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France on high terror alert

France is on high terror alert. Public places and personalities could be targeted. Eiffel Tower evacuated twice after anonymous phone calls to police. Government announces biggest budget deficit cut in decades. And is life at the White House "hell"?

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Fifteen years after deadly attacks on public transportation, France is again on high terror alert, according to the National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard.

When French authorities disclosed the alert, critics of President Nicolas Sarkozy quickly jumped on the case, crying political manipulation.

Former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal said the government was trying to divert the public’s attention from a painful September vote on pension reform in the National Assembly.

But Pechenard’s thesis that France could be a target for terrorists gained a lot of credibility after two terrors alerts at the iconic Eiffel Tower. Within two weeks, the world-famous monument was evacuated twiceafter anonymous phone calls to police.

During the first alert, which turned out to be a false alarm, about 1,000 tourists were evacuated from the Eiffel Tower.

Right after the alerts, French authorities boosted security measures. An unclaimed package was found in the Metro, Paris’ subway, forcing passengers to evacuate and causing delays.

"France is today under threat,” Pechenard told Europe 1 radio. “For that matter, French people need to get used to it. We're now facing a peak threat that can't be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests."

According to Pechenard, important public figures could also be targeted by terror groups.

Suspicions focus on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The group has claimed responsibility for kidnapping five French people who were working for Vinci and Areva in Niger.

According to police, AQIM could be plotting to blow up so-called conventional bombs in crowded public places.

"In order to do the maximum possible damage (such an attack) would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering," Pechenard said.

A recent vote to ban full-covering Muslim veils in Francehas drawn critics in the Muslim world as well as warnings from AQIM.

The U.S. government warned Americans of possible terror attacks in Europe, and urged them to be particularly careful in tourist places and public transports.

France’s interior minister Brice Hortefeux told AP that French authorities are collaborating with U.S. authoritiesand analyzing information about new attacks.

But according to a BVA opinion poll conducted after the evacuations of the Eiffel Tower, most French people are not particularly worried about a possible terror attack. Sixty-five percent of them do not think that the risk of terror attacks is higher now than it was a few weeks ago. Fifty-nine percent of them believe the government communicates too much about terror threats.

But France has been the target of terror attacks before.

In 1995, the Saint-Michel metro station was targeted by Islamic groups, claiming eight lives.

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Despite demonstrations against the pension reform, president Nicolas Sarkozy announced yet another unpopular reform —France’s largest budget cuts since 1990.

With this move, Sarkozy is trying to reassure investors and improve France’s credit ratings. 

The French government will try to reach a deficit of 6 percent of GDP next year, instead of the 7.7 percent predicted in 2010.

The budget for 2011 will include $54 billion in extra revenue and spending cuts.

Most of the spending cuts will come from the withdrawal of stimulus measures which were introduced during the financial crisis.

Some tax breaks will also be scrapped, including a tax break for newlyweds. All in all the tax breaks should save the government about $14 billion. 

"This is a historic budget," Budget Minister Francois Baroin said. "A drop in the deficit by 1.7 percentage points in one year has not been seen in 50 years.”

The French government is also counting on an economic rebound in 2011.

France has also committed to bring its deficit down to 3 percent of its GDP by 2013—in line with the deficit ceiling determined by the European Union —while European partner Germany plans to balance its budget by 2016.

The French government conceded it might take more time for France to reach a balanced budget.

These budget cuts come at a tricky time for president Sarkozy, whose approval rating hit a record-low 32 percent according to a BVA opinion poll.

The head of the French Socialist party, Martine Aubry,  said an austerity plan was not the right solution to boost France’s economy.

"This budget increases tax and it's therefore a genuine austerity plan that is going to reduce the spending needed to support growth,” said Aubry.

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And finally, there was gossip in the air after the release of a biography of the French president’s wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

But this time around, people were not gossiping about the couple’s troubles, but about a claim that Michelle Obama confided in Carla Bruni, saying that life at the White House was “hell.”

According to the book “Carla et les Ambitieux,” or “Carla and the Ambitious,” which was written by two French authors, in a private conversation at the White House Bruni asked Michelle Obama whether she was enjoying life as First Lady.

And Michelle Obama allegedly answered: “Don’t ask, it’s hell, I can’t stand it.”

Understandably, officials promptly tried to end this rumor.

Michelle Obama’s spokesman and the French embassy in Washington slapped down the claims.

"The words attributed to the first lady of the United States were never said," French embassy spokesman Emmanuel Lenain said, adding that "Mrs. Sarkozy distances herself completely" from the book’s content.

http://www.globalpost.com/passport/france/101004/france-high-terror-alert