Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Anniversary of a landmark charter

On 10 December 1948, a few years after the end of an atrocious global war, the 58 member nations of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The charter was signed in Paris, in the Chaillot Palace.

[Click the photo to see a presentation of the French-language declaration.]

The excellent French weekly magazine L'Express has decided to celebrate this anniversary with an elegant presentation of the French-language text of the declaration accompanied by portraits of sporting heroes. These splendid black-and-white photos were taken by Jacqueline Roche, and published by Editions L'Inévitable in an album entitled Humains doués de conscience [Humans Endowed with Conscience].

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Virtual regatta news

The latest count in the Vendée Globe virtual regatta is over 184,000 participants. So, it's a huge success... and the impressive software seems to be working faultlessly. At the present moment, as we start to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, my son and I are respectively among the top 9,000 and the top 4,000 virtual vessels.

[Click the graphic to visit the website and launch your yacht.]

My son's yacht is named Kerouziel, and mine is Gamone.

There has been TV coverage of this game, which has become a significant social phénomenon in France. Office workers are organizing sweepstakes among their colleagues, with monetary prizes for the participant who reaches such-and-such a spot on the globe in first position. The set of wind data is updated twice a day, at 11 o'clock in the morning and 11 o'clock of an evening. A woman has sent a letter of complaint to the organizers of the virtual regatta saying that her love life is suffering, because her husband won't crawl into bed with her until he has examined the late evening wind data and set his night-time bearing accordingly.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Testicles of gold

In French slang, which is often particularly rich and colorful, people refer to a fellow who's good at creating money-making business affairs, with a lot of luck thrown in, by saying that his testicles are made of gold. Why not? The idea, in a metaphorical sense, is that his genitals are capable of procreating wealth. Well, I reckon that the guy who invented the Sarkozy voodoo doll [click here to see my previous article on this subject, entitled Nails and pins] has balls of stainless steel... which is the same metal used to produce the needles supplied with his best-selling book.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who doesn't really have a huge sense of humor, took this fellow to court in an attempt to prohibit sales of the doll... which, as almost everybody agrees, is in poor taste. I'm sure that the manufacturer himself hides his personal doll in his briefcase, out of shame, whenever he's on his way to the bank to deposit his latest sales checks. After the president's first case against the doll manufacturer was rejected, Sarkozy invoked an appeals court. Yesterday, in Paris, this second court declared that the way in which the user guide to the voodoo doll encourages readers to prick the president's effigy with needles is an attack upon his personal dignity. Fair enough. The president should be happy with that decision. But did the appeals court go on to prohibit sales of the voodoo doll and its user guide? Not at all! The court merely stipulated that every copy of the book must henceforth carry a label indicating the court ruling that has just been handed down. In other words, the guy with balls of gold now has the right, indeed the obligation, to use the outcome of the president's court action as fabulous publicity on every one of his dolls! For the moment, the Sarkozy voodoo doll and its accompanying manual are at the top of the Amazon charts in France. With Xmas just around the corner, the judgment of the appeals court is an unexpected godsend.

And what must we think of the president's character in the light of this court case? There's a quaint old saying in French: "Tell me how you react to voodoo dolls, and I'll tell you what your balls are made of." Soft clay? Cheap bling-bling chromium-plated metal that makes a hollow clinky-clanky sound when the balls bang together? Maybe glass? Expensive but fragile crystal?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crossed destinies

This evening, the Socialist party is electing a new leader. Of the three candidates, the two favorites are females: Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry.

Even though their political principles are much of a muchness, the two women have very different personalities, but their destinies are crossed in this evening's challenge, where there will be one winner and two losers. To use a far-fetched comparison, Ségolène can be likened to Obama, and Martine to McCain. That's to say, Madame Royal wants to change the old-fashioned style of the time-honored leftist party, whereas the mayoress of Lille, daughter of the French statesman Jacques Delors, would prefer to leave the party more or less as it has always been. The result of this evening's election will be known in an hour or so's time.

Another outstanding French personality—a woman on the opposite side of the political arena—was honored today in France.

In 1944, 16-year-old Simone Veil was deported to Auschwitz. Today, she became a member of the prestigious French Academy.

BREAKING NEWS: Yesterday evening's vote among Socialists did not produce a winner, in that neither of the three candidates obtained the majority of 50%. But Ségolène Royal came quite close, with a score of over 42%. So, there'll be a second electoral round tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Exemplary neutrality

In a recent article entitled Fait divers [display], I evoked a terrible happening in the nearby city of Grenoble. A patient wandered out of a mental asylum, took a bus into the city, went into a hardware store to purchase a knife, then walked out and stabbed mortally the first pedestrian he encountered on the sidewalk.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Nicolas Sarkozy reacted—rightly or wrongly—in his usual excitable style, promising all kinds of reforms. Not surprisingly, the bewildered director of the psychiatric hospital was relieved of his duties. Meanwhile, specialists appear to have determined that the alleged murderer is fit to stand trial for his act.

Now, as long as a legal affair is pending, the accused must not be "judged" beforehand by the media. In France, this is both a moral principle and an article of law.

From this point of view, the distinguished and time-honored weekly L'Express behaves admirably. Like all the other media, they might be tempted to display startling images of one kind or another... just as I myself did, a moment ago, in borrowing a photo of the crime scene. Well, in cases such as this, instead of striking photos, L'Express displays the following image:

This dull formal representation of the spirit of justice is an excellent reminder of the humanistic ethical principles that are necessarily involved whenever a powerful press organ expresses itself concerning what I referred to, in my previous post, as a fait divers.

