French press review 3 September 2013

7 min

Syria, Senegal's new leader and school hours are among the subjects in today's French papers...

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Le Figaro is dominated by an exclusive interview with Syrian president, Bashar al Assad.

The right-wing paper is not blind to the fact that the man is a cruel and ruthless tyrant, an ally of Teheran and Hezbollah, a declared enemy of Israel. And he uses the Figaro interview to warn that Syria will take action against French interests if François Hollande allows punitive air strikes in retaliation for the Syrian leader's recent use of chemical weapons.

On France 24

Assad says he has no quarrel with the French people, but that he considers the state "an enemy" because of the current political stance of French leaders. That hostility will end, he says, once France changes its policy.

Assad says 80 or 90 per cent of those currently opposed to his rule are foreign terrorists affiliated to al-Qaida.

The Syrian leader says he has never authorised the use of chemical weapons. He calls on his accusers to produce one single element of proof, and also questions the military logic of the use of such weapons, given that the position of his forces is much stronger now than it was just 12 months ago. And, he wonders, how come thousand of people were not killed by gas carried on the wind through the suburbs of Damascus.

Asked to be specific about the threat against Syria's enemies, Assad simply replies "You obviously don't expect me to give you an answer on the nature of our reaction."

Le Monde carries a brief portrait of Aminata Touré, Senegal's new prime minister. Mimi, as her friends call her, is also known as the Iron Maiden. So she may well have precisely the mix of delicacy and toughness needed to drag her country out of its current economic, social and political lethargy.

She is broadly admired for her handling over the past two years of the justice portfolio, overseeing, notably, the Hissène Habré extradition case and the investigation of the personal fortune of Karim Wade, son of the former president. She's known to be tough on human rights issues and the abuse of power.

Aminata Touré says she's determined to work to improve the living conditions of ordinary Senegalese.

The same centrist Le Monde looks at the weekend election of Amar Saadani as head of the Algerian ruling party, the National Liberation Front. Saadani's victory is not exactly news: he was the only candidate to survive several days of quietly fratricidal debate.

What is significant, says Le Monde, is his closeness to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, recently seen by many analysts as terminally weakened because of his age and failing health. Bouteflika has not been seen in public since he was discharged from hospital in early July. Saadani's victory is seen as a proof that the presidential clan remains influential, and is already firing warning shots to those, like Ali Benflis, who might think next year's elections would be a good time for change.

Amar Saadani has called for unity among all factions of the National Liberation Front.

The lads at the American National Security Agency are probably among our most faithful listeners. Which would be good news were it not for the fact that they seem to listen to just about everybody. The US spy agency has, according to new documents from the stash leaked by Edward Snowden, poked its nose into the French Foreign Ministry, cracking the supposedly secure Virtual Private Network which carries messages from Paris to ambassadors worldwide. Uncle Sam's spooks also listened in on conversations between Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Enrique Pena Nieto when he was campaigning for the top job in Mexico.

As for the National Security Agency's media preferences, there's currently no evidence of a marked interest in RFI. The lads seem to prefer Al-Jazeera, available documents indicating that the Americans believe that the Qatari television operation has contacts that could lead to the Al Qaeda high command.

And, before leaving Le Monde, I can't resist a mention of the investor Carl Icahn, "the most feared man on Wall Street," supposedly the model for Michael Douglas's character in the movie Wall Street. Icahn has recently been buying shares in the computer company Apple, and he now wants Apple bosses to spend 150 billion dollars buying their own shares, because he believes the company is undervalued.

If they do, he'll become even more stinky rich; if they don't, Icahn will dump his shares, possibly provoking a panic by other investors. Icahn is famous for saying that, to survive on Wall Street, "if you want a friend, get yourself a dog". Woof!

Other French front pages look at the return to school. "Rhythm and Blues" is Libération's clever headline on the blues provoked for some parents by new school hours which will see about a fifth of French junior school kids act as guinea pigs in a government plan to shorten the school day by lengthening the school week.

Is everybody following this? Instead of four long days separated by a completely school-free Wednesday, which has been the situation up to now, the brave new world will see the junior school week extended to four and a half shorter days. Most objective commentators think it's a good idea, but some parents, many teachers, and storms of confused parents are against.

They'd better get used to it. The four and a half day week will become the norm from next September.

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