Voting is currently under way on the English Channel island of Jersey on a referendum to switch from Greenwich Mean Time to Europe Central Time. Jersey is closer to France than Britain and some residents feel closer ties to their continental neighbor:
We have historical connections with France. Our streets have French names. The prayers in our parliament are in French,'' he told the BBC. "A continental lifestyle is desirable - we'd have the opportunity to spend longer out in the evenings. It's something that Jersey could market and promote for tourists as well as enjoy for itself."
The business community is largely against the switch, since it would make it more difficult to do business with the U.K., Jersey's largest commercial partner. In my opinion, it won't really matter that much as long as everyone can keep track of what time it is. As Hugo Chávez learned last year, this is harder than you'd think.
For Paris's dreary, far-flung suburbs, a little star power is on the way:
A film crew will arrive next week in a filthy, semi-derelict, graffiti-strewn housing estate on the north-eastern extremity of Paris. Among the actors will be one of the best-known faces in world cinema: John Travolta. The name of the movie's location has become almost equally famous, or infamous. Les Bosquets ("the groves") is one of the twin estates at the border of Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois which were the flashpoint, for riots which spread to the poor multi-racial suburbs of almost every large town in France in October 2005. ... Most of the movie, which has nothing to do with the problems of the "banlieues" or suburban estates, will be filmed in central Paris and elsewhere.
French Director Luc Besson is out to boost the economy and "tap the talent" of the down-and-out suburbs. At least a few scenes of his film From Paris with Love, an English-language spy thriller, will be filmed in Les Bosquets. But once the camera dollies get taken apart and the aura of celebrity moves on to its next port of call, doesn't everything return to normal? Even that shiny €100 bill for a hard day of "pretending" to be a local denizen can't last long.
It will be a real spectacle, but the suburban dwellers of Paris would probably appreciate more attention from the folks in the Élysée Palace, and not just Hollywood royalty.
Yves "Fusion Man" Rossy's personal jetpack flight over the English Channel was just about the only good thing that happened in the world today:
Rossy, a pilot who normally flies an Airbus airliner, crossed the 22 miles between Calais and Dover at speeds of up to 120 mph in 13 minutes, his spokesman said.
When the white cliffs of Dover came into view, he opened a blue and yellow parachute and drifted down in light winds to land in a British field where he was mobbed by well-wishers.
"Everything was perfect," he said afterwards. "I showed that it is possible to fly a little bit like a bird."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) has brought his right-wing activity of "le jogging" to New York City today. He and wife Carla Bruni (center) are in the Big Apple so he can attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. For unknown reasons, he is not wearing his favorite NYPD T-shirt.
Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a champion judoka who has coauthored a book on judo, said he would be giving Sarkozy some lessons in the martial art. The next U.S. president had better watch out: It looks like some world leaders are training to go mano a mano.
With the forceful gallantry of a modern-day Errol Flynn, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in a unit of French troops to rescue two French natives who were captured by pirates while vacationing on their yacht earlier this month. This is the second such rescue operation France has initiated in the last five months.
Even more rousing than Sarkozy's heroic flair was his loud call for a crackdown on global piracy. Sarkozy's announcement of the sailors' safe return came with a stern warning and a little dig:
This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity. France will not allow crime to pay. I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice."
Illegal activity is on the rise and increasingly impeding humanitarian efforts to bring food and supplies to Somalia. The waters off the region's coast are said to be the most dangerous in the world and the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden --54 this year alone -- have recently increased. Somali pirates are still holding some 150 hostages and 15 ships in Eyl.
The EU announced yesterday that it will be establishing a maritime unit whose task will be "supporting the surveillance and protection activities carried out by some member states off the Somali coast."
Once again Sarkozy has managed to nab the foreign policy spotlight, last week as Middle East mediator, this time as sheriff of the high seas. Where will his savvy policy-making take him next?
When it comes to romance, the Sarkozy men are of the carpe-diem variety.
After a two-month engagement, Jean Sarkozy, the dashing 22-year-old politician and son of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, married his childhood sweetheart, Jessica Saubon, yesterday. The young couple exchanged vows in a small civil ceremony in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the posh Paris suburb. So privé was the wedding that guests were informed of the event only by text message. Apparently, President "Bling-Bling" Sarko (who married his current wife, former model and singer Carla Bruni, within four months of their introduction), didn't plan the modest nuptials.
