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Monday, 31 January 2011

France retain men's handball World Championship

France's men's handball team proved once again they're the best in the world after beating Denmark 37-35 in extra time in the final of the World Championships in Malmö, Sweden on Sunday.

Les Experts celebrate winning the men's handball World Championships (screenshot from YouTube video)

And congratulations for "Les Experts" as they're nicknamed have been coming in thick and fast as they, in the words of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, "Distinguished themselves throughout the championship, for their ability to stand with confidence, conviction and talent against formidable opponents."

Sarkozy will get the chance to heap even more praise on trainer Claude Onesta's men when he welcomes them to the Elysée palace on Monday afternoon

It's a far cry indeed from those dark sporting days of last summer when the country's football team brought shame and disgrace on themselves (and others) during their dismal campaign in the World Cup finals in South Africa.

And that was surely not far from the mind of the sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, who earlier on Sunday had said that it would be "unacceptable" for players such as Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry, to make a return to international football.

Commenting on the handball team's performance in Malmö, Jouanno said, "They were magnificent. There is no secret; it's all about training, team spirit and the will to win. They weren't taking part to finish second!"

Qualities which few would surely deny were missing from Raymond Domenech's team in South Africa.

After his tears of frustration last week over France losing out to Qatar to host the 2015 World Championships, the president of Fédération française de handball (French handball federation, FFHB) Joël Delplanque, once again had watery eyes, but this time around they were, as he told RTL national radio, happy ones.

"I kept a supply of tears but this time they're of joy and they're ones that are welcome after the wonderful performance the French team put up against Denmark," he said.

"Experience made the difference and it was extraordinary for television viewers and spectators at the game to see how deep the players had to dig into their reserves and the guts they showed to win the game."

A win which Onesta admitted had been "one of the most difficult of his career" with the icing on the cake being direct qualification for next year's Olympics in London and the 2013 World Championships in Spain.

Sunday's win confirms the French team's status as the best in the world. They have now won the World Championship four times (1995, 2001, 2009 and 2011) and are the current Olympic and European champions.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Dog owners help slaughter their Labrador-Boxer cross

It is, as the regional daily Le Maine Libre reported earlier this month, unbelievable the lengths to which some people will go to rid themselves of an unwanted animal.

Rather than take their Labrador-Boxer cross Dora to the nearest animal shelter for rehoming, an elderly couple in the western French département of Sarthe helped a friend hang and stab the four-year-old dog to death before throwing her body in a river.

All three "protagonists" have admitted to what they did, but as the animal charity Fondation 30 millions d'amis writes on its website, the most likely sentence they'll receive when their case is heard by a court next month is a fine and perhaps community service.

The Loir, the river into which Dora's body was thrown (from Wikipedia, author Ted Wilkes)

The couple, both in their 70s, from the village of Lavernat could reportedly no longer cope with the spirited Dora and decided to give her to a friend living in the nearby town of Château-du-Loir.

Dora continued her naughtiness and, no longer able to tolerate her behaviour and apparent attempts to run away, the 45-year-old decided to do what any sane-thinking person would.

She hanged the dog in her garden and beat her!

But Dora survived, only to be subjected to the "helping hand" of her previous owners who stepped in and stabbed her to death with a machete.

Together, all three then tied the body to a concrete block and threw it in the river.

The corpse was discovered at the beginning of January and police were able to trace the owners by an identifying tattoo in the animal's ear.

They all admitted to what they had done and now face a court case at the beginning of February.

Because they will "plead guilty" and the case is being judged under civil code the maximum penalty they can be given is a fine or some sort of community service, which as far as Fondation 30 millions d'amis is concerned does not fit the "barbarous nature of the crime committed."

It says on its website that if the case were being tried under the penal code they would be facing a maximum of a two-year suspended sentence and 30,000 euros fine.

What the charity would like to see is a change in how a guilty plea affects possible sentencing under the civil code because "torturers of animals often go unpunished for their crimes."

French disappointment as Qatar named hosts of 2015 men's handball World Championships

There were tears from Joël Delplanque, the president of the Fédération française de handball (French handball federation, FFHB) on Thursday as France lost out to Qatar to host the 2015 World Championships

The announcement was made in Sweden where the current men's World Championships are being held, and the least that can be said of Delplanque's reaction is that he was devastated.

"I'm bitterly disappointed and I cannot find the words to describe how I feel," a tearful Delplanque told reporters immediately after Qatar had been chosen hosts on the first round of voting.

"It's unbelievable especially after our players received a standing ovation when they came to present out bid this morning," he continued.

"I just don't understand."

Joël Delplanque (screenshot from FFHB video)

Perhaps the International handball federation's (IHF) choice of Qatar was not so surprising as Europe will have played host to four consecutive World Championships by 2015 (Germany 2007, Croatia 2009, Sweden 2011 and Spain 2015).

But the French certainly felt they had the best chances. The team are currently Olympic, European and World Champions and have made it through to the semi-finals of the tournament in Sweden.

While the French reaction was one of shock, the representatives from Qatar were naturally jubilant.

"Being offered the opportunity to organise the 2015 World Championship is a dream come true," said Ahmed Mohammed Al-Shaabi, the president of Qatar's handball federation.

"Our case was very strong and handball is a very popular sport in Qatar, coming just after football."

That case includes a deal with the national airline to provide reduced travel costs for spectators wanting to attend the Championships and a desire to broaden the appeal of the sport and, as some French papers have pointed out, free iPads for IHF members.

Delplanque recognised the importance of wanting to make handball more popular, but he insisted that the IHF had overlooked the importance of the role France and its team could play in achieving that goal.

"If the IHF wants role models for the sport, they can do no better that to look at out boys," he said.

"Our team has those qualities and if you want to make the sport stronger and more popular, to raise its level, then it was obvious that the French bid was the strongest."

If the contingent representing France wasn't happy about the outcome, there was at least one French man present who was all smiles and had some sound advice for his countrymen when bidding to hold international sporting events.

