Saturday, 30 April 2011

France has been transfixed by an appalling human drama - the murder of a mother and four teenagers, shot dead in chillingly clinical fashion, seemingly by the children's father.

Part of what makes the story so compelling is the prosperous, apparently happy, provincial setting in which it took place.
There is also the fact that the presumed killer - Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes - is still at large three weeks after the murders.
Murders happen all the time, but now and then there are murders that, by their extraordinary circumstances, by the eccentric character of their perpetrator, or by the social context in which they are set, somehow command our attention in a different way.
Such is the case of the bizarre, terrible tale of Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes - France's most wanted man.
Strict Catholic upbringing
As his name suggests (the "de" is the clue) Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes comes from old French nobility.
His ancestors lived in a southern province called the Rouergue and included a sister of the 19th Century poet Lamartine.

Agnes and Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes seemed a perfectly happy couple
Xavier was born 50 years ago in Versailles, and typically for the place was given a strict Catholic upbringing.
He married a young woman whom he had met in Versailles called Agnes. They had four children - Arthur, who was 20 and a student; Thomas, 18, a gifted musician; Anne, 16, and Benoit, 13, who were both still at school.
They settled in Nantes, the city at the mouth of the river Loire which in recent years has become a thriving economic hub. Thousands of families have moved there from Paris because of its agreeable provincial lifestyle.
The Dupont de Ligonnes lived in a smart townhouse. They had three cars. The younger children attended a Catholic school and Benoit was a choirboy at the church. Agnes taught catechism.
Photographs show an attractive, happy family. There is a particularly poignant one of Xavier holding his daughter Anne. They are looking at the camera and she is giggling.
Holding hands
This is a natural, properly functioning home where people love each other and things always work out in the end. Not a hint of the lurking psychological darkness.

With the .22 rifle and the silencer, the family were shot dead one by one, probably as they slept

Last December, Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes began attending a shooting club outside Nantes.
He told the club's owner that he had inherited a rifle from his father who had recently died and he wanted to learn how to use it.
He attended regularly, sometimes taking along two of his sons. The owner said they seemed totally normal. He said he had lunch with the family one day and the parents laughed together and held hands.
At the start of April, Xavier went to the club to practise four days in a row. He also bought a silencer.
At about this time he bought some other items too - sacking, cleaning fluid, chalk lime, a spade and a two-wheel trolley.
On Sunday 3 April he took the family out for a dinner in Nantes - again all seemed normal.
Mistress and debts
But it was probably on the next night, Monday, that the plan was put into effect.

The two younger children were still at school
With the .22 rifle and the silencer, the family were shot dead one by one, probably as they slept. The two family Labradors were also shot.
The bodies were buried under the terrace and Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes disappeared.
France has been, quite naturally, riveted.
Since the bodies were found two weeks ago, we have learned more about Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes, whose handsome if bland features look out from every news stand.
It appeared he had planned an abrupt departure - writing to the children's schools to say that the family was emigrating.
His financial situation was catastrophic. He had various internet-related businesses and they were failing.
He had spent his wife's inheritance and had borrowed money from a lover in Paris, who was now demanding it back.
Crisis of faith
We also know he had had a complex relation with his late father, whom he hero-worshipped.

The family were shot dead, one by one
His Catholic faith was also in crisis. He had shared his doubts on a Roman Catholic internet chat site, and if you wanted to, you could read his religious ramblings online.
Above all - where is he? He was seen in southern France in the days after the killings, but since then nothing.
It is not just the horrific human element that makes it all so gripping.
Somehow it seems a very French murder story, something to do with the provincial setting and with the times we live in.
It is the tale of an upper-middle-class French family caught at a juncture between a prosperous, reassuring past and an uncertain, unsettling future.
At the centre of the story is a man who fails to find his way in this changing world and apparently makes his own wife and children pay the price.

Friday, 29 April 2011

European antitrust authorities have opened two investigations into the financial institutions and clearinghouse that operate the global market for credit-default swaps, the derivatives that act as insurance against a debt default.