Alas, the celebrations may have been tarnished as news of the wedding resurrected talk of cartoonist Maurice Sinet, 79, who was fired in July from Charlie Hebdo, the Paris political saritirical weekly, for a remark he made in his column about Jean and Jessica that critics -- and later the publication -- deemed anti-Semitic.
Saubon, heiress to the Darty family fortune, is Jewish. When the young couple announced their engagement this summer, rumors began to circulate that Jean was planning to convert to Judaism. Though young Mr. Sarkozy, a Catholic, has Jewish roots (Nicolas Sarkozy's grandfather was Jewish), he and his family made haste to dispel the myth. Sinet, however, used it as fodder for his column and took a shot at Jean:
[He] has just said that he wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, a Jew and heiress of the founders of Darty. He will go far in this life, the little one!"
Charlie Hebdo's editor, Phillipe Val, initially asked Sinet to apologize and retract the statement, which suggested that by converting Jean was elevating his financial status, an idea that smacks of the old stereotype about Jews and money. Sinet's colorful refusal -- citing that he'd rather cut off his testicles -- quickly prompted his firing. Val explained in an editorial that the cartoonist's actions were "neither acceptable nor defendable in court," and cited a radio interview Sinet gave in 1982 in which he said, "I am anti-Semitic, and I have no fear of saying so."
Sinet, who launched his own publication this week, is now facing charges of inciting "racial hatred" brought by the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. A no-show for preliminary hearings on Tuesday, Sinet had his attorney fax a list of witnesses -- including Jean Sarkozy -- to be called in his defense. The next trial date has been set for January. Should be well worth watching.
Remember Jean-Marie Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist French politician who shocked the world by reaching the second round of France's 2002 presidential election? The leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-everything Front National is more or less a Ku Klux Klan member who was born on the wrong continent.
That's why it's so beautifully ironic that, faced with millions of Euros worth of debt after voters apparently didn't respond so well to his "Keep France for the French" motto in the 2007 legislative elections, Le Pen's party is selling its lavish Paris headquarters to a Chinese university. Perhaps the Front had trouble finding a pure-blooded French buyer willing to be associated with them.
The Guardian writes that the well-known building next to the Seine was "a symbol of the upward mobility of the party when it was purchased 18 years ago." I guess the sale is a symbol of the party's future drowning in the neighboring river.
These are tough times for Le Pen. He already had to sell his bulletproof car on eBay to try to pay off debts. Hopefully the dear leader of French neo-Fascism will be able to keep his white hood and robe.
Rwanda's government ruffled some French feathers yesterday with the release of a 500-page report alleging that senior French military and political leaders had prior knowledge of the country's 1994 genocide and that French peacekeeping troops actively participated in the killings. Among those accused are the late former President François Mitterand and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The French foreign ministry described the accusations as "unacceptable."
Given that the Rwandan government began work on the report just a few months after President Paul Kagame was accused by a French judge of assasinating the Rwanda's former president -- the event that precipitated the genocide -- the report is going to be read with a pretty large grain of salt. Rwanda broke off diplomatic ties with France after that indictment. Even Rwanda's own minister of justice seemed a bit wishy-washy about what the report actually means:
This is a report of inquiry; it is not a criminal file. It is not a statement of guilt but on the basis of this report, other things can follow."
As the accusations between the countries continue to fly, it will be interesting to see what these "other things" entail.
First bikes, and now... electric cars? Oui, says Paris's Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who recently proposed a program that would soon put 4,000 of the zippy, fuelless vehicles on his city's streets. "Autolib'" would mimic Paris's widely successful Velib' (bike rental) system, with hundreds of lots situated around the city to provide pick-up and drop-off points for vehicle users.
While there are still plenty of details to work out -- including rental costs and how to monitor car lots -- Autolib's expected start date is a little over a year from now. Some Parisians can hardly wait, especially given skyrocketing gas costs and parking headaches. Others are looking forward to the program for environmental reasons, including Greenpeace France's President Pascal Hunting:
Today we have consumer habits, whether it’s going to Ikea or elsewhere, which necessitate that once in a while, even those who can’t afford cars need to use one...we should be open to this type of initiative, knowing that there is not one solution to the problems of transportation and climate change."
Some Parisians have pooh-poohed the plan, including members of the city's influential Green Party, who claim that their city's goal should be to reduce car use altogether. Others worry about worsening the already notorious Paris traffic.
