...Continued from page 1

The accompanying photo of the minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, shows him holding models of the new coin; about the size of 1934 Packard hubcaps. The mint will press only a half-million of these, so I guess they will be for collectors of fancy coins rather than for general use. On sale at banks near you, if you are in France.

Level Crossings

There was a horrible crash last Monday; between a two-car passenger train and a tank-truck at a level crossing. The accident resulted in 13 deaths, 40 injured, the destruction of the train, the truck and an adjacent house.

The train, carrying a good number of students, also had one American, one German and three Japanese as passengers who were injured.

The residents of Port-Sainte-Foy in the Dordogne are angry. A car smashed the level-crossing barrier to smithereens only a week ago Friday; and the frail barrier was replaced in time for Monday's collision - and this was for the umpteenth time. The owner of the demolished house, which used to be the gatekeeper's, said he lived in constant expectation of such a tragedy.

This sort of story is not a regular feature of this column. But because of this crash, it can't helped but be noted that there are 150 accidents at level-crossings in France per year, with an average of 10 fatalities and many more injured.

The French rail network has 11,000 active level-crossings. They are being eliminated at the rate of about 60 per year; but arithmatic shows that it will take another 200 years to entirely remove this danger to travellers.

Instead of costly bridges or tunnels, many level-crossings have been 'improved' with chicanes or other tricks to slow motorists approaching rail tracks. Such 'improvements' have caused a good number of road accidents; and the site of the accident at Port-Sainte-Foy had a version of these.

Close to Paris, where I live, there are three level-crossings I regularly have to use. Fortunately, two of them are over unused tracks - which are slated for renewal, to eventually complete the Ile-de-France's 'Big Belt' of rails.

Conviction in Vitrolles

The mayor of Vitrolles, Catherine Mégret of the Front National Party, was found guilty last week by a court in Aix-en-Provence, of making racist remarks to the Berlin paper, the Berliner Zeitung.

The following appeared in this column in early May: "After the publication of the interview with Catherine Mégret [see Au Bistro, Saturday, 1. March 1997] the newly elected Front National mayor of Vitrolles, in the Berliner Zeitung, a bunch of French people went to their local police stations and lodged civil complaints.

"Last Wednesday, 729 of them filed through a courtroom in Aix-en-Provence as their names were called out; thereby making the complaints into official court cases. Each had deposited 100 francs for the privilege - a sum demanded to dissuade frivolous charges."

Last Monday this court pronounced a sentence of three months - suspended - and a fine of 50,000 francs for the Mayor, Mme Mégret. Anti-racist groups were happy with the result even if it was less than the prosecutor requested.

Mme Mégret's husband, Bruno Mégret - the phantom mayor and number two of the National Front Party - said the conviction of his wife was 'a scandal' and announced an appeal.

More Rentrée

On Thursday, 2,366,000 students returned to France's general, technical and professional lycées. This is an increase of 25,000 over last year. I learned at little bit metro Cluny-Sorbonne more about this first-hand last Wednesday, but not overly much.

This is the métro stop closest to the 'royal' colleges.

The Minister of Education, Claude Allègre, has been getting about as many columns of newsprint as the annual 'rentrée' coverage in the French press.

The Minister has had the cheek to suggest that teachers and professors take their training sometime during their annual 16 weeks of holidays, rather than during the first week of the rentrée.

Teacher's unions immediately and loudly objected to this off-the-wall proposal, while anxious parents were scrambling to find minders for their - in school - but abandoned, children.

Every new Minister of Education that comes along brings a new set ideas for reforms. Mr. Allègre's problem seems to be that he is not only willing to examine all and any reforms, but he has a direct manner of speaking seldom heard and rarely appreciated in France.

In Finland, a teacher works 47 weeks a year; 39 weeks are in class and eight other weeks are spent on professional training. Holland, Germany and Portugal are thinking of adopting this schedule, while the Austrians and the Luxembourgois follow the French model of teaching for only 36 weeks of the year.

The Car Wars - Xoom, Here Comes Xsara!

