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Friday, 30 October 2009

French national identity - the grand debate

Politicians and the media in France have been literally falling over themselves in response to an interview given by the immigration minister, Eric Besson, last weekend in which he said he wanted to launch a major discussion over "national values and identity".

To start from the beginning of November it will be, in the words of the minister, a debate to determine how best “to reaffirm the values of identity and the pride of being French.”

Not surprisingly perhaps reactions came thick and fast with the media quickly jumping on the story.

Radio and television stations asked audiences what they thought about the idea and newspaper websites invited comments.

Reactions from politicians ranged from support from members of the governing centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party to scepticism or outright condemnation from opposition parties.

Frédéric Lefebvre, the UMP spokesman welcomed the idea saying that it wasn't "the return of a debate on national identity that should be surprising, but the blurring of that identity."

The leader of the centre Mouvement démocrate (Democratic Movement MoDem) party, François Bayrou, though was more guarded, insisting that defining or determining "national identity is not for politicians."

"It's like history," he said. "It's not up to politicians to try to monopolise the subject."

For Vincent Peillon, a European parliamentarian for the Socialist party, the call for opening a debate on national identity was symptomatic of a certain "sickness" in France and would have an negative effect on how the country was viewed by others throughout the world.

"France has never talked about national identity," he said. "And it's dangerous to open the debate like this."

Benoît Hamon, the spokesman for the Socialist party, was harsher in his reaction accusing Besson of pandering to the far-right Front national (FN) ahead of next year's regional elections in making illegal immigration a central issue before the vote in March.

"Eric Besson is applying the ideas of the FN," he said.

"He's cynically carrying out parts of its (FN's) programme," he continued.

"It's all part of government policy of keeping illegal immigrants in a state of extreme hardship to dissuade them from coming. "

And from the FN itself came the call from Marine Le Pen for a "Grenelle on national identity" to be held, similar to the one there had been for the environment as her party had "a lot of things to say on the subject."

Maybe the most measured response though came from a member of the UMP itself, in the shape of the former prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé.

Writing on his blog, Juppé cited the discourse "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?" ("What is a Nation?") given by the French philosopher and historian, Ernest Renan, back in 1882.

"The definitions of the nation are numerous," writes Juppé. "It seems to me that the explanation given by Ernest Renan, remains unsurpassable," he continues before quoting from Renan's speech.

"In defining what the nation is, Renan said 'the essential element of a nation is that all of its individuals must have many things in common and they must also have forgotten many things,''" quotes Juppé.

"Renan also said a nation is 'a sense of solidarity, one that supposes a past but is summarised in the present by a tangible fact: the consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue living together,'" continues Juppé.

"Everything has been said," concludes Juppé.

"What's the point of starting the debate all over again?"

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A slice of life in France - Toulouse "la Ville Rose"

Toulouse is surely one of those French cities that has a touch of magic to it. Just the mention of its name brings, for many, romantic images to mind.

Famous for its terracotta brick buildings, which give the city its most common nickname*, "la Ville Rose", Toulouse is, as the official website of its tourist office rightly boasts, a city "at once both modern and proud of the legacy of its past."

Visitors, it promises are "bound to be seduced by the incomparable Toulousain lifestyle, coupled with the wealth of its cultural heritage."

And the site probably isn't far off the mark.

One look at the landmark Capitole de Toulouse for example which houses the town hall, an opera company and a symphony orchestra, is enough to tell you that this is indeed a splendid city.

Mind you, many of the more than 4,700 competitors (individual and relay combined) taking part in le marathon du Grand Toulouse (the National Grand Toulouse Marathon) last weekend probably won't have had much time to take in the sights and sounds of what it has to offer as they pounded the 42 plus kilometres.

It was Kenya's Benjamin Bitok who crossed the finishing line first at la place du Capitole in the heart of the city. Bitok's winning time of two hours, 14 minutes and 12 seconds, was four minutes faster than when he won the inaugural event back in 2007.

Following him home were two more Kenyans, Patrick Nymbane seven minutes back in second and Simon Ruto another six minutes behind in third.

The first woman home was Algeria's Kenza Dahmani in two hours 40 minutes and 29 seconds.

More famous in sporting terms perhaps for the exploits of its top-flight rugby side Stade Toulousain or even the first division soccer team Toulouse Football Club, la Ville Rose has played host to the marathon for the past three years.

It's an event which quite literally runs through the heart of Toulouse as well as some of its suburbs in a city which ranks as the fourth or fifth largest in France in terms of population, depending on whether you're taking into account those who live in the city itself or the metropolitan area.

Hotfooting it through the streets though is perhaps not the best way to take a real look at everything Toulouse has to offer: the architecture, history, culture or of course the gastronomic delights (this is France after all) les Toulousains Toulousaines have to serve up.

The ever-expanding Blagnac airport with regular arrivals from both Paris-Orly and Paris-Charles de Gaulle as well as a host of European cities, makes getting to Toulouse simple.

Given the fact that Toulouse is the home base of the European aerospace industry in the shape of Airbus, it's perhaps not surprising that the city will also be playing host in 2010 to a major air service development forum.

The "Airbus effect" aside though - and it has been an important factor in the growth of the city in recent years and its "dynamism" - Toulouse makes an ideal weekend break especially for visitors who prefer a more sedate pace of life and want to spend a little more time taking it all in.

The weather is generally temperate, the food fantastic and getting around, be it on foot (preferably) or by bus, easy.

And there's more. Toulouse is also the gateway to the rest of the southwest of France which might tempt you to prolong your stay and make a real holiday of it as you take in some stunning scenery.

One thing to note though, and it might just be the experience of this particular visitor, is that the local folk can be a little hard to understand once they get going.