As for moi, I think the mayor is onto something. But if some of the problems the bike rental program has faced are any indication, Delanoë might want to figure out a security plan before Paris's cool new rides start turning up in Australia.
When Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Medecins-Sans-Frontieres founder and lefty human rights activist Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister, it seemed to many like an odd fit. But the Times' Charles Bremmer's report from an afternoon spent with the minister at the Quai d'Orsay makes it clear what the two men share: hyperactivity bordering on attention deficit disorder and a massively inflated sense of their own importance:
Ever passionate in his speech, Kouchner says working for Sarko is "exaltant" -- thrilling -- and fulfilling even if he does not always agree with him. He believes that he and Sarko have revolutionized French diplomacy. Gesturing across the lawn at the grand ministry, he said: "We have broken with the immobilisme -- the passivity -- of the past. We have imposed deep change on the state of mind of this great house... The era of diplomacy without policy is over."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy comes perilously close to endorsing Barack Obama in his comments to Le Figaro and CNN.
Obama? He's my pal," the president told Le Figaro. "Unlike my diplomatic advisers, I never believed in Hillary Clinton's chances. I always said that Obama would be nominated."
Sarkozy added that an Obama victory "would validate" his strategy of reconcilation with the United States.
(Le Figaro does note that Sarkozy is careful not to predict the winner.) And in a separate item from Smith:
Barack Obama's adventure is an adventure that rings true in the hearts and minds of Americans and Europeans," Sarkozy said, per CNN's interpretation. He also recalled his meeting with Obama in 2006.
"One [of the two men] became president, so it's up to the other person to do the same thing," he said.
If choosing a U.S. president were up to the French, the Germans, and the British, Barack Obama would have a lock on the presidency. As Gallup reports today, large majorities in three countries the Illinois senator plans to visit this week would rather see Obama elected than John McCain. They also say that which candidate wins "makes a difference" to their country.
This poll fits well our intuitions about Europe's big three: They tend to favor Democrats, and they don't like George W. Bush. In 2007, Gallup found that approval of U.S. leadership in those countries had sunk to disturbing depths: -- reaching just 8 percent in Germany, 9 percent in France, and 20 percent in Britain. Gallup attributes the low numbers to the Iraq war, the U.S. stance on climate change, and anger over Guantánamo.
The differences between Obama and McCain on these issues, at least on a superficial level, appear to be narrowing. Both Obama and McCain have pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq -- they are now arguing over whether to set an explicit timetable for doing so or whether to allow "conditions on the ground" to be the determining factor. Both Obama and McCain want to join international efforts to combat global warming, though Obama would push for greater emissions cuts. And both senators would like to see Guantánamo shut down. From a European perspective, either senator would be a step up from Bush (or at least the Bush of 2004).
If Obama does win in November, the great expectations he is setting in Europe could come back to haunt him. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, quoting a German friend, wrote last year, "Underneath every America-hater is a disappointed America-lover." Last week, one European diplomat shared with me his fear that the real Obama can't possibly live up to the hype. (Try, for instance, counting the votes in the Senate for a climate-change bill with real teeth.) This is the moment, then, for Obama to tell Europeans that he is going to let them down. Better they hear it from his own lips now than figure it out on their own, two years down the road.
Sacrebleu! Around 3,000 bikes have been stolen since Paris introduced its "bike-for-hire" program a year ago, while another 3,000 have been damaged or destroyed. Some of the missing bikes have popped up as far away as Australia.
Despite thefts and damages, Paris's bike-rental program has been a success, spurring spin-off systems as far away as Sydney, Spain, the United States, and Finland. In Paris, vélib' customers rent bikes by paying a yearly, monthly, or daily subscription fee, either through a prepaid card or by credit card at one of the city's 1,200 bike stations. The best part? Any rental under 30 minutes is free.
The vélib' system is popular for other reasons too, like its environmental friendliness. The program has also generated substantial revenues for Paris's government, which allows the company JCDecaux to use 1,600 free advertising spaces in exchange for bearing the system's costs.
But the vélibs aren't without problems. Three riders have already been struck and killed this year, and many motorists complain of unskilled cyclists clogging the roads. The safety situation is further complicated by the fact that vélib' stations don't rent helmets.
