FLAT EARTH

Vive l'Empire

IT'S A pity that the Socialist-led forces are so far ahead in the French election - I was rather looking forward to the National Front's horror if the result depended on the voters in France's overseas departments and territories, most of whom are the wrong colour for the Le Pen crowd.

You may laugh at the French insistence that somewhere like Tahiti, Reunion or Guadeloupe is indistinguishable from metropolitan France, as if the thousands of miles of ocean in between did not exist, but you have to admire the other side of this stubborn state of mind. Anyone who accepts that the French language and culture are superior to all others, as of course any rational man or woman must, is treated as fully French, be they South Sea islander or the descendant of African slaves. One of Charles de Gaulle's main opponents was Gaston Monnerville, the long-serving President of the Senate, who was black and from French Guiana, but nobody questioned his right to disrupt the general's trysts with destiny.

But one wonders: how often do these representatives see their electors? It must be a bit difficult to make it to surgeries in Papeete South, but you do get free travel back to your constituency, just like our MPs.

The buddy knight

BRITAIN'S envoy to the United Nations in New York, Sir John Weston, needs to get with the "new" programme. We mean, of course, as in "New Labour". While Bill Clinton was in London, no doubt being asked by his new chum to call him Tony, Sir John found that another Bill - Rich-ardson, his recently-arrived American opposite number on the Security Council - has taken to referring to him behind his back as "Johnny".

Sir John was, shall we say, displeased. "He didn't like it one bit," a diplomat confirmed. But haven't you heard, Johnny? Things have changed. This is the era of first names in Cabinet, of ministerial wig removals, of presidents and prime ministers communing like old school pals. Richardson, an affable chap who likes to relax at a boxing club in Brooklyn, has got the hang of it more quickly than you.

Balls, no balls

AMERICAN citizens were being helicoptered out of the war-torn capital of Sierra Leone last week, but even that was not enough to persuade the TV networks to get cameras there. They were too busy covering 12-year- old Melissa Raglin of Boca Raton in Florida, a junior league baseball player who was banished to the outfield for not being properly equipped.

Melissa plays catcher - equivalent to a wicketkeeper in cricket - but a referee hauled her up for not wearing an "athletic cup", or a box in cricket parlance. Her "but I'm a girl" objections fell on deaf ears; her decision to turn up the next day with a cup tied around her ankle brought a laugh, but no return to catching duties.

By yesterday, with Melissa all over prime time and sports firms swamping her in female groin protectors, the Little League baseball authorities dropped the rule. Maybe they should be sent to Sierra Leone to learn flexibility.

Room for a plug

THIS is Part One of what I suspect will be a continuing series leading up to the handover of Hong Kong at the end of this month. Two letters arrive on my desk in quick succession from a nameless (you will see why) hotel in the colony, offering journalists and broadcasters free rooms with views of the harbour in late June and early July. The catch, of course, is that you have to mention the hotel in your report.

For feature writers starved of a subject, the establishment also has employees who can impart their expertise in such matters as traditional dim sum cooking, Chinese opera, Kung Fu and jade valuation. So if you see breathless articles or TV reports on these topics which also happen to allude to a hotel whose name escapes me just now, remember this Cantonese saying: "Mo minfai, um chan," which translates, funnily enough, as "There is no such thing as a free lunch."

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