Their French is heavily accented and they seem to speak at a rate of knots.

But don't let that put you off as it just adds to their charm and that of the city.

*Toulouse is also sometimes known as la cité des violettes - City of Violets - because of its long association with the cultivation of the flower.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

France gets the jab as flu vaccination starts

The campaign to vaccinate France's population against "swine flu" (H1N1 or influenza A as it's more commonly called here) began on Tuesday.

And first in line to be injected are the one million or so health professionals working in hospitals.

They've been given priority in the government's campaign, but from the evidence of the reports carried on both the country's major television prime time news broadcasts in the evening, they (the medical professionals) were hardly queuing around the block in anticipation.

In fact as the health minister, Roselyne Bachelot, pitched up at the Necker hospital in Paris to launch the campaign, just 20 doctors and nurses were waiting to be vaccinated - sorely outnumbered by the camera crews and photographers on hand to record and report the event.

The problem it appears is that many of them are sceptical of the vaccine's efficacy and wary of the potential side effects.

Bachelot though was on hand to put an upbeat spin on things, emphasising the importance of getting vaccinated and rejecting contradictory reports from some experts who've questioned the benefits of the vaccine, the speed with which it has been produced and its possible side effects.

Moreover she was adamant that hospital workers had an obligation to both themselves and patients to be vaccinated.

"Medical professionals are indispensable for looking after the sick and therefore it's necessary to protect them to be able to preserve our health service which could be put under pressure if the epidemic intensifies," she said.

"Doctors and nurses are in close contact with those among us who are most susceptible to infection so getting vaccinated is an act of responsibility to oneself and to others," she added.

The message is having a hard time getting across not just to those working in hospitals but also to the public at large it seems.

The French remain largely reticent with recent polls showing that between 60 and 65 per cent of them have no intention of getting themselves inoculated when the vaccine becomes available to the general public at the beginning of November.

And they're hardly helped by family doctors either, just over half of whom have said they won't be heeding the call to turn up at one of the 3,000 centres specially set up to administer the vaccine.

Although only anecdotal a couple of weeks ago this particular resident was presented with the dilemma most of us are likely to face at the beginning of November.

It happened while he was getting his annual jab against seasonal flu from his GP and inevitably the conversation turned towards H1N1.

"So will you be going along to one of the centres to get vaccinated?" he asked his doctor.

"No," came the simple reply. "And nor will any of my colleagues."

If those who are supposed to know about the benefits of the vaccine can't agree among themselves, how are the rest of us supposed to make an informed decision?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Row over homophobia in local French soccer league - redux

There has been yet another twist in the tale of two local football clubs in France who came to blows (off the pitch) over claims of homophobia.

You might remember that the story first hit the headlines at the beginning of the month when Créteil Bébel refused at the last minute to play Paris Foot Gay (PFG).

Both are amateur clubs playing in a local league in the French capital.

Créteil Bébel is made up of practising Moslems. PFG is a team of both gay and straight players whose aim is to fight homophobia in the sport, be that on the pitch or from the stands, and promote tolerance.

Claims of homophobia from one side were met with the defence from the other that there had been a "misunderstanding" in the interpretation of what Zahir Belgharbi, one of the directors of Créteil Bébel, had been quoted as saying in the media.

While insisting that he wasn't against his team taking to the field against a side that included both gay and straight players, Belgharbi said he had a problem with the name "Paris Gay Foot" which by implication (as far he was concerned) seemed deliberately provocative

"We don't call our club by a Moslem name for example - why should others?" he said.

PFG complained to those responsible for running the league in which both teams play, la Commission Football Loisirs (CFL).

And then a lawyer for Créteil Bébel, Bénédicte Puybassant, stepped into the fray to reiterate on behalf of the players that their refusal to play had nothing to do with homophobia but was "simply because the name of the club (PFG) doesn't reflect our vision of what the sport is about."

"They had," she said, "regretted their initial decision and had proposed to reschedule the match."

But events overtook them somewhat when the CFL took the decision to red card the side and kick the club out of the league for "refusing a match and making discriminatory comments."

End of story you might think. Except it wasn't.

An attempt to reconcile players from the two clubs was proposed in which they would play collectively against a team of former professional footballers, politicians and celebrities all in the name of "fighting against all forms of discrimination".

But once again the idea has apparently been turned down by Créteil Bébel.

Apparently because in fact Belgharbi went as far as to deny that there had been any approach made to play in the first place.

"We have nothing to gain by playing a match with 'people' (celebrities) in front of the media," he said.

"We prefer to remain anonymous."

A final refusal which brought about a prompt response from PFG.

"We understand that the players from Créteil Bébel wish to return as quickly as possible back into the anonymity they should never have left in the first place," PFG says on its site.

"Therefore, we will not be playing together in a match to combat discriminations in all its forms," it continues.

"We deeply regret it."

The match - without the participation of the Créteil Bébel players - is still scheduled to go ahead on November 14 at the Charlety stadium in Paris.

Friday, 16 October 2009

French motorcyclist fined for wearing contact lenses

All right the headline is a little misleading as will become clear. But in essence it's what happened.

Once again it's time to say "road users in France beware".

After the recent case of a motorist being fined (€22) for smoking behind the wheel of his car, comes the story of a motorcyclist being pulled over for not "having glasses about his person" - to put it in good "police speak".

It happened last Tuesday on the streets of the French capital as Jérôme, an engineer, set out on his motor scooter to an appointment at the dentist.

At one point on his journey he ran a traffic light as it turned amber to "avoid braking too suddenly". But as (bad) luck would have it a couple of police officers saw him and he was stopped.

Now, what would have been a standard infraction with a possible €22 fine quickly escalated to something a little more absurd as he was asked for his papers, which the 37-year-old duly handed over.