Still, other congested cities are starting their own bike rental programs soon, albeit on a smaller scale. Washington's "Smartbike" program will kick off in August with just 120 bikes, while Chicago's is still tied up with legal issues. Rental programs are currently enjoying success in Vienna, Copenhagen, and Rome, though Paris by far boasts the largest system.
With gas prices these days, more people around the world will no doubt soon be pedaling like the Parisians. Hopefully the French will soon be able to boast about their reduced auto usage -- but first they'd better make sure they can keep enough bikes around.
With Google's latest innovation, you don't even need a bike to participate in the Tour de France. The company has unveiled a cool feature that allows you to follow each agonizing meter of the race's 21 stages using virtual, street-level views of all the routes.
You can either click on an individual route (marked by camera icons) or select a stage from the drag-down menu on the left. Then, click on the little cyclist that pops up to select a road. You can rotate the virtual map easily, and can follow whatever road you choose through the French countryside. I'd personally recommend Stage 21, where you can virtually race down the Champs-Elysees and finish by the Arc de Triomphe.
No spandex or performance-enhancing drugs necessary.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary is disappointed that Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, won't be attending this year's G-8 summit in Hokkaido.
I can't say I blame her. The supermodel-turned-singer has an album launch this coming Friday, and she'd rather prepare for it than sit around learning how to fold kimonos and sipping tea with the other G-8 wives.
Back in Europe, her album seems to be getting as much coverage as the summit itself. The British press is agog at the revelation that Mrs. Sarkozy has had 30 lovers, and the AFP reports that France's "gossip press" is "nearing fever pitch," and the album has gotten rave reviews thus far.
In case any French music critics are wondering how to handle the unusual task of critiquing their first lady's musical talents, Carla has a ready answer in "Ta Tienne" (Yours): "I am yours, if they diss me or damn me, I don't care a hoot."
Some very interesting diplomacy is definitely afoot in Tehran and Paris. Ali Akbar Velayati (right), the right-hand man of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, published a letter in France's Libération newspaper Wednesday that leaves no doubt about who's ultimately in charge of the nucelar file. Here's a translation by FP's resident Frenchman, Randolph Manderstam:
A European recently asked me who was leading Iran. The answer is clear. When it comes to essential questions of strategy, the constitution, approved by universal suffrage, confers final decisions upon the supreme leader. It is according to this principle, under which the main decisions taken by Ayatollah Khamenei in the last 20 years were applied, that we can judge the past and forsee the path of our diplomacy.
Despite the vastness of his powers, the supreme leader… only intervenes in extremely important cases, leaving those responsible for the state to solve the other problems themselves. Under Imam Khomeini just as under Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian diplomacy has worked on developing contacts with other countries.... By receiving the dignitaries and leaders of numerous states and by communicating with them, the leader has given undeniable examples of his crucial presence in Iranian diplomacy.
I spoke this morning with Carnegie's Karim Sadjadpour about the letter, and he told me it was a "very important" signal coming from Velayati.
The main message? Don't listen to the rantings of that Ahmadinejad fellow -- the supreme leader is called "supreme" for a reason. "Khamenei's not necessarily the micromanager, but he's the macromanager, so all important issues go by him," Sadjadpour said.
Why proclaim this in a French newspaper? The backstory here is fascinating. Last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reached out to Khamenei in the hopes of reaching a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear negotiations. Velayati was to be dispatched to Paris to lay the groundwork for a possible meeting between Sarkozy and Khamenei, and in November he went to brief Ahmadinjad as a courtesy before heading off on his mission. Not only did the Iranian president humiliate Velayati by scheduling him for a midnight meeting and then making him wait for several hours, but he then sent a letter to Sarkozy that was so rude and condescending, it killed any hope of a France-Iran summit. According to Le Monde, Ahmadinejad said Sarkozy was "young and inexperienced," and French diplomats said the letter contained "veiled threats."
More recently, a civil servant and Ahmadinejad ally named Abbas Palizdar publicly accused a number of top clerics of corruption. Several of them are close associates the supreme leader. Too close, in fact, and Palizdar was arrested for "propagating lies." Rumor has it Khamenei saw this incident as Ahmadinejad crossing the line. So, not only is Khamenei, through Velayati, trying to make clear that Ahmadinejad is not the guy to talk to, he's indicating his disgust with the Iranian president and putting him in his place. "I think Khamenei is frustrated with Ahmadinejad's antics. This may have been the last straw," said Sadjadpour.