Europe's big car show this year is in Frankfurt and it is on now. These shows are where the manufacturers roll out their spacy 'future' cars for the oglers, but the real intention is to draw a lot of people to look at their new bread-and-butter offerings.

This is especially important for the cars in the class of the highest sales. The French constructor, Peugeot-Citroën has presented new Citroen Xsara its latest entry in this battle at Frankfurt, and popped it into French showrooms today.

The Xsara's looks less 'French' than the ZX it replaces, so it may sell better.

The Citroën Xsara is basically a lifted ZX. Citroën is a company with a long history of making slightly odd cars and now that it makes slightly more normal cars, it maintains tradition by giving them odd names - and, to add to the confusion - is in the process of moving from 'XYZ' designations to proper names, mostly starting with 'X.'

Therefore, the old 'BX' became the Xantia and their smaller 'AX' became the Saxo and the new version of the 'ZX' becomes the Xsara. Is this all clear?

The Xsara is in the same class as VW's Golf and Opel's Astra; both also in new versions at Frankfurt this year. Peugeot-Citroën has no models in the top ten list of European sellers, but it is represented in the 'Golf' class by its Peugeot 306 line and the new Xsara.

The Xsara and its predecessor the ZX do not have the famous Citroën hydro-pneumatic suspension, but the Xsara shares its 'steering' rear-suspension with the hydro-sprung Xantia - making it a good car on twisty European roads.

A friend told me the ZX' suspension took a bit of getting used to as the rear-end helps going around corners; but my old BX took some getting used to, too - being kind of 'floaty' as it is.

Citroën's peculiar suspensions have their fans, but their motors, which are shared with Peugeot, are given good marks for durability. The Xsara has the usual range of motor sizes from 1.4 litres to 1.8 with 16 valves, plus two 1.9 diesels, one with a turbo.

Diesel-powered passenger cars have big sales in France and Europe, and some of the turbo-diesel mills can push both little and big cars to formidable speeds very quickly, while running on cheapo fuel.

The fuel itself is coming in for more criticism lately, because it pollutes more than unleaded super - and, in France, fresh-air fans are starting to complain about the decided price advantage of diesel. Truck drivers like it though.

The Set Top NetBox

Long awaited and often rescheduled, the magic 'set top' box called 'NetBox' arrived in some French shops in August. This gizmo, attached to TV sets, is supposed to enable viewers to access the Web - without the need of impossible and insanely-complicated PCs.

Priced at about 2,000 francs - while the cheapest new computer with a modem sells for about 6,000 - the 'NetBox' is supposed to bring the Internet into every French living room, and be no more complicated than a home video recorder - or even less so.

Available for the moment only at a TV rental chain and a mail-order firm restricted to certain functionaries, the 'NetBox' should available at big chain stores around 20. September.

So far, only about 3,000 units have been made, but the Parisian firm, Netgem, is negotiating with a big German electronics outfit for German sales. In Germany it will likely be called, 'WebBox.'

Apparently, a subscription to a Havas-On-Line service for 65 francs a month is required to make the 'NetBox' operational. However, there is is one other little problem. Netgem as yet has no firm agreement with the line-supplier, France Telecom.

The telephone monopoly has agreed to start a pilot service in the region of Annecy on 1. October. So the 'NetBox' will be on sale in the Paris region 10 days before access to the Internet is available - in Annecy.

This doesn't seem to bother Netgem at all. They are planning to launch a more elaborate 'NetBox 2' in the first quarter of 1998. Surfing the web in French living rooms is just around the corner; somewhere, sometime maybe sooner than later - but who knows?

Honors List

Named officier de la Légion d'Honneur: Charles Aznavour; Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur: Stéphane Grappelli; Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur: Nana Mouskouri, Greek deputy to the European Parliament and Unicef Ambassador - by the Président of France, Jacques Chirac, at the Elysée Palace on Thursday.

In a quote from Le Parisien, the Président said, "Nana Mouskouri est considérée comme une chanteuse française et rien ne nous fera changer d'avis." He had similar kind words for the singer with the Armenian name and the jazz-fiddle player with the Italian name.

Sports News

Due to an excess of other news - twice as much as the average, 'Sports News' is suspended again this week.

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