Jérôme you see is near-sighted and as such required by law to wear glasses, or at least have them somewhere in the vehicle when driving, although the language on his licence puts it in a more gobbledygook fashion than that.

At least that's how the officers on duty interpreted the law.

Well he wasn't wearing glasses, but he was wearing contact lenses, which you might be thinking would have conformed with the sense of what was actually written on his licence.

Er....think again.

Because he didn't have a supplementary pair of glasses with him, one of the police officers handed Jérôme a €90 fine and lopped three points from him for "driving a vehicle without respecting the restrictions mentioned on his licence."

What's more he also advised him to "read the highway code again."

And that's exactly what Jérôme did, but he couldn't find the exact text to which the officer was referring and has decided to contest the fine.

"I don't consider it to be justified," he said.

"I'm not a danger to society and besides without lenses I don't see anything."

He's not alone in thinking the officer overreacted and has of Jean-Baptiste Iosca, a lawyer specialising in the rules of the road and traffic contraventions.

"The law requiring all drivers to carry a pair of glasses in the glove compartment of the vehicle was repealed in 1997," he said.

"I dealt with a similar case in May this year and my client was not charged."

Um. Who should it be Jérôme rereading the highway code?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Why numbers matter in France

What's in a number? Well quite a lot in France it appears if the latest figures released for car registration plates here are to be believed.

In order of popularity the French have plumped for the following numbers to be included on their car licence plates: 69, 59, 13, 31 and 33

For any of this to make sense there are a couple of things that probably need explaining.

First up France is divided into 100 départements (let's stick to the French spelling with that accent and extra "e" just for the sake of it) or if you like administrative districts.

While four of them are overseas, the other 96 are in what's called here "Metropolitan France" and they're all numbered more or less alphabetically (if that makes any sense) from Ain (01) to Yonne (89).

After that it gets a little confusing because Territoire de Belfort is 90 and 91-95 were created in the 1960s when the area around Paris was rejigged.

Anyway, since 1950 car registration plates have carried the number of the département in which the owner lives.

And over time it has become something of a badge of pride for many. If you lived in Paris - then your car had 75 at the end of its licence plate. Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) - 06, Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône) - 13, Lyon (Rhône) - 69 and so on and so forth. For a full list (should you be interested) click here.

But that system changed this year - the fear being that there simply wouldn't be enough numbers to go around.

New cars now carry a registration composed of two letters - three numbers - two letters, something along the lines of AA-123-AA.

A space is also made available for a département number to be displayed. It isn't actually part of the car's registration, instead it's left up to the owner to choose which number appears.

But the choice has to be a judicious one as it's for life (of the owner). In other words drivers keep the licence plate even if they change vehicles or move départements.

Initially introduced just for new cars, the system is now being extended to second-hand cars as of October 15.

So back to those figures and the apparent popularity of certain départements over others.

Well since April 15 there have been two million new vehicles registered and at the moment according to government statistics the number of choice for those not actually living in the département which under the old system would have appeared on the plate is 69 or Rhône, of which the major city is Lyon.

That's followed by 59 (Nord, major city Lille), 13 (Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille), 31 (Haute-Garonne, Toulouse) and 33 (Gironde, Bordeaux).

Meanwhile heading the list in which purchasers of new cars have so far preferred to opt for numbers outside of the département in which they live are 92, Hauts-de-Seine and 75, Paris.

Of course that could all change once second-hand cars start carrying the new plates.

But for the moment the figures seem to suggest that the affinity the French have with a region perhaps from which they originate is still pretty strong and the simple pleasure and apparent symbolism of being identified (or wishing to be so) with a part of the country other than the one in which they might live, still matters.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A slice of life in France - Big cats pacing in Seine and Marne

While Disneyland Paris is the largest and probably best known theme park in the département of Seine-et-Marne in the Ile de France region surrounding the capital, it's not the only one competing for visitors.

Just a few kilometres away is Le Parc des Félins which, as its name suggests, is home to cats large and small.

There are 130 of them at the moment, kept in enclosures which cover 60 hectares allowing visitors to get up close, but not too much so, with felines from four continents.

The park opened in 2006, having outgrown its previous home at the Parc d'Aulneau near Chartres in the Eure-and-Loir département in north-central France.

A visit is undoubtedly educational in bringing children (and adults for that matter) face-to-face with some marvellous creatures.

There's the chance to learn a little or even a lot more about them; their natural habitats, behaviour, origins and how they survive the threats they face in the wild.

But any trip for many must surely also be tinged with more than a little sadness.

The park invites us to "seize the opportunity to see these amazing animals in the most natural captive environment behaving as they do in the wild."

And therein must lie the problem for many a visitor - and even more so for the big cats.

Yes the cheetahs have long grasses in which they can hide should they wish.

And there are trees around for the leopards or the tigers to laze under, but what exactly does animals living in "the most natural captive environment behaving as they do in the wild" mean?

Maybe there's an answer, somewhere.

The park criticises the life circus tigers lead and the conditions in which they're kept, calling them "inadmissable" and there's signs throughout proudly proclaiming how well it meets the needs of its residents.

"Tigers need space to run and jump, open fields to lie in the sun and many trees to rest in the shadow and mark their territories," read on of the signs.

"We have built this enclosure with these facts in mind," in bold letters as if to emphasise how grateful the animal should be.

But when you get to the white tigers what you can see is an animal distinctly less than happy with its lot.

Going about its daily business seems to consist it of pacing up and down - endlessly.

Presumably just as it would in the wild.

It passes in front of the camera, pacing along the well-worn path at the front of the caged enclosure, turns and retraces its steps, turns and retraces its steps, turns.....and you get the picture.