The weekly L'Express was founded, half a century ago, by two extraordinary individuals: Françoise Giroud, in charge of the magazine Elle, and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, former editorialist of Le Monde. In founding L'Express, they hoped to promote the political ascension of a man whom History regards as one of France's greatest statesmen: Pierre Mendès France. Later, L'Express opened its columns to writers named Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, François Mauriac and Françoise Sagan.

Truly, L'Express (like Le Monde, Le Canard enchaîné, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Point, Télérama, etc...) is French journalism of an excellent kind.

As a Martian visitor might say: "Show me your journalism, and I'll tell you what kind of a nation you are." To maintain such a belief, however, the Martian in question would nevertheless need to steer clear of the two vast but decrepit French principalities, oozing with pestilential vapors, named Sarkozia and Socialistica.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sacré Sarko!

It's not easy to translate the title of this post. Placing the adjective sacré before the president's nickname doesn't mean that I consider Nicolas Sarkozy as a sacred individual. On the contrary, it's a way of reacting to his latest surprise act by exclaiming: What a cunning stunt! I'm referring to the masterly way in which Sarko, this afternoon at Nice, succeeded in cornering the young lad from Moscow, Dmitri Medvedev, and persuading him to drop his recent hawkish talk about anti-missile protection systems on the edge of Europe.

During this morning's encounter between Russia and the 27 nations of Europe, Sarkozy was acting, of course, in his role as the current president of the European Union. He succeeded in calming the situation by stating that there would be time enough next year to define a new security architecture for Europe. But the only hitch in Sarko's pragmatic behavior was that, normally, it's not exactly the job of Europe's president to talk to Russia about the deployment of missiles! One has the impression that the French president, while advancing simultaneously in several different directions, has a knack of making up the rules of the game as he goes. As I said: Sacré Sarko!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fait divers

English-speaking people use the French term "faux pas" to evoke an erroneous action, a slip-up. But I'm not sure they're equally familiar with the similarly convenient expression "fait divers", designating an everyday item of local current affairs, such as a village cat getting run over by an automobile. For example, apprentice journalists in rural newspapers often spend the first few years of their professional career handling the anecdotal "fait divers" columns.

In many metropolises, a blunt placename designates the local mental asylum. During my youth in Australia, this bogeyman place was a building, Broughton Hall, in a beautiful Sydney riverside estate, Callan Park.

When I arrived in France, in the 1960s, people still used the bogeyman term Charenton to designate the repository for crazy Parisians, but the true mental asylum was Ste-Anne.

Since arriving here in the Dauphiné, I've always heard that the local bogeyman place for crazy folk was Saint-Egrève, on the outskirts of Grenoble, not far from Sassenage. Later, I learned that my female neighbor M (now deceased) actually spent some time there. But I still ignored the exact location of this psychiatric hospital, in a territory located between the Chartreuse and Vercors mountain ranges, just to the north of Grenoble, behind the Vicat cement works. This morning, I finally used Google Maps to locate exactly this psychiatric complex. It lies right in the middle of the Grenoble area, but it's a bit off the beaten track, concealed by trees, between a mountain and the railway lines. You can drive nearby, or go past in a train, without glimpsing the mental asylum.

But this psychiatric hospital is not as remote as all that. Local media are giving front-page coverage to a shocking fait divers based upon this asylum. An inmate, this morning, strolled out of the park at St-Egrève, took a bus to Grenoble, purchased a knife, and mortally wounded the first innocent passerby whom he met on the footpath. There's shit in the administrative fan, because the schizophrenic inmate in question has a criminal dossier of stabbings. For ordinary citizens, it's disturbing to learn that crazy bogeymen do in fact emerge effectively in our midst from time to time...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Leftist lady

Following her unsuccessful presidential bid against Nicolas Sarkozy, many observers were inclined to believe that Ségolène Royal was a personality of the past, a political has-been, ground into the dust by the superior style and energy of Monsieur Bling-Bling. Well, we're forced to admit, as they say in French—allusion to a comic sketch in which a guy spends an entire day trying vainly to catch a backyard duck for dinner—that the duck is still alive. Very much alive. Quacking elegantly and convincingly, as usual. [Ségolène's accent and manner of speaking have always irritated me. It's silly to say so, but I've never liked the way she walks and talks.]

Last Thursday evening, French Socialists amazed the nation by their top vote for the motion of Madame Royal, facing two tough contenders: Bertrand Delanoë (mayor of Paris), the favorite, and Martine Aubry (mayor of Lille), the outsider.

Clearly, recent events have brought Ségolène back to life... and so much the better. The problem, alas, is that it's all very well for doubters to be able to stick their fingers in the holes of a resuscitated political personage. [That metaphor wasn't exactly as nice as I might have hoped.] The real problem is that everybody is still waiting for Ségolène to speak intelligently and convincingly in many tongues, with a view to reassembling the moribund French Left. Did I just say "moribund"? That could well be a euphemism. Many of us fear greatly that the French Socialist duck is indeed dead.

Jules Verne and cancer treatment

[This post is based upon an article by Camille Guillemois in Ouest-France.]

In the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, there's a character known as Professor Aronnax. Since the celebrated author was born in Nantes in 1828, it's not surprising that a slightly altered spelling of the name of this science-fiction professor, Arronax, has been chosen to designate a technological masterpiece that has recently come into existence in the great coastal city in southern Brittany.

[Click the photo to visit the Arronax website.]

