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September 20, 2010
Posted: 2353 GMT

The French first lady is one of the most talked about women in the world. Her past as a supermodel, her reputation as a man-eater and now, reincarnated as the demure third wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, she has become the subject of intense global media fascination.

We waited for Mrs Sarkozy at the French United Nations mission in New York City. She appeared on the threshold of the interview room – on time – in a black Audrey Hepburn style dress, walked briskly toward me and, wide-eyed, introduced herself.

“Hello, I’m Carla!”

Mr and Mrs Sarkozy are in town on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The French president gave a speech and Carla Bruni spent some time speaking in her role as ambassador to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.

We would speak about her humanitarian work and, of course, bring up the controversy stirred up by two explosive biographies published in France last week. But seconds before sitting down, and to our surprise, she insisted on being interviewed with the Fund’s head, Michel Kazatchkine.

“It either happens with him,” she tells me with a smile, “or it doesn’t happen.”

As our team hurriedly reorganized chairs and lighting to accommodate a second interviewee, Bruni’s mobile phone rings.

“Oui mon amour,” she answers in a velvety voice. “I’m just doing CNN and I’m done.”

I’ve seen images and heard Carla Bruni’s voice for two decades. (Full disclosure: I love her songs, music and lyrics and listen to her albums regularly). So it wasn’t without great curiosity that I prepared for our interview.

Why is the fight against AIDS and malaria dear to her?

“To me, it’s important to do something while I stand by my husband while he’s the president of France,” she tells me, “Little by little I thought maybe I could bring some attention to the work that the Global Fund does.”

And boy does attention follow Carla Bruni wherever she goes.

The two Carla Bruni books have only added to the worldwide interest in the former model.

In “Carla And The Ambitious” (the title makes much more sense in French, to be fair), Carla Bruni allegedly said U.S. First lady Michelle Obama told her White House life was “hell.”

Is it true?

“Of course Michelle Obama never said such a thing,” Bruni answers. “Not one book that has come out about me was authorized. But of course, I live in France and France is a free country where anyone can fantasize and publish it.”

What about those much more damaging allegations in the book that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy used secret French police files to uncover a plot to oust her or to find out who was leaking damaging rumors about her?

“I’m happy to disassociate myself not only form this book but from all books,” she says. Bruni added said she could technically take legal action, but that she considers that an “undemocratic” move and that she never does it “by principle.”

Before the interview, the New York bureau called me to say there was new video of Carla and Nicolas Sarkozy cuddling and hugging on a United Nations escalator.

I asked her about her very public display of affection for her husband, whose popularity in France has plummeted and who’s facing ferocious criticism for his pension reform plans and France’s expulsion of Roma gypsies.

Bruni puts her index finger on her lips, as if to say “Shhh, I’m embarrassed!” but then readily answers:

“We just met! We are brand new spouses. It’s been three years. And of course all this pressure that he has on his shoulders brings us even closer.”

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Filed under: Carla Bruni


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September 13, 2010
Posted: 1813 GMT

If this summer’s surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in America has highlighted one thing, it’s that nine years after the horrific events of 9/11, the clear and unequivocal distinction between Islam and Al Qaeda has not been made in this country.

This summer, a vast majority of Americans (more than 70%) said they oppose the building of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero.

And like dominos falling across the country, the New York Islamic center controversy has stirred frenzied anti-Islam: from the opposition of a Mosque expansion in Tennessee to the Islamophobic rants of a Florida preacher who captured the attention of the world by calling for a Koran-burning event on the anniversary of 9/11.

The New York Islamic Center project, Park 51, has become a political hot topic as the country approaches important midterm elections. The U.S. president and the New York mayor have been among those who support the building of the center because, they say, it is within the organizers’ constitutional rights to do so.

But others, including former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, have opposed the project. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the Islamic Center was “not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive."

Building the center is legal, they say, but that doesn’t make it right.

And that nuance has been at the crux of the opposition to the project: this isn’t about what is legal, critics say, but what is “right,” what is “sensitive” and what honors the memories of the victims of the 9/11.

In other words, some Muslims in America say that even though they had nothing to do with the attacks, they are somehow complicit with the terrorists simply by virtue of their faith. And they should know better than to practice that faith so close to where thousands of innocents were murdered by a band of lunatics, because that band of lunatics did it all in the name of Islam.