As for a détente with France or a breakthrough on the nuclear program? Don't bet on it. Iran's recent diplomatic offensive is most likely a "delaying tactic" intended to "cool the temperature" in light of all the recent news, according to Sadjadpour. But it sure makes great political theater. Pass the popcorn.
Here's an end-of-the-workday treat for you: Nicolas Sarkozy acting like a jerk for a change.
The brand-new EU president was preparing for an interview on French TV last night and had some words for a sound technician who failed to return his "bonjour." Facing widespread public protests throughout France, Sarkozy seemed to read it as a politically motivated snub. Here's a translation provided by the Guardian:
When you're invited on, you are entitled to have people say hello to you, or you're not on in the public sector," he growls. "It's all demonstrators here ... It's incredible ... And serious. That will change."
The EU just got a whole lot classier.
Some may say it was done for profit, but there is a certain cultural je-ne-sais-quoi about the return of the franc for the village of Collobrières.
The town of 1,600, nestled deep in Provence, has re-allowed the use of its country's former currency for everyday purchases, prompting citizens to turn out in droves with fistfuls of francs. Baker Nathalie Lepeltier, who came up with the idea, claims it will convince her fellow townspeople to spend more:
The euro has made life more expensive; prices are much higher... people have lost the concept of the value of money with the euro."
That's a questionable claim, but the franc's reintroduction has helped the villagers of Collobrières strengthen one value -- their French identity. The French public has long shown aversion to EU membership, most notably in 2005 when the country voted "non" on the EU constitution. Now, poised to take the EU presidency tomorrow, the French government has promised a "citizen-centered" approach and to "reconcile Europe with French citizens" during its tenure. Bonne chance: 63 percent of French citizens polled earlier this year do not think that the French presidency will bring Europe closer to the French population.
It'll be especially tough to convince villages like Collobrières, where national and local identity often reign supreme. Some of those interviewed from the town knew nothing about the Lisbon Treaty, the set of EU institutional reforms that Ireland rejected earlier in June. But Collobrières' citizens don't have to know much about global affairs to feel their impact -- inflation has heavily impacted the franc's value. Says Lepeltier:
People remember the price in francs, and they're shocked now when they use francs at how much more everything costs."
On the subject of international media reactions to Obama's win, Le Monde's Corine Lesnes practically swoons over the Illinois senator, placing him in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Noting Obama's multinational family tree and appeal around the world, she also calls him America's first "global candidate." She can't help but note that "he doesn't speak any foreign languages (except Indonesian)," however.
It makes sense that a French newspaper article would be the first place I had ever seen the presidential candidates' foreign-language skills mentioned. But given that I already know more about Obama's basketball skills and the condition of John McCain's prostate than I ever really wanted to, it seems like this would have come up at some point. After a little Googling I found that Obama told The Hill that in addition to Indonesian, he speaks "a little Spanish." As far as I can determine, McCain doesn't speak any languages.
The leader of the free world probably doesn't actually need to know foreign languages to have a good grasp of foreign affairs (and for what it's worth, I've personally witnessed Nicolas Sarkozy attempt English and it wasn't pretty) but it might be something to keep in mind the next time candidates get all sanctimonious about educating America's youth to compete in the global economy.
Starting next month, members of the European Parliament will travel in style on their own specially designed high-speed train from their office in Brussels to their other office in Strasbourg, France. The parliament holds its preparatory meetings in Brussels and its plenary sessions in Strasbourg meaning that every month, 377 MEPs and their staff need to be transported between the two cities. The new train is being touted (mostly by the French who built it) as an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative to flying. It will still cost European taxpayers more than $300,000 per journey and won't be open to the public.
Cato's Daniel Mitchell compares the train to the special highway lanes once enjoyed by high-ranking Soviet officials. However, I don't really see why putting them on their own train is that much more egregious than chartering a jet or hiring limos. To me, this says more about the monumental idiocy of putting the parliament's two offices 200 miles apart.
Despite the luxurious accomodations, MEPs are still griping that the train's late arrival in Strasbourg will "deprive colleagues of their midday break and the possibility of a proper lunch." I guess it's hard to pass all those non-binding resolutions on an empty stomach.
Note: The photograph above is of a different train.
Grass-roots sentiment against the French is getting so heated in China that the government is now trying to cool things down.
