[11 September 2005]
On a recent trip to London a friend of mine put the following question to me: isn’t it about time that Dominique de Villepin is elected to something? Most Brits find it mind-boggling that France’s Prime Minister should hold no elected office; that Jacques Chirac should place at the head of his government a man that hasn’t been democratically chosen by the people. Add to this the fact that the man hails from an aristocratic family and, well, it just goes to show what nonsense all that revolutionary bother was.
Luckily I’m an educated man who can see that such a basic knee-jerk reaction is simplistic, conservative, and quite frankly, puerile. You see, de Villepin isn’t just a man who went to the right school and is mates with the right people. No, De Villepin is above all a handsome steely-haired man who is known to have penned a few lines of verse in his time. He embodies the romantic notion of the French intellectuel.
But every Batman has his Joker, every Cosmopolitan its Hello! magazine. So, too, De Villepin has his nemesis. The man I’m talking about ain’t no poet. The man I’m talking about controversially claimed he’s gonna clean up the inner cities with a water cannon (a comment which seemed to worryingly echo Travis Bickle’s “Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”). And yes, you’ve guessed it, he may not be the housewives’ favourite month when it comes to the ‘member of parliament pin-up calendar’. But whatever your feelings for Nicolas Sarkozy, you can’t deny that he’s a man of action. And his Anglo-Saxon-style politics has made him extremely popular with the French people, fed up with years of massive political inertia and corruption.
Sarkozy was once Chirac’s protégé. But in France, it is popularity that often breeds contempt. Perhaps not amongst the public transport classes, but amongst the people who matter. When Jean-Pierre Raffarin resigned as PM after the French voted against the idea of adopting the proposed European constitutional treaty, Chirac, fearful of having his Cronus chop off his testicles and throw them into the electoral sea, did his best to distance himself from Sarkozy and adopted de Villepin as his new pet. A poodle for a bulldog.
With the next presidential elections two years away, both men have already begun vying to take over from Chirac as the French conservative party’s future candidate. Meanwhile, Chirac himself is disappearing up his own cliché. Many believe that he has become a liability for France, and this was highlighted during the recent bidding for the 2012 Olympics. The truth is that 10 years ago it wasn’t Chirac that took office, but a satirical caricature of Chirac. It is in fact my belief that the Chirac blundering and blustering on the world political stage is in fact a pod person, shelled before it had finished maturing.
At least, I hope that’s his excuse. Though I admire the firm stance he took over Gulf War II (regardless of his real political motivation), I found myself wondering with great abomination at Chirac’