And they say that if almost three quarter of Americans say they don’t want a Mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, it’s that the majority, on some level, equates Islam with terrorism. Perhaps it even means that the majority feels American Muslims’ allegiance is to Islam first and to America second.

This has led to vivid and fascinating debate in America. And some of the most vocal and passionate advocates of warning Americans against the dangers of anti-Muslim bigotry have been non-Muslims.

In his column on Saturday, the New York Times’ Nick Kristof wrote: “This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.”

But here’s what’s interesting (and rarely discussed): there is debate even among Muslims themselves. Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic relations told me that the Park 51 controversy was “manufactured” for political gain. CNN host and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria famously returned an Anti-Defamation League award because of the organization’s opposition to the location of the Islamic Center.

Others, however, including Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, said of the center near Ground Zero, “When wounds are raw, an episode like constructing a house of worship—even one protected by the Constitution, protected by law—becomes like salt in the wounds.”

As for Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the Park 51 project, he said last week on CNN that he never would have chosen that location had he known it would provoke controversy.

His major concern now? Not that Muslims (like anyone else) should be allowed to worship freely in America on private land, as is guaranteed by the Constitution, but that moving it will mean that “the headline in the Muslim world will be Islam is under attack in America, this will strengthen the radicals in the Muslim world.”

So there are multiple voices in American Islam (pluralism is good) but not a single message. The end result is that American Muslims themselves come off as ambiguous when asked about their rights in the United States, so perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised that the country is too.

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June 7, 2010
Posted: 1844 GMT

Hello everyone,

Today's New York Times article on technology's potentially nefarious effects on our lives really hit home for me.

"Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information," the New York Times reported in a front page story.

And boy do I have issues: since I started writing this note, an old friend from high school sent me a Facebook instant message (which I clicked on and read and answered); 5 people have responded to my question on Twitter (I'm resisting the urge to read them); and I have received 3 emails (distracting me even further).

Mine is the last generation to have sent and received handwritten letters. Mine is the last generation to have set up dates and meetings with friends on a landline telephone.

I remember with such fondness waiting for the (snail) mail to arrive when I was a teenager in boarding school in Normandy. The days a letter arrived for me, with my name – Hala Basha – written in cursive lettering on the envelope, gave me a thrill stronger than any text message or email.

The ritual of letter-reading was as important as the letter itself: opening the envelope, unfolding the paper, finding a quiet spot to read its content.

There was also the knowledge that if someone took the time to write me a letter and I took the time to respond, it meant that we cared enough about each other to make a special effort to communicate.

Today, communication is cheap. It takes seconds to send an email. It takes no time at all to instant message. We can have a regular, satisfying friendship with someone for years without once seeing what their handwriting looks like.

The sad irony is that technology, while allowing us to be more inter-connected than ever before, has also pushed us away from each other: where is the intimacy in a text? Now that we all have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook – people we often barely know – how many of them are true mates we spend time with in real-life, spend vacations with or invite to weddings and birthday parties?

And the truth is that there is no going back. It would simply mean you're disconnected from the real world. And you'd probably be the only one.

So I won't be throwing away my Blackberry or closing down my Twitter page. But every few years when I'm in Paris, I look through a box of worn yellowed letters I keep stored away in my bedroom and re-read some of them. Just for old times' sake.

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Filed under: Gadgets •Letter writing •Tech


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April 27, 2010
Posted: 1631 GMT

We'd been leading with the Goldman Sachs hearings on Capitol Hill all morning when an urgent wire crossed: Greece's sovereign debt has been downgraded to "junk" status by ratings agency Standards and Poors.

This means the ratings agency thinks Greece's debt is riskier than in its previous assessments. Investors are now being told that chances of them not getting their money back from Greece are higher. This will push up interest rates and prolong the debt crisis in Europe.

It also means other countries in the Eurozone might have to come up with a more ambitious plan to save Greece from drowning in debt it can't repay.

Stock markets across the continent are down. The anxiety over Greece's debt (and a downgrade for Portugal) has spread to Wall Street. We will go live to New York where Stephanie Elam will break the story down for us.

