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French press review 14 December 2010

In right-leaning daily Le Figaro, some coverage of Nicolas Sarkozy's right-leaning UMP party conference, which, says Le Fig, is an opportunity for most of the party to close ranks behind the president for the next elections in 2012. As we've seen in recent days, the French socialist party is still struggling to pick a candidate for the next election, let alone one with the party and popular support to take on Sarkozy - and meanwhile, the Right is making strides. Here's François Fillon, Sarkozy's prime minister, calling his party to a "sacred union" in the cause of victory.

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And Le Figaro also has a rundown on what it sees as the crucial issues for the 2012 elections - high on the list are home security and the perpetually vexed question of French national identity (in a right-wing paper like Le Fig, and quite often in UMP rhetoric, these are usually codewords for immigration) as well as a proposed end to the famous French 35-hour week.
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Libération, on the left of the political spectrum, leads with a story about a possible conflict between Brice Hortefeux, the hardline French home affairs minister, and prime minister Francois Fillon. The topic at issue is the recent trial of seven policemen in the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris for assaulting a motorist and allegedly trying to cover it up. The men were all given six to twelve months in prison.

Hortefeux almost instantly went on the record calling the judgment 'disproportionate' - and he's been under fire in France ever since. A spokesperson for the socialist party said he sounded like the head of the policemen's trade union, while his own party's Justice Minister has sought to remind journalists that Hortefeux's brief doesn't include justice.

Finally the PM, Fillon, has stepped in to put the minister in his place, pointing out (as Hortefeux stood silently at his side, says Libé) that "the honour of the police force demands exemplary behaviour".

Libé's take on all this is that Hortefeux's comments indicate an unpalatable truth about Sarkozy's France, where the police, who are routinely criticised for heavy-handedness, count on government backing to get them off scot-free even when they get sentenced.

Some more in the papers here about the French ambivalence over the Islamic veil, the niquab. Wearing the full veil in public has been banned in France, but there has been a great deal of protest from feminist and Islamic groups, and there's no serious agreement anyway on what constitutes the full veil -- or, indeed, the public space. In one story here in Libé, a court in Nantes has cancelled a citation against a woman for driving in a veil: it concluded that the veil didn't interfere with her driving and that a car was a private space. Separately, however, an employment tribunal has approved the firing of a veiled worker from a creche in Yvelines, outside Paris. The creche had said that its rules banned the wearing of religious symbols on grounds of neutrality.

Le Monde, the centrist daily, leads its website with some revelations from Egypt. According to the leaked US diplomatic cables released as part of the WikiLeaks haul, the Egyptian army does not want President Hosni Mubarak to pass on the office of president to his son Gamal. Both Mubarak and his son have long denied that any such plan is in the offing - and the Egyptian opposition has confirmed with equal fervency that it is. Elections are due next year, but according to the cables from the US embassy in Cairo, the military power base is against Gamal because, among other things, he never finished his military service.

There's also plenty of diplo-gossip from Africa. Among them, news that Washington was afraid of "general instability" in Abdoulaye Wade's regime in Senegal. And a bizarre piece of Françafrique power playing from Cote d'Ivoire - which, we should bear in mind - could simply be diplomatic tittle-tattle. This cable features quotes from Laurent Gbagbo to a US diplomat in 2005, saying he'd interceded with the then French president Jacques Chirac to have Dominique de Villepin made prime minister. If there's even a shred of truth here, it has fascinating implications for the recent history of French-African politics.

A story here in Le Monde about Tintin au Congo, that infamous spot on the record of the Belgian writer and illustrator Hergé. Written in 1931, the book is banned in some African countries for its unflattering portrayal of black people. In the UK it carries a warning attempting to place it in the colonial context in which it was written, and has been moved out of the childrens' section of bookshops.

Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, the subject of Le Monde's article, has been fighting for several years in Belgium and France to have the book publicly labelled as racist. Hearings of his case have now begun in Belgium, though Le Monde's article has comment from a couple of African cartoonists as well ... the Gabonese cartoonist Pahe says please don't ban the book in Gabon because he draws black people just like Hergé does, while Willy Zekid from Congo-Brazzaville says that the fight for freedom of the press and the development of African cartooning are more important than fighting this battle.

And a quirky story from Le Figaro, which suggests that the world's best-known painting the Mona Lisa may be hiding yet another secret. Italian art historian Silvano Vincenti says that tiny letters in each of La Gioconda's eyes spell out not only Leonardo da Vinci's own initials LV, but also those of the putative model for the painting. Apparently the letters in question could be either CE or BS.

Le Fig has found a French art historian who says the message is almost certainly BS - just not in the sense in which Vincenti means it. He says that the so-called letters aren't hidden messages but the simple result of cracks in the paint, and that it would take "lots of imagination" to make them into anything else.

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