Our Woman In Paris: A giant leap for the city's new icon

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The Independent Online

Her image is plastered around every Métro station in town, but the identity of the athlete chosen to adorn the official poster for the World Athletics Championships, which start this Saturday in Paris, has until recently remained a mystery.

Her image is plastered around every Métro station in town, but the identity of the athlete chosen to adorn the official poster for the World Athletics Championships, which start this Saturday in Paris, has until recently remained a mystery.

Now curious Parisians are beginning to unravel the story behind this faceless icon. What is extraordinary is that she's neither French, nor a world champion, and she's using her moment in the spotlight to champion the cause of athletes from the developing world unable to compete in what is set to be the biggest sporting event of the year.

Maria Conjungo, the 100-metre hurdler turned poster-girl, has come a long way herself. The 27-year-old grew up in Saint Denis, the suburb better known for its high-rises and crime than for top-level athletics, after her parents arrived from the Central African Republic (CAR) when she was two years old. "I got into sport thanks to a programme for disadvantaged youth run by the businessman Bernard Tapie," she says. "But it was my brother Mikael, who was a French discus champion, who told me to try hurdling at his club."

The image of Conjungo is from a book, Femme Athlètes, published by the charity Sport Sans Frontières to raise money to send equipment and coaches to developing countries.

While Conjungo admits that "the only thing I remember from the CAR is throwing a dog down a well", Africa is close to her heart. "Imagine, a woman, an African woman, chosen for the poster of the third biggest sporting event in the world. This poster is a sign of respect for the continent," she says. "I am very proud of it."

Conjungo runs for Saint Denis, where she works as a sales rep. As a dual national, she will represent the CAR at the World Championships because "it is easier to get selected". She says: "We usually go as a tiny delegation. There were two of us at the World Championships in 1999."

She would like it to be otherwise: "There is enormous sporting potential in African countries, but most of the focus in Europe tends to be on humanitarian aid. I hope this initiative will raise money to support future African champions who may be able to train, run and represent their own countries internationally. This photograph of me can't do any harm."

"I hope it will help women's athletics too," she adds. "Women athletes are often portrayed as square-shouldered with huge thighs and no personality. This picture shows that we take care of our bodies."

And as Paris's new black, female icon, that's the least of the hurdles that Conjungo is clearing.

Cistercian brothers doing it for themselves

The abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Bellefontaine rises amid a tranquil environment of weeping willows and the sound of the shuffling feet of 34 monks. But also rising at this centre for prayer and reflection west of Paris is the pling-pling ring of cash tills.

"Our pre-tax profit last year was €458,000 [about £320,000]," says Brother Robert, manning the checkout at the Monastic shop in the grounds of the Cistercian monastery. "Outside our hours of prayer, we work four or five hours a day, six days a week, without holidays," he boasts.

Monastic - a chain of monastery shops selling products that are made by 220 French religious communities - was created 12 years ago after a group of French monks, most of them engaged in cheese-making and small-scale honey production, decided to hit back at a television campaign for Chaussée Aux Moines cheese "which has nothing to do with monks and was a blatant case of our image being exploited by a large food company", says Brother Robert.

Now, says Brother Robert, the top-selling Monastic product is Alexion, an energy drink made from 52 plants by the Aiguebelle monastery and retailing at €9.95 (about £7). The second best- selling product is a mandarine liqueur from the Lérins monastery (€15) (about £10). Face cream, biscuits, coffee from a community in Africa, nougat and handmade stationery also make it into the top 10.

French pop eats itself

George Michael did it in Britain. Now veteran French singer Michel Sardou is taking his record company, Tréma, to court for cramping his style. Sardou, whose long career includes hits like "La Maladie d'Amour" and "Le Connemara", says that if image-marketing continues to dominate the European music industry, then there will soon be no place for anyone who does not fit the Anglo-American mould.

"France, after Maurice Chevalier, managed to create about five international stars in each generation of musicians. But that is all over now," Sardou says. "The majors are under pressure to make money and so you can understand that they go for formula music." The answer, he says, lies with the artists. "Good music will always sell. We have got to be more creative." He promises a new single, in early 2004, to be followed by an album, which will include off-cuts from studio sessions, laughs, interviews and even "a flavour of a song that did not make it on to the final cut".