European antitrust authorities have opened two investigations into the financial institutions and clearinghouse that operate the global market for credit-default swaps, the derivatives that act as insurance against a debt default.

The probes signal more scrutiny of the $23 trillion global credit-default-swaps market. European Union officials are investigating whether the relationships between large financial firms, market information providers and clearinghouses have distorted competition in the market. These instruments were blamed for exacerbating the financial crisis in 2008 and the European sovereign-debt crisis last year.

"[Credit-default swaps] play a useful role for financial markets and for the economy," EU antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia said in a statement Friday announcing the investigations. "Recent developments have shown, however, that the trading of this asset class suffers from a number of inefficiencies that cannot be solved through regulation alone."

EU legislation proposed last year would tighten scrutiny of credit-default-swaps trading, particularly for those investors who use the instruments to speculate rather than to hedge holdings of bonds. The new rules are being debated by the European Parliament and European Council, which represents national governments.

The first antitrust probe, which parallels an investigation begun by the U.S. Justice Department in 2009, will look at whether 16 investment banks and Markit Group Ltd., a provider of swaps prices, are blocking competitors who might disseminate information. The commission said it suspects that the banks are giving raw swaps data only to Markit, which is partly owned by the banks.

Markit said in a statement that it doesn't believe it has engaged in any inappropriate conduct. "Markit has no exclusive arrangements with any data provider and makes its data and related products widely available to global market participants," Markit said in the statement.

The 16 banks involved in the commission investigation are J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Barclays PLC , BNP Paribas SA, Citigroup Inc., Commerzbank AG, Credit Suisse Group, Deutsche Bank AG, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., HSBC Holdings PLC, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, UBS AG, Wells Fargo & Co., Crédit Agricole SA and Société Générale SA, the commission said.

All either declined to comment or didn't immediately return messages.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said Friday that the U.S. agency's investigation into the credit-derivatives sector is ongoing.

The other probe will examine whether agreements between clearinghouse ICE Clear Europe and nine investment banks create an incentive for these banks to route swaps trades through ICE Clear, blocking other clearinghouses from entering the market. ICE Clear Europe, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based IntercontinentalExchange Inc., is the dominant clearinghouse for credit-default-swaps trades in Europe.

IntercontinentalExchange spokeswoman Kelly Loeffler said the company has become the dominant European credit-default-swaps clearinghouse by offering better services and more products, not because of profit-sharing or discounts offered to the banks.

"We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make our system work," Ms. Loeffler said. "We first and foremost have made those investments to compete on the operational side."

The agreements stem from IntercontinentalExchange's purchase of Clearing Corp. in 2009 from the nine banks. Those agreements call for IntercontinentalExchange to split profits from swaps clearing with the banks and offer them lower fees to use its clearing services. The EU is examining whether the contracts give these banks an unfair advantage over other swaps dealers.

The global credit-default-swaps market is controlled by fewer than 20 of the world's largest financial institutions. These banks buy and sell swaps contracts on behalf of clients such as insurance companies that want to protect themselves against the default of bonds in their portfolios or hedge funds that want to speculate on the default risk of countries, companies or even homeowners.

The banks also trade contracts using their own money, both to hedge positions and to speculate.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm and its antitrust watchdog, has been concerned for several years about the lack of competition in Europe among clearinghouses, which are entities that stand between buyers and sellers of securities, absorbing losses if either side can't fulfill their obligations under a contract. A number of European exchanges, most notably Deutsche Börse AG, own clearinghouses that are the exclusive clearers of trades on the exchange.

Since regulatory pressure prompted European swaps dealers to start clearing their trades in 2009, ICE Clear Europe has handled €5.3 trillion ($7.86 trillion) of contracts, nearly all the credit-default-swaps trades that have been cleared in Europe.