Stephanie will also join us to cover the Goldman Sachs hearings in Washginton DC. Top executives of the venerable financial insitution are today being grilled on accusations that they knowingly misled investors with deals tied to the subprime mortgage market they knew would lose money.

Join us for that and the rest of the day's top stories from Moscow, Paris, Baghdad and Yemen.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Greece •Today At The I-Desk


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April 21, 2010
Posted: 1642 GMT

Hello everyone,

We will give you the latest on the improvement in travel conditions across Europe. Now that things are getting better, attention is now turning to the cost of grounding tens of thousands of planes for almost six days.

Only one thing was sky-high during the crisis: the price tag associated with shutting down so much of Europe's airspace. What longer-term impact will it have? Who should be responsible for the billions of dollars lost?

Also today, it's been 99 days since the deadly earthquake ravaged large parts of Port-au-Prince. When I was in Haiti back in January, the city was still completely leveled, people lived out on the streets, bodies were still waiting to be collected. No doubt the situation has drastically changed, but that doesn't mean there still aren't major threats facing the people of Haiti.

We will speak to Matt Marek of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He's been there since day one. There are some interesting initiatives to try to protect homeless earthquake survivors from potential hurricanes and severe weather: the Red Cross is helping set up "Disaster Risk Reduction Teams" composed of locals.

I'll also ask Matt what the biggest need is today for ordinary Haitians and how much of the money donated for earthquake relief efforts has been spent.

Join us for that and the rest of the day's top stories.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Ash cloud •Haiti •Today At The I-Desk


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April 19, 2010
Posted: 1637 GMT

Once again, we will be looking at all angles of the volcanic ash story and the travel chaos that has paralyzed Europe for five days now.

This isn't just as European story: it is affecting travelers around the world. Some are trying to make their way home, young couples are missing their wedding reception, politicans are missing state funerals and even organ transplant recipients are having to wait longer for a life-saving operations.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. We will be speaking with Fred Pleitgen on a decision to allow Lufthansa to fly 15,000 passengers back to Germany. Also, British Airways says it will resume some flights out of London at 7pm local Tuesday.

We will also go live to France for more on several airports in southern France now able to operate. Italy, among other countries, has now completely opened its airspace.

We will also look at the economic impact of grounding tens of thousands of planes every day: the costs is now running into the billions and some companies that rely on tourism revenue are starting to feel the pain. Now airlines are complaining that the airspace closures were badly handled by European authorities.

Also today, we will take you live to Baghdad for the latest on the reported death of the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Authorities there say they killed Abu Ayyub al-Masri in a joint Iraqi-US operation. How will this affect insurgent activity in the country? We'll go to Mohammed Jamjoom in the Iraqi capital.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Airspace closures •Ash cloud •Iceland Volcano •Today At The I-Desk


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April 16, 2010
Posted: 1635 GMT

Hello Ideskers!

I'm back after a few days away on another assignment.

We will be spending a lot of time discussing the volcano ash cloud hanging over Europe, which is still causing travel chaos across the continent.

As of this writing, airspace is not available for travel in the UK (excluding Scotland), Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, the north of France including all Paris airports, northern parts of Germany, parts of Poland including Warsaw airport and the Czech Republic, and Switzerland.

The airline industry association said today that airlines alone are losing an estimated $200 million a day in revenue. Of course, the total cost of this unprecedented event could run into the billions with millions of passengers affected, trying desperately find a way to their destination.

One of those passengers is the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, who's decided to drive his way through Europe because he can't fly back to Oslo. We are hoping to connect with him on his roadtrip across the continent.

Guillermo will join us with an aerial view of the ash cloud. The amazing pictures show the scope of the affected area. We will also talk about how long it will take for all of this to clear up.

Polish official say the funeral of their fallen President is going ahead as planned, but what if world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama can't fly in this week-end? We'll look at that angle as well.

Hope you can join us for the Idesk at the top of the hour for this and all the rest of our top stories.

See you then!

Hala

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Filed under: Iceland Volcano •Today At The I-Desk


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April 12, 2010
Posted: 1646 GMT

It is an unprecedented summit in scope and one that will deal with trying to prevent would be catastrophic – and unprecedented – attack. U.S. President Barack Obama's nuclear summit in Washington will bring almost 50 heads of state together to discuss ways of making sure terrorists don't get their hands on nuclear weapons.