"France must look at the way it presents its bid," said Michel-Jacques Filliau, a special advisor to Qatar's minister of sports.

"If it doesn't, this kind of disappointment and failure will probably happen again."

Qatar 2015 : "c'est invraisemblable"
envoyé par Europe1fr. - Regardez les dernières vidéos d'actu.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

France's Rolex-wearing "Ferrari priest" is a free man

Antoine Videau was a bad man; a very, very bad man. But he won't be returning to prison.

Antoine Videau (screenshot from video on Corse Matin report)

As the regional daily Corse Matin reports, the 64-year-old, who was convicted last year of embezzlement, had his sentence reduced on Wednesday by an appeals court and is now effectively a "free man".

In place of the original three years with one year suspended, the man who has been variously dubbed the "Ferrari priest" or the "Rolex priest" in the French media has now been given two years with 16 months suspended.

As he has already served eight months, he will not be returning behind bars.

But the court also ruled that he still had to pay €1.3 million in compensation and put him on probation for three years.

For over 20 years the former priest on the island of Corsica had embezzled more than two million euros and, as the national daily France Soir writes, obviously believed that, "Charity begins with oneself."

Videau had been responsible for managing church property, and when he appeared in court last year, it became evident of just how well he had been doing his job - for his own benefit.

He had cashed in cheques from parishioners, pocketed revenue from a convent on the island which had been converted into a Chambre d'hôtes (bed and breakfast) and diverted funds from the will of an archbishop who died in 1998 and for whom he was the executor into the 28 bank accounts he held on the island nicknamed the Île de Beauté and the Côte d’Azur.

As well as proudly wearing a Rolex, he wasn't averse to turning up at Mass driving a (different) sports car and perhaps most famously organised a "cultural trip" to Las Vegas.

Speaking after Wednesday's ruling Videau's lawyer said the gap between the two decisions had given the courts time to "take measure more accurately the allegations made against his client."

"After the commotion that accompanied the original trial, this hearing was much calmer," Jean-Michel Marriagi told reporters.

"But the civil claims (for compensation) are excessive and don't respect certain rules so there will most certainly be an appeal in the court of cassation."


Renault Twingo - France's most-stolen car

So you might be thinking that those big, showy luxurious cars are the ones thieves find most attractive.

Think again!

Because according to a study released by the weekly car magazine Auto Plus, it's a much humbler vehicle that tops the list of France's most-stolen cars; the Renault Twingo I.

Renault Twingo I (from Wikipedia, author Rudolf Stricker)

"A popular car that can be found everywhere and is easy to break in to," is how the magazine describes the car, which finds itself at the top of the list for the third consecutive year; a list which was compiled based on data supplied by car insurance companies and banks.

Second spot goes to another small car, the Smart Fortwo, which, according to Sandrine Darré who conducted the study, "Is also easy to break in to and whose parts could easily be sold for a high price on the black market."

Rounding off the podium is another Renault in the shape of in the shape of the Mégane 2.

It's perhaps not so surprising to find the French car manufacturer so well represented given the fact that it also places well among the country's top-selling cars with several different models.

The highest-placed top-of-the-range car was the Porsche Cayenne, just missing the "podium" in fourth but which Dorré says attracts another kind of thief (obviously) and for quite different reasons.

"The Cayenne is much more likely to be stolen by an organised crime network," she said.

"For example if there's an 'order' from abroad. But it's also used much more in committing other crimes such as robberies and that's why it's ranks so high in the poll."

Of course the figures are not purely based on the numbers of cars stolen.

If that were the case then the Cayenne would probably not figure on the list as it sales are far lower than other more popular cars.

Let's face it, how many people can afford (to buy) one?

Instead the ranking is calculated individually for each model on a ratio of cars stolen for 100,000 insured; 245 for the Twingo and 169 for the SmartFortwo.

There's also some good news in the study.

The number of cars stolen in France was at a 30-year low in last year at 121, 521 or 332 a day.

But Dorré warns the trend could be reversed in the coming years as "electronic theft" whereby thieves can use equipment to counter inbuilt security measures such as the immobiliser, become more widespread.

Palmarès des voitures les plus volées en 2010
envoyé par BFMTV. - L'actualité du moment en vidéo.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Bassory Ouattara, a president's football-playing son - or is he?

Alassane Ouattara isn't just making the headlines in the world news sections of the French media over the ongoing disputed leadership of his country, Côte d'Ivoire, with Laurent Gbagbo.

He's also making an appearance in the sports sections, courtesy of a player at Vannes Olympique Club (VOC), a football team in Ligue 2.

Alassane Ouattara (screenshot interview with France 24, January 2011)

Bassory Ouattara is in VOC's reserve team, and if the surname looks familiar that's because he claims to be the son of the man the international community recognises as Côte d'Ivoire's elected leader.

Last weekend he spoke to the regional daily Le Télégramme revealing how he had lived with his four brothers and sisters in the United States from the age of eight to 15 while Alassane Ouattara was working as an economist in New York.

According to Bassory, he came to France in 2005, first settling in Lyon where he sat his baccalauréat, played for the local side Association sportive Lyon-Duchère and then after he had met his girlfriend, moved with her to northwestern France and signed with VOC.

He evoked memories of an early childhood spent in Côte d'Ivoire and how concerned he remained for the welfare of his cousins who still lived there, and of course the man he insisted was his father.

"I frequently talk to him on the 'phone," he said. "He's calm and said that everything is all right and that Gbagbo will leave."

Journalists were soon beating a path to the young player's door wanting to find out more, and Bassory was more than accommodating quoted in Le Télégramme as saying he "would respond to all media enquiries and even go to Paris if necessary."

He didn't get much of a chance though because the following day brought about an official denial from Côte d'Ivoire.

"The information is false. His Excellency Mr. Alassane Ouattara has no son named Bassory Ouattara," said a statement published in the regional daily Ouest-France.

