on the town's Hérel beach.

Perhaps not a common problem in this particular part of the world but one which, when the circus is in town, presents a potential health hazard as far as the mayor is concerned.

And it's nothing to do with the size of the beasts - well no directly at least. More the dimensions of what they leave behind.

Caruhel doesn't seem to have anything against the pachyderms per se, it's just that past experience has apparently forced him to take steps.

"There's no doubt that it's pleasant having elephants around but their presence is a disaster for the quality of the bathing water," he says.

"Last year two circuses came to town and set up shop opposite the beach and their (the elephants') deposits led us to having to close the beach twice."

Ahem.

There is a serious side to the story of course, as Granville is situated in a part of the channel separating France from Britain, which has regularly been affected by pollution and especially illegal fuel discharges into the sea.

But as yet elephants haven't really featured high on the list of polluters and as Stéphane Gistau, one of the directors of the Amar circus points out, the town is unlikely to be knee deep in elephant dung during its two-day stay.

"The sea has suffered from the effects of pollution for years, and now the authorities want to ban our animals from the beach just for leaving behind a few droppings," he says.

"It's a shame as it gives people the chance to see the animals up close for nothing, but now they'll have to pay the two euros to come and visit them at the circus."

Friday, 7 August 2009

Air France to launch auction for its inaugural A380 flights

If you're an aeroplane enthusiast living in France, November 20 is perhaps a date to mark in your diary.

That's the date for the inaugural flight of Air France's first Airbus A380, and the company is planning to sell seats on the 'plane, which will fly from Paris to New York, to the highest bidders.

A similar auction will be held for the flight connecting the City of Light with the Big Apple for the following day.

The proceeds from the ticket sales will go to three charities backed by the Fondation Air France (Air France Foundation) , which "supports projects that benefit children and young people who are ill, disabled or destitute in France or in other parts of the world where Air France is present."

You can't actually start bidding yet though. The auction won't take place until the beginning of October, but already those who are interested can pop along to the company's web site and register their email address.

While the flight will undoubtedly be a treat for those who would like to spoil themselves, just have to be among the first do anything and have the spare cash (and time) available to pay more than the going rate, the return trips will be on another 'plane.

The airline is trying hard to make the "offer" sound enticing, pointing out that successful bidders will be "The first to make the flight across the Atlantic in an A380 flying the Air France colours" and can "Take advantage of an 'exclusive programme' comprising shopping, private sales and a selection of galleries and museums."

But perhaps the best reason for bidding in the first place would be that it's all in a good cause.

There again, if you can wait just a couple of days or are planning to make a trip to New York later, you could find yourself booked on the superjumbo, as the first Air France commercial flight from Paris to New York is scheduled for November 23.

Those seats are apparently being snapped up with only around 130 places remaining.

"We started discreetly selling tickets for those flights last week and then earlier this week opened the sale officially," a representative for the airline told the national daily Libération.

"Half the 'plane is already full with travellers who didn't realise they would be booked on the A380, but thought that they would be taking the usual 'plane (used for the route) - a Boeing 777."

Air France has ordered a total of 12 superjumbos and by spring 2010 plans to have four of them in operation serving three other long-haul destinations alongside New York; Johannesburg, Dubai and Tokyo.

At the moment only three other companies fly the A380; Emirates, Qantas and Singapore Airlines.

The first commercial flight of the superjumbo was with Singapore Airlines in October 2007.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Sarkozy: Popularity and death threats - a newsday in the life of a president

The two stories are unrelated, but both broke on the same day here in France, and centre on the country's president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Treat it as "two for the price of one" if you will.

On the same day a poll was released indicating a rise in Sarkozy's popularity, there was also news that he had been sent another letter, with a bullet, threatening both his life and that of members of his family.

First that poll, which as any sceptic will know can always be interpreted in more than one way.

For sure there have been plenty of them released with alarming regularity ever since Sarkozy entered office in May 2007.

And while most in recent months have put him at, or around, the 40 per cent mark, the latest one, conducted by the research institute, Conseils Sondages Analyses CSA) on behalf of the the weekly news, celebrity (how appropriate you might be thinking) and leisure magazine Vendredi, Samedi, Dimanche (VSD) shows a reversal in that trend.

Asked the simple question, "Is he a good president?" 53 per cent of those questioned said "Yes". That's a whopping 12 point increase from a similar poll in May.

The explanation as far as Jean-Daniel Lévy from CSA is concerned is perhaps the timing of the poll. It's the first one to appear since Sarkozy's "malaise" or "nerve attack" as some media outlets first reported it, last month.

"After being taken ill, one could have expected the following reaction, 'The president is overdoing it'," he says.

"On the contrary though, the French seem to think that it's a sign of how much effort he (Sarkozy) puts into everything and the increase in popularity is an indication of how much he 'gives' the country," he adds.

"The fact that he shows some weaknesses and recognises like the rest of the world them just makes him more likeable."

No comment perhaps.

While the poll's findings might make pleasant beach reading for the French president as he relaxes in the south of France, the news that "Le Corbeau" is back to his old habits certainly won't.

That's the nickname given to the person (or people) who earlier this year sent letters containing death threats and a bullet to Sarkozy and a number of top-ranking political figures (you can read more about that here).

This week another letter, also containing a bullet and further threats to Sarkozy and his family, was intercepted before it had made its way to the Elysée palace.

It was discovered at the central sorting office in the southern city of Montpellier, the same source of the previous letters, and immediately handed over to the anti-terrorist squad in Paris.