And it's not the only big cat around to exhibit such behaviour.

A Sumatran tiger in another enclosure gives a similar performance accompanied by an eerie wail that probably has more to do with a chest infection rather than a complaint about its life....but.

Elsewhere a Sri Lankan leopard hardly bothers to blink as it lies majestically in front of the cameras, while the lions quite properly just turn their royal backs in everyone.

But there you have it. That indeed must be the explanation of what "the most natural captive environment behaving as they do in the wild." means.

Is this really how we want to treat or see such magnificent animals?


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The debate over Jean Sarkozy's new job continues

Reactions are coming thick and fast to the news last week that Jean Sarkozy, the son of the French president, is in line for a top job at l'Etablissement public d'aménagement du quartier d'affaires de la Défense (Epad), the development agency for business district of La Defense on the outskirts of Paris.

The media has gone into a near frenzy reporting the different responses there have been since the retiring incumbent, Patrick Devedjian, made the announcement.

Politicians from the opposition Socialist party have criticised the nomination, as have some from the right of the political spectrum.

And an online petition has already gathered 40,000 signatures calling for him not to accept the job.

The main sticking points seem to be his age - Sarkozy is just 23 - his (lack of) experience and of course the fact that he's the son of the French president.

"We need someone (in the post) who has a good grasp of the law," said the former Socialist party prime minister Laurent Fabius, more than a little ironically.

"Mr Sarkozy is in his second year (at University) studying law, which is obviously a very strong argument in his favour!"

There are of course also the thinly-disguised inferences of nepotism and the fact that carrying the same name as the French president has helped Sarkozy's rise politically at such a young age.

"Who wouldn't be shocked by the way in which this has been done?" said the Socialist party's 2007 presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal.

"If he didn't have the name he has, would he be where he is today?"

Meanwhile members of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) of which Sarkozy is a member have come to his defence, saying that the whole political polemic (of which the French seem often seem so fond) and especially the accusations that Sarkozy is benefitting from being the "son of" is nothing more than an attack whipped up by the Left.

"It's an election, a competition and there's no need to create such a polemic," the prime minister, François Fillon, said on national radio on Monday morning referring to the fact that Sarkozy is also an elected local councillor in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine where his father was once mayor.

"What matters is to have been elected at the ballot box as we've also seen for the son of François Mitterrand (Gilbert) or the daughter of Jacques Delors (Martine Aubry)," he added.

Not everyone to the right of the political spectrum in France agrees though.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, head of Debout la République (Arise the Republic, DLR) thinks the appointment is a mistake and sends out the wrong message to the public at large.

"It's unacceptable that a son of the French president, no matter what his qualities, should head up one of Europe's major business districts which is bound to see the construction of more office space," he said.

"And of course we have to question his ability as a 23-year-old student to occupy such a position".

And what of the main protagonist in all of this?

Well until now he had remained silent on the subject. But on Tuesday he told the national daily Le Parisien/Aujourd'hui en France that he felt more than capable of doing the job and had quickly become used to the dealing with any opposition.

"Ever since I started in politics I've been the object of criticism," he said.

"But I'm very determined very motivated and I just see all the attacks the Left are trying to launch my way," he added.

"Whatever I do, I'll be criticised."

Monday, 12 October 2009

The French Socialist party and its elephants

It's not that often a video for a political party creates a buzz.

Even though it's perhaps still a little early to say that the parties here in France have got into full campaigning swing for next year's regional elections, the Socialists have nonetheless managed to raise a perplexed eyebrow or two with their latest television spot.

"La France qu'on aime" (The France that we love) is beautifully filmed, and as the journalist Gérald Andrieu points out in the weekly news magazine, Marianne, there's definitely a touch of "Ensemble, tout devient possible" (Together everything becomes possible), the campaign slogan the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, used when he was running for office in 2007.

In the film, there's the stress on how much local Socialist party politicians do to make the everyday lives of their constituents that much better.

Smiling faces of good-looking people who are not too drop-dead gorgeous but just enough to remind us of how we should all really look.

On the whole they're a youthful bunch, although older generations aren't forgotten nor are the handicapped. Of course the environment is given a chunk of air time in terms of "clean" transport, "clean" energy, "clean" everything.

There's a nod to the arts, children, education, technology, the future. In fact the whole gamut of issues - political, social and economic - all packed into two minutes (short version) or just over five minutes (long version).

But wait. Do a double take. What was that at one minute and three seconds of running time?

Thanks goodness Andrieu draws viewers' attention to it, because otherwise it might slip past.

For there, just for a fleeting moment, is an elephant, albeit a mechanical one.

So what? You might ask.

Well, that's also the rather pejorative term used by many to refer to the party's "old guard"; those that have for some had their hands on the reins of power for too long.

Indeed just last week several of them were welcomed back into the fold of the national bureau as proof that the party is going through the final phase of - ahem - "renovating" itself.

So what's going on in the TV spot?

"A subliminal image perhaps?" asks Andrieu. As though the party is trying to say "We (the elephants) are still around. We've won. It's us that has the power, not you."

And as if that's not enough, there's that added extra to the message for the "more paranoid" among us says Andrieu.

"The elephant doesn't just come from 'nowhere'," he points out.

"But from a (marionette street) theatre company which carries the name 'Royal de Luxe'."

What a coincidence, you might think.

Surely some sort of sign although it should be noted that the Nantes-based company has nothing whatsoever to do with the woman who was the party's candidate during the 2007 presidential election campaign and was the proverbial thorn in the elephants' sides then and still is now....Ségolène.

Apart from sharing a name of course.

Maybe proof, suggests Andrieu, of a "Socialist elephant conspiracy not to share power!"