And that was followed up by Patrick Achi, a government spokesmen, telling Agence France Presse that, "The young man is just a storyteller."

Media attention returned to Bassory, whose story hadn't changed - much - although his apparent enthusiasm to talk about it appeared to have been dampened.

"Alassane Ouattara is my biological father although, it's true, he has never officially recognised me as such," he told Agence France Presse.

"It was my uncle, Gaosso, who 'recognised' me as his son at my birth," he continued.

"I spoke to my biological father again this morning and he gave me something of an earful because of my comments to the media and he asked me not to say any more."

The 'phone of course didn't stop ringing at VOC, but it was the president of the club, Michel Jestin, and the general director, Olivier Cloarec, who were fielding the calls.

"He's unavailable for comment," was the message journalists received when requesting further interviews with Bassory.

"We've been in touch with the French foreign ministry and it said it would review the case," Cloarec told the national daily Aujourd'hui en France - Le Parisien.

"Other than that, we've been asked to say nothing."

Monday, 24 January 2011

Belgian "cheese dish girl" Lara Clette to change her name

Last November a report by a journalist from the French-language newspaper group Sud Presse caught the imagination of readers both in Belgium and abroad, especially after it had been picked up by one of France's national dailies.

It soon became something of a buzz in the French-speaking world and it concerned an eight-year-old girl and the name her parents had "lumbered" her with when she was born; Lara.

Nothing too horrendous about that, you might be thinking, and it certainly didn't strike the parents or the authorities who registered her birth and name when she was born as being too onerous, even though an official in the city of Namur had apparently "hesitated at the time".

The family's surname was Clette giving the girl the same name in French as the famous Swiss cheese dish.

Raclette cheese (from Wikipedia, author en:User:Grcampbell)

Lara's father insisted that neither he nor his wife had thought about the possible implications of the first name-surname combination when she was born and only realised when the grandfather came to visit while his wife was still in hospital after the birth.

"We thought about changing Lara's name but the nurses thought it was pretty and so did we, so we kept it," he told Sud Presse.

"When we thought about it a little more a couple of months later, I went to see the local authority to see whether we could have the surname changed and I was told that there would be little chance of the courts accepting it."

And so Lara remained a Clette, as did her six-year-old sister Yaël.

There weren't any difficulties at school, according to the father who, when interviewed added that, "If it becomes awkward when she's a teenager then we'll try again to change her surname."

That was back in November before the story was picked up by newspapers outside of Belgium such as the national French daily Aujourd'hui en France - Le Parisien, which asked in its headline " "Lara Clette, future ambassador of Swiss cheese?"

Or a reported invitation from the tourist office of canton Valais in Switzerland inviting Lara and the rest of her family to spend a week's holiday in the place where the cheese dish originates.

The buzz created was too much for the family, and the father has now confirmed that he has applied to the appropriate authorities to have the surname of both girls changed - taking on that of his wife's family "Deresteau".

"It had been at the back of our minds for the past couple of years," he repeated to Sud Presse last week.

"And after the jokes made (in foreign newspapers and on the Net) it just became too much for us and we found it hurtful and now we just want to turn over a new leaf."

As reports, a change in name may be "granted only in exceptional circumstances" and according to Belgian law, if nobody opposes the change within the next 60 days both girls will officially be allowed to change their surnames.

Brother of French hostage in Afghanistan is losing confidence

The brother of one of the two French hostages being held in Afghanistan says he's losing confidence in the French government's ability to secure their release.

Stéphane Taponier and Hervé Ghesquière, staff journalists for the French television channel France 3, were taken captive along with three Afghan colleagues in December 2009 as they were travelling in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province around 120 kilometres northeast of the capital Kabul.

On Friday Taponier's brother, Thierry, told the all-news channel i>Télé that he didn't share the French government's optimism about the release of the two men.

Thierry Taponier (screenshot from Dailymotion audio recording of Europe 1 interview)

He was talking after the broadcast of an audio message apparently from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warning that France would "pay dearly for its policy in Afghanistan and that the release of the hostages would depend on French troops being withdrawn."

"This is a blow to us and comes when we least expected it because just a while ago François Fillion (the French prime minister) told us that he was optimistic about the fate of Stéphane and Hervé," he said.

"Now we're stunned at the difference between the positive things the (French) State is saying and the negative side of the kidnappers," he continued.

"I'm starting to lose confidence in what the government can achieve in Afghanistan, certainly in this case."

Picture of the two French hostages projected on to the Arc de Triomphe on the day marking the first anniversary of their capture (screenshot i>Télé report)

While the French government has at various times issued statements insisting that negotiations for the release of the two men are progressing, their families have by and large been hesitant about talking to the media.

Their silence was broken in December last year when both Taponier's father and brother expressed their frustrations and concerns.

Earlier this month the French prime minister, François Fillion, said that discussions with the kidnappers were "very advanced" and that he thought that there "could only be a positive outcome."

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Handball ref who dropped his pants sent home from World Championships

The men's handball World Championship is currently taking place in Sweden with 24 countries battling it out to lift the title held by France.

The tournament is due to run until the end of January, but for one man it has all ended rather abruptly - and it wasn't one of the players.

France's Olympic gold-winning men's handball team, Beijing, 2008 (from Wikipedia, author Jmex60)

As The Local, an English-language online news site based in Sweden, reported, one of the referees for the tournament has been banned after he exposed himself to staff at the hotel in which he was staying in Göteborg, a city on the western coast of the country.

He was apparently arrested last Thursday evening after hotel cleaners alleged he had exposed himself in front of them.

Police detained him overnight for questioning, says The Local, on "suspicion of sexual molestation", but no charges were brought and he was released the following morning.

When the sport's governing body, the International Handball Federation (IHF), got wind of what had happened it immediately took action.

It issued a statement on its website saying that it had suspended the man from the tournament and had asked local authorities for more details on the incident before it would decide what further measures to take.

