LOCAL: Zara 'Megastore' coming to Béziers
Zara - the huge Spanish clothing company and the world's No 1 'Ready to Wear' brand - is planning to open a huge store in the Polygone Centre in Béziers. The shop is set to open this May. It will be the third largest Zara store in France, and the biggest in Languedoc. The Polygone hope the deal will attract even more shoppers to the mall - whose sales grew by 6% in 2013 - despite the economic downturn in France. The Zara store will cover 2,600m2 and offers menswear, womenswear and clothes for children. It's not clear whether the store will offer a Zara Home department - which offers affordable and stylish furnishings.
French economy set for minimal growth
The French economy is set to grow by a minimal amount in the first quarter of 2014, the country's central bank confirmed on Friday. France's economy is forecast to grow around 1 percent in 2014, which does not compare favourably to predictions for the UK or Germany.
The French economy is expected to grow by 0.2 percent in the first quarter, the country's central bank said on Monday, confirming a preliminary forecast issued a month ago.
The bank makes its forecasts based on a monthly survey of a panel of private sector executives, who have reported that business confidence remained largely unchanged in February.
The central bank noted that industrial production was "steady" across almost all sectors in February. This was particularly so in the chemical, pharmaceutical as well as machines and equipments industries.
"Deliveries are intensifying" while "the order books are filling out somewhat", said the bank which also expects business activity to improve slightly in March.
In the services sector, a "slight rise in activity" is seen in March.
The eurozone's second biggest economy turned in slightly better than expected growth of 0.3 percent last year.
The European Commission predicts France's economy will grow by just 1 percent in 2014, compared to 2.5 percent for the UK economy and 1.8 percent in Germany.
However, it is struggling to bring down its jobless ranks, with 3.31 million unemployed on the register in January.
French President Francois Hollande's government is also under pressure to cut public spending and raise revenues, with the European Commission last week placing the country under close surveillance over its failure to rein in its deficit.
Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile
In a just-published book, "The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa," William Varvel argues that La Gioconda was a 16th-century feminist who favored a greater role for women in the Catholic church.
"La Gioconda was trying to get people to see that the New Jerusalem would be here as soon as you recognize women's theological rights," Varvel, 53, a former mathematics professor, told AFP in a telephone interview.
"La Gioconda may be a grand statement for women's rights," he added.
His theory joins many others -- some serious, others fanciful - surrounding what is perhaps the world's most famous painting, which draws legions of tourists every day to the Louvre museum in Paris.
History remembers the Mona Lisa as Lisa del Giocondo, a mother of five born into an aristocratic Florentine family whose husband, a cloth and silk merchant, commissioned the portrait.
Da Vinci, who had already painted The Last Supper for a Dominican convent, toiled on the oil-on-poplar painting from 1503 to 1506 and perhaps several years after.
In his 180-page book that's not always an easy read, Varvel explains that, in the course of his career, Da Vinci had painted "each and every verse" of the final chapter of the Old Testament's book of Zechariah, which anticipates the rise of an ideal society within a New Jerusalem.
He did so, Varvel contends, "in order to state that women's rights to the priesthood should be recognized."
What's more, the author said, "Leonardo constructed and placed a total of 40 separate symbols taken from chapter 14 into the background, middle ground and foreground of the composition of the Mona Lisa."
Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa's right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side. And folds on the arms of her robe suggest a yoke - a reference to Biblical texts and women's oppression.
For Da Vinci, the idea of a New Jerusalem "was based upon a universal recognition of both men and women of the laity to have recognized rights of the priesthood of Jesus Christ," Varvel said.
He added: "The perception of the New Jerusalem is the secret that her smile reflects."
Fascination with the Mona Lisa endures: over the years, some viewers claim to have sensed mysterious signs in her eyes, her voice has been reconstructed by Japanese enthusiasts, and a doctor once diagnosed her as having an excess of cholesterol.
"It's even been said that she's a man, even the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself," art historian Laure Fagnart told AFP.
"In my mind, there's nothing that's really hidden from us," added Fagnart, a specialist in Renaissance art at the University of Liege in Belgium who has not read Varvel's book.
"This is the portrait of a bourgeois woman like dozens of others from that time, albeit perhaps more difficult to read than other works," she said.
"Da Vinci was an artist who put thought into his painting, he did nothing in an innocent fashion."
For all the years he's committed to studying the Mona Lisa, Varvel has never actually seen it up close.
"I'm not going to fight the crowd to see La Gioconda," he said."If I go to Paris, the Louvre is going to give me a private showing -- and if they don't, I won't go."
LOCAL: Second mildest Languedoc winter since 1946
Ivory auction breaks French price records
A French auction of legal ivory broke records on Saturday, with prices reaching up to €1,000 a kilogramme ($630 a pound), according to Alexander Debussy, associate director of auction house Cannes Encheres.
All of the lots were acquired before 1976 -- the only type of ivory that can be legally sold since a global ban on the trade in 1989.
The top lot -- two tusks weighing 120 kilogrammes from an elephant that was "shot in 1966 by an Italian fighter in Kenya" -- went to a wealthy Qatari for €125,000, the auction house said.
An Armenian collector paid almost 69,000 euros for another lot, which included two tusks around 230 centimetres (90 inches) long from an elephant killed in the Central African Republic in the 1960s.
All in all, 600 kilogrammes of ivory, made up of 47 tusks separated into 27 lots, went under the hammer for a total of €520,000.
"The selling price for these lots was around €800-1,000 per kilo, compared to an estimated price of between €300 and 500 per kilo," said Debussy.
Many of the lots were sold by people who have spent their lives in Africa but who, after retiring to the French Riviera, need to supplement their pension, said Debussy.
