FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
No facts please, we're French

FRANCE is a cultured country, it is said, where even the little children speak French. And speak les citoyens certainly do. In the past three weeks, their robust cries of ''Juppe resign'' and ''Chirac out'' echoed throughout their strike-bound land. But how many could read a railway timetable, even if the trains had been running?

We may never know. Officials who saw the preliminary conclusions of a study of literacy skills in France have excised the findings from Literacy, Society and Economy, a report published this month. Unlike many of their countrymen, the censors can grasp what they read - and what they learnt was that 40.1 per cent of French adults were in the lowest of five proficiency levels when it comes to understanding and using written information. The French did slightly better than the Poles, but were well behind the Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Swiss, Canadians and Americans in the survey by the Paris- based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

''Only the French censored the results,'' said the newspaper Liberation, ''which is tantamount to refusing to acknowledge the truth staring you in the face.''

Claude Thelot of the French Education Ministry said the reports's methodology was flawed, and that the tests were influenced by ''Anglo-Saxon culture''. The French, in other words, were asked about ''things the French don't learn''. He might be right: one question asked respondents to calculate the percentage of calories in a cheeseburger that come from fat. A French version would substitute ''pate de foie gras'' for ''cheeseburger'', and the correct answer would be, ''We don't care''.

Buy and cell

AS NICK LEESON reclines on a straw mat in a Singapore jail cell rather than on the beach at Kota Kinabalu, and waits for the clock to reach six-and-a-half years, the money-making goes on without him.

Over at Harry's Bar, his old watering-hole on the fashionable Boat Quay, tourists excitedly sip sweet green cocktails called ''Bank Breakers'', at pounds 5.50 a glass.

Made from one measure of the melon liqueur Midori and half a shot each of vodka and whisky, topped up with soda water, the Bank Breaker is said to deliver a powerful aftershock, akin to the kick felt in the stomachs of Barings executives when thetrader brought the bank down.

Meanwhile a board game called ''In the Nick of Time'' is expected on the market in the new year. Its designer, Gordon Tan, explains: ''Players are high-flying traders whirling around the board, collecting as much wealth as possible. But there are also customs officers and police who try to block your progress and arrest you.'' At the end of the game, players have to get back to London via Frankfurt without getting caught.

If you do get caught, of course, you can blame other people, say you've never had a posh lifestyle, demand to stand trial in London, change your mind, then return to Singapore wearing a backwards baseball cap and a silly grin.

Adventure holidays

A COLOURFUL brochure comes across our desk, from a national tourism office, rhapsodising about the ''great modern state'' that is being built, the country's ''ethnic mosaic'', its prosperity dependent on ''human wealth and its cohesion'', its ''rites of hospitality'', a land where ''the game is abundant ... but we do not have the right to shoot at ... the moufflon''.

And where, pray tell, is this blessed and gentle land? In North Africa, and it goes by the name ''Algeria''. Not to be confused, surely, with the Algeria that has been through three years of ambushes, torture, throat- cutting and decapitations, at a cost of about 50,000 lives.

In the Great South of the country, the advice to travellers used to be, ''If you step more than seven steps, take your takouba.'' Visitors nowadays may have trouble getting the wide-bladed sword through airport metal detectors.

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