Neither the name nor the nationality of the man who apparently felt the need to dangle his privates in public has been released, according to Agence France Presse,

But TV4 news website reported that he had been spotted on Friday travelling to the Danish capital Copenhagen to take a flight back home.

The 2011 men's handball World Championship is the 22nd time the tournament has been held since 1938.

France are the current Olympic, World and European champions.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Aspirant - the cancer detecting dog

Dog's are well known for their powers of sniffing, guiding and licking themselves in places that would be rude if we humans tried to do the same thing.

And there are surely more than enough stories circulating on the Net about animal cruelty and just how much we use and abuse Man's Best Friend.

Here though is a tale of a dog, which according to the regional French daily La Nouvelle République has learnt a remarkable skill, and it's being put to good use.

Aspirant, a six-year-old Malinois, or Belgian shepherd dog, can detect patients with prostate cancer.

Aspirant (Screenshot from video accompanying La Nouvelle République report)

He's a military dog at the French airbase of Orléans-Bricy in central France and has undergone training to be able to detect signs of prostate cancer in urine samples.

It's all part of a programme of experiments conducted by Olivier Cussenot, the director of the research unit of urology at the Tenon hospital in Paris, who was put in contact with the airbase in 2007 because, as ministry of defence veterinarian Philippe Ulmer told the paper, "We have dogs capable of detecting all sorts of products such as drugs and explosives.

Over a period of months Aspirant, with the help of his handler, was taught to tell the difference between urine samples which came from patients diagnosed with prostate cancer and those without, always, stressed Ulmer, with the sense that, "Aspirant thought it was a game and when he correctly identified a 'positive' sample he would be rewarded."

And the training seemed to work - far beyond the expectations of many, according to Ulmer.

"One day we were surprised when he indicated that a negative sample was apparently positive," he said.

"It was then sent off to Paris for analysis and the tests came back proving that the dog had been right; the patient had indeed developed prostate cancer."

Journalists, including Bruno Besson from the paper, were treated to their own demonstration of Aspirant's ability last Friday when they were invited to see him in action at the airbase.

"Three samples were hidden in the drawers of three different tables," writes Besson.

"One of them was 'positive' and the other two 'negative'," he continues.

"Aspirant entered the room, sniffed the first table and then went to the second where he immediately sat down and didn't move. He was right!"

Aspirant might be unique in France, but there are reports of "canine cancer detection" (Wikipedia's catchy little title for the screening which it defines as relying "upon the olfactory ability of dogs to detect very low concentrations of the alkanes and aromatic compounds generated by tumors") in other countries.

In 2006 The Pine Street Foundation in Marin County, California published the findings of a study it had carried out claiming that it had trained dogs "to detect lung cancer in the breath of cancer sufferers with 99 percent accuracy."

And in 2004 the British Medical Journal published a paper outlining the results of a test to determine "whether dogs can be trained to identify people with bladder cancer on the basis of urine odour more successfully than would be expected by chance alone."

Thursday, 20 January 2011

French woman receives six-month suspended sentence for smacking her child

Screenshot from Council of Europe video "Raise your hand against smacking"

"Yes I was smacked and it never did me any harm. In fact I deserved it," said one caller to Jean-Marc Morandini's 'phone-in programme on Europe 1 radio on Thursday.

"Smacking is not the same as child abuse, don't try to exaggerate," said another.

Both were responding to comments by Morandini's invited guest, paediatrician Edwige Antier, who was on the show to talk about spanking and the need for a law in France to ban it.

Antier was defending a ruling earlier this week in which a court in northern France gave a woman a six-month suspended sentence and ordered her to receive psychological counselling, after finding her guilty of wilful violence towards a minor for having slapped her nine-year-old daughter.

The incident that led to the woman being found guilty dates back to last December.

As reported in the French media, the woman, who had apparently been drinking, slapped her daughter during an argument at home.

The girl ran out of the house and into the street where she was intercepted by a passerby who happened to be a social worker.

Seeing the state the girl was in, the social worker took her to the nearest police station.

Her mother was then brought in for questioning and charged.

"The punishment is totally out of proportion," said the woman's lawyer, Alice Cohen-Sabban, after the suspended sentence was handed down.

"She has never needed social services to intervene for anything, she has never been convicted and although she had been drinking when the incident happened she is not an alcoholic," Cohen-Sabban told Agence France Presse.

But that's not quite how Antier sees it - or any other case of smacking come to that.

And when Morandini asked her whether she found the ruling "normal" the 68-year-old, who is also a member of parliament for the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) and tabled a bill in 2009 to make domestic corporal punishment unlawful in France, was quite clear about where she stands.

"Imagine you were faced with someone you knew who was much larger than you and had been drinking, and they turned round and hit you," she retorted.

"Would you find that normal?

"The law as it stands at the moment gives a mother the right to hit a child, and even a babysitter, if the motive is 'an educational one'," she continued.

"But the mother should be a 'protector' and what's needed in France is a law, as exists in 18 other European countries, abolishing the right parents have to hit a child."

Not many of the callers to the programme seemed to agree with her.

Nor did a lot of the comments left on French websites such as that of Le Point or Radio France Internationale in reaction to the suspended sentence handed down to the woman and the issue of smacking in general.

Ranging from " it doesn't do any harm," through "limits need to be set and children have to be disciplined" to "the sentencing in this case will just do more harm than good to the family and especially the girl involved," it certainly seems as though Antier's views put her in the minority.

And that's perhaps not surprising as a poll conducted among health professionals in France just last year showed that 88 per cent of them were against the introduction of a law banning smacking.

Domestic corporal punishment, of which smacking is one form, is against the law in many European countries, but not in France.

In 2008 the Council of Europe launched its "Raise your hand against smacking campaign" and called on all member states to pass laws prohibiting all forms of corporal punishment of children, including smacking.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

French TV creates new 'ministers of missionaries" for Tunisia

Houssine Dimassi and Abdeljelil Bedoui might not be names you recognise.

They're both Tunisians and were supposed to be members of the country's new unity government.

