by by Simone Landon

Popemobile cum party bus
Planning a birthday party is tough, and after 81 years you kind of run out of ideas. Chuck-E-Cheese is pretty tired, and you can't just keep flying your dearest friends to Majorca for a long weekend. So Pope Benedict XVI (né Joseph Alois Ratzinger) consulted a party planner and made the bold decision to celebrate his birthday Wednesday in the company of once-notorious partier and avid piñata fan George W. Bush.

For the ceremony, His Holiness kept it simple in white robes, not even breaking out the mother of all party hats, the papal mitre. Over 13,000 people turned out to the event on the White House's South Lawn, many of whom were, as The New York Times put it, "Washington celebrities." Those not of the congressional glitterati were relegated to Pennsylvania Avenue to jostle for a view of the Popemobile, while the Pontiff retired to the papal residence (neighboring Vice President Cheney's home) after his fill of cake.
The Pope's birthday was the kickoff of his first visit to the US since his ascendance to the papacy. In his address to the crowd, Benedict praised American democracy as "guided by truth," implicitly approving of Bush's connection to conservative Christianity. There was no discussion of democracy's (in)compatibility with theocracy. Instead, Pope and President played a nice game of pin-the-tail-on-the-abortionist as the guests watched admiringly. Bush praised Benedict--and by extension the Catholic Church--for his regard for the sacredness of all human life. The lost lives of those in Iraq, however, went unmentioned; either out of reverence, hospitality or embarrassment, the President refrained from mentioning the war, of which the Pope has been an outspoken critic.
Following a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" from the crowd, Bush and the Holy Father took a walk in the White House rose garden before meeting in private. They discussed the situation in the Middle East and the plight of Christian communities across the region. Reports indicate the President refrained from assailing the holy sovereign with either 81 birthday slaps or the traditional pinch to grow an inch. SJL
Thinspiration or faux pas?
Will France's fashion divas and dandies be sent reeling by the French National Assembly's latest bill? If Valerie Boyer, a lawmaker from French president Nicolas Sarkozy's party, has her way, the bill is set to criminalize any backhanded promotion of anorexia in the media, upon its consideration by the Senate in May. Pernicious publications, advertisers and no good pro-anorexia websites found to have encouraged extreme thinness and severe weight loss could face hefty fines of up to €45,000 and jail terms of three years.
The bill is a quick step up the rung from a government-backed charter signed by representatives from the French fashion world just last week. With signatories including the French Couture Federation, the French Federation for Women's Pret-a-Porter and the Union of Modeling Agencies, the charter pledges to promote healthy body images. All sweetness and light--except for the convenient snag that renders the document not binding.
But with approximately 40,000 people suffering from anorexia in France, including 4,000 men, and a growing number of pro-anorexia websites, it's not surprising that legislators are now muscling French fashionistas in the right direction. "Encouraging young girls to lie to their doctors, advising them on foods that are easier to regurgitate and inciting them to beat themselves up each time they eat is not freedom of expression," a heated Roselyne Bachelot, the French Health Minister, told the Assembly on Tuesday.
While the vanguard of catwalk waifs won't dissipate any time soon, the Health Ministry is still hoping that the proverbial stitch in time saves nine. Now, there's one piddling problem it has to attend to before the ambitious bill gets the nod of approval: supermodel and French First Lady Carla Bruni. FRM

Somali pirates hijack French cruise ship

Used to be that all one needed to fight pirates were swords and cannons. But French armed forces have gone a step further, using attack hel copters and snipers to track the Somali pirates that seized a luxury cruise ship last week. The pirates took all 30 members of the crew hostage in the Gulf of Aden. No passengers were on board at the time, though the 850-ton Ponant is normally used as a luxury cruise vessel that carries travelers through the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Arabian Sea.
Once in control of the ship, the group of about 12 pirates took the Ponant to the Somali port of Eyl in the Puntland region. The Puntland region declared itself an autonomous state in 1998, and the central Somali government wields weak control over the area. The semi-autonomous region has been generally unstable since.
Somali waters are notoriously dangerous, and the French response was notably swift and effective. According to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center, there were 31 attempted attacks in Somali waters in 2007 alone, but many more attacks may have gone unreported.
The Ponant is owned by the Marseille-based Compagnie des Iles du Ponant, which negotiated a $2 million ransom deal with the pirates for the crew's safe return. All hostages were taken ashore safely before French armed forces began their pursuit of the hijackers.
French armed forces intercepted several pirates in the small village of Jariban as they tried to escape on land. A French sniper disabled the engine of the getaway car as French commandoes dropped down from helicopters, ultimately capturing six of the pirates. They gave themselves up with little struggle.
Commandoes who searched the ship afterwards retrieved some ransom money; French officials say none of it was publicly funded. French officials claim not to have shot at any locals in the operation.
According to Abdul Kadir Ahmed, governor of the Mudug region, three people were reported to have died in the incident, and eight were wounded. Abdiaziz Olu-Yusuf Mohamed, a district commissioner in Somalia, told Reuters five people were killed in the French tracking operation. However, French president Nicolas Sarkozy's office claims no one was killed.
French general Jean-Louis Georgelin told reporters, "It was an intervention, not a pulverization." The pirates will be put on trial in France, and the French plan to introduce new legislation regarding sea banditry will be announced at the UN Security Council next week. ES