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France's Dixville Notch

The hamlet of Dixville Notch (population: 9) is famous for being the first town to vote in New Hampshire's primary and predicting the eventual Republican nominee in every presidential election since 1968 (its record in the Democratic primary and general election is spottier). France, it turns out, has something similar.

In recent days, there have been several reports on the Burgundy village of Donzy (with 1,700 residents, a pulsing metropolis compared with Dixville Notch), where electoral results have served as an uncanny bellwhether for the whipsawing national vote in every presidential race since 1981. And with the first round of voting in this year's election set to begin later this month, things are not looking good for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who won Donzy in 2007 but is currently trailing François Hollande in national polls as the French economy sputters.

Here's the Economist's report from the town:

The message I picked up from almost everybody I spoke to suggested that Mr Hollande is heading for victory. Jean-Paul Jacob, the current (independent) centre-right mayor, told me straight out: "My bet is that Donzy will vote Hollande." Not, he said, out of any great enthusiasm for the Socialist: "People find him cold; there's no fervour about him." (Indeed, there was little evidence of any political activism at all: the only poster pasted to the official campaign boards was for Philippe Poutou, an anti-capitalist candidate. Local talk is more often about "fishing and fêtes", said a local in the bar.) Rather, it was because people are disappointed with Mr Sarkozy. "His personality," said the mayor, a local notary, wryly, "doesn't leave people indifferent."

But at a local bar (almost every report makes the obligatory stop at a watering hole), Reuters' Vicky Buffery files a slightly more encouraging dispatch for Sarkozy's camp:

Questions about the election draw Gallic shrugs. One man says he'll vote but hasn't decided which way. When pushed, he struggles to remember the name of Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for whom he voted in 2007.

There's a sense among Donzy's voters that the election result could go any way, despite polls pointing to a win for Hollande.

It is hard to find people who will admit to supporting Sarkozy but several say he will have their vote.

As for Dixville Notch, its predictive power appears to be intact. Mitt Romney, who's now cruising to the GOP nomination, won the town's vote. Well, actually, his two votes put him in a tie for first place with Jon Huntsman, who has long since departed the Republican race. But why let messy details like that get in the way of the mystique.

PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images

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King Juan Carlos's not-so-excellent vacation

In his classic essay Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell describes an experience he had as a colonial police officer in Burma. Under public pressure from a crowd of townspeople, he puts down an out-of-control elephant against his own wishes, describing it as the moment he "first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East." As the people of the town debate the merits and legality of his actions, he wonders "whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."

It's tempting to wonder if any similarly penetrating insights or self-reflections have come to Spanish King Juan Carlos as he lies in the hospital, having injured his hip on an elephant shooting trip in Botswana that has ignited a firestorm of controversy. 

In addition to being about the least politically correct way to spend your vacation (was the baby seal-clubbing junket all booked up?) the optics of this were pretty terrible at a time when more than half of young Spaniards are out of work and Spanish banks are facing yet another downgrade. Plus, it turns out that the king -- who is Spain's official head of state -- didn't inform the government that he was leaving the country and might have used public funds in the process. 

Some leftist parties are calling for the king to abdicate or hold a referendum on returning to a republic. That doesn't seem to likely at the moment, but the king may still want to stick to the beach next time if he doesnt want to his country's surging ranks of unemployed.