But they resigned, along with a fellow member of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (General Union of Tunisian Workers, UGTT) Anouar Ben Gueddour before the first cabinet meeting.

News outlets around the world of course reported their resignation, the reasons behind their decision and the possible impact it would have on Mohammed Ghannouchi's attempts to guide the country through the initial post-Ben Ali period.

French public television, France 2, carried a story on the men in its prime time news programme on Tuesday evening.

And it even kindly informed viewers of the jobs the men would not be filling; Dimassi as labour minister, Ben Gueddour as junior transport minister and Bedoui as minister without portfolio.

Except it didn't quite turn out that way as the names and positions flashed up at the bottom of viewers' screens.

Instead all three suddenly acquired rather an extraordinary title - that of "minister of missionaries" (ministre des missionnaires) rather than "minister who had resigned" (ministre démissionnaire).

Anchor David Pujadas was understandably not amused an, after evidently being told of the mistake through his earpiece, stressed at the end of the report that the men "had resigned."

France 2 meanwhile hurriedly did the necessary editing for its online rebroadcast.

Too late though as screenshots were already circulating on the Net.

French "help" for Ben Ali stuck at Paris airport

Equipment to "maintain law and order" including police uniforms and tear gas, destined to be delivered to Tunisia before the fall of its former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been stuck at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport since last Friday.

But there are conflicting explanations as to why it was never dispatched.

On Wednesday the French government's official spokesman, François Baroin, confirmed that an order, placed by the former Tunisian president with a private company in France, had been prevented from leaving Paris shortly before his fall from power.

"Ben Ali placed an order directly with the company supplying the equipment," he said.

"Customs officials did their job correctly and it never left," he added without, as the weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur pointed out, wanting to elaborate on what role (if any) the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had played in the decision.

As far as the French website Rue89 is concerned the load, containing as much as seven tonnes of tear gas, was held up because of "technical rather than political" problems.

Tear gas for Tunisia (screenshot from Rue89 video)

Customs officials authorised the export of the equipment, it says, but red tape and in particular the "need for it to be inspected" got in the way.

The journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet, who specialises in military and defence topics, offers up a different explanation though.

On his blog for the magazine Marianne, Merchet wrote that the 'plane carrying the cargo was due to leave late on Friday morning but customs officials "suddenly became very picky."

Soon afterwards, according to Merchet, the head of Sofexi, the group supplying the equipment, received a call from the "highest authority at the Elysée informing him that delivery was out of the question."

Such contradictory explanations are perhaps only to be expected from a country which the BBC described as having been "in a fluster over the Tunisian crisis"; a reaction that still seems to prevail perhaps as illustrated by Rue89's unsuccessful attempts to discover what will now happen to the equipment held at Roissy.

When it contacted the ministry of defence it was referred to the interior ministry, which then referred it to the Elysée which in turn referred it to the ministry of foreign affairs, from which it is still waiting for a reply...

Du gaz lacrymogène bloqué à Roissy
envoyé par rue89. - L'info video en direct.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Sarkozy confuses Alsace with Germany

It's surely not the sort of mistake anyone in France would want to make in public, let alone the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy in Truchtersheim, Alsace (screenshot from BFM TV)

But on Tuesday during his latest round of New Year's wishes, a slip of the tongue caused Sarkozy momentary embarrassment and brought about a somewhat hollow laugh, as the free daily paper 20 minutes described it, among those in the audience.

It happened in the town of Truchtersheim in the eastern French département of Bas Rhin in Alsace.

It's a region which borders Germany and one, which along with neighouring Lorraine, changed hands several times between the French and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the end of World War II Alsace once again officially became part of France.

Sarkozy was addressing an audience as part of his New Year's wishes, this time to the country's agricultural sector and those living in rural areas and he was talking about the difference in (agricultural) competitiveness between France and Germany.

"I can accept that it's difficult to compete with China and India but not with Germany," he said.

"And I'm not saying that just because I'm in Germany ('Allemagne" in French) I mean Alsace," he quickly corrected himself before, as a blogger on the national daily Le Monde wrote, "He tried to make light of his mistake."

Humour perhaps that wasn't necessarily in the best of taste as he made a reference to the programme he has put in place to provide more suitable care for those suffering from Alzheimer's.

Too late though for making light though.

Too late though.

The deed had been done and the moment recorded...for doubtless wider distribution on the Net.

As the weekly news magazine L"Express reminds readers, 2010 was certainly a rich one in terms of slips of the tongue most (in)famously perhaps European member of parliament Rachida Dati's "inflation-fellation" blunder during a television interview.

But confusing Alsace and Germany, although at first sight appearing a trivial mistake, and certainly not an intentional one is (to say the least) "unfortunate given the history of the region."

Belgium's new Miss reflects country's political divisions

An odd title for a piece perhaps, but there's surely a good deal of truth to it.

If France thought it had problems choosing a Miss to represent it at upcoming international beauty pageants, then surely they pale in significance when compared to those of its smaller northeastern neighbour Belgium.

Miss Belgium 2011, Justine De Jonckheere (screenshot from an interview on RTL-TVi)

The election as Miss Belgium of 18-year-old Justine De Jonckheere from the town of Wevelgem in West Flanders earlier this month seems to underline, as far as some of her competitors from the French-speaking part of country are apparently concerned, the linguistic disparities that exist among the population of almost 11 million people.

All right, so that might be putting the matter a little strongly, but for Lucie Demaret, the candidate from the French-speaking province of Hainaut, the competition was unfairly weighted towards representatives from Dutch-speaking Flanders.

And when the jury composed of, what the certainly not unbiased French language regional Belgian daily La Nouvelle Gazette pointed out to its readers, five Dutchophones and two Francophones announced the final five whose names would be put forward to a public vote, it was "obvious" to Demaret that the competition had been "fixed".

"I immediately understood their strategy," the 22-year-old, described by the paper as a "multilingual political science student with a dream figure", said.