There are an estimated 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium worldwide, and the vast majority of it is accounted for in admitted nuclear countries. And then there are other materials that are used in nuclear weaponry.

But the fear is that Pakistan, a nuclear power, will become so unstable that militants will somehow get their hands on nuclear weapons. Or even that North Korea will sell technology to terrorists. Or that a group like Al Qaeda will find a way to acquire enough material to build a so-called "dirty bomb" that will cause widespread damage and many deaths.

And American President Barack Obama is leading this effort with nuclear "street cred" : he has just signed a new START treaty with Russia, pledging a reduction of the U.S.'s nuclear warheads and has announced a revamped American nuclear military strategy.
This is the largest gathering of world leaders called by a U.S. President since the end of World War II.

Importantly, Barack Obama and Western leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy are hoping this summit, which takes place a month before a U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference, will help push through tougher sanctions against Iran, if it refuses to give up developing nuclear technology.

We are live in Washington with Jill Dougherty on that story.

Join us for that and the rest of the day's top stories.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Nuclear Summit •Today At The I-Desk


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April 8, 2010
Posted: 1638 GMT

Russia and the United States, the two former Cold War enemies, may still have enough of a nuclear arsenal to obliterate each other several times over, but today's signing of landmark arms reduction deal is still hugely significant.

First of all, it signals a rapprochement between Moscow and Washington after a period of tension. Secondly, it sets the stages fro future reductions of nuclear arsenals. Thirdly, and perhaps in the short term most importantly, it gives the Obama administration a certain moral legitimacy when asking Iran for nuclear containment.

Numbers aren't what make this START treaty pivotal – both Russia and the United States will reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 – it's the symbolic message being sent to the world.

It also gives Barack Obama a significant foreign policy victory less than a year and a half into his presidency.

We are live in Prague with White House Correspondent Ed Henry and in Moscow with Matthew Chance for a look at this story from both the U.S. and Russian perspectives.

Also today, we are live in Kyrgyzstan for the latest on what is still an entirely confusing situation. After several days of violence, opposition leaders say they've toppled the government and are now in charge. But the man they say has been ousted, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, says he refuses to leave.

We'll also show you Tiger Woods' new television ad for Nike, featuring the voice of his deceased father. It's certainly generating a lot of talk. Already, late night talk show hosts have aired spoofs of the ad. We'll show you the one Jimmy Kimmel's team put together.

That plus the all the major news stories and how today's jobless claims numbers are affecting Wall Street.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Kyrgyzstan •U.S.-Russia-Nuclear


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April 2, 2010
Posted: 1636 GMT

Happy Good Friday to all who celebrate/observe! We are live in Rome today for the Pope's service and the continuing controversy surrounding the Vatican's response to the ongoing Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal.

Also, Russian officials have identified one of the two suicide bombers they attacked the Moscow metro last Monday.

They say she is a teenager born in 1992. Matthew Chance will bring us the latest from Moscow.

And, Mohammed Jamjoom joins us from Baghdad with the newest developments on the case of a Lebanese TV host sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for "sorcery." It is extremely difficult (in some cases impossible) to get any information from Saudi officials. It is unclear if authorities have commuted his sentence or how Ali Sibat is doing.

Yesterday, a Lebanese official told Sibat's lawyer that he would not be executed today as planned. What now? We will look into this disturbing story.

Also, crucial March unemployment numbers are out today. The U.S. economy added more than 160,000 jobs but the unemployment rate for the country is steady at 9.7%. President Barack Obama is already seizing on the figures, suggesting that the economy is finally turning around. Is it? We will analyze the figures.

That and all the rest of the day's top news, weather and sports stories.

See you at the IDesk!

Hala

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Filed under: Today At The I-Desk


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International Desk brings viewers into the heart of the largest news gathering operation in the world. Viewers don't come here to watch the news; they come here to be immersed in it. To feel the rush of being the first to know what's happening as stories break, and to leave knowing they've gotten the best and latest information available. The show airs Mon-Fri at 1900 CET.

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