Surely not.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A Royal snub for Martine Aubry

Based on recent evidence, not that much has changed within the French Socialist party since Martine Aubry took over its leadership last year.

She's still facing opposition within the party - and most notably from the woman she narrowly beat in last year's contest to become leader, Ségolène Royal.

Last week Aubry announced that a number of the so-called "elephants" - or its old guard - had accepted her invitation to join her in helping rebuild the party.

"In the past few months we've put in place the walls and foundations (for renovation)," Aubry said as she heralded the return of the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, and Bertrand Delanoë, the current mayor of Paris, into the fold of the party's national bureau.

"What has been missing is the cement," she added.

"The cement is unity."

Top marks perhaps for trying, but once again Aubry has run into an obstacle - and it's none other than Ségoléne Royal, who has turned down the offer.

Instead Royal suggested that her proposed place be filled by Kamel Chibli, a 32-year-old party activist and deputy mayor for the town of Laval in the northwestern French département of Mayenne.

So, young and of Moroccan origin, exactly what the party needs as far as Royal is concerned and a person she considers as being part "of a new generation that must be brought in to take over responsibility within the party," as Royal's spokesman, Guillaume Garot explained.

"Faithful to her idea of a France being a melting pot, she (Royal) wants to give responsibility to people from all ethnic backgrounds," he added.

Of course Royal has a point.

The party's reliance on the elephants has been a source of criticism for many over recent years, and Aubry's move could simply be interpreted as an attempt to renovate the party by turning to those whose names are all-to-familiar to the electorate at large.

Among those names of course are some that reluctantly threw their weight behind Royal when she was the party's unsuccessful candidate in the 2007 presidential elections.

And some of them undoubtedly have not so ill-disguised aspirations to be the party's candidate for that same position in 2012.

But while Royal's reaction is backed up to a great extent by another one of her supporters in the shape of Manuel Valls, who referred more openly to the "return of the elephants", her suggestion was turned down flat in a manner which surely smacks equally of a counter snub.

"Renovation has already occurred with the national secretariat and the national bureau of the party," said François Lamy, a political advisor to Aubry.

"Now we're saying that it's important to have experience and unity within the party," he added.

"That's why Bertrand Delanoë and Laurent Fabius have been offered posts and that's what they understood."

Friday, 9 October 2009

French bank blows whistle on illegal immigrant

Last weekend Yaro S. as he's being referred to in the French media, turned up at a branch of the bank Société Générale in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne to withdraw money from his account.

As is always the case for anyone wanting to make withdrawals, the cashier asked him to present some form of identity, and Yaro handed over his carte de séjour or residence permit.

The only problem was that it was a fake one. And on realising that, the clerk informed the police and went a step further by closing the doors of the bank and ensuring that Yaro was unable to make a getaway until they had arrived.

The 41-year-old Mauritanian was taken into detention and now faces deportation back to his country of origin.

The fake ID according to La Cimade, a French non-governmental organisation that offers legal assistance to undocumented immigrants, was exactly the same piece of identity Yaro had given when opening the account in the first place back in 2005.

Moreover Yaro, who has been living in France since 2002 and has been working in the kitchen of a restaurant, has a request pending with French authorities to regularise his status as a resident.

Now to some reading this, the actions of the bank staff might smack of "denunciation" and indeed unions have criticised any behaviour by bank employees, which might to many seem overzealous and give the appearance of them wishing "to participate actively in the political process of checking identity papers."

That is not the role of staff, but as a union official, Michel Marchet, points out, there is something of a dilemma.

"When they (the employees) realise a fake ID is being presented, they are required to report it," he says.

"It's not necessarily taking part in tracking down illegal immigrants, but an obligation to ensure that there is no fraud or money laundering occurring, something for which fake identities are often used," he adds.

Société Générale's position on what happened runs along the line of "it being the responsibility of the bank to ensure that the person withdrawing money is also the one to whom the account belongs".

But it neatly sidesteps the issue that the only way Yaro was able to open the account in the first place back in 2005 was by using the very same ID that became his undoing last weekend.

For La Cimade though, what has happened to Yaro is part of a disturbing trend here in France.

"This case is symptomatic of a growing tendency to 'inform' (on illegal immigrants)," it says, pointing out that over the summer three other cases of illegal immigrant being denounced have succeeded.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A French firm where workers are busy doing nothing - and getting paid for it

Every day Carmen Girard turns up for work at National Power Packs in Pontarlier in the département of Doubs in eastern France.

The 36-year-old has been working for the company, which assembles rechargeable batteries, for 15 years.

But since June, Girard and her four female colleagues have quite literally had nothing to do.

And they're getting a regular monthly income for not doing it.

A month earlier their boss informed them that assembly and production were being transferred to facilities just outside of Rotterdam in the Netherlands where he lives and that the company in Pontarlier was effectively ceasing its activities.

The machinery has remained in place and so have the five employees. They weren't fired - and still haven't been.

Instead they have received their regular monthly salaries for doing absolutely nothing apart from turning up each day.

A typical day starts for Girard at 8.30am.

"First of all I deal with my personal letters and emails, then we watch television, play Scrabble, Rubik's Cube or Sudoku," she said on Laurent Ruquier's afternoon radio programme, On va s'gêner.

"It's like a phantom company right now - 440 square metres with nothing to do," she added.

There has been no sign of life from their boss, apart from a couple of emails informing them of the closure and instructing them to tie up loose ends with customers.

And in spite of repeated attempts to reach him, he's no longer answering his mobile 'phone.

The big question of course is why the five women haven't been fired. And it's one to which Girard says she has no answer.

They've contacted union representatives to find out where they stand legally and have have been told that if they look for and accept jobs elsewhere they'll be considered to have resigned from their current positions, thereby losing eligibility to any redundancy packages that might be coming their way - eventually.