"They simply eliminated the candidate who could overshadow Justine De Jonckheere."

That was a point of view shared by another French-speaking contestant, Lara Binet.

As Miss Liège she reportedly won the text message vote from viewers and was entitled to an automatic place in the final five.

But she too was eliminated and, according to another French language daily in Belgium, La Dernière Heure, her family has accused the organising committee of cheating.

That's a claim the president of the organising committee, Darline Devos, rejects.

She said the competition reflected "the diversity that exists within Belgium" and insists the winner was elected according to the rules.

"Nobody can 'buy' the title," she told the French-speaking Belgian website L'Avenir.

"It's not 'for sale', and I simply wish the best contestant is elected Miss Belgium."

Now this might all seem like "handbags at dawn" stuff. But there is a serious side to it as the French national daily Le Monde points out.

It is, suggests the paper, just another example of the problems Belgium is currently facing with not even a beauty contest being "immune".

In other words, as incredible as it might seem, the election of a new Miss somehow reflects the country's political divisions.

Not so far fetched perhaps given the fact that Belgium has been without an elected government since June last year and there is currently a political stalemate which the BBC (among others) puts down to growing divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish majority (just over six million) and the French-speaking Walloon minority (just over three million).

Friday, 14 January 2011

French lottery winner shares 10 million euros jackpot with friends

The New Year got off to a rather special start for two couples in their 60s from just outside the southern French city of Arles as they picked up €10 million between them in the lottery.

image - screenshot from TF1 report

Except the win wasn't quite as straightforward as is it might initially appear.

Because in fact only one man held the winning ticket, but he decided to share the jackpot with his wife and the other couple because he was - well to put in quite simply - a man of principle.

As the regional daily, La Provence explained when it first reported the story, the two couples, who had known each other for more than two decades, had been regularly playing the lottery for the past three years.

They tried their luck at Christmas, says the paper, choosing the numbers together and handing over the €10 at the local tobacconists.

The draw was made and they won - absolutely nothing.

A week later though Jean-Pierre who, as the French media has reported, prefers to stay out of the limelight, entered the lottery again, only this time without telling either his wife or his friends.

He chose exactly the same numbers as the previous week, paid the €10 and...yes you've guessed it...the numbers came up.

And he was €10 million the richer.

Now this is the point where most of us would probably in theory wish to be magnanimous.

But as the recent example of Jeanette French in the United States proved that isn't always the case.

She was the 72-year-old woman from Florida who had been a member of a syndicate playing the State Lottery for the past eight years.

When the syndicate scooped the $16m jackpot the other seven members refused to split the winnings with French, because as ABC News Radio reported, she hadn't put her dollar in the collective pot.

The case soon became one for the lawyers.

Not so with Jean-Pierre though.

He immediately told his wife Eve - all right it would have been difficult to have kept it from her probably - and the other couple, Jean-Paul and Sophie.

Not only that, he has also split the winnings four ways and never considered keeping the money for himself.

"It's normal that we should share the money as we've known each other for 22 years," he told France Info radio.

"I went to see them and asked them to give me the usual €5 they contributed every week, and when they did, I told them we had all won €10 million."

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Red Bull cartoon commercial is too sexy for French TV

Well who would have thought it?

The French being "prudish" about nudity and sex on TV - at least when it comes to commercials.

The latest offering from the makers of the energy drink Red Bull is not being allowed to air on French telly even though there has been self-censorship to cover the appendages that might cause offence to those of a sensitive disposition.

The commercial, with the theme "Plage Nudiste" (or nudist beach) features two cartoon characters in the altogether.

Plage nudiste, (screenshot from Red Bull commercial)

A young man politely asks a woman lounging in a deck chair if he may spread his towel next to her, and she gives him the go-ahead, lowering her sunglasses to get a better look.

As she offers him a Red Bull, which she says, "stimulates the spirit and the body," the man becomes...well sexually excited...before rushing off embarrassed.

And she's left laughing, remarking that "unfortunately Red Bull also gives you wings", the slogan used in all publicity for the energy drink.

Harmless stuff you might have thought especially in a country where real-life floppy bits and dangly pieces haven't exactly been hidden from viewers - young and old - during the past 10 years of tasteful reality TV.

While the television watchdog Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel, CSA might find the commercial unsuitable for the small screen, comments to the site of radio host Jean-Marc Morandini seem, by and large, to find it "amusing'" and "far from shocking".

What do you think?

Red Bull only became available in France three years ago.

The country slapped a ban on the sale of the drink back in 1996 because of concerns about the one of its key ingredients, taurine, which it feared could cause a health risk.

It wasn't until 2008 after pressure from the European Commission that France lifted the ban and allowed Red Bull to appear in shops for the first time - in its original recipe.

Plage Nudiste won't be aired on television but it will reportedly be shown in cinemas from February 9.

Go figure!

Actor Benoît Poelvoorde's call to Belgians "Grow a beard for Belgium"

Maybe celebrities shouldn't get involved in politics, but they often do and sometimes perhaps needs must.

That must surely have been the thinking behind Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde's rather novel suggestion for solving his country's political deadlock.

He has called on his fellow countrymen to refrain from shaving until a new government has been formed.

Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde (screenshot RTL television)

Belgium has been politically deadlocked and without an elected government for almost seven months.

National elections last June saw the Flemish centre-right separatist party, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, NVA) emerge as the largest parliamentary party.

But the country has been in a political crisis ever since as negotiations to form a new government have been deadlocked in spite of attempts by Johan Vande Lanotte, a mediator appointed the country's king, Albert II, to enable parties to reach a deal.

In the meantime Belgium has been governed by a caretaker government under the previous prime minister Yves Leterme, he of French national anthem fame.

This week Poelvoorde appeared on Belgium's RTL television in a 30-second clip with to urge those (men) watching to refrain from shaving until politicians finally managed to form a government.

"Don't be surprised by the hair," an unshaven Poelvoorde says in the video.