Last time Chinese nationalism got out of control, the government called for calm in the name of "social harmony."
This time, the rationale is economic development (the big dog on the national agenda and one of the best ways for citizens to serve the nation). Reminding the people of China's struggles is a great antidote to anger directed at foreign corporations, or so a commentary run by state news agency Xinhua appears to hope:
Thirty years of reform and opening up have created a China miracle... But we must be crystal clear that for China that has endured so much, the future road will not be all smooth-going."
The commentary also calls the anger "unadorned" and a "sincere demonstration of public opinion."
The government clearly has a lot of reigning in to do: A survey conducted in 10 Chinese cities found that two thirds of respondents support a boycott against French supermarket chain Carrefour.
Language purists in France are fuming. The country's entry in the Eurovision music contest has English lyrics! (OK, two lines are in French.) Of the 43 countries participating, more than half -- 25 -- submitted songs in English. It sounds like there's a new linga franca.
A wheelchair-bound Chinese torch bearer has rocketed to national fame after fending off protesters in Paris, becoming a symbol of China's defiance of global demonstrations backing Tibet.
Jin Jing, a 27 year-old amputee and Paralympic fencer has been called the "angel in a wheelchair" and is being celebrated by television chat shows, newspapers and online musical videos after fiercely defending the Olympic torch during the Paris leg of the troubled international relay.
Protesters denouncing Chinese policy in Tibet threw themselves at Jin. Most were wrestled away by police but at least one reached her wheelchair and tried to wrench the torch away. Jin clung tenaciously to what has become a controversial icon of the Beijing Olympic Games until her attacker was pulled off. Her look of fierce determination as she shielded the torch, captured in snapshots of the scene, has now spread throughout China, inflaming simmering public anger at the protests. "I thought we had lost in France, but seeing the young disabled torch bearer Jin Jing's radiant smile of conviction, I know in France we did not lose, we won!" said one of tens of thousands of Internet postings about the incident.
Here's Jin receiving a hero's welcome at a Lenovo event in Beijing:
Jin, who received scratches on her chin and shoulders during the Paris incident, cuts a pretty damn sympathetic figure. No wonder Chinese netizens are so angry with the French.
This year's nationalism soup in China smacks of that served in 2005 but with some more eclectic ingredients. Then, it was anti-Japanese sentiment over WWII-era war crimes that stirred up popular unrest. The Chinese government stoked the public's anger, leading to diplomatic facilities getting smashed up and calls for a boycott of Japanese goods. Sensing that things had gotten out of control, the government eventually drew the line.
Now, it is global activism tied to the Beijing Olympics that is fueling national anger. Many Chinese feel that other countries are exploiting the games for political reasons. Howard French of the International Herald Tribune explains the anger is so deep because their government "sold them on the Olympics as a measure of their standing and stature in the world," and they feel the world isn't giving China its due.
The latest country to face Chinese wrath is France, which Chinese netizens singled out as the worst embarrassment in terms of the torch relay over the past week (frankly, things weren't pretty in London or San Francisco either). Citing a human rights banner at Paris city hall and a protestor trying to wrench the torch from a Chinese girl in a wheelchair, grassroots sentiment is again spiraling out of control, though only in cyberspace for now. Calls for boycotts of French companies -- including L'Oréal, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy -- have appeared on Web sites and chatrooms. Meanwhile, Xinhua ran a story today biting back at the French media entitled "Paris slaps its own face."
The government will likely ride it out as long as is necessary for the people to vent. Then, as with Japan, they will call for a return to social harmony. Many people, including International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, believe the games will still be a success. But with so many potential provocations yet to unfold, it will be interesting to see how this PR mess gets cleaned up.
The French-Swiss-Spanish humanitarian mission to Colombia has apparently collapsed. There had been hopes the FARC rebel group would at least permit the mission's members to visit and treat ailing hostage Ingrid Betancourt. The former Colombian presidential candidate, who holds French citizenship, has been in captivity for five years. In rejecting the mission, a FARC spokesman placed the blame squarely on Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, whose military recently dealt the FARC a harsh blow.
We profoundly regret that while we were making palpable progress for a prisoner exchange, President Uribe planned and executed the cunning murder of comandante Raul Reyes, mortally wounding the hope for a humanitarian exchange and peace."