Monday, 18 April 2011

flood of North African immigrants is widening divisions among some of Europe's most powerful nations and adding to strains on the long-held dream of a united Europe.

 flood of North African immigrants is widening divisions among some of Europe's most powerful nations and adding to strains on the long-held dream of a united Europe.
Since January an estimated 26,000 Tunisians have fled unrest in their country for the shores of Italy, where officials say the burden of caring for these immigrants should be shared by the 27-nation European Union.
The Italians have taken the unusual step of issuing many of the Tunisians temporary residence permits and say that those papers allow the immigrants to go anywhere in a 25-nation zone that permits legal European residents to cross borders without a visa.
The Italian stance has infuriated Germany and France, the former colonial power where many of the Tunisians want to reunite with relatives, friends and co-workers.
Neither side is backing down, tensions are rising, and on Sunday French police stopped a train carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy at the border. It was an unprecedented affront to Europe's cherished vision of visa-free travel in a united continent where in many places there is nothing to indicate a national border beyond a roadside welcome sign.
There was a large French border police presence on the Italian frontier Monday and officers were checking the passports of all Tunisians passing through, and their ability to support themselves.
In Germany, separated from Italy by Austria and Switzerland, Interior Ministry spokesman Jens Teschke said there would be "more intensive observation" of people entering the country, though he would not give specifics. He said there were still no formal controls on borders that have been visa-free.
The state interior ministry in Bavaria, which contains all of Germany's border with Austria, said that a system of spot checks near the borders that has been in place since the visa-free zone started has been stepped up somewhat, leading to more checks on roads, train stations within some 20 miles of the border.
"It's a bit easy for Italy to be generous with other people's territory," said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of the French city of Nice, near the Italian border, and a prominent member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party. "What are the consequences of this? Italy, in the name of the EU, has made an incredible offer of hope" to North African immigrants. "This is not acceptable."
A host of other disputes are simultaneously threatening the grand project of European unity: On the same day the French stopped the train at the Italian border of Ventimiglia, a party that opposes the EU and financial bailouts for struggling countries made significant electoral gains in Finnish elections.
The True Finns may well play a role in a new Finnish government, jeopardizing the effort to stabilize the common euro currency by bailing out Portugal and other nations — perhaps the single most visible symbol of European unity.
In any event, political wrangling in Portugal may endanger its ability to negotiate the bailout that it says it needs. And in Greece, calls are growing louder for the country to ignore the financial strictures imposed on it by the EU and default on its debts instead.
While no single issue will sever the strong, deep ties between the nations of the EU, many observers see significant long-term damage to the idea of uniting vastly dissimilar cultures and economies in a single confederation.
France said it was justified in halting the train from Italy because there were pro-immigration activists on the train who threatened public order. In any event, French officials said, it would honor the Italian residence permits only if the immigrants could show they had enough money to support themselves.
The town of Ventimiglia said Sunday that it would find temporary shelter for the Tunisians who were aboard the train. It was not immediately clear Monday if all were still in the town, returning to other places in Italy or trying to get to France by other means.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the immigrants should be allowed to travel throughout the Schengen area.
"We have given the migrants travel documents, and we gave everything that is needed," Maroni said in an interview on Italy's Sky TG24 TV.
But Michele Cercone, a European Union spokesman, said the French appeared to be within their rights under the Schengen agreement to refuse entry to the immigrants. A temporary residence permit, Cercone said, is neither an EU passport nor and EU visa and does not grant people the right to move freely in the borderless Schengen area — the group of 25 European countries to which both Italy and France belong.
Cercone also said the Schengen agreement allows police checks along borders, so long as they are not systematic and do not amount to border controls. And people can be prevented from crossing a border for reasons of public security, he said.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Two Muslim women wearing full face veils have been arrested within hours of France's burka ban becoming a law

Technically, the women should now face fines of 150 euros (£133), as well as citizenship lessons, but officers involved in the arrest said they were likely to be released "shortly' after being questioned about an "illegal gathering."
"They should not be here demonstrating against anything, least of all the face veil ban," said one officer, who was wearing full riot gear as he stood outside Notre Dame.
"Women officers will be dealing with the offenders, and the matter will be dealt with as sensitively as possible."
Alexis Marsan, a public order official who also attended the scene, confirmed that the rally in front of the cathedral was unauthorised, and that others taking part had also been arrested.
Rachid Nekkaz, a Muslim activist who organised the demonstration, said the rally had been called to protest the ban, which is the first of its kind to be enforced in Europe.