Arronax is a cyclotron that will be used to produce particles for nuclear medicine. It will also be used as a state-of-the-art research tool in this domain. This 140-ton device is not exactly cheap: 37 million euros, of which half came from the local Loire-Atlantique region.

The 70 MeV energy rating of Arronax makes it the most powerful cyclotron in Europe in the domain of nuclear medicine. In fact, it is three or four times more powerful than the vast majority of medical cyclotrons in service throughout the world.

An obvious question that enters the mind concerns the possible dangers of building such a device in a residential zone. Well, medical cyclotrons must not be confused with nuclear reactors. A medical cyclotron produces radiation only when it is operational, but it ceases to do so as soon as it is switched off.

In a national context where nuclear energy is exploited considerably, notably in the electricity domain, this new high-tech device fits nicely into France's rich nuclear culture.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Hot off the Latin press

This post won't necessarily be meaningful unless you happen to read French and/or you're interested in medieval Latin. In general, I have no idea whatsoever of the identity of the individuals who read this blog... except for friends who have identified themselves explicitly in their comments, and others with whom I communicate regularly by email. So I don't know whether or not there are many potential readers—or even any potential readers—of the present post.

Here's a rapid résumé of the story. My ten-acre property, Gamone, is located in the commune of Choranche, in a region known as the Royans, which was a principality back in the Middle Ages. That's to say, the inhabitants were under the allegiance of a feudal lord whose troops protected constantly the land and the people... in return, of course, for a proportion of their annual produce. Here in the Royans, the incumbent lord was the Baron de Sassenage, who resided in a splendid castle named La Bâtie... of which all that remains today is a grassy mound and a few small blocks of limestone.

Well, during the period from 1351 to 1356, the lord hired a notary to produce a written survey of the lands he controlled here in the Royans. Now, that was a long time ago. In the middle of the 14th century, the Plantagenet monarch Edward III was still ruling over England. The execution of Joan of Arc was three-quarters of a century in the future. America would not be discovered for another 130 years.

The lord's survey concerned six communes: Choranche, Pont-en-Royans, Châtelus, Echevis, Rencurel and Saint-Laurent-en-Royans. [Click here to see a modern map showing the six villages.]

The notary penned the results of his surveys in Latin, on rolls of sheep-skin parchment. Amazingly, those documents still exist today, in a readable state. Moreover, they've been scanned, and I have a copy of the image files of the 59 "pages" (folios) of the survey... referred to in French as terriers. In other words, on the screen of my computer, I can observe the way in which my property at Gamone was described six and a half centuries ago. Not surprisingly, though, only a handful of talented and experienced medieval scholars are capable of reading these ancient documents, and translating them into modern language.

With this translation and publication goal in mind, I'm in the process of creating an association to take up this challenge. The first concrete step is the development of a French-language web site [display] that presents the parchments. For the moment, with a few friends, I'm meeting up with various individuals (politicians, scholars, etc) who might be prepared to participate in this interesting project. Naturally, I'll keep my blog readers informed of progress in this domain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Nails and pins

In the context of the US presidential campaign, it has just been revealed that work has started on a spoof porn movie whose title is Nailin' Palin, starring yet another look-alike actress. The script is pretty basic, but potentially rich in Arctic images. A Russian tank happens to be jogging along an Alaskan road when it breaks down... just in front of a gubernatorial hunting lodge. (What an ugly expression!) The tank's occupants, two Russian soldiers, go inside to get help, and they come upon a local lady in sexy attire, reclining on a sofa and reading.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I would imagine a big warm room whose walls are adorned with skins of grizzly bears, elk horns and moose heads. In any case, we can guess the rest of this exciting tale of east-west relations.

A wag pointed out that, whatever its weaknesses, this forthcoming porn movie is sure to be far more popular—Betcha!—than a similar production on the other side of the political fence: Ridin' Biden.

With all this fine political humor being aired shamelessly in God's Own Country, I'm frankly disappointed to see that, here in the Old World, our Prince Nicolas has got all upset about a trivial little affair involving voodoo dolls.

An enterprising toy manufacturer imagined the idea of marketing a blue doll that's meant to represent Nicolas Sarkozy, and a pink doll for Ségolène Royal. On the body of each doll, a dozen or so textual labels evoke specific themes associated with that individual. Obviously, depending upon your personal tastes and political attitudes, you'll react either positively or negatively to each label. Each doll is accompanied by a stock of a dozen pins. If ever such-and-such a label were so unpleasant that you wished it had never existed, you have the opportunity of jabbing it violently with a pin... whereupon, according to voodoo science, that entity disappears instantly into oblivion. For example, one of the labels on the Sarkozy doll evokes his friendship with Tom Cruise, who earned himself an appalling reputation here in France through his links with Scientology. Apparently, this zone of the doll gets an exceptionally high number of hits... like a good blog.

What could be more stupidly innocent than such a doll, sold for 13 euros? Surprisingly, the president seems to be taking this affair quite seriously, because he's determined to pursue the manufacturer through the French law courts. What fabulous publicity for the manufacturer!

