Picture a typical casino in France. You are somewhere on the Riviera. It is 2am but the night is still young, mon amour. The glass of vintage champagne in your hand reflects the shimmering chandeliers overhead. Your fellow-players, in bow ties or bare backs, resemble super-model clones or James Bond wannabes. A small ball tinkles enticingly on the roulette wheel...
This may once have been typical, but it is typical no more. In recent years, the French casino industry has plummeted triumphantly downmarket (with a 1,000 per cent growth rate since 1988).
The other day, I called in at the casino in Deauville, on the Norman coast, a glamorous, white-stuccoed affair, resembling an enchanted palace from the Arabian Nights. I joined a group of punters queuing impatiently to gain entrance at 11am. They were aged between 50 and 80. The men wore woollen caps with a little button on top. The women wore olive-green anoraks with fake-fur collars.
Once given the signal by a snooty young man in a red bow tie (the only bow tie to be seen), they sprinted up the double staircases. Without obvious pleasure, they started feeding money into a garish space-fleet of one-armed bandits with names (in English) such as Betty Boop and Party Animal.
The Deauville casino is the sixth largest in France. It used to be the haunt of the Paris and London jet sets. Now, 81 per cent of its gambling profits come from slot machines, and from the late middle-aged, and even older, of Middle France.
France has 180 casinos, far more than any other European country. They enjoyed a record year in 2003, with pre-tax gambling profits of €2.5bn - of which almost 93 per cent came not from roulette or blackjack or chemin de fer, but from one-armed bandits (machines à sous).
France's answer to Las Vegas is no longer Cannes or Nice, or even Monte Carlo, but a place called Enghien-les-Bains, an obscure spa town that has been swallowed up by the concrete sprawl of the north-western Paris suburbs. Casinos are banned in Paris proper. Enghien, 15 minutes by train from the Gare du Nord, introduced slot machines two years ago. It has since boomed to the top of the French casino league, with gambling profits of €117m - almost double its nearest rival.
Until 1988, one-armed bandits were illegal in France. They are still legal only in casinos. Their introduction transformed the struggling casino industry and, by boosting local taxes, transformed the fortunes of towns where casinos are allowed. (Under a French law dating from 1907, casinos are permitted only in seaside and spa towns, and other tourist centres.) Forty new casinos have been created in the last 15 years; scores of other towns are seeking permission to cash in on the gambling boom.
Addiction to gambling has become a serious problem in France, but the political pressure to maintain the tax windfall in casino towns - 25 per cent of Deauville's town budget is paid by the casino - means that it is little discussed. Over 7,000 people are banned by the Ministry of the Interior from entering casinos, to protect them, and their families, from their addiction. There were 2,500 new banning orders in 2002, four times as many as in the previous year. In 90 per cent of cases, the banning orders are sought by the gambling addicts themselves. Almost all of the self-banned individuals are addicted to one-armed bandits; almost all of them come from relatively modest or poor backgrounds.
I spent about an hour observing the slot-machine room at the Deauville casino (open from 11am to 4am). One balding man in his early fifties was force-feeding two machines at a time with euro coins, or gambling tokens. A woman in her seventies was cautiously introducing a 10-cent coin every minute or so into a slot- machine called Pharaoh's Gold. She told me that she came to the casino for "the company".
The other gamblers I observed in the Norman Las Vegas seemed interested only in the company of the machines. They looked remarkably like the kind of sad and grumpy French people that you see at Front National rallies, cheering on Jean-Marie Le Pen as he fulminates against the poisoning of French culture by evil American influences.
Desperately seeking frontline baby
Dr John Kerner, 84, a retired gynaecologist in California, delivered many thousands of babies during his career. He would like to find the first - a baby who began her life in the midst of death at his front-line infantry aid station in Normandy in 1944.
An e-mail from Dr Kerner explains: "During the battle, a young woman was brought in by two men who carried her on a padded ladder. She was in labour, with the baby in breech position... I delivered the baby, a girl, on 10 August 1944... I thought it would be a joy to find this 'baby', who would now be 59."
He has placed two appeals in newspapers in Normandy, and asked for the help of town halls in the area of the battle, near Mortain. Everyone in France has been "most helpful", he says. (I have said it before, but the patriotic American and British media pundits who suggest that "the French" have no memory of Allied sacrifices in 1944 are dead wrong.)
Dr Kerner has had a number of leads, but all have proved unsuccessful. It seems that quite a few French babies were delivered by US army medics in 1944. He can be contacted at Kernermd@aol.com.
Toys for the boys in blue
A group of senior gendarmerie officers were spotted, in uniform, in a field in northern Normandy flying model aeroplanes. Wasting police time? No, they were experimenting with a new "mini drone", a small aircraft for photographing speeding cars. What next, asks the satirical paper Le Canard enchaîné. Car-accessory shops selling miniature ground-to-air missiles?