Paris Diary

Gabon, in Francophone Africa, is a long way from France, but not as far as its president, Omar Bongo, might like it to be. He is implicated in a particularly sordid case currently before a Paris court, in which the Italian head of a French fashion house, Francesco Smalto, is charged with procuring call-girls for Mr Bongo. The prosecution alleges that Mr Smalto hired tall, blonde models of the type Bongo liked, then sent them to Libreville on double assignment: to sell his designs and entertain his client.

In court, Mr Smalto - who is pleading not guilty - said: "I did not think I was committing a grave offence, but I was aware of the immoral side of the situation." Asked what exactly he meant by "immoral", he said: "Sending girls to go to dinner with President Bongo ..."

"But there is nothing immoral in that," intervened the judge.

"No, but I suspected that the President kept them there to sleep with ... but I wasn't sure."

President Bongo is very angry about how the case is being reported in France (he has already started proceedings against one newspaper), but he is especially angry that it has come to court at all. For this, he blames the hardline French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, a prominent supporter of the Prime Minister and presidential contender, Edouard Balladur.

Gabonese supporters of Jacques Chirac, though, know when they are on to a good thing. Last week, they held a campaign reception in Libreville and invited the President, who honoured them with his presence. Guess which minor constituency Mr Balladur has just lost?

At the beginning of the election campaign, the three main candidates chose for themselves rather swish headquarters in central Paris. Mr Chirac has an address in the avenue d'Iena which, he likes to recall, is the name of a "great victory". Mr Balladur has rented six floors of a building housing the French horticultural society. It lies discreetly behind a (flowerless) courtyard and has a secure underground car-park - though what the horticultural society needs a secure underground car-park for is a mystery.

But Lionel Jospin's headquarters are by far the most stylish. Eschewing the debt-ridden Socialist Party building a few blocks away, Mr Jospin chose a former fashion studio in the very chic and charmingly named rue du Cherche-Midi. The accommodation, almost entirely open-plan, with lots of metal and glass, was doubtless chosen to enhance his image as "modern man", but his staff don't like it. They say it is cramped - though it usually seems almost empty. What they may mean is that the few offices of the sort that the French like - small, with doors that can be closed and windows that can be shuttered - are cramped, which they doubtless are if no one wants to work in the big open space.

A couple of weeks ago, one speaker apologised to an embarrassingly poorly attended press briefing for the (not very evident) lack of creature comforts. A campaign worker passing through at that very moment could not resist an impromptu response: "You're telling me," he shouted. "It's downright noisy, uncomfortable and generally dreadful."

Another well-known name on the Paris scene is about to disappear. Felix Potin founded his grocery company in 1844 and by the Sixties it had almost 450 small shops, more than half of them in the capital. Last week, after months of uncertainty and several rescue attempts, the company went into receivership. Now, some of the shops - mostly those in prime Paris sites - are up for sale, others have already closed. In some areas they are the only grocery shop left in the neighbourhood, and their presence rescued many an improvident house-husband or wife at the end of the working day. The staff, often loyal employees over decades, are protesting about what they see as the paltry sums offered in compensation.

Many reasons are offered for the failure of Felix Potin, from the (very) high prices in their shops, to exorbitant business rents and the recession. But the factors most commonly cited are the rise of the Asian shopkeeper and the proliferation of large supermarkets. So who says French cities are not affected by out-of-town shopping malls?

There are risks in trying to mix populist politics and the further reaches of medical research, as one of France's leading anti-Aids campaigners found to her cost. Roped in to give a rousing address to Jacques Chirac's youth rally and convince 16,000 excited young people of his commitment to the cause of fighting Aids - the second biggest concern to young people after unemployment, according to the polls - Line Renaud, president of the movement Actors against Aids and an accomplished public speaker, worked up some fine rhetoric.

"You are at war against a virus, an unremitting virus," she said, pausing for effect. At which point a distant murmuring was heard through the hall, that rose to a collective chant: "Ball-a-dur, Ball-a-dur, Ball-a-dur".

A gravitas-exuding comment in Le Monde the next day said that it was a very bad idea to juxtapose an "absolute evil" - Aids - and a "relative good" - Chirac. The Aids virus, it said, was a concern for everyone: it didn't support Balladur, or Jospin, or the Communists, or Le Pen - and there was no guarantee whatsoever that its extinction could be guaranteed on the evening of 7 May, when the results of the second round were known, any more than could poverty or unemployment ...

You might have thought you had heard the last of Peter Mayle and his years in Provence, now that he is packing up and leaving for the United States. But hold on a second: Mayle is enjoying a burst of popularity where it might least be expected - in his temporarily adopted homeland. Toute France, it seems, has been reading A Year in Provence - and liked what it read. Now, the French can get their teeth into Toujours Provence (translated as - wait for it - Provence Toujours), which has just been published here. But the reviews have been less kind. "The magic of A Year in Provence," one said, "seems to have played itself out. You get the impression at times that Mr Mayle is hanging on, waiting for inspiration. Miracles, as an old Provenal proverb has it, never happen twice." Touch, Monsieur Mayle, and adieu.

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