The French media circus continues

The French presidential TV debates would cause de Gaulle to turn in his grave.

Seventy-year-old Jacques Cheminade, a man with close ties to the controversial American conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed political activist Lyndon LaRouche, is running for president in the French election this month. He believes, among other things, that violent video games should be outlawed; that the industrialisation of the moon is an economic imperative; that Queen Elizabeth II's fortune is partly predicated on a worldwide drug-smuggling ring; and that it is not ridiculous to compare Barack Obama to Hitler, as Lyndon LaRouche has done on several occasions.

On 9 April, the official presidential campaign was launched, meaning that all ten candidates must be given equal air time in the media. Prior to this, the Solidarité and Progres candidate, who is credited with less than 0.5 per cent of votes in current polls for the first round of the election on 22 April, had only been given 0.4 per cent of the total media coverage of the presidential election since January.

Last Thursday evening, in front of 4.2m viewers, Cheminade was quizzed by four prominent journalists on prime-time French public television. An eloquent speaker, he defended his desire to uncover the truth behind the 9/11 bombings and to reduce the travel time between Earth and Mars down to 10-15 days. He was also asked by one of the panel experts whether he wasnt more of an absent-minded Professor Calculus figure than a serious politician.

The occasion for this grilling was a two-part public debate under conditions of strict equality, whereby the ten presidential candidates - from Nicolas Sarkozy to the affable Trotskyist Philippe Poutou  - each took their turn in defending their ideas in front of a bemused post-adolescent studio audience on Wednesday and Thursday night. Each contender was given an arbitrary 16 minutes 34 seconds speaking time, discounted only when they spoke. Three panel experts joined David Pujadas, a younger and smugger French version of Paxman, in this public inquisition: Francois Lenglet, an economic expert; Fabien Namias, on politics; and Nathalie Saint-Cricq, whose indeterminate role seemed to involve destabilising the candidates with personalised piques.

The show was bizarrely produced in a pseudo-relaxed style, in spite of the palpable tension, borrowing at once from the conventional chat-show formula and live sports broadcasting. Each candidate was introduced to the tune of "Woman in Blue" by Pepe Deluxe. A backstage journalist, as if reporting on the players fitness on the sidelines of a football match, periodically updated viewers on the to-ings and fro-ings of the candidates and their interactions (only the Green candidate Eva Joly and hot favourite François Hollande deigned to salute each other). A cinema-sized screen towered above the panel, broadcasting mute behind-the-scenes footage of other usually more prominent candidates going through make-up in their dressing rooms. Poor Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an insignificant far-right candidate with Le Penian leanings, had to endure a good five minutes of footage of the National Front candidate arriving in the building while attempting to defend his anti-Euro protectionist economic policy. All the candidates knew they were being filmed at all times; all acted accordingly: smiling, shaking many hands, attempting to look presidential.

The conditions of strict equality, however, were trampled underfoot by the journalists subjectivity and arrogance on both evenings. The smaller candidates were barely given a chance to extricate themselves from the occasional oddities of their proposed policies. Françcis Bayrou, the centrist candidate who came third in 2007 but is trailing both Marine Le Pen and the Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in this weeks polls, was practically ridiculed by the anchor Pujadas for evading a question on his proposed reduction of public spending. Mélenchon himself, who expounds a liberal view on immigration, was shown a video of ex-Communist Party leader George Marchais, who died in 1997, giving a speech against immigration. "Enough with George Marchais and declarations from twenty years ago," raged the new darling of the French radical left. This after he had been asked if he was not cultivating a personality cult in the Stalinist tradition.

The outgoing president, finally, made a typically boisterous appearance, playing, bizarrely, on his experience of "four years of crises". Quizzed on a recent Financial Times comment piece praising his rivals economic policy, he responded, not without a hint of chauvinism: "That newspaper has always defended the Anglo-Saxon model! They dont agree with me? I'm pleased, because I dont agree with them!" It is difficult to see how Sarkozy can overturn the odds and defeat Hollande now, in spite of his persistent fear-mongering on the economy and immigration. The Toulouse shootings briefly played in his favour as the security-conscious incumbent, but recent polls have seen Hollande rise above him again in the first round.

Will this television debate have changed anything? Not on the strength of the recent polls. Marine Le Pen will probably come third, trailing Sarkozy and Hollande by some ten points, and ahead of Mélenchon and Bayrou, a contender for next Prime Minister regardless of who wins the election. Sarkozy will come fighting into the second round, but, short of a major upset, he will get trounced. Cameron's Britain, like Thatcher's, will soon be dealing with a left-wing alliance in power in France. It is not improbable that radicals and Greens such as Joly find themselves in ministerial positions. For the time being, the media circus continues, and de Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand and co are doubtless turning in their graves.

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of the White Review.

Jacques Cheminade, Getty images

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of The White Review.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.