Girard admits the situation could be worse, realising that there probably aren't that many bosses around who would continue to pay salaries to employees for sitting around doing nothing.

All the same she and the other four woman find themselves in employment limbo, knowing that they have no future with the company but just wishing that their employer would take the necessary steps so that they can all move on.

"Sometimes we do a tour of the building just to talk to employees at another company," she says.

"We feel useless and as though we don't really deserves our salaries."

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Row over homophobia in French local soccer league

Homophobia in sport is for many a taboo subject and is still alive and sadly kicking in French football as far as those who work to promote tolerance in the "Beautiful Game" are concerned.

Last weekend, the club Paris Foot Gay (PFG) received the following mail from the opponents they were due to play in their next game, Créteil Bébel.

"We're sorry, but because of the name your team carries, and in keeping with the principles of our club, which is a team of practising Moslems, we cannot play against you," it read.

"Our convictions are much more important than a simple game of football. Once again apologies for having informed you (of our decision) so late."

PFG has lodged a complaint with the those responsible for running the league in which both teams play, la Commission Football Loisirs (CFL) accusing Créteil Bébel of homophobia and demanding the league take action.

"From time to time the team has been the target of isolated verbal attacks," said Pascal Brethes, a co-founder of PFG.

"But this is the first time a team has refused to play us."

Just for the record, both teams are amateur and play in a local league.

PFG was created in December 2003. Its aim is to fight homophobia in the sport, be that on the pitch or from the stands, and promote tolerance.

In case you were wondering, it isn't an exclusively gay team and is made up of both homosexual and heterosexual players.

What's more, as its coach, Brahim Naït-Balk points out, it also has Moslem, Jewish and Catholic players.

But that, it appears is neither here nor there for those in charge of Créteil Bébel, for whom it's the name of the club that presents a problem.

"I'm not a homophobe and it doesn't bother me to play a match with homosexuals," says Zahir Belgharbi from Créteil in the sports daily l'Equipe.

"But not with a club (carrying such a name). We have made an effort to remain neutral," he continued. "We don't call our club by a Moslem name for example - why should others?"

Belgharbi and the rest of Créteil's management will discover whether the CFL agrees with them on October 13, when the board meets to decide what sanctions, if any, should be taken against the team for its refusal to play.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy to start tweeting

Something to look forward to for all those interested in French politics.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has promised to tweet during December's United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Those following him on Twitter will be able to "track his impressions throughout the summit" as part of an effort by his office at the Elysée Palace to boost the president's popularity by taking a lead from US politicians", according to the French weekly newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche.

But hang about a moment. Will it really be Sarkozy on the other end tweeting from behind his computer screen or 'phone?

Even though in Saudi Arabia last year he appeared to be caught on camera sending a text message while one of his hosts was making a speech, surely he'll be too busy in the Danish capital to keep us bang up-to-date with what he's doing.

In fact it's more than likely it'll be the person responsible for communications at the Elysée palance, Franck Louvrier, that everyone will actually be "following".

"The president won't be using Twitter himself," admits Louvrier.

"But we'll outline what's happening and how the negotiations are going for the duration of the summit."

Sarkozy is no stranger to the Internet or social media sites. He already has a Facebook page with over 162,000 "supporters"

And he had a website during the 2007 presidential campaign, which has since become (or remained) his official site reminding us that, "Ensemble tout devient possible".

Then of course there's the site of the President of France, complete with photos, schedules, videos of speeches, the chance to send him a message (maximum 4,000 characters) and much, much more.

Meanwhile the other half of France's first couple, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, has had a few teething problems with her new site, launched on Monday.

It crashed just hours after going online as the number of users eager to gain an insight into her life with her husband at the Elysée palace - oh and all right her charity work too - exhausted the site's capacity.

For those who were unable to admire the layout and design, as well as its more serious content such as her role as ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria there was always the screen shot provided by the weekly glossy, Gala.

And of course fans could and can still log on to her multilingual music site, should they wish to listen to any one of her three albums.

McDonald's at the Louvre - quelle horreur!

The Louvre in Paris is about to get a new neighbour, as the US fast food chain, McDonald's, plans to open an outlet in the underground mall (Carousel du Louvre) at the approach to the museum.

And "Quelle horreur" seems to be the response from many according to a report in Britain's Daily Telegraph.

Any trip to France of course means enjoying some of the fine grub for which this country is rightly proud.

France even has an application pending with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to honour its cuisine.

But if you think the French take a traditionally dim view of US culture and especially its food and drink, think again.

Yes it might well seem to some a little incongruous having such a symbol of modern "culture" right next to a temple of art, but Starbucks is already in the Carrousel du Louvre.

Then there are the facts and figures for McDo's (as it's called here) that speak for themselves.

There are over 1,000 outlets here already. In fact the one opening within waddling distance of the museum will be its 1,142nd as it celebrates 30 years of business in France.

And besides why should the Louvre be spared the same fate that has already "befallen" other prestigious French sites such as the place du Capitole in the heart of Toulouse?

McDonald's, place du Capitole, Toulouse

The French clearly love burgers. McDonald's itself opened 30 new outlets last year and collectively its eateries reportedly pulled in 450 million customers making it the company's biggest market outside of the US.

The country even has its own fast food restaurant chain (although it started life as Belgian) in the shape of Quick, with over 300 restaurants.

And get this.

In last week's episode of the reality television game show Koh Lanta, the French equivalent of Survivor, what did the two contestants who won the reward challenge get as their luxury?

Yep you've guessed it. Burger and chips in the middle of the jungle.

