John Lichfield: True courage on the water


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In almost 40 years in journalism I have met some memorable people: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Bobby Charlton, Zinedine Zidane. This weekend, I met someone who is more inspiring and admirable, than any of the above (Mandela apart). His name is Philippe Croizon. You've never heard of him? Actually, you probably have. Twelve months ago last weekend, he swam the Channel from Folkestone to France.

Good for him, you might say, but lots of people have done that (to be precise, 900 people in the last 136 years). Yes, but Philippe Croizon was the first to do so without arms or legs. In March 1994, Philippe, then a 27-year-old steelworker, was severely burned when manipulating a TV aerial which struck a power line near his home in central France. In the following months, both his legs and both his arms above the elbow were amputated.

Four years ago, Philippe decided to learn to swim. He devised a new method, using short, artificial leg extensions, flippers, a snorkel and what remained of his upper arms for balance. He was told, at first, that no one could swim like that. Within two years, he was ready to make an attempt on the Channel. He was told that was impossible. He succeeded at the first attempt. Ninety per cent of able-bodied, would-be Channel swimmers fail.

I went to see Philippe, 44, on Saturday at a "Pyramid of Shoes", near the Eiffel Tower, organised by Handicap International to publicise its campaign against anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs. Philippe is much involved in campaigns and charities to help limbless people all over the globe. Handicap International's campaign deserves support. Over 100 countries are contaminated by anti-personnel munitions. There are 80,000,000 lying around in Laos alone.

Philippe is also involved in another global challenge. Next year, together with another French channel swimmer, Arnaud Chassery, 34, he plans to swim four straits between five continents, including the Gulf of Aqaba, the straits of Gibraltar and the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

Only one swimmer has ever swum all four before. Philippe and Arnaud hope to break his record by completing them in four months. They will start with the channel between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia in May. Alleged experts say that is impossible. Philippe has already shown, like his equally determined, but less admirable countryman Napoleon Bonaparte, that "impossible" is just someone else's opinion.

He has one potentially insurmountable handicap, however. Money. Philippe and Arnaud need €700,000 (£611,000) to pay for their 10-person expedition. Airfares alone are €100,000. They have already raised €200,000. They need the rest by the end of November or they will have to postpone their plans for 12 months. "I never expected it to be so difficult to raise the money," Philippe told me. "The problem is that, with both the Olympics and the European football championship next year, sponsorship is hard to find."

Is there also anyone out there who would like to associate their name, or their organisation, with an extraordinary man and an extraordinary challenge? An international airline, perhaps? To know more, go to Philippe can contacted at

A potential flaw in a great, green enterprise

Work has started outside my office on the latest Parisian experiment in urban living: Autolib'. Four years after popularising the self-service bicycle, Velib – maman of the "Boris Bike" in London – Paris will start tests next month on a help-yourself network of electric cars.

From December, they will be available on the streets of Paris proper and in 45 suburban communes. By next year, there will be a fleet of 3,000 cars available for a small daily or annual subscription and then a rising scale of charges from €5 per half-hour. A dock for 10 cars is being constructed on the street where I work close to the Champs Elysées.

This is a bold venture which will, according to Bertrand Delanoe, the great and good mayor of Paris, remove 22,500 private, fuel-emitting cars from the capital's streets. I foresee one problem, however. On Friday evening, the one-way street outside my office was blocked for more than 40 minutes by a column of hooting cars. They sounded as if they were playing an experimental jazz number or the latest dodecaphonic offering by Pierre Boulez. This is a common event. Anyone renting a Bluecar from my street may find that they have simply paid to join an automotive orchestra and have nowhere to go.

Is Sarkozy planning to downsize his career?

Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising eyebrows by comparing himself with Lawrence of Arabia. At a lunch-party for French historians, and again during a meeting of the French cabinet, he said that he was the first European since Colonel T.E. Lawrence to "promote democracy in the Arab world".

President Sarkozy was referring to his quasi-official status as Liberator of Libya. You may think that he should have granted equal billing to David Cameron. Sometimes, he does so. In another private conversation, he said of the Prime Minister: "Il n'est pas un planqué, David. Il est mon pote." (He's not a loser, David. He is my pal.)

This concedes Mr Cameron, at any rate, the status of Robin to President Sarkozy's Batman. But why the obsession with Lawrence of Arabia? Whatever Lawrence was fighting for against the Turks and for the Arabs during the First World War, democracy was not high on the agenda.

Mr Sarkozy is embattled on many fronts, judicial, economic and political. Maybe, he is already preparing, like Lawrence, for an obscure, new life after next spring's presidential elections. If he decides, like his hero, to join the ranks of the RAF, "Aircraftman Sarko" should keep away from motor-bikes.