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A web journal jolts France's president

Sarkozy, facing allegations of illegal financing and conflict of interests, sits for a prime time television interview. A lean Bastille Day: the lavish presidential garden party is cancelled. The end of an era: cyclist Lance Armstrong lagging behind at the Tour de France. Will he make it to the finish line?


Top News:   The French government and president have been shaken by an investigation over illegal campaign financingand conflict of interest targeting the Labor Minister Eric Woerth and his wife Florence.  

Mr. Woerth will now be quizzed by police over allegations that Liliane Bettencourt, the country’s richest woman and L’Oreal heiress, handed envelops filled with cash to Nicolas Sarkozy and Woerth, treasurer of Sarkozy’s UMP party, to help him win the 2007 presidential campaign. 

Bettencourt, who is sometimes portrayed as senile, argues that her donations were legal.  Woerth’s wife, Florence, has been questioned by police over whether her husband helped her land her job as one of Bettencourt’s fortune managers - Ms Woerth quit last month.  

Traditional media outlets in France are usually cautious when it comes to put out scandals that affect high-ranking politicians, this time around, it is an enterprising news website, Mediapart, — founded by Edwy Plenel the former editor-in-chief of the prestigious daily Le Monde — that disclosed elements of the police investigation to the public.  

Mediapart was immediately trashed by Sarkozy supportersand cabinet member Nadine Morano, for breaking the rule of silence. Morano reportedly said Mediapart used “fascist methods.” 

From the television sets to the streets of Paris, the buzz about this scandal spread all over the country, and forced President Sarkozy to address the country in a prime time television interview.  

Sarkozy backed up his Labor Minister, but said that he will have to resign as treasurer at the UMP party in order to focus on the tricky pension reform pushed by the government. 

Another development that hardly sparks any debate among French members of Parliament, is raising outrage in many countries, and even led to a protest in Pakistan.  Several months after neighboring Switzerland banned the construction of minarets, France is getting close to banning burqas in public places.  

The French lower assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ban, which still has to be ratified by the higher assembly.

If the law is adopted, women wearing burqas in public places, including streets, shops and parks, will have to pay a $200 fine. 

According to recent studies, fewer than 2,000 women wear the body-covering garment. But a majority of French people support the ban, which is seen as a provocation against French values and contrary to the idea of a secular republic. The grass-root feminist organization, Ni Putes Ni Soumises rallied in favor of the ban, arguing that burqas are a sign of male oppression. Neighboring Spain is also considering voting a similar law against the veil.

But many Muslims in France see the ban as a stigmatizationof their community, and a way to tell Muslims that they are not welcome in France.

Money:   Bastille Day celebrations are famous not just for their fireworks, but also for the fancy presidential garden party. Many French people have fond memories of the day former president Jacques Chirac invited “Les Bleus,” France’s national soccer team, to his garden party after the team won the World Cup in 1998.

But France’s golden days of soccer are gone (more below) and so is the fortune needed to pay for the lavish presidential garden party. After more thirty years of garden parties, a tradition started by former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Sarkozy decided to scrap the party altogether,deeming it too expensive in times of economic troubles.  

The party usually costs almost a million dollars, with 7,500 guests gathered in the Elysee Palace garden to mingle with other VIPs, smile at the cameras, sip Champagne, eat foie gras and other French delicacies.  

Sarkozy has been criticized for his lavish lifestyle, and one his cabinet members, Christian Blanc, had to resign after revelations that he had smoked $15,000 worth of public money in high-end Cuban cigars.

This difficult economic and political context prompted the government to think that holding the party would send out the wrong signal especially when the government will impose spending cuts and higher taxes.

Despite Sarkozy’s decision to cancel the event, the Minister of Defense, Herve Morin, held his garden party, the day before Bastille Day. The Ministry of Defense’s garden party is much more low-key, and meant to honor soldiers who will march on the Champs-Elysees on Bastille Day. It is believed to cost only a tenth of the presidential party. It has fewer guests, and this year around no champagne was served!  Guests had to drink punch instead.     

Elsewhere: The French national soccer team may get a complete makeover, with media reports that the new coach and former World Cup champion Laurent Blanc may axe all of the 23 players who participated in this year’s World Cup French fiascoin South Africa. 

The French soccer team made headlines after reports that striker Nicolas Anelka insulted his coach in the locker room and a strike decided by the players after Anelka was dismissed from the team.  

Also in sports, cycling fans from around the world are avidly following the Tour de France. This time around, it is very unlikely that seven-time champion Lance Armstrong’s will win his last Tour de France. There are also allegations that the great Armstrong himself succumbed to the temptation of using performance-enhancing drugs.  But the champion argues that he is clean and so far there has been no proof that he used any doping products.  

As for now the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador is leading the race, followed by Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck.  The Tour de France ends on Sunday July 25 in Paris.