The failure of the mission is lamentable and the plight of the FARC hostages is tragic. Still, the high-level French attention to the issue is remarkable. President Sarkozy has declared himself ready to jet to the region if necessary to secure Betancourt's release. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner regularly wrestles with the details of the case. Betancourt's case has become a cause-celebre, and French politicians may simply be responding to the French street, but the sight of France's leaders hanging on the utterances of FARC guerrillas must have de Gaulle spinning in his grave.
The British press has been flooding the zone in covering French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to London this week. But of course, it's not Sarko's promises to beef up the French troop presence in Afghanistan or his calls for Britain to be more active in the European Union that have dominated the headlines. Nope. It's the every move of Sarkozy's Italian-born wife, Carla Bruni, whose supermodel looks have brought the latent prurient impulses of British journalists to the fore.
The tone for the coverage was set early when, the day before France's first couple's visit, Christie's announced it was putting nude photos of Ms. Bruni up for auction. The tabloid Daily Mail and even the ostensibly more respectable Telegraph wasted no time in serving the public interest by publishing one of the photos (find them yourself, folks). The Daily Mail even published closeups of Bruni's legs, hands, and feet and dubbed Bruni a "fully fledged sex siren."
But to really get a sense of how the British have gone ga-ga for Carla, get a load of this sentence in the Telegraph about the Sarkozys' dinner at Windsor Castle:
By that stage, the newlywed presidential couple had already disappeared, according to Mr Roche, no doubt to make the most of their bedroom with a "matchless view over the park".
Or this secondhand report about Mme Sarkozy's appearance at a charity luncheon:
We have it on good authority Miss Bruni has an "incredibly sexy" voice..."
Of course, the occasion would not be complete without indulging in one of the Telegraph's favorite pastimes -- mocking Prime Minister Gordon Brown:
The Prime Minister, not known for public displays of affection, lunged at the glamorous former supermodel as she and husband Nicolas Sarkozy visited Downing Street on the second day of their state visit to Britain.
The Sun adds helpfully, "Mr Brown planted TWO enthusiastic smackers on her."
Maybe it's just me. But doesn't this gesture by French President Nicolas Sarkozy seem a bit gauche, given that he was at a ceremony for laying a wreath in honor of Charles DeGaulle?
This morning's Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by protesters from the Paris-based media rights groups Reporters Without Borders. The bad publicity was exactly the kind of thing that Beijing was hoping (unrealistically) to avoid in the run-up to this summer's games, but also highlights a growing debate in France over whether the country should take action to voice its disapproval of China's human rights record.
RSF (the organization's French acronym) has proposed that France boycott the Games' opening ceremony. A poll published in today's Libération newspaper and sponsored by RSF found that 53 percent of respondents liked the idea of President Nicolas Sarkozy skipping the event. A separate poll in the sports magazine L'Equipe had nearly identical results. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he found the idea "interesting" last Tuesday but then quickly backtracked several hours later:
There are a lot of good ideas that can't be put into practice [...] When you're dealing in international relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you make economic decisions it's sometimes at the expense of human rights," he added. "That's elementary realism."
Sounds like somebody got a talking to. This isn't the first time that Kouchner's idealism has taken a back seat to his boss's more pragmatic priorities, and it raises some questions over whether the left-wing, former head of Doctors Without Borders is only in Sarkozy's government as liberal-internationalist window dressing. Sarkozy, for his part, has offered to make France a facilitator for negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama. It's a start, but as the protests inevitably grow throughout this spring, it's going to get harder to stick to the middle ground.
Update: Speaking on Tuesday, Sarkozy would not rule out the possibility of boycotting the ceremony, saying, "All options are open and I appeal to the Chinese leaders' sense of responsibility." Perhaps he's keeping an eye on the polls.
Whether it's videos of him acting drunk or angry, or Web sites publishing reports of text messages he may or may not have sent his ex-wife, the Internet has not always been kind to Nicolas Sarkozy. But with all that he has on his plate, how can the French president possibly keep track of all the possibly damaging material about him that circulates on the web?
That's where Nicolas Princen comes in. Nicknamed "Sarkozy's eye," the 24-year-old has been hired to act as "a sort of Internet early warning system, surveying everything that is making a buzz regarding the President." Princen cut his chops maintaining this online video site for Sarkozy, which includes an intro that would make Kim Jong-il blush. While I understand that life can be rough for public figures in the YouTube era, a better strategy for Sarkozy might just be to stop making a fool of himself in public.
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