Tuesday, May 25, 2004

France Briefing

New Terminal at Paris Airport Collapses

My own mom passed through Roissy - Charles de Gaulle to-day, hours after Sunday morning's partial collapse of the new 2E departure terminal.

Authorities have revised the number of dead killed in the collapse downward to four (it had been five earlier) because, as the Times' Craig Smith reports in ghastly detail, "earlier reports of additional deaths were based on body parts that have since been determined to belong to one victim." Among those killed were a Chinese man and a Czech woman. At the moment of the collapse, passengers were getting off planes from Newark and Jo-burg while another flight to Prague boarded. In addition to Air France, five other airlines used the terminal: AeroMéxico, Alitalia, Czech Airlines, Delta and Koran Air.

Paris firefighters continued to search for survivors to-day, using dogs to sniff for bodies and crane to remove debris, but cracking noises and the appearance of additional fissures, halted rescue efforts temporarily for fear of subsequent collapses. The AP reports that another 30 people working in adjacent offices had had to be evacuated for this reason.

I can find no estimates as to how many people may still be buried beneath the rubble or how many have been reported missing. Reuters reports that not a single flight was canceled due to the collapse and all flights scheduled to dock at terminal 2E have been rerouted to terminal E.

Prime minister Raffarin came to the site of the disaster as did Finance minister Sarkozy (how the finance minister's presence will help at the site of an airport terminal collapse I fail to see... unless it serves to lionize the great Sarkozini yet again in his quest for the prime ministership...)

Le Parisien (...as an aside, I should note that, to advertise Nescafé, all copies of the print edition of this newspaper will bizarrely be scented with coffee to-morrow, according to the AFP) also reports that three border police agents saved the lives of 80 people. Five to ten minutes before the collapse, passengers alerted them after seeing a fissure develop in the ceiling and the three men evacuated as many as they could and blocked of the area to prevent others from entering.

I was in that space myself last August just after it opened last July and I had to admit it was really beautiful. I hadn't flown internationally for a while and I was surprised by the new renovations I saw at JFK but they were no match for this. The interior was an enormous open space yet there was very little echo from the sound of so many people, creating a feeling of intimacy. You were also surrounded in light that peered in through the vaulted concrete shell down the length of the terminal. The seats were all a dark, burgundy red, if I remember correctly. It's not often you get to be in a place like that.

So it goes without saying that this is really bad news. Aéroports de Paris president Pierre Graff told Le Parisien that, "if all the rings that make up this terminal are irrecoverable, we'll raze the whole thing to the ground, of course."

The architect who designed the place is Paul Andreu, who was in China working on the Beijing National Theater at the time of the collapse but has returned to France in a hurry. Among his many projects, Andreu has also designed a number of airport structures: terminal 3 of the Dubai International Airport; an extension to terminal 2 of Aéroport de Nice-Côte-d'Azur, a new terminal at Madrid Barajas International Airport; a new terminal at the airport in Canton-Baiyun, Guangzhou privince, China; another at the Ningbo Dongshe airport, also in Chna. According to the Times, he also designed the old departure gateway at Roissy where boarding passengers ascended up escalators through crisscrossing glass tubes that traversed a light-well in the middle of a donut-shaped glass building. Kind of cool, too.

In an interview from Beijing, Andreu told L'Humanité that "everything was done according to the rules" during construction and that "I can't explain what happened. I can't understand."

An administrative and a criminal investigation have been opened into the collapse. The magistrate leading the investigation has named an expert panel to assist him. The AP reported that interior minister de Villepin said that the investigation would be "something huge and really difficult." We'd be lost without him. (continued in 2nd column...)

(continued from 1st column...) This will be terrible for Andreu's career but clearly the heaviest immediate suspicions will fall on the engineers and contractors who worked on the place. Graff told Le Parisien that the terminal was built by the GTM construction company. However the Times reports that it was built by construction firm Eiffel architecture firm Laubeuf (incorrectly identified as a construction company).

According to the Times, the terminal cost $900 million and was projected to handle 10 million passengers a year as part of French plans to turn Paris in Europe's largest air-travel hub — only one of the things that has been seriously called into question by yesterday's catastrophe.

Le Monde's editorial to-day talks of a wound to French pride and of grave longer-term consequences. "The display of beauty and power made in the form of this building thus turns dramatically toward a show of weakness. [...] As the world's eighth largest airport, Roissy had begun expansions that were to allow it to rival London and Frankfort. The new Airbus A380 was to dock at terminal 2E. The 'earthquake' may call this ambition into doubt. Not to mention the consequences for the recent privatization of Air France and the one planned by the government for Aéroports de Paris ¶ Ultimately, an earthquake for French architectural know-how and its exportation abroad..."

French Surgeons Threaten to Leave France en Masse

The AFP is reporting that, citing a profession-wide crisis, a collective of French surgeons calling itself "Chirurgiens de France" is threatening to "leave French territory" if its "appeal isn't heard."

"Most liberal surgeons are to-day ready to leave French territory entirely if their appeal isn't heard," a press-release read, according to the AFP.

The group's grievances include sky-rocketing insurance premiums (which have increased by €15,100 in the last 11 years). On the other hand, they say that doctors' fees haven't been raised in 14 years. They also say that a crisis in staffing is looming, asserting that 50% of the positions for surgical interns in the Paris region went unfilled in 2003.


The AFP also reports that a whopping 83% of the French public feel that the "lack of personnel" is the greatest problem they encounter in Public hospitals. Sixty-six percent complain of insufficient supply while 43% complain of the 35-hour work week rule. Nevertheless, 67% said they were satisfied overall with the French health system (which probably accounts for France's high average longevity). That percentage rose to 69% among hospitalized persons and to 72% among those of retirement age. Eighty-two percent have a "good opinion" of French public hospitals. Almost one in two (43%) said their views on French hospitals had improved in recent years (31% said they had worsened). Only 4% want the hospital system to be privatized and 37% expect the current situation to be maintained over the next 50 years. The results of the study are available here.

It Finally Happened: Socialist Party bounces pro-Israel candidate to court Muslim vote

According to Moroccan newspaper Le Matin, the Socialist Party has bumped euro MP François Zimeray — reputedly a fierce defender of Israel — from its list for next month's European elections the better to court the Muslim vote. Looks like the PS may have gotten rid of Pascal Boniface but kept his strategy... Meanwhile, debates on Israel at the European parliament haven't always been proud occasions, according to DF.

Expect this matter to make lots of news in the coming days.

Many French Feel Islam Undemocratic

Forty-seven percent of French people feel that Islam is incompatible with democracy, according to a survey published in the right wing French newspaper FranceSoir and repeated here. A third disagree and twenty percent are undecided.

France Won't Cancel All of Iraq's Debt

Reuters reports that France has agreed in principle to cancel as much as 50% of Iraq's current French debts but is as yet refusing to go as far as the 80-90% sought by the US. Iraq currently owes France about €3 billion, largely in unpaid bills from the 1980s when France sold Iraq gargantuan amounts of military technology and built enormous large-scale constructions (Saddam International airport, for example).

Turkish Imam Finally Expelled

Turkish Midhat Guler, accused of inciting terrorism and placed under house arrest, was forcibly repatriated on Friday, according to al-Jazeera. See here for more about Guler's case.

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