Oh well. Perhaps it's a lost cause and the French shouldn't be too snooty about McDo's setting up shop right next to the Louvre.

Make mine a Mona Lisa burger please - with French fries of course.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A French Kiss-In to fight homophobia

You might have missed reports on it, as it wasn't exactly the doom and gloom sort of story that fills column inches and makes the headlines of news bulletins.

So just in case you did, here's a reminder of a demonstration that took place at the end of last month in towns and cities throughout the whole of France and is due to be repeated in December.

A Kiss-In to fight homophobia.

The idea is simple, not to feel ashamed or embarrassed at showing affection to a same-sex partner and to show tolerance.

"Why is the only time we can see gay men and lesbians kiss each other in the street other than in the Marais (a neighbourhood in Paris with many gay cafés, clubs and shops) is during Gay Pride?" the organisers of the Kiss-In ask on their blog.

"How come heterosexuals can kiss in public without it really disturbing anyone?"

The first Kiss-In, organised at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on June 7 may only have attracted 20 or so people, but that didn't put the organisers off and a second one took place in Dijon just over a month later.

But those behind the idea took it one step further and decided to go nationwide.

Of course social media sites and blogs have helped spread the word.

The "Kiss-in contre l'homophobie !" Facebook group already has almost 2,000 fans (and growing).

And that, as you can see from the video, undoubtedly helped rally support in the French capital as couples (homo- and heterosexual) gathered at the underground modern shopping precinct of Forum les Halles to - well, kiss.

It wasn't just in Paris though. there were similar Kiss-Ins organised at the same time in towns and cities around the country such as Lille; Dijon, Lyon and Marseille.

The hope of the organisers is that when the next nationwide Kiss-In takes place on December 12, even more couples - and not just same sex ones -will turn up.

And perhaps the idea will be picked up by groups abroad so that the event becomes an international Kiss-In to fight homophobia.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Justice for Mambo - the French dog set on fire and left to die

A second online petition has been launched to gather support for "Justice for Mambo", the three-year-old dog set alight by two people in the southern French village of Espira-de-l'Agly in August this year.

Signatures are being gather to demand that the main perpetrator of the crime, a 17-year-old adolescent and therefore a minor before the eyes of the law, be handed down the maximum penalty possible when he stands trial in December.

His accomplice, a 22-year-old woman, has already been sentenced to six months in prison for complicity in an act of brutality and cruelty after she admitted holding down Mambo while the teenager poured gasoline over the three-year-old mongrel and then set him alight.

The reason the two gave for such a senseless crime? Reportedly they were "bored and had nothing better to do."

The story of Mambo is one that has been making the headlines in France for a couple of months now and he has become something of a star in this country.

The plight of the three-year-old mongrel has already mobilised support among the French public - and for just cause.

The act of sheer cruelty left him with third degree burns to 50 per cent of his body and for a while it wasn't certain whether he would survive or have to be destroyed.

The week following the incident over 200 people took to the streets of Espira-de-l'Agly to protest, and an online petition (now closed) was launched with over 13,000 people signing demanding "Justice for Mambo".

Among the signatories were the country's former first lady, Bernadette Chirac, the ex-international football star, actor Alain Delon and animal activist, Brigitte Bardot.

A well-known television and radio presenter, Michel Drucker, volunteered to meet the veterinary bills.

When Mambo was first being treated, the vets were unable to remove the bandages without putting him under anaesthetic.

He has since made slow and painful progress - remarkable given the extent of his burns ) and although he still requires sedation when being handled, as you can see from the accompanying video with a lot of TLC he's well on the road to recovery.

With him throughout has been the woman who found him in the first place, Dany Goizé.

The 59-year-old restaurant owner and volunteer for the SPA has been at the forefront of the Mambo campaign, raising money, answering letters and getting the online petitions up and running.

Goizé and her husband already have another rescue dog, and Mambo can expect a heartfelt welcome in his new home.

"If he wants a kennel, he'll have one," said Goizé

"And if he prefers to sleep in my bed, then that's where he'll sleep."

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reducing truancy rates in French high schools

A trial begins on Monday in France to try to cut the truancy rate among students at vocational high schools.

Playing hookey, skiving off, cutting class or whatever you want to call it, is apparently an increasing problem in France, with figures from a 2007-2008 study putting the rate among the country's roughly one thousand lycées professionnels, or vocational high schools, at 8.2 per cent.

In an effort to bring down the level, three schools in the Ile de France region surrounding the French capital will be taking part in a pilot scheme of rewarding attendance with money.

Each class at the three schools will be allocated an initial sum of €2,000 with the promise of being able to "earn" up to €10,000 by the end of the academic year depending on how well they have collectively managed to keep to the agreement of increasing attendance rates.

What happens to the money amassed at the end of the year will be determined collectively by the students and teaching staff at the school from the beginning of the project.

The scheme has come in for some criticism especially from those who feel it inappropriate that students be paid to attend class, but speaking on national radio, Martin Hirsch, the junior minister for active solidarities against poverty and for young people, stressed the collective rather than individual nature of how the pool of money could be earned.

"We're trying something new," he said.

"There are schools where the truancy rate is anything from five to 80 percent and this sort of financial scheme already works in other countries," he added.

"The project to be financed at the end of the year must be an educative one," he continued.

"It could be a school trip, the creation of an association, or the purchase of computer equipment or sports material for the class as a whole."

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the idea as the minister.

Jean-Paul Huchon, the president of the regional council for Ile de France region and a member of the Socialist party, thinks that it could in fact have the opposite effect to the one intended.

Instead of giving students collective responsibility in an effort to try to reduce truancy rates, Huchon thinks the scheme might potentially lead to an increase in violence in the institutions.