Friday, 8 April 2011

One person has been killed and another is in a critical condition after a shooting on board a nuclear submarine, police said.

One person has been killed and another is in a critical condition after a shooting on board a nuclear submarine, police said.

One man has been arrested after the incident on HMS Astute, which is docked in Southampton, but Hampshire police are refusing to comment on reports that the three people involved are all service personnel.

They said the incident was not terrorist related and there was no risk to the public.

Several police vehicles were sent to the Eastern Docks and officers could be seen on the gangway of the £1bn submarine.

A police spokesman said: "Hampshire police were called by their Ministry of Defence colleagues at 12.12pm today and are currently liaising with them to establish the exact circumstances of the incident.

"It is believed two people have sustained injuries as a result of gun shots being discharged on the vessel. People should be reassured there is no risk to public safety.

"Hampshire Constabulary and the MoD are keen to stress this incident is not terrorist related. More information will be circulated as it becomes available," the police said.

The MoD referred all calls to Hampshire police.

HMS Astute is described by the Royal Navy as the first of a new class of vessel designed to be the largest and most powerful nuclear attack submarines ever built for it.

Built in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, and based at Faslane, in Scotland, this is Astute's first trip south.

The five-day visit to Southampton was billed as the first chance for people outside north-west England and Scotland to see the boat.

Astute was not open to the public while in Southampton, but civic leaders, sea cadets, scouts, and school and college parties were being invited on to the 7,500-tonne vessel.

Astute's commanding officer, Commander Iain Breckenridge, said before arriving in Southampton: "My ship's company and I are very much looking forward to the visit and meeting the people of the city. And I'm sure scouts, school pupils and other visitors will be impressed with the capabilities of this formidable vessel."

Since commissioning last August, the boat has had what the navy calls an interesting time, including running aground off the Isle of Skye. It is now in the middle of a "demanding" trials programme.

The submarine's Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles are capable of delivering pinpoint strikes from 1,240 miles with conventional weapons. Its nuclear reactor means it does not need refuelling and it makes its own air and water, enabling it to circumnavigate the globe without needing to surface.

It was the first in a fleet of six which will replace the Royal Navy's Trafalgar class submarines.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Tesco has become the first general retailer to start a used car buying website.

The supermarket giant claims it can offer low prices by controlling costs.

It will show detailed pictures of vehicles for sale - including any scrapes and dents - as well as a history report and fuel usage details.

It will not, however, give people the chance to test-drive vehicles. Instead, a video of the car being tested will be available for would-be purchasers.

Tesco says all vehicles will undergo a strict vetting process, including a mechanical inspection by the RAC.

The cars will come with a one month RAC warranty and the price will not be open to negotiation.

Tesco says by supplying directly to customers, there is no middle man, no expensive showroom and no salespeople on commission.

The majority of cars for sale will come from fleet and lease hire companies, with one registered keeper and a detailed service history.

Steve Fowler, editor of What Car? magazine, said it was too early to tell if car buyers would be happy buying without physically seeing or driving the vehicle, but said it did appear to offer a realistic alternative to "standing on a forecourt, haggling".

The motor trade, which is worth £24bn a year, is one of the biggest generators of complaints to consumer groups.

As well as the profit from selling the cars, Tesco could also benefit from drivers using its financial services, such as a loan, insurance or the breakdown cover it offers.

