Evening Update Tuesday 20th February 2024

French officials have seized a luxury villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin as part of a major investigation into suspected Russian money laundering. The €120 million Villa Maria Irina, and all the shares in its holding company, have been seized by the French justice system. The Paris public prosecutor's office has been investigating claims of money laundering in Paris, Cyprus, Russia and here on the Riviera, since the villa's purchase in 2009. According to the prosecutor's office, the ultimate owner of the holding company that owns the villa is a Russian-Armenian billionaire with links to the Russian energy giant Gazprom. It's the second time in recent years that the French justice system has seized the Riviera property of a Russian oligarch following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. A €23 million villa, in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, was seized in October 2022 after an investigation by a unit of the Paris prosecutor's office specialised in investigating organised crime.

Three men have been jailed for between one and four years for their involvement in a cocaine trafficking operation on the Riviera. Police had put a squatted apartment in Antibes under surveillance after a tip-off from a neighbour last October. They witnessed the frequent comings and goings of what appeared to be meal delivery drivers on scooters. During a police raid, officers found about a kilo of cocaine with a resale value of about €50,000, plus cash, scales and packing bags. Speaking in court, one of the defendants said he was being exploited by a wider criminal network and feared for his safety if orders weren't followed. A 34-year-old man, described by prosecutors as the main organiser in the operation, was sentenced to four years behind bars. Two accomplices were each jailed for a year.

Staff at an overcrowded secondary school in Nice say they'll go on strike again this Thursday. Teachers walked out last week to protest about conditions at the Collège Jean-Giono in the Saint-Roch district. The school has more than 700 pupils, which works out at about one square metre per person. Noise levels of 112 decibels have been recorded in the playground - roughly the same as that of a nightclub. A petition has attracted more than 1,200 signatures. Teachers will organise a rally outside the school on Thursday, followed by another outside the Centre Administratif.

Mandelieu-la-Napoule has announced it will allow fishing along the Siagne river again from 1st March. Fishing had been banned for the past year after several swans were found bleeding and injured by fishing rods and nets. Mandelieu has given a new licence to the Basse-Siagne fishermens' association. Fishing will be allowed for registered members only, with a limit of one rod per fisherman, and only between the hours of 5am and 7pm. Local authorities say they'll be closely monitoring the situation and that protection of the local environment is essential.

Meanwhile, wild boar have been spotted along the banks of the Paillon river in Nice this weekend. A walker on Saturday came face-to-face with several of them, just north of the city centre, past the former Acropolis convention centre. Last summer there were several reported sightings of wild boar near the Paillon. Some have even reached the Promenade des Anglais recently.

Emmanuel Macron's presidential retreat in the Var is to be closed to public visits until at least this autumn. The Fort de Brégançon on the seafront in Bormes-les-Mimosas is the traditional summer residence for French presidents and can normally be visited by the public during the winter months. But work has just begun on renovating some facades and it's expected to last several months. A reopening date is not yet known - but it's likely to be no earlier than September, after the president's regular summer holiday.

Gassin in the Var has been chosen to represent the Paca region in a nationwide contest to find France's best village. France 3 television has opened the public vote - and Gassin is hoping to take the title from current holder Esquelbecq, a little village of 2,000 inhabitants in the Nord. If it does, it'll be the first time that a village in the Paca is crowned winner. The local tourist office is pulling out all the stops to get as many votes as possible, including flyers and social media campaigns. Gassin is known for its Provençal charm, beautiful views over the Gulf of Saint-Tropez and L'Androuno - the narrowest street in the world.

And Nice has come joint-third in a ranking of the most romantic airports in France. A very scientific study, by a travel website, analysed how long each airport's "kiss and fly" facility allows you to drop off a passenger and bid them a goodbye. It looked at the drop-off policies at 112 airports around Europe. In France, Lyon is the winner, with a 20-minute drop-off time - plus the possibility to park your car and leave it, free of charge, for an hour. Marseille comes second. While it's less generous with its eight-minute drop-off time, it allows people to park free for half an hour. Nice comes joint third alongside Paris Charles de Gaulle and Strasbourg, with its 15-minute kiss-and-fly policy. London's Heathrow Airport, on the other hand, charges a £5 fee.

BUSINESS

Protesting Indian farmers say they will resume marching to capital Delhi this week after rejecting a government proposal to buy some crops at assured prices on a five-year contract. The protesters began marching last week but were stopped around 200km from Delhi. Since then, farmer leaders have been in talks with the government on their demands. But on Monday night, they said the offer was "not in their interest".

Barclays has revealed a revival plan to improve its financial performance and drive higher returns for shareholders. The shake-up will also see an overhaul of management, some business disposals and £10bn returned to shareholders over three years. The bank's chief executive has pledged to listen to a growing number of investors seeking a streamlined business model and improved returns. Barclays said it would simplify its business through the creation of five divisions, boosting accountability in the process.

And Apple is reportedly facing a €500m fine from the EU over restrictions on access to music streaming services. The European Commission is investigating whether Apple blocked music streamers from telling users about cheaper ways to subscribe outside its app store - where it takes a significant cut of revenues. In what would be a landmark blow to the US tech company, Brussels reportedly plans to impose a fine of €500m, after years of complaints from companies whose services are delivered via iPhone apps. The Swedish streaming company Spotify filed a complaint with the EU in 2019, claiming that Apple limits choice and competition in its app store by charging a 30% fee on all purchases.

SPORT

Formula One - Pre-season testing starts this week in Bahrain. It's an opportunity for all of Red Bull's rivals to get an indication of whether they have managed to close down the world champions' advantage from last year. The 10 teams have just three crucial days of testing to prepare for the start of the season and can run only one car at a time at the Bahrain International Circuit. It's a particularly important time for the main would-be challengers to F1's world champions - namely Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin - as they look to hit back in 2024 after Red Bull and Max Verstappen produced the most dominant season in the sport's history last year. The Bahrain Grand Prix kicks off the 2024 season on 2nd March.

Football - Liverpool target Xabi Alonso is reportedly the preferred candidate to succeed Thomas Tuchel if Bayern Munich decide to part ways with the manager this summer – while they are also looking at Zinedine Zidane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Bayern Munich are currently eight points behind Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen and are facing their first trophy-less season in 12 years.

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