"Often they are very attached to the tusks, which are souvenirs of their life there," said the agent, who specialises in this type of sale.
Last month France crushed three tonnes of illegal ivory worth an estimated one million euros in a ceremony at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the first major crushing ceremony in Europe since the global ban.
Elephants are being massacred to produce ivory that is in high demand in the rapidly-growing economies of Asia, particularly China and Thailand.
Chinese buyers are very keen on ivory goods because "in China, it is a sign of wealth" said Debussy, adding that "brokers from all over Europe attended the sale".
One Chinese buyer set another record, paying €62,500 for a pair of tusks from the Central African Republic.
Hollande warns of 'new measures' against Russia
Presidents Francois Hollande of France and Barack Obama of the United States on Saturday warned of "new measures" against Russia if it fails to move on defusing the crisis in Ukraine, the French presidency said.
In a phone call on Saturday, Hollande and Obama insisted on the "need for Russia to withdraw forces sent to Crimea since the end of February and to do everything to allow the deployment of international observers," it said.
"If there's a lack progress in this direction, new measures will be taken which would noticeably affect relations between the international community and Russia, which is in no-one's interest," it said.
The months-long crisis in Ukraine, which resulted in the ouster last month of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, has worsened since the Crimean parliament's decision Thursday to secede from Ukraine and stage a March 16th referendum on joining Russia.
Ukraine also said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea -- 5,000 more than the contingent allowed under an existing agreement with Kiev.
Russia says it has stepped up protection of its naval base in Crimea and is working together with local self-defence units but refuses to acknowledge deploying extra troops.
"In the current grave circumstances," Hollande and Obama "stressed the importance for Russia to agree rapidly to the formation of a contact group allowing for Ukraine and Russia to engage in dialogue, with a view to favouring a peaceful exit to the crisis and restoring fully Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the statement said.
"They recalled the absence of any legal basis to the planned referendum in Crimea on March 16th," the presidency said.
The two leaders also agreed, the statement added, to continue their support for the new pro-western authorities in Ukraine as well as for the preparation for presidential elections on May 25th, "under international control and in the greatest transparency".
The United States has already imposed visa bans and set the stage for wider sanctions against Russia over the seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea by pro-Russia forces.
US probing three major French banks
US authorities are investigating the French banks Societe Generale, BNP Paribas and Credit Agricole for embezzlement and violating American sanctions against other countries, a source close to the matter said Friday.
Other big international banks were also cited in the investigation, according to the source, who refused to confirm their names or say when the probe was launched.
"The US is investigating foreign banks for potential issues related to money laundering and violations of US embargoes and sanctions on countries like Cuba, Iran and Sudan," the source said.
The US Treasury, Justice Department, Manhattan district attorney and New York Department of Financial Services are investigating the banks.
BNP Paribas is in talks with US authorities to settle the probe, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Last month, France's largest listed bank said it had set aside $1.1 billion to cover potential penalties for transactions in countries under US sanctions.
France says no Crimea vote without Kiev nod
"The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine are non-negotiable," President Francois Hollande said after a meeting with Ukraine's former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko, the ex-boxer and leading figure of the protest movement that ousted the country's pro-Moscow president.
Russia has said it would respect a decision by lawmakers in Ukraine's flashpointCrimea region to renounce ties with Kiev and stage a March 16th referendum on switching to Kremlin rule.
Hollande said the West's response to the crisis would be "modulated according to the situation."
"Our aim is to also always leave open the door for negotiations so that Russia can enter into talks if it decides to do so," he said.
Hollande said the "international community, Europe and France must work to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
He also warned that it was necessary to prevent a dangerous precedent.
"There are a lot of countries which could get worried if a precedent were set for breaching borders and territorial integrity," Hollande said.
Klitschko shared that view saying that "the instability threatens not only Ukraine but also the whole region."
To support the Ukrainians, Poroshenko called for "using all the sanctions possible" against Russia, saying the solution to the crisis "is not to be found in Kiev, or in Crimea but in Moscow."
He also said before any political solution could be reached there must be "the complete withdrawal of the foreign army" in Crimea, where Russian forces have taken effective control over the past week.
Tornado blacks out 13,500 homes
TORNADOES are rare in France - but one left 13,500 homes without power as it ripped through Luçon, Vendée, yesterday.
The freak winds struck at 10.30am, when three vortices formed above the Fougeroux district, ripping the roof off a shed, damaging 12 homes and bringing down the high-voltage power line between Luçon and Grues.
ERDF said power was restored by late afternoon, but the mayor is reported to be considering asking for a natural disaster to be declared.
You can watch a video of the tornado drama in Luçon here.
Meanwhile, hundreds of wavewatchers gathered along the Atlantic coast of France, as storm-force winds propelled 10m-plus waves into land.
Beaches along the southwest coast were closed to walkers, as waves reached 13.5m off the tip of Brittany, 13m in Morbihan, 12.8m at Belle-Île and 9.2m at Anglet.
At Saint-Malo, onlookers watched in awe as waves crashing into land reached the height of a two-storey building, while in Bordeaux, the Garonne broke its banks and the Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge, which opened in March 2013, was temporarily closed as the waters rose.
Further along the coast, at Montalivet in Gironde, BFMTV reported that 30m of beach was lost to the sea in the storm.
You can see that video report here.
In Biarritz, council officials worked late into the night to build a 3m sandwall in a bid to protect the area around the historic Art Deco casino, which dates from 1929, from this morning’s high tide.
Quimper has suffered badly in the winters storms. Some shops in the town centre were flooded again as 30cm of water inundated one street, while the quays of Landernau, Finistère, found themselves under 40cm of water.
Forecasters have also warned of a high risk of avalanches in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Hautes-Pyrénées.