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Invincible Mugabe swoops from skies

Robert Mugabe has never been one to fight his political battles on a level playing field, and now he doesn't need one anyway. He has been swooping around Zimbabwe by helicopter on the campaign trail ahead of the presidential elections this weekend, while his one remaining challenger, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, 71, relies on borrowed vehicles.

Laws passed by the Mugabe government give his party millions of tax dollars for campaigning each year, while Bishop Muzorewa's United Parties and other opposition groups get nothing. Independent newspapers have folded, some under harassment from the government. And as radio, press and television slavishly report the merest presidential platitude, the grossest untruth, they ignore Bishop Muzorewa, whose tiny campaign HQ does not even have a telephone.

Margaret Dongo, one of only three opposition MPs, says people should protest by refusing to take part in the election. Hence the sky-high helicopter bills. Mr Mugabe was advised that, unless he cracked the whip, he faced a somewhat embarrassing 15 per cent turnout. Last night even deeper embarrassment faced the president. Bishop Muzorewa threatened to pull out altogether, handing Mr Mugabe a walkover that left his power intact but his credibility in tatters.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, entered the ranks of France's immortals yesterday, taking his seat in the august Academie Francaise, the body that - among other things - guards the purity of the French language.

Mgr Lustiger raised eyebrows most recently when he agreed to conduct the memorial mass in Notre Dame for the late President Francois Mitterrand, an occasion much-criticised for associating a determinedly secular state too closely with the church. But he has a long association with controversy.

Born of Polish Jewish parents, he converted to Catholicism in 1940 at the age of 14, a fact that prevents some French Catholics from accepting him fully as French and attracts the opprobrium of some Jews.

His conversion has also been held against him by Israel, which last year omitted his name from a list of dignitaries invited to an ecumenical gathering in Jerusalem.

At the academy, Mgr Lustiger inherits the chair of the late Cardinal Archbishop of Lyons, Albert Decourtray. This week, Mgr Lustiger went out of his way to deny insistent reports that he had expressed an interest in the chair as soon as it became vacant.

"I have never sought any honour," he said. "I never made any statements or requests."

Silvio Berlusconi is in danger of being deserted by Italy's "mammas". The 850,000 strong National Housewives' Federation, worried by what it describes as a tide of old and unqualified people who are continuing to dabble in politics and undermine female MPs, is threatening to throw its weight and muscle behind the centre-left Olive Tree coalition.

The "mamma" vote helped Mr Berlusconi's right-wing Freedom Alliance to victory in 1994, and he must be wondering how he can win back the hearts of Italian women.

He could do worse than consult Boris Yeltsin. The Russian president's wife, Naina, in an interview published in the popular weekly Argumenty i Fakty yesterday, says she has enjoyed 40 years of happiness with her husband despite his weakness for women. "Of course, I sometimes felt hurt - he always was very gallant at parties and never spared a compliment to women," she said. "And they always notice him."

James Roberts