"I've decided - on the initiative of my colleague- not to shave for as long as Belgium is without a government," he continues, dragging (the very bearded) RTL film critic Nicolas Buytaers in front of the camera alongside him.

"If everyone else does the same, then the politicians will realise that we're all united.

"It was his idea (he motions to Buytaers) and I think it's a fabulous one," asserts Poelvoorde.

"Let's keep our beards until Belgium rises again."

All right so it's perhaps one of the oddest proposals to have been put forward so far in the country's search for an end to its political stalemate.

But it's entirely in keeping with the character of the French-speaking Poelvoorde, who is just as famous in France as he is in his own country.

Whether anyone will actually take his idea seriously is surely doubtful, but at the very least it has raised a smile - at home and abroad - at a time when, as France's Europe 1 radio says, the political impasse is a causing a sense of weariness among Belgians.

Belgium is a country of almost 11 million people with a Dutch-speaking majority and a French-speaking minority separated into Flanders and Wallonia respectively.

There's also another, much smaller, German-speaking minority.

The differences between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities have often been at the heart of the country's political divide and are very much part of the reason for its current problems in establishing agreement over an elected national government.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Polish actor Krzysztof Kolberger dies at the age of 60

The funeral will be held in the Polish capital Warsaw on Thursday of one of the country's most well-known and popular actors, Krzysztof Kolberger.

He died last weekend at the age of 60 following a long battle with cancer.

A graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1972, Kolberger began his acting career at the Teatru Śląskiego in the southern Polish city of Katowice but shortly afterwards joined the National Theatre in Warsaw where he made his name and remained a member of the company until 1982 and rejoining it in 1999.

Making the transition from theatre to television and cinema, Kolberger became a household name in Poland and also worked with some of the country's greatest film directors including Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi.

He went on to become a director himself - both for theatre and opera, including what was acclaimed as a "spectacular recital dedicated to the memory of Pope John Paul II," which featured the poems of a "young Karol Wojtyła."

In his 40s Kolberger was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, undergoing surgery several times which he is quoted as saying "changed in a significant way his approach to life and career, including the way he acted on stage and the way he directed."

I met Kolberger just once, a few years after he had been diagnosed, and remember him as a gentle, smiling man who took an interest in others and did not dwell on his own health.

It was, as Christophe Musial - an art collector and personal friend of the actor - said, a characteristic of not only the way Kolberger lived his life but also dealt with his illness.

"Krzysztof obviously couldn't keep to a tight schedule after he was diagnosed with cancer, but that didn't prevent him from working," Musial said.

"He simply changed the focus somewhat of what he was doing, and although he was still active in the theatre, the bulk of his most recent performances were on Polish television and in film.

"In addition to that though he also travelled quite a bit around Poland giving recitals. He was renowned for the beautiful timbre of his voice and people just loved to listen to him reading poetry.

What has been the reaction in Poland to the news of his death?

"It's quite amazing how much coverage there has been on television and radio and in the newspapers and it's an indication of how popular he was.

His death has been major news; TV channels cleared their schedules to carry so many tributes from the world of theatre, television and film and replay some of his most popular films. They also repeated interviews Krzysztof had given over the years

And thinking about it, it's more than understandable. Here was someone who in his early 20s became a national heartthrob. He was attractive, adorable and a good actor into the bargain. Everyone loved him.

As the years went by and he matured, his popularity didn't wane. Perhaps because I knew Krzysztof as a friend, I had lost sight somewhat of how widespread his appeal was as an actor."

I read one tribute from the Polish actress Joanna Szczepkowska who said, "Krzysztof was always smiling. That is what we must remember. He did so much for us and chose to give us all a good feeling." What did she mean by that?

"She was right. Krzysztof really was always smiling.

Joanna also said that Krzysztof was 'almost saint-like in his qualities' and by that she meant he radiated a warmth and goodness and, although he might have been suffering, did so in silence and never made a great deal about being ill.

On the contrary. When he went public several years ago that he had cancer, it was almost as though he was trying to break a taboo in Polish society.

Krzysztof set an example. He didn't talk about how cancer was affecting him, instead he was very matter-of-fact about it, showing that he was determined to continue working and encouraging others in a similar situation not to be afraid of the illness, not to give up the fight and to make the most of their lives.

I remember him saying once in an interview that it was as though he had a friend inside of him. 'It's my cancer,' he said. 'And we have to learn to live together.'

He also said that one of the most important moments of his career was when Polish television asked him to read the spiritual testament of John Paul II after the Pope’s death.

Krzysztof thought John Paul II was an inspiration in the way he coped with his illness not hiding it, not being afraid of it and not giving up.

You said tributes had been pouring in ever since Krzysztof's death was announced, not only for his acting ability but also for the way he publicly handled his illness in later years. What personal memory do you have of him that has left a lasting impression upon you?

"I remember a few years ago, shortly after Krzysztof had been through a major operation, I was at his home and he appeared weak, exhausted and had difficulty moving or even speaking.

That didn't stop him from returning to the theatre a couple of days later playing just a small role in which he was required to rush on stage, jump over some obstacles and begin shouting.

When I saw him perform, I couldn't believe it was the same man I had seen a few evenings previously. He was so full of vitality.

After the show though he was exactly the same as he had been before; drained and tired.

'Where had all the energy come from?' I asked him, amazed that he had been able to perform in the way he had.

'Ah you forget,' he replied.

'I'm an actor.'"

Krzysztof Kolberger, born Gdansk August 13, 1950, died Warsaw January 7, 2011

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

French film festivals - the Americans are coming!

Less than a week after the announcement that US actor Robert De Niro would jury chairman at the 64th annual Cannes film festival in May comes the news that another American will be "topping the bill" so-to-speak at this year's César awards in February.