This anecdote supports an amusing theme that has often been handled by atheist intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, writing about the tenacity of superstitions, even when such beliefs have been explicitly and unequivocally abandoned. Nobody would seriously contend for an instant that a distinguished French statesman might believe in remnants of primitive witchcraft. And most educated folk are aware that you can wear yourself out sticking pins into images, day and night, without ever influencing the outside world in any imaginable way... except, of course, if your story gets taken up by the media, bloggers and presidents. Be that as it may, when an otherwise intelligent individual starts to imagine that somebody in the mysterious outside world is maybe sticking pins into his photo, a tiny group of archaic neurons in a corner of his cerebral cortex is likely to cry out "Ouch! "

BREAKING NEWS: Sarkozy's lawsuit against the manufacturer of his effigy was thrown out of court today (Wednesday, 29 October). In the judge's words: "That unauthorized representation of the image of Nicolas Sarkozy constitutes neither an attack upon human dignity nor a personal attack. It falls within the legal limits of the freedom of expression and the right to use humor." Apparently the president doesn't see things in the same light, because he immediately launched a formal appeal against this finding. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, is taking advantage of the situation to make fun of the president's lack of a sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two blacks in the big shit

Fairy tale. Hairy tale. Scary tale. A Senegalese couple tried to make a few euros by pirating an online bank account. They managed to bill an ordinary victim, who happened to be named Nicolas Sarkozy, for a fake subscription to an Internet service provider. Everything seemed to work perfectly. The Senegalese couple had no trouble in acquiring 200 euros. Then their ill-gotten gains hit the proverbial fan.

"Holy shit, man, you're joking? You really mean to tell us that this dumb bastard we pirated happens to be the fucking president of the French République? Man, I reckon we're in real shit. We must be humble. If it were possible, we'd be most happy to refund those two fucking hundred euros..."

It would surprise me greatly if our otherwise gentlemanly president were to agree to a gentleman's agreement. For once, I agree with Sarko.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Famous French postmen

French postmen have often become famous in one way or another. For example, a rural postman named Ferdinand Cheval [1836-1924] devoted his off-duty hours to building an extraordinary naive-art concrete edifice in the village of Hauterives, not far from where I live.

[Click the photo to access a video about the Postman Cheval.]

For many observers, the Postman Cheval [whose name in French means horse] was a crazy idealist, motivated by a strange architectural passion. He spent 33 years erecting his so-called Ideal Palace, and another 8 years in building his personal tomb. We can suppose that, during all this time, the mail got through normally. In the '60s, the great writer André Malraux, who had become the minister of Culture for Charles de Gaulle, decided that the palace of the Postman Cheval should be classified as a French heritage masterpiece in the category of naive architecture.

In a quite different domain, some of France's legendary aviation pioneers might be thought of as postmen, since their employer, the Aéropostale company, started out as an airmail delivery service.

When he wasn't risking his life flying over oceans and mountains to deliver mail to distant lands, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) and the fabulous philosophical tale of the Little Prince.

One of France's best-known postmen was a fictional character invented by the cinéaste Jacques Tati [1907-1982].

In his enthusiasm to deliver the mail rapidly and efficiently, Tati's extraordinary village postman, played by the cinéaste himself, was obliged at times to overtake an entire bunch of competitive cyclists.

Today in France, a 34-year-old real-world Parisian postman named Olivier Besancenot is renowned in the political arena.

In last year's presidential elections, Olivier Besancenot was the candidate of the extreme leftwing party, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, and he obtained an honorable score of over 4 percent of the votes: that is, almost a million and a half votes.

Insofar as the outdated adjective "Communist" sticks out like a sore thumb in the name of Besancenot's party, it was decided in 2007 that a new party would be created, in a modern European context, to replace the aging French LCR. For the moment, its tentative name is Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, but its inaugural congress won't take place until next year, so everything is still in a state of flux. It goes without saying that, for a new political party whose name includes the adjective "anticapitaliste", the current world economic crisis has been an immense promotional godsend. But Besancenot has had another extraordinary windfall of a totally unexpected kind.

In May of this year, the French weekly magazine L'Express revealed that Olivier Besancenot and his female partner were being spied upon in a totally unacceptable old-fashioned style, recalling the habits of former Soviet nations. Besancenot immediately filed a legal complaint. A week later, as the guest of France's most popular talk show, hosted of a Sunday afternoon by Michel Drucker, Besancenot had the good fortune to be able to evoke this intrusion into his private life. Finally, over the last week or so, we've learned that the spying would appear to have been organized by a certain Antoine Di Zazzo, who's the French importer of Taser stun guns, which are now issued to French police. [I'm expressing myself cautiously, because this is an ongoing legal affair, and an accused individual is considered to be innocent up until a French law court decides otherwise.]


In 2007, Olivier Besancenot dared to state publicly that this weapon could be lethal, whereupon the French importer accused him of slander. This affair will be judged tomorrow in Paris, and Besancenot will be defended exceptionally by a high-profile barrister who doesn't normally practice law any longer: the former TV journalist Noël Mamère, now a member of parliament associated with France's "green" party. In other words, tomorrow, Di Zazzo will be the accuser, and Besancenot, the accused. Because of the espionage inquiry and findings, we now know that, in a forthcoming trial, their respective roles will be inverted.

In any case, a brilliant political future can henceforth be predicted for this charismatic young French postman.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Early bird

As children, we were told that the early bird catches the worm... and our juvenile minds were meant to interpret this metaphor as an incentive to get out bed before everybody else. Personally, I don't recall having ever been motivated in the intended way, no more so than by the proverb: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. I grew up believing that the only poor folk who were obliged to crawl out of bed in the cold darkness were so-called cow cockies such as my uncles Eric and Ken, running dairy farms, who had to milk the cows. In France, there's a similar saying: The world belongs to those who get up early.

Over recent years, I've started to accept this belief, in the sense that I find that my personal creativity is maximal when I wake up, whereas it declines steadily throughout the day. In concrete terms, this means that I try to write in the morning, while awaiting the evening to read or watch TV. This difference in performance levels is particularly true in the case of computer programming... as when writing ActionScript code for a Flash website, for example. Of an evening, I can hammer away unsuccessfully at attempts to get something working in Flash, only to give up and go to bed. The following morning, as soon as I wake up, I can often solve the problem immediately.

At a planetary level, the situation is completely biased, because all the Earth's early birds are located—for better or for worse—on the left-hand side of the following map:

Bloody lucky Antipodeans! They're all up and about on a new morning, at work, at the same time that we tired Old World folk are thinking about crawling into bed, or maybe dreaming already. Americans are even worse off still. By the time they get up and start working, the rest of the world—the Antipodes and Europe—has already terminated their deeds and misdeeds for the day in question. You might say that, on any particular day, the following series of events is enacted:

• Australians react to the morning's happenings in Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand. Big deal!

• Asians turn their regard to what has been happening Down Under.

• Faraway Europe gets out of bed and tunes into news from the Antipodes.

• Finally, America has the opportunity of looking at "the day that was" in Australia, Asia and Europe. But America is rarely humble enough to do so. Instead, New York prefers to imagine in the morning that a new day is about to dawn in California. This is both true and false at the same time. Datewise, California's "new day" is condemned eternally (at least for as long as the International Date Line stays where it is) to be yesterday.

For me, in concrete terms, this global situation means that, every morning, the first thing I do on the Internet is to tune in to news from Australia. To a limited extent, this reflects the obvious fact that I'm curious about happenings in my native land. But I do so, above all, because Australian journalists have been active for hours (while I've been sleeping), describing yesterday's events on the planet, particularly those that closed the day in America. It's a weird situation. For us Europeans, there are no better up-to-date accounts of happenings in America than what we can read, of a morning, in the Australian media... for the simple reason that Aussie journalists have been "up all night" (from the point of view of our temporal reckoning) describing yesterday in America.

At an Internet level, I've been living in this global context for at least two years now (ever since my access to top-quality broadband services), and I'm becoming adjusted to it. Australian relatives and friends probably imagine that my awareness of local happenings indicates that I'm hooked up on nostalgia. Yes and no. I bow down to the undisputed fact that the location of the International Date Line means that my Down Under compatriots have a huge advantage with respect to the rest of humanity. In a timewise sense, we Europeans are mere followers of Antipodes. The people in France who are most aware of this situation are the TV producers in charge of Christmas and New Year shows. They never fail to show us images of Aussies celebrating such dates in Australia at about the same time that most late-night Europeans are thinking about going to bed in order to rise, tomorrow morning, as early birds.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Beautiful woman

Once upon a time, the juvenile beauty of Brigitte Bardot was purely on the outside, for all to admire. Personally, I have fuzzy adolescent recollections of admiring her fresh photographic image in a down-to-earth sexual manner... if you see what I mean. I imagined her home territory at Saint-Tropez as some kind of exotic and erotic earthly paradise. When I happened to drop in there for a few hours with Australian friends in 1963, I purchased an expensive deer-skin coat in a seaside boutique. I wore it fondly for years. This leather coat always reminded me of my brief encounter with Bardot's sophisticated and elegant Mediterranean village... but I've since learned that the former sex goddess would not necessarily have approved of an admirer wearing a coat made from the leather of an innocent beast.

These days, the beauty of Brigitte Bardot is still there, as always, perfectly intact, but it has moved to the inside. Over the years, she has surprised and annoyed us at times, through her apparent adherence to extremist right-wing political folk. But we have continued to admire Brigitte as a constant outspoken defender of the rights of animals. Who would have ever imagined, back in the '60s, that our superficial French sex symbol would evolve gently into a profound and fabulous friend of all those countless creatures, our dear cousins, whose chromosomes and genes don't happen to coincide totally with those of our Homo sapiens species?

Today, Brigitte Bardot is a stateswoman of planetary stature, with an eye on all that's happening on the planet Earth. So, it's normal that BB should feel like addressing a harsh word or two to Sarah Palin.

"Speaking on behalf of the respect and preservation of Nature, I hope you'll lose this election, in which case the world will win. Madame Palin, your refusal to admit the responsibility of human beings in global warming, combined with your encouragement of gun ownership and the right to fire at all and everything, make you a disgrace to women. You are a terrible menace, representing a veritable ecological catastrophe."

Brigitte Bardot then turns to Sarah Palin's support of oil-drilling within the Arctic sanctuary, evoking the plight of polar bears. Bardot tells Palin that her actions "reveal your total irresponsibility and your incapacity to protect, or simply respect, animal life".

Brigitte Bardot takes up Palin's ridiculously pitiful self-description about being "a pit bull terrier with lipstick". Bardot, who's an expert in the canine domain, states that Sarah Palin has no right to compare herself with dogs. "Mrs Palin: No pit bull terrier, no other dog, nor even any other animal is as dangerous as you are."

Needless to say, I agree 100 percent with my heroine Brigitte Bardot.

Monday, October 06, 2008

French discoverers of Aids get half a Nobel

The virologists Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes Aids were rewarded with half the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine... shared with the German scientist Harold zur Hausen who detected a link between human papilloma viruses (HPV) and cervical cancer. This is the first time since 1980 that French researchers have received a Nobel prize in medicine. This attribution of a Nobel prize to Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi should end the dispute with the American Robert Gallo concerning the honor of having discovered the Aids virus. The Nobel citation insisted upon the fact that science and medicine were exceptionally rapid in discovering this new disease entity, identifying its origin, and providing treatment for victims.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

European capital of culture

Marvelous Melina Merouri, when she was a European stateswoman, invented the concept of a yearly "capital of culture".

Today, it's the Beatles' lively city: Liverpool. In five years' time, in 2013, it will be Natacha's marvelous metropolis: Marseille.

The cultural connotations of Marseille are as ancient as humanity, as deep as the Mediterranean. Bernard Latarjet, director of the Marseille-Provence 2013 project, explained lucidly: "The authentic cultural questions that Europe must face up to and answer are named immigration, racism, male/female relationships, religion and ecology. Marseille is located on a planetary line of fracture. There is no more cosmopolitan city on Earth."

Cold female, cool language

[This post is inspired by an article by Michel Richard in the website of the
French weekly Le Point, including a photo signed Valéry Hache/AFP.]


A battle is raging in France, in a typically subdued leftist style (finally, the people and partisans will decide), for the leadership of the Socialist Party. A prominent candidate, of course, is stately Ségolène Royal, recently defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections.

Madame Royal (a delightful moniker for a leftist lady!), witnessing the current confusion, doesn't want to throw oil upon the fire. So, she has chosen to cool things down by announcing that her personal candidacy is henceforth in the Frigidaire®. Now, I don't know whether or not Dame Ségolène had enough presence of mind to add that tiny registered-trademark sign to her declaration... but her use of the term—which I shall henceforth replace by "fridge"—is interesting.

There are many other metaphors that Ségolène might have used. So, her decision to stick with the fridge concept is surely meaningful. She might have spoken about throwing her candidacy out of the window, or into the river, or even the ocean. But she didn't. She decided merely to put it in the fridge. And, as the journalist of Le Point suggested, various Socialist conclaves are no doubt studying Ségolène's language at this very moment, in an exegetical attempt to fathom the exact meaning of her metaphor.

Clearly, she spoke of a fridge, not a deep freezer. So, she'll emerge one day as cool as a cucumber, as fresh as a lettuce, as bright as a tomato... rather than as an icy chunk of nondescript matter that needs to be thawed out in a microwave oven. Ségolène might have said that her candidacy was to be thrown into a trash can, which is the destiny of so many ephemeral moments of political history. She might have thrown her candidacy onto the dusty ground, in rage, where so many political contenders end up. Or she might have stashed it away into a wardrobe, in the company of political phantoms. No, like a tidy house wife, Madame Royal put her candidacy in the fridge.

Sooner or later, preferably before the use-by date, Ségo will reopen the fridge door... and consumers will learn whether or not the product is still edible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Captain Sarko at the helm

France is fed up with latter-day pirates on the high seas off the coast of Somalia. Following the French army's successful liberation of two French hostages (involving the death of a pirate and the capture of six others), president Nicolas Sarkozy has just launched an international mobilization against what he calls a "veritable crime industry". While insisting upon the fact that France alone cannot deal with the epidemic of pirate operations on the high seas, and thanking Germany and Malaysia for their assistance, Sarkozy called for the creation of an international force of "ocean police". It should start operating off Somalia, which remains one of the most dangerous pirate-prone spots on the globe.

The liberated navigators were a French couple, professional skippers, sailing the 16-meter yacht (for a client) from Australia to France.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Drowned in Paris

As much as I can envisage easily the threat of maritime accidents in a place such as Sydney Harbour, I find it unthinkable that people could lose their lives after a boating accident in the heart of Paris, in the shadow—as it were—of the cathedral of Notre Dame.

That's nevertheless what happened this weekend, when a pleasure craft collided with a yet unidentified object—maybe a pylon, maybe another vessel—in the vicinity of the massive stone Bridge of the Archbishopric between the Latin Quarter and the Ile de la Cité.

In the great dark prose poem of Malte Laurids Brigge that dominated my encounter with the City of Light, Rainer Maria Rilke evoked another victim of the Seine:

The molder of plaster casts, before whose shop I pass every day, has hung two masks outside his door. The face of the young drowned woman, which was cast in the Morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew. And beneath it, the face that did know.

One was the splendid anonymous face of the girl, barely smiling, with closed eyes, who would be known forever as the Inconnue de la Seine [Unknown female of the Seine]. The other mask was that of a genius whose ears could no longer hear, not even his own majestic compositions. Beethoven, creator of the Eroica, dedicated to Bonaparte. Today, when you stroll alongside the boutiques and galleries of the Left Bank, you are still likely to meet up with one or other of these two faces. Neither individual was associated explicitly with Paris. Neither belonged to the city in any definite sense. Yet they both seem to haunt the Latin Quarter. Differently, of course.

Business could be better

Lourdes, as everybody knows, is one of the most visited sites in France. Recent statistics published by French tourism authorities place the basilica of Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire in 12th position... well ahead of marvels such as the Mont Saint-Michel and the splendors of Provence, but behind the Paris flea market and the Eiffel Tower.

Throughout the planet, countless Catholic homes are surely adorned with colorful objects of beauty purchased at the sanctuary where a peasant child named Bernadette Soubirous once claimed to have encountered and conversed with the mother of Jesus.

Let it never be said that such souvenirs serve no useful purpose. A virginal barometer, for example, could warn pious people of an approaching tornado, and save the lives of entire families.

Be that as it may, business has apparently not been good at Lourdes over the last few days. An article in the newspaper Le Parisien reveals that sales of flags, caps, T-shirts and backpacks with photos of Benedict XVI are feeble when compared with commerce back in the days of John-Paul II. Marketing experts, noticing that objects featuring the deceased pope are still selling well, thought it might be a good idea to produce postcards and medals containing images of both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, but it's not at all certain that this strategy will be successful from a business viewpoint.

There's a marvelous French term for the merchandise sold to pilgrims in places such as Lourdes. It's referred to as bondieuseries, which might be translated as "good God stuff ".

Two imaginative fellows from Bordeaux obtained an authorization from the Vatican to market wine in bottles with an image of Benedict XVI. It's fine wine, and not expensive: 8 euros a bottle. But the latest news is pessimistic: they're unlikely to make a fortune in this field.

Since I've never personally set foot in Lourdes, and have no immediate plans to do so, I'm not aware of all the business ideas that have been tried out there. In particular, I ignore whether the temple merchants have got around to dreaming up souvenirs evoking the most macabre aspect of this whole sick Soubirous affair.

I'm referring, of course, to the fact that authorities of the Catholic church in France have dug up her body no less than three times—in 1909, 1919 and 1925—in order to verify that it hadn't rotted away! What ghastly archaic behavior, whose major purpose consisted of lending weight to the crazy notion of Bernadette's sanctity, since the corpses of saints are not supposed to decay in the same way as those of ordinary mortals. Today, what remains of Bernadette's corpse is housed far away from Lourdes, in the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, where pilgrims with a taste for viewing human remains can feast their eyes upon the relic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Kerouac in French

[This post is based upon Mathilde Gérard's interview of the Canadian
journalist Gabriel Anctil in Le Monde, 8 September 2008.]

One has the impression that On the Road, typed in three weeks by Beat Generation guru Jack Kerouac [1922-1969] and published in 1957, is such an iconic piece of American literature that its natural language was necessarily the slangy US English of hobos such as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty.

Well, in fact, a primordial precursor of the epic was penned (literally) by Kerouac, five years before the publication of On the Road, in a quaint variety of Quebec French... which a reader from metropolitan France would not necessarily understand fully. The French title of this short unpublished novel was Sur le chemin, which might be translated into English as On the Trail.

Over the last year and a half, it has been possible for scholars to consult Kerouac's personal archives in New York. A year ago, the Canadian journalist Gabriel Anctil, from Le Devoir in Montréal, discovered a first unpublished novel by Kerouac in French, entitled La nuit est ma femme [Night is My Woman]. And recently, this same journalist came upon the handwritten manuscript of Sur le chemin. Although it is not simply an early French-language version of Kerouac's future masterpiece, Sur le chemin exploits similar themes (such as the basic preoccupation with traveling), and reveals a similar "feeling". Kerouac is present in the form of a 13-year-old boy named Ti-Jean [roughly, Little Johnny in family slang]. Likewise, the real-life individual Neal Cassady, who gave rise to Dean Moriaty in On the Road, is named Dean Pomeray in the French novel.

And why would Jack Kerouac have decided to try his hand at writing this early novel in French? Well, we must not forget that Kerouac always spoke a French patois with his parents, and only got around to learning English when he started school, at the age of 6. The most amazing aspect of Kerouac's approach to writing is revealed in a letter he sent to a Franco-American literary critic in 1950.The future author of On the Road affirmed that creative ideas occurred to him first in French, and that he then translated them into English.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

First partners

As the bishop might have said to the actress, pushing back her advances: "These days, a lot of ladies are trying to be first."

Ancient joke, which amused me when I was twelve years old.
A guy asks his mate: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night? "
Reply: "She's no lady. That's my wife."

The First Lady terminology is old hat and rather sexist. Not at all politically correct. What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had become president? Would Bill have been referred to as the First Lord?

What would happen if the elected president of a republic happened to be lesbian, and married to a woman. The latter would be merely the Second Lady.

Here in France, we recently had a First Divorcee. Then Carla Bruni was the First Partner for a short time, before becoming a full-fledged honorable First Lady.

Language would have to evolve just as rapidly as our morals if ever a gay president were to be elected.

Maybe the ideal situation would consist of reverting to the way things were at the time of Général de Gaulle. It would have been unthinkable for "Aunt Yvonne" (as she was called affectionately) to set aside her knitting in order to play some kind of semi-official role. Up until now, Carla Sarkozy has expressed no desire to break into the fascinating world of knitting. And we might suppose that Bertrand Delanoé's companion (if he exists) is even less excited by this noble activity. So, we need to get adjusted to this new world in which we now live. To start the ball of wool rolling, I suggest that the sexless expression "First Partner" be adopted from now on to designate the president's favorite companion. With a minimum of poetic license, this expression might even be used in the case of a president living alone with his/her favorite dog or cat, say. Taking things to extremes, even an exotic beast such as an Alaskan moose could theoretically become a First Partner.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Brain zapping


In the latter half of the 19th century, the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris earned renown through the work of Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist who became a precursor in the use of medical hypnosis. His most famous disciple was a certain Sigmund Freud. To casual passersby, the Salpêtrière remains a rather spooky site, which evokes the mental tribulations of the Rilkean dreamworld hero Malte Laurids Brigge. But the ancient hospital has become, today, a state-of-the-art medical laboratory in the neurosurgical domain.

Professor Alexandre Carpentier has just announced the development at the Salpêtrière of a marvelous surgical technique for the removal of a brain tumor by means of a laser beam.

First, the exact location of the tumor is ascertained by means of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Then a tiny hole, 3 mm in diameter, is drilled in the skull of the patient, under local anesthesia. Finally, an optical fiber with a laser tip is inserted into the hole and guided towards the tumor, which is zapped in a matter of seconds. The laser in question is the outcome a joint research and development between the Salpêtrière laboratory and a cancer clinic in Houston. During the rapid operation, the patient remains fully awake.

Some fifteen patients have been treated successfully up until now. Professor Carpentier indicated that his laboratory needs funding of two million euros in order to generalize their technique.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Confucius says: France aimer beaucoup Chinese

Jean-Marie Le Pen is the historical chief of extreme right-wing politics in France. Members of his National Front believe in the so-called "French preference" concept, meaning roughly that foreigners should not be allowed to reside and work within the sacred territory of Joan of Arc.

As an Antipodean outsider who has now acquired French nationality, I don't wish to dwell upon the nasty beliefs of this political old-timer who succeeded in shaking the foundations of the French Republic in the presidential elections of 2002, when he knocked out the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin and found himself up against Jacques Chirac in the final sprint. Fortunately for France, since that ephemeral moment of glory, Le Pen's supporters have been dwindling away towards zero. But the archaic 80-year-old wolf is still alive and kicking, and he seizes every opportunity of baring his teeth, either in smiles or in snarls.

Confronted with the problem of reimbursing financial debts brought about by their political failures, Le Pen and his party have been obliged to sell off their worldly possessions, including their home base in a posh suburb of Paris.

An old photo reveals that this place is not exactly pretty... but neither are the ideas of Le Pen and his FN party. In view of its dimensions, this building has always been referred to fondly, by party members, as the Paquebot (ocean liner).

Le Pen's Titanic has just found an unexpected purchaser: China. A Shanghai university wants to acquire the property for an extension school enabling Chinese students to master French. Why not? Once upon a time, Le Pen might have been horrified by the idea that a Communist nation might acquire his ocean liner on the outskirts of Paris and exploit it as a base for invading France. Since the opening of the Games, everybody knows that China has changed. They've left silly old Mao out on a ledge, to be forgotten in the future. Why shouldn't modern China purchase an extreme right-wing holy of holies? They've moved back towards Confucius... who said: War doesn't decide who's right. War decides who's left.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Ancestral properties, real and virtual

[This post was inspired by an article in the website of Le Figaro,
29 July 2008, by Marie-Christine Tabet.]

We're accustomed to thinking of 82-year-old Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as an aristocratic gentleman from the province of Auvergne, with profound attachments to this mountainous region of central France. So, it was surprising to hear that he was trying to sell the family possessions. Don't get me wrong; I'm not talking about African diamonds. VGE [as he's often called] had merely decided to put the family castle up for sale.

More surprising still: few potential purchasers seem to be interested in this 43-room dwelling and its 32-acre park, acquired by the former president's grandfather in 1933. There's even a rumor going around the region that Giscard might not really be trying to get rid of his property, but that could well be mere wishful thinking of a nostalgic kind, for it's nice that a celebrity should be attached to a local village... and it's often good for business, too.

But why would somebody like Valéry Giscard d'Estaing even think of selling the home of his ancestors? Well, the answer to that question is simple: It all depends on what you mean by ancestors. And that leads us into the domain of genealogy. The chart on the left indicates that the name of the ex-president's great-great-grandfather was Barthélémy Giscard. So, normally, the ex-president should have the same basic name as his paternal grandfather: Valéry Giscard. If this is not the case, it's because Valéry's father Edmond Giscard asked the highest state authorities in 1922 to grant him the privilege of adding d'Estaing to his family name. And they allowed him to do so.

Now, where did the Giscard family of Auvergne find this d'Estaing appendix? Well, the above-mentioned Barthélémy married a woman named Elisabeth de Cousin de La Tour Fondue, and d'Estaing happened to be the surname of his mother-in-law, as indicated here:

And where did this Lucie woman get her surname from? Well, from her father, one would imagine... but the truth of the matter is that we don't know a lot about her. All we know is that there used to be an ancient and celebrated d'Estaing family in a village of the same name down in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. The terminal member of this family was a certain admiral Charles d'Estaing, who fought against the English in the American War of Independence before returning to France, where he was guillotined in 1794.

It would appear that the above-mentioned Lucie was a godchild of this admiral. Was she in fact a genetic relative? I don't know. Be that as it may, since the d'Estaing name and title had become extinct, the ex-president's father was able to acquire the name. Incidentally, this event gave rise to a witticism attributed to the Général de Gaulle. It needs a bit of explaining. In French, an acquired name such as d'Estaing is often referred to as a nom d'emprunt (borrowed name). Well, when Giscard was the treasurer of France, he decided to launch an emprunt national (state loan), which was referred to (as is often the case in France) by the name of its initiator. De Gaulle remarked: "Estaing is a fine name for a loan."

Let's get back to our castles. The village of Estaing in the Aveyron department is still dominated by the ancestral castle of the noble family from whom Giscard's father picked up the d'Estaing name.

Not content to "borrow" merely the d'Estaing name, Valéry and his brother Olivier Giscard d'Estaing decided, in 2005, to purchase this castle! As you can imagine, owning and running a castle is no mean task. With two castles now in the family, it's easy to understand why the former president might be thinking of getting rid of one of them. And it's even easier to guess which of the two edifices is the more prestigious, and worth keeping: the genuine family home in Auvergne purchased by Giscard's father in 1933, or the "borrowed" ancestral castle acquired recently in the village of Estaing.