Alongside the threats aimed at the French president, several other high profile political figures are also reportedly mentioned, including the current and former culture ministers, Frédéric Mitterrand and Christine Albanel.

In March, a 47-year-old military reservist from Montpellier was taken in for questioning after being "denounced" by his former girlfriend, but later released without being charged.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Banking bonuses are back in France

Forget the financial crisis of last autumn and the promises made by bankers that lessons had been learnt and things would be different in the future.

The French bank BNP Paribas, one of this country's biggest, has announced second-quarter net profits of over €1.6 billion or 6.6 per cent and along with it of course come bonuses for its traders for a job well done.

And not just a couple of centimes scattered here and there, but a full €1 billion more than in 2008 according to the national daily, Libération.

It's a figure, although not denied by the bank, that isn't far off the mark as it admits in a written statement released in response to the article.

"Libération's calculations are close to the amount," it read. "But in any case at the moment they're only virtual bonuses because they won't actually be paid out until the end of the year depending on the results."

Oh well, that's all right then. They're just "virtual bonuses" and traders won't be taking home wallets stuffed to overflowing - well not quite yet.

But wait. There's more. As well as confirming the news, the bank actually justifies it too,

And it comes from none other than the BNP Paribas CEO himself, Baudouin Prot.

In an interview with the daily financial newspaper, La Tribune, Prot clearly doesn't see a problem admitting that the bank has plans to pay out bigger-than-expected bonuses.

"As far as paying bonuses to traders is concerned we have been one of the first banks in the world to respect scrupulously the recommendation of the G20," he said.

"For example, we intend to spread bonuses over several years and make them dependent on results and not revenue," he added

"Those are the principles we're going to apply for 2009."

Reassuring words indeed from a man who also insists that the "crisis has changed us".

Ah yes, as it proudly promotes itself on its official website, BNP Paribas really is La banque d'un monde qui change" or "The bank for a changing world".

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur - it's all in a name

France could soon be bidding farewell to the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA for short).

Only the name though, rather than the actual geographical area.

The region, located in the south of the country (as the name suggests) is one of 26 in mainland France, with another four overseas.

Plans are afoot to change its name from the apparently poetic but cumbersome current mouthful to something a little more snappy and up-to-date.

Well that's if the president of the region, Michel Vauzelle, gets his way.

Vauzelle says the naming of the region, and in particular the use of the epithet "PACA" since the time of Charles de Gaulle, has been the butt of many a joke, to the detriment of the local population.

As far as he's concerned it's far from being funny and time for a change to something that better reflects the area and its population.

"Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is a beautiful name," he says. "But it's too long and not very practical."

In his search for an alternative, Vauzelle commissioned an Internet poll during the second half of July in which 10,000 local people were asked their views on what would be a preferable replacement, and the initial results are in.

"Provence" (well that certainly is short) and "Provence-Méditerranée"" apparently topped the list, with "Alpes Méditerranée", "Provence Azur" and "Sud" (even shorter) also remaining in the running.

The next step will be to set up a committee of experts or so-called "wise men" (and women presumably) who will examine the results before drawing up a short list to be put to the local population (at large) some time in the autumn.

For those of you still scrambling to locate Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur or PACA on a map, it incorporates six departments in the south of France: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var, and Vaucluse.

And of course it also includes some of the major cities in the south, among them Marseille, Nice and Toulon

It boasts a population of over 4.8 million, which, if you do the maths, means that less than 0.2 per cent have so far expressed an opinion on the name change.

But that evidently is enough for Vauzelle and the rest of the regional council to press ahead with the campaign.

Monday, 3 August 2009

A banking giant is born

Monday sees the creation of what will be France's second biggest retail bank with the official merger of Banque Populaire and the Groupe Caisse d'Epargne to become BPCE.

Far from being a marriage "made in heaven" though, it is one born out of necessity and despite its size, the process of finally "becoming one" has not been without its difficulties.

Although the green light will be given for the new bank to operate throughout most of the country, there's a slight problem in Ile de France, the area surrounding and including the French capital.

The Paris court of appeal has blocked the merger for the moment because of what it insists a "failure to inform its personnel sufficiently on the merger plan between the two banking groups."

A decision as to when the Ile de France branches can be merged into the new BPCE will have to wait until the court's final ruling later this month.

In the meantime though the creation of BPCE is official throughout the rest of the country in a move which creates the second-biggest retail bank in France behind Credit Agricole.

When the credit crunch hit the world last year, Banque Populaire and Caisse d'Epargne seemed the best match in terms of the desire by French authorities to limit the effects here of the financial turmoil and consolidate the country's banking sector.

Both were major shareholders in the investment bank Natixis which was hard hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States. Between them, the two held 70 per cent of Natixis' shares.

But the merger process has been far from an easy one.

In October last year, just as talks were underway between the two groups, Caisse d'Epargne had to come clean and reveal that it had lost around €600 million in unauthorised derivatives trading.

The chief executive at the time, Charles Milhaud, resigned taking full responsibility, but it was a loss which brought a sharp rebuke from the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who described it as "unacceptable" and an investigation was launched into how it had happened.

And at the end of February there was further controversy when François Pérol was nominated to become head of the two banks once merged.

He was a former top financial advisor to Sarkozy, and critics contested that his appointment represented a conflict of interests.

When fully operational the new group will reportedly have around 34 million customers at over 8,000 branches and employ around 110,000 people.
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