Problems with parliaments are coming thick and fast for Berlusconi's government

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Jacques of all trades

Napoleon once described England as a "nation of shopkeepers" and Jacques Chirac, the current ruler of France, sometimes appears equally keen to maintain a lofty disdain for commerce.

French officials who scurried to organise the presidential trip to Asia this week were told by the Elysée Palace that the president was appalled at the idea of unveiling a great work of art by Picasso in a Hong Kong shopping mall.

Not only would he refuse to speak at the event (although in the end he couldn't resist a few words), he also insisted that all the shops be tastefully disguised behind black curtains when he presented the magnificent canvas painted for Diaghilev's ballet Parade.

Surely this could not be the same nobly anti-commercial Chirac who has spent his Asian tour selling wheat, Airbuses, trains, turbines and water treatment services to the Chinese and trying to sell fighter aircraft to Singapore?

No shopping, perhaps, but lots of salesmanship.

Butted out

Problems with parliaments are coming thick and fast this week for Silvio Berlusconi's Italian government.

First came Monday's vote by a European Parliament committee to reject Rocco Buttiglione as the next European commissioner for justice and security.

The devoutly Roman Catholic, cigar-chomping Buttiglione was hand-picked by Berlusconi to succeed Mario Monti as Italy's representative in the Commission. His rejection was roundly denounced by Berlusconi's centre-right coalition as a snub to Italy and to Catholics (though not to cigar smokers).

But while that little fuss in Brussels was going on, back in Rome the government was finding it impossible to muster a quorum in parliament for a vote on a landmark constitutional reform bill.

The reason was all too clear: about half the members of the rightwing National Alliance and centrist UDC, two sometimes wayward government parties, had absented themselves from the chamber.

Matters went from bad to worse yesterday when the back benches finally filled up and the government was defeated on an article of its bill by 239 votes to 211. Most National Alliance legislators voted with the opposition.

Berlusconi is adamant that he won't abandon Buttiglione. But what can he do when one of his own coalition parties abandons him?

Pipe down

German defence minister Peter Struck, who returned to work a few weeks ago after suffering a stroke, appears to be sticking to doctor's orders when it comes to adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Struck, 61, was known for smoking a pipe and posing for photographers leather-clad on his motorcycle. Are those days over? When Observer's man popped in on him, the minister was pipeless and sipping herbal tea.

But what's that tucked away? In one corner of his office, a couple of model motorbikes; in another, a set of yellow skis. Perhaps the old spirit still zooms on - just a bit more quietly.

Indonesia and Australia have long had a testy relationship. So it was good news on the diplomatic front when Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia's president, promptly sent her congratulations to John Howard after he won a fourth term as Australian prime minister at the weekend.

The soon-to-depart Megawati has not been quite so gracious at home.

With just a week left before she hands the reins of the world's fourth most populous country to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, she still refuses to congratulate the retired general on his victory in last month's elections - or to take up his offer of a "reconciliation" meeting. Even her own aides argue that would help ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

"I often ask myself what the reconciliation is for," she mused yesterday. Oh well.

Feeling drained

Spare a thought for Jim Stride, the veteran City of London fund manager, and beware of spare-time do-it-yourself jobs. At home last week after work, the managing director of the French-owned Axa Investment Managers decided to sort out a blocked drain.

Stride strode out of the house armed with industrial strength drain cleaner - suggested by his plumber - and poured it down the offending hole.

Alas, as he walked away, a returning shot of sizzling sulphuric acid caught the right side of his face and required a dash to hospital for repairs.

"It could have been a lot worse," he says, hoping to get an all-clear from the doctors in the next few days.

Observer trusts that the stinging sensation and blurry right eye from which Stride still suffers will abate, allowing him to focus again on the types of flow and return that have nothing to do with plumbing.

Trough of the cycle

Corporate defence lawyers should perhaps pay more attention to the cycling news, where Belgium's Mario de Clercq is setting some new standards.

A police raid on the athlete's home, amid an investigation into performance-enhancing substances, turned up a pamphlet about Aranesp, a banned blood-boosting drug. His team manager is adamant the rider hadn't used the product: he had the leaflet only so he "could know a bit more".

The raid also found records in de Clerq's diary of his red blood cell count - which is used in drug tests. The notes were fictitious, de Clerq maintains: part of preparations for a novel he is planning to write.

But then, cycling fans are used to the bizarre. One top rider was cleared of taking cocaine when the authorities accepted he unknowingly ate it in Peruvian sweets from an elderly aunt.

Another maintained the performance enhancers found in the boot of his wife's car were for his grandmother. Yet another claimed the drugs found in his fridge were for his dog.

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