Jodie Foster, Berlin 2007 (image from Wikipedia, author Franz Richter)

Actress Jodie Foster will add her very own brand of American flair, in fluent French of course, to this country's equivalent of the Oscars next month as president of the 36th annual César awards ceremony to be held at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

While De Niro's appointment continues a trend that will have seen three out of the last four jury presidents at Cannes coming from across the Pond (Sean Penn in 2008 and Tim Burton in 2010) Foster will become the first foreigner since the late Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni to preside over the César ceremony and only the fourth American ever after Kirk Douglas (1990), Gene Kelly (1984) and Orson Welles (1982)

The choice of the 48-year-old Foster perhaps comes as no surprise as the weekly national Le Journal du Dimanche pointed out on its website.

She is, as the paper reminds its readers, "an accomplished francophone" who studied at the Lycée Français in Los Angeles.

Apart from an acting career which includes the not-so trifling accolade of winning two Oscars for best actress (1988 in The Accused and 1991 in The Silence of the Lambs) and being nominated on two other occasions (for best supporting actress at just 14 years of age in the 1976 film Taxi Driver and again in the best actress category in the 1994 movie Nell) Foster has also directed and produced.

And, as US Daily reports, she is no stranger to French cinema having "appeared in Eric Le Hung's 1977 film Moi, Fleur Bleue (Stop Calling Me Baby (Moi, fleur bleue), Claude Chabrol's Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others) in 1984 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) in 2004.

The César award ceremony will take place on February 25 and be broadcast live on Canal + television.

The nominees in each of the categories will be announced on January 21 in Paris.

The double-American whammy should put paid (for a while at least) to those assertions that the French always look sniffily down their collective Gallic noses when it comes to US "culture", although perhaps both Foster and De Niro are noteworthy exceptions to the rule that "The world is turning Disney".

The making of the real The Silence of the lambs

The spoof starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

Friday, 7 January 2011

EasyJet treats Paris-Toulouse passengers to a 10-hour journey

Another tale of travel woes in France and one in which you pays your money and you takes your chances perhaps.

This time around though it's not the weather that's solely to blame and it doesn't involve Air France-KLM or the state-owned railway SNCF.

Instead it's the British-based lowcost airline easyJet and the 10 hours it took for passengers aboard one of its flights to make a trip that normally takes a maximum of one hour and 30 minutes.

It happened last Sunday as the 141 aboard the 'plane made the journey from the French capital to the southwestern city of Toulouse.

A two-hour delay in taking off because of maintenance problems certainly didn't put passengers in the best of moods, but worse was to come.

As the 'plane approached its destination the captain refused to land because apparently conditions were too windy and instead redirected 240 kilometres away to Montpellier, where passengers then boarded buses to complete their journey.

"Weather conditions" coupled with "technical problems that didn't affect flight safety", according to the airline were the reason for the diversion, but passengers aboard the flight weren't so sure they were being told the whole story.

"When we arrived at Montpellier I overheard one of the ground staff talking via two-way radio with a colleague saying that the 'plane wouldn't be taking off again," Luc Mousseaux, a passenger aboard the flight told BFM TV

"That makes me wonder if the weather really was the reason for not being able to land," he added.

That's a view backed up by an aviation expert who, according to the national daily Le Figaro, said the wind had not been particularly strong around the city on the afternoon in question but admitted that the decision about whether to land was entirely at the captain's discretion.

As is company policy, easyJet did offer any compensation apart from refreshment vouchers and passengers are not entitled to any reimbursement because, as far as the airline is concerned, it met its obligation of ensuring passengers arrived at their destination.

Toulouse or 'La Ville Rose" as it is nicknamed is one of France's largest cities. It's home to one of Europe's top rugby teams, and of course is the base of Airbus.

It's also a major destination for holidaymakers in summer as it's very much the gateway to the whole of the southwestern region of the country.

The Paris-Toulouse route is a busy one, and the city is one of the destinations for the Navette or shuttle service operated by Air France from both Orly and Roissy-Charles de Gaulle.

In total the company operates 30 scheduled flights from both Paris airports combined each day and during peak hours there's a 'plane leaving every 30 minutes.

Not surprisingly perhaps easyJet has also grabbed a piece of the action with five Toulouse-bound flights leaving Paris every day.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Break open the Bolly to fight the flu

"Feed a cold and starve a fever" goes the saying familiar to many of us.

Regardless whether it's true or not there is apparently a way to treat cold and flu symptoms that might - to say the very least - appear somewhat unorthodox, if not a little decadent.

With this season's number of flu cases in France now having reached the epidemic threshold as defined by the Groupe régional d'observation de la grippe (with the entirely appropriate acronym of Grog) it comes as a timely reminder perhaps that there is a way to beat the bug.

Well at least, according to the French health website Top santé.com, there's a surefire trick for dealing with the symptoms and aiding recovery.

It's a recipe, in all senses of the word, plucked from the pages of Remèdes de famille : Se soigner malin et naturel de A à Z by Henry Puget.

And it involves imbibing a glass of the fizzy stuff.

That's right, Champagne, albeit warm.

Just before bedtime apparently, you should pour one glass of bubbly into a saucepan, add two sugar lumps and bring to the boil.

Allow it to cool before drinking and drift off into the Land of Nod.

At this point you might be thinking a number of things. Firstly that Puget is something of a "Quack" out to make a quick Euro or two.

But rest assured he's a bona fide general practitioner living in Paris who, as the blurb tells us, "has been treating patients and successfully offering advice for the past 30 years by combining high tech with natural therapies."

And to cast aside any doubts you might have about the efficacy of the recipe (bearing in mind that it's not so far removed from a traditional rum-based grog) it works because "after drinking you'll sweat a lot throughout the night as the chemical action of the components of champagne mixed with sugar neutralise toxins from the cold or flu."

So if you feel a slight tickle in the throat or an aching in the joints, you know what to do.

Don't plunder the medicine cabinet for a bottle of linctus.

Instead follow the "natural" way of Dr Puget's advice and do as Ab Fab"s Edina and Patsy would without any hesitation.

Break open the Bolly!

A bottle of Bollinger (image from Wikipedia, author - Manchester2k6

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