Out of France: Referendum forces silly season to wait until autumn

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PARIS - In November 1976, the daily Liberation carried four separate headlines across its front page. They read: 'Jean Gabin (the actor) is dead'; 'The Beaujolais Nouveau is good'; 'Giscard (the President) is in the shit'; and 'France continues'.

Over the past two or three months, the visitor could have been forgiven for thinking that France was not continuing, that everything had stopped for the Maastricht referendum. Even now, nearly three weeks after the narrow 'yes' vote, the media are still dominated by politics and Maastricht fall- out after an unprecedented summer election campaign.

In some ways, the campaign robbed the French of their routine July and August entertainment. The all-consuming lead-up to the referendum wiped out the summer silly season, which is usually a good one in France. But that does not mean it did not happen. And some have deployed their best efforts to catch up since.

Most Frenchmen, for example, missed the fact that Madame Claude, the doyenne of the world's brothel-keepers, whose exploits have even made it to the French cinema, was in court again to answer for her latest call-girl network.

The new points driving licence, similar to the British endorsements system, whose introduction on 1 July caused truck-drivers to block roads and cause havoc for 10 days, has been radically altered, with the original six points now doubled to 12. This astonishing back- pedalling by the government caused scarcely a murmur.

With the regular autumn wave of strikes getting under way, the first off the mark were the prison officers, after one was killed in a riot. With their strike over, prisons have come back into the news. But now, it is caused by the current fad for escaping from prison using a hijacked helicopter. Three prisoners escaped from one jail this way last weekend.

Michel Vauzelle, the Justice Minister, said, somewhat injudiciously, that he was examining the possibility of shooting at the aircraft. As the prison officers' unions pointed out, this could make them as lethal as bombs. They suggested that wires stretched over exercise yards might be a simpler, although less spectacular solution. There followed more back-pedalling.

Perhaps the strangest tale of all, and one which does not involve the famous or the high and mighty, has happened in Calais, in the Beau-Marais municipal housing estate. While the French countryside has traditionally been a place of suspicion where, if a crime were committed, villagers would themselves designate the criminal and persecute him, what took place in Calais shows that the practice has reached the poor suburbs on the outskirts of France's towns.

Last month in the Beau-Marais, the news spread that a little girl had been raped and murdered in a neighbouring district. Her body had been found outside a local school, the reports said. A little girl in the Beau-Marais told her mother a stranger had photographed her. Locals reported seeing graffiti on school walls: 'Little blondes, prepare your graves.' The authorities, they said, had quickly had them erased.

The most vociferous of the 18,000 residents of the Beau-Marais lost no time in pointing the finger at their main suspect. He was Christophe, 18, under treatment for drug addiction and one of 13 children of a Tunisian father and a French mother. He soon picked up nicknames such as 'the Monster of Calais' or 'Dracula'.

After the alleged photography, a crowd, made up mainly of mothers, gathered outside the local school. When Christophe walked near by, they grabbed him, said Armand Pierrot, the headmaster. 'There were about 30 of them, he had a revolver pointed at his head.' The police were called, they saved Christophe from the mob, questioned him, and then released him.

The next day, another crowd surrounded Christophe's home, a siege which started to become a daily occurrence until Christophe fled the district. At one point, Christophe's mother allowed her neighbours to search her flat for Christophe's camera. They did not find it.

Police took Christophe to the school to confront children who had complained of sexual abuse by strangers. None identified him. While Christophe was inside, Mr Pierrot had to lock the gates to keep out a crowd of 60 people because 'they wanted to lynch him'.

As Christophe, now holed up in a squat in Calais, hides from his persecutors, the police have had no problems dealing with the original incidents behind the problem.

First, after extensive checks, they found that no little girls were missing anywhere in the area. They concluded that the talk of rape and murder was pure rumour. They certainly found no body. As for the photographer, he was identified as one of a team of local council surveyors using measuring equipment on a tripod.