Ireland owes UK banks €113bn with other exposures of €45bn hardly comes as any surprise given the large presence of British banks in the Irish banking market, the extent of our debts to banks from other eurozone countries isn't so widely known. So to whom in the eurozone do we owe all of this money?

latest figures from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) show that Ireland owes banks in other EU countries a massive €310bn, with €196bn of this money due to banks elsewhere in the eurozone.

These huge exposures almost certainly explain why the ECB has refused to countenance "haircuts" for the senior bondholders of the Irish banks.

One of the salient features of the Irish banking crisis since it first erupted two-and-a-half years ago has been the dogged refusal of the ECB to allow us to impose haircuts or discounts on the holders of the senior bonds of the Irish banks. This was despite the fact that these senior bonds were trading at a significant discount to their face value.

Instead, for reasons best known to itself, the ECB -- in clear contravention of both previous market precedent and financial logic -- has insisted that the senior bondholders be repaid in full and has lent the Irish banks, institutions which it must have known were hopelessly insolvent, €70bn to do so.

So why has the ECB been so solicitous of the interests of the senior bondholders. The most recent figures from the Bank for International Settlements, the umbrella body for the world's central banks, provide us with some clues.

At the end of September 2010 Ireland owed the banks of other EU member countries €310bn, of which €196bn was owed to banks in other eurozone countries.

In fact the underlying situation may be even worse than even these figures indicate as they exclude €123bn of "other exposures", mainly derivatives and government guarantees that could become payable. As we in Ireland know only too well, government guarantees have a nasty habit of coming back to bite the guarantor.

Of these other exposures, €78bn are potentially payable to banks in other eurozone countries.

While the fact that Ireland owes UK banks €113bn with other exposures of €45bn hardly comes as any surprise given the large presence of British banks in the Irish banking market, the extent of our debts to banks from other eurozone countries isn't so widely known. So to whom in the eurozone do we owe all of this money?

Top of the list are German banks, to whom we owe €92bn with a further €38bn of other exposures. Does the fact that Irish banks potentially owe their counterparts up to €146bn explain the German government's implacable opposition to any write-down of the Irish banks' debts? After the British and the Germans, it is the French banks -- with total Irish bank loans of almost €32bn and a further €23bn of other exposures -- who have the biggest exposure to Ireland. Does this provide at least a partial explanation for French president Nicolas Sarkozy's truculence when faced with Irish requests that senior bondholders be forced to accept a haircut?

The Spanish and Italian banks have relatively small exposures to Ireland with direct loans to this country of €9.2bn and €10.6bn respectively as well as other exposures of €3.2bn and €6.4bn.

However, there is one other large European creditor listed in the BIS statistics. This is the unspecified "other euro area". The banks from these countries are directly owed almost €42bn by their Irish counterparts with a further €6.1bn potentially due under the other exposures heading.

Who are these other euro area banks? Up to now the general assumption had been that this heading mainly covered Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg banks. But given the sudden emergence of Finland as one of the most vehement opponents of cutting Ireland any slack I can't help wondering if one or more of the Finnish banks have large piles of Irish debt sitting on their balance sheets.

What is clear from the BIS figures is that a complete collapse of the Irish banking system would have had very serious consequences not just for British banks but also for banks elsewhere in the eurozone

British Trident submarine is returning to its home port after a mechanical failure led to loss of power while on a training exercise, the Ministry of Defence said today

HMS Vengeance, one of the Royal Navy's four nuclear-powered Vanguard-class submarines which comprise Britain's nuclear "deterrent," is returning on the sea's surface to Faslane naval base, Scotland.

An MoD spokesman said: "Vengeance has suffered a mechanical defect resulting in a reduction in propulsion. She is returning to Faslane under her own power. She is still at sea."

The spokesman was unable to confirm reports that the submarine's propulsion unit had become fouled by sea debris.

The incident happened on Thursday night while the vessel was on a training exercise in the north Atlantic, he said.

The boat carries up to 48 nuclear warheads on up to 16 Trident missiles, which weigh 60 tonnes each and have a range of 4,000 nautical miles.


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