French press review 15 December 2010

Wednesday's front pages lead on mixture of stories ranging from Il Cavaliere's political survival, France's ongoing debate on secularism and the curious recovery of a monarch's missing head. 


"It's still him" says the left-leaning daily Libération this morning, beneath a picture of Silvio Berlusconi in best Napoleonic mode, hand thrust into his lapel -- and either beaming with pride or snarling in warning, as so often with Il Cavaliere it's hard to tell which. Berlusconi of course made it through a confidence vote in parliament yesterday by the skin of his teeth, leaving him with a weak mandate in parliament but clinging on to power.

"A narrow squeak" says Libé, which has some good quotes on the issue from a variety of commentators. One Italian political analyst here calls Berlusconi's life "a fitting autobiography of the nation" -- another one says that "the Berlusconi product is no longer viable, but there's nothing around to replace it". Meanwhile, one of Berlusconi's supporters from his own PDL party adapts Voltaire's words on God in praise (although slightly odd praise) of his leader. "If Silvio Berlusconi didn't exist, we would have to invent him".

Le Monde, which we should remember hit the newsstands at 3pm yesterday, before the result of the vote was known, has an extraordinary cartoon on the front page that I can barely bring myself to describe on a family radio station -- it features, shall we say, a distantly recognisable figure in a three-piece suit hopping from a bed full of call-girls to what looks like a senate chamber and asking the politician on the door there "How much?".

Staying with Le Monde for a moment, its front-page lead is a story on the return of secularism to French political dialogue. This is, says the paper, fuelled not only by the recent debates surrounding Islam in France -- the banning of the veil, the firing of a veiled worker from a crèche, and the continuing stream of inflammatory comments on French Muslims from Marine Le Pen's National Front party -- but by all wings of politics. As Le Monde says, everyone is now being forced to take a stance. The Socialist Party is hosting a series of what it calls "meetings on secularism" -- President Sarkozy has made no secret of his longstanding desire for what he calls a "positive secularism", but Martine Aubry, the socialist party leader, pops up in Le Figaro today decrying what she calls the "insistent references to France's Christian roots".

But what, asks the paper, does secularism consist of? Is it only defined by negative potential -- by the absence of religion? One philosopher called in by Le Monde says that's definitely true, and that the way things are going risks "impoverishing" secularism, a founding principle of the French Republic, by just making it about denial.

Le Figaro also finds plenty of space inside the paper for the continued speculation over a Socialist Party candidate to face Nicolas Sarkozy at the next elex in 2012. Le Fig says that the party is, I quote, beginning to believe in the return of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, known here as DSK and considered the only person who can unite enough support behind the Socialist Party to give it a chance. Le Figaro quotes a source who it says is close to DSK, saying that both Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry, the prospective candidates for the socialist nomination, know that DSK is on the way back and have effectively said their prayers. Strauss-Kahn's continued employment by the IMF of course prohibits him from commenting on politics ... for the moment.

There's a front-page story on how the domination of Google in France is worrying the country's business regulatory body.

France's competition authority is said to be worried about how the search engine giant's omnipresence affects online advertising, and it launched an inquiry into Google two weeks ago. Results have yet to be published, but the body said today that it was adopting "targeted measures" to look into how Google shares ad revenue with internet media. Google is the top player in the French market, but that's not in itself illegal -- only if it can be found to have abused its profession will it face sanctions from the regulatory body.
Meanwhile, the French parliament has separately decided to impose a 1 per cent tax on all online advertising from next year -- a move that is seen as an attempt to claw back some of the revenue from the largely offshore Google. Indeed it's already being called a Google Tax here in France.

Two lighter stories from Le Figaro. One describes how the head of the monarch Henry IV has once again come to light after several centuries. Known as Good King Henry here in France, Henry IV was stabbed in his coach in 1610 by a fervent anti-Catholic. His head went missing during the French revolution and has shuttled between private collections ever since. Once, according to the paper, it was sold for 3 francs along with a pair of shoes and an old lantern.

Now the head is back, and will be re-buried in the cathedral of St-Denis after a state funeral next year. The man responsible for authenticating it is Dr Philippe Charlier, who Le Figaro says is the Indiana Jones of history -- among other triumphs he proved three years ago that the supposed sacred relics of Joan of Arc were the combined bones of an Egyptian mummy and a cat.

And finally, one of those on-a-lighter-note stories that turns out to be vastly more sinister than most of the other stuff in the paper. In South Korea, it appears, hordes of young men are falling in love with a girl called Mina, who, if certain conditions are met, can be the perfect girlfriend. She rings you up in the morning to ask if you've had your breakfast yet. She calls to tell you she's seen a scary film and needs some comfort, or rings up to wish you goodnight. All you have to do is own a smartphone ... and download the Mina app. Yes, this is an entirely virtual girlfriend, created, her inventor says, to comfort lonely guys. A Japanese version launches soon for 2 dollars -- cheap at the price, remarks Le Figaro, for such a perfect girlfriend.

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