"Far from giving students a sense of responsibility, the setting up of a scheme of a 'collective kitty' could in fact foster a feeling of injustice among classes and different courses of study within the same school," he said.

"And that (feeling of injustice) could also lead to a growth in violence within the school."

If the pilot scheme proves successful, it is expected to be extended to another 70 classes (around 2,000 students) at institutions throughout France in the year 2010-2011, at a budget of €560,000.

French launch of a sex toy for dogs

Yes you read the headline correctly, and no it's not an April Fool. Friday saw the launch on the French market of the world's first sex toy for dogs.

Actually it has been available worldwide over the Net (I'll leave you to do the search) for the best part of a month now and orders have already been received from as far away as the United States, Israel and Japan.

But until now the "Hot Doll", developed by the 26-year-old designer Clément Eloy, hadn't actually been available here France.

That changed for the nation's dogs last week with the official launch of the product in the country in which it was created.

"To a certain extent it's an inflatable doll for dogs," said Stéphane Delimoges, the director of the company manufacturing the toy, stressing that (male) dogs sometimes have sexual needs or domination problems.


Well yes. Anyone who own a male dog (for that's obviously the target market) with rather randy tendencies, will know how embarrassing it can be when he makes a beeline for the nearest knee intent on humping his way to heaven.

It's one of those less-than-welcome moments for dog owners and the object of Fido's affection alike.

Described by the manufacturers as "stable, strong and ergonomic" and "designed for the utmost comfort of your pet", Hot Doll at the moment comes in a choice or two colours; black or white (with orange extremities).

But at a height of only 40 centimetres the "stylised poodle" can only be used by smaller breeds.

Owners of bigger hounds such as German Shepherds, Dobermans or Rottweilers whose pets display "behavioural problems" can take heart though as two larger models are apparently also due to be launched shortly.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Chirac's dog retires to the country

Not everyone loves a shaggy dog story as they tend to go on for far too long and when the climax is eventually reached the listeners are often left scratching their heads wondering what exactly the point of the whole thing was.

Well to keep things as short as possible, here's a tale with a happy end - of sorts - involving what is supposed to be man's best friend.

It centres on the problems the former French president, Jacques Chirac, had been having with his beloved maltese bichon, Sumo, named in honour of his passion for the Japanese sport.

Sumo obviously didn't take to leaving "his" presidential digs at the Elysée palace back in May 2007 when Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, moved out and Nicolas Sarkozy moved in.

Perhaps the dog was missing the political limelight, but as Bernadette explained in an interview earlier this year shortly after Sumo had bitten her husband, he had "got into the habit of nipping a little. Not everyone and not all the time."

The former first lady's explanation for the dog's erratic behaviour was that the little fellow "missed the garden the other animals and the freedom he had in the gardens of the Elysée palace."

Sumo was miserable she admitted and being treated with antidepressants.

Since then however, things seem to have gone from bad to worse.

The dog bit his master on two subsequent occasions, and the most recent attack made the Chiracs realise that his behaviour had simply become too aggressive.

"I was reading in a room while Sumo was lying on the floor," the former first lady said this week of the third and final incident.

"When my husband arrived he (Sumo) jumped and bit him in the stomach," she continued.

"I was very frightened because my husband was bleeding....and Sumo wanted to jump up and bite him again."

Rather than run the risk of Sumo injuring her husband again, the couple decided that it was time for him (Sumo) to move on.

He has since been found a new home in the country, living with friends of the family on a farm in the département of Seine et Marne, where he is apparently "very happy"...and no longer bites.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Quick end to striptease during French political party's evening entertainment

It's clearly not an easy job holding public office and refraining from "putting your foot in it" occasionally with a throwaway comment especially in these days when every remark can be picked up so easily on a mobile 'phone and quickly find its way to a wider audience via the Net.

Surely that's why advisors, spokespeople and spin doctors are on hand to ensure damage limitation when necessary.

And without question, putting politicians in a potentially compromising position is something organisers of any event to which they're invited strive to avoid.

Well you would think so, wouldn't you?

Somehow though that simple reality seemed to have escaped organisers of a soirée for parliamentary members of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) last week.

The party's good and great from both the National Assembly and the Senate were gathered for two days in Le Touquet in northern France to talk about matters political; planned reforms, economic growth and a whole host of other issues.

As is the case with such meetings it wasn't a matter of "all work and no play" with an evening's entertainment in one of the town's hotels being organised to which parliamentarians along with their wives, staff and journalists were invited.

As the weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, reports precautions were taken to ensure that there wasn't a repeat episode of what had happened just a few weeks earlier at the party's summer conference in Seignosse in southwestern France.

That was when the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, was captured on camera making what many in France considered to be a racist comment.

A lesson learned apparently as those attending the soirée were requested to leave their mobile 'phones in the cloakroom.

A move that was probably just as well given the circumstances because, as the newspaper reports, part of the evening's entertainment included a performance by "two superb creatures very skimpily dressed."

Yes someone had apparently booked a couple of strippers for the audience's enjoyment!

Now what had exactly been running through the minds of those who had arranged for the two young ladies to appear in the first place must of course be open to question.

But the reaction of those present was less than enthusiastic, says the paper with many, such as the party's secretary general Xavier Bertrand and the junior minister for housing, Benoist Apparu, more than "keeping their distance".

After less than 10 minutes though (thankfully) someone had the presence of mind to usher the two women out of the room, and they never returned.

So a potentially embarrassing incident avoided and nothing harmful that could have made its way to the Net, although the two women didn't seem to understand why they hadn't been allowed to continue their performance if what they're quoted by the newspaper as saying is anything to go by.

"We came from Paris and we had been booked for the whole evening," they said.

"And we had brought with us four suitcases packed with different costumes."
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