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Jeanne, 120 years and 238 days, is now oldest person on record

Paris - In extreme old age, as in infancy, it is the days that count. Jeanne Calment, who has lived all her life in the southern city of Arles, yesterday notched up 120 years and 238 days to become the longest- lived human being on record, writes Mary Dejevsky. She overtook a Japanese man who died in 1986 at the age of 120 years and 237 days.

Jeanne of Arles, as she became known during her 120th-birthday celebrations in February, was born in 1875, before such events as the Dreyfus affair, the invention of cinema and the building of the Eiffel Tower. She met Van Gogh and was 39 at the outbreak of the First World War.

Yesterday, wearing a black and white dress made by a Paris fashion house and sitting in the new green wheelchair bought after her last birthday, she told assembled television reporters: "I have always been brave; was never afraid of anything."

For the past 10 years she has lived in a small old people's home in Arles; her daughter and grandson both predeceased her. Now she is blind, almost deaf, practically immobile and "a bit distracted" but her doctor, Victor Lebre, describes her as being "more like a 90-year-old in good health" than someone of 120.

He admitted yesterday that he feared during the summer she might not make the 238 days needed to break the record: the heatwave of July and August took its toll and only a day-trip to a local seaside resort and permission to smoke "a single cigarette" restored her morale. Now, he said, her life could probably be measured "in months rather than years", as she had "achieved her goal".

In February, Mrs Calment's 120th birthday was celebrated with singing, dancing and a large cake - although her glazed look and waxlike appearance suggested the festivities largely passed her by. Then, her only recorded comment was: "The good Lord seems to have forgotten me."

In France, her longevity has inevitably been cited not only as a personal achievement but as an advertisement for the French lifestyle and the low- cholesterol Mediterranean diet, with its olive oil, fruit, vegetables and moderate intake of red wine. And while Jeanne of Arles is clearly exceptional, the claim may have some truth: with a life-expectancy of more than 84 years, French women are the longest-lived in Europe.