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.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Our dear departments

Although I blog in English, I often use the French spelling of the word département to insist upon the fact that I'm referring to the geographical divisions introduced at the time of the French Revolution. Today, the number of departments in France is exactly 100. This round decimal figure (10 squared) has always struck me as a typical demonstration of French perfectionism. In Britain, on the contrary, the number of counties is 86, but they're not very homogeneous entities. In the US, of course, the number of states is a round figure, 50, but that's only half as nice as 100. Besides, there's an anomaly that would be unthinkable in any rigorous French system: the US capital, Washington, doesn't belong to any state at all! As for my native Australia, the number of geographical and/or administrative divisions lies somewhere between 6 and 8, depending on how you handle the distinction between states and territories.

For many years, the license plates of French vehicles have ended with the designation of the department. For example, Parisian automobiles are labeled 75, those from Lyon are 69, while those from Marseille are 13. Everybody has become aware that it's almost impossible, when you're driving in France, to avoid paying attention to the origins of neighboring vehicles, and forming superficial judgments based upon this information. For example, if I happen to be driving my old Citroën, labeled 38, along a country road, behind a 22 or a 35 from Brittany, I slow down automatically at every approaching intersection, because I'm persuaded that the driver of this vehicle in front of me is likely to get lost, and suddenly brake. Likewise, if I glimpse a 91 to 95 in my rear-vision mirror or, worse still, an Yvelines-based 78 (all of whom come from the Parisian region), I brace myself for a dangerous overtake on the next curve in the road. When I see a vehicle from a deep rural corner of France, I can't help myself from thinking that the driver is surely more accustomed to the wheel of a tractor. When the driver comes from a highly industrial region, I imagine that he's taking time off from handling a truck or a forklift.

Really, this is all very silly and, as I said, superficial. But that's how countless French drivers react on the road. Even their kids on the back seat spend their time, during lengthy holiday excursions, competing against one another in games based upon recognizing the famous 100 department numbers [with 2A and 2B standing respectively for southern and northern Corsica].

Normally, this numbering system on French vehicle plates is so ingrained in popular culture that it would be utterly foolish to try to change it. But foolish technocrats have nevertheless decided to do so... and this has given rise to huge dissension. The new plates were supposed to look like this:

French drivers were shocked by the idea that the identity of their dear department might be relegated to the place occupied by the pair of tiny white zeros on a blue background at the right-hand extremity of the plate. It was a little like asking a member of parliament from Perpignan, say, to hold a handkerchief over his mouth when speaking, to muffle his Catalan accent. The latest amended proposition is more like this:

It's reassuring to learn that, even within the context of such an ephemeral gadget as their automobile, people have a firm desire to remain attached to their geographical origins, and to display with pride this attachment. This is neither abhorrent nationalism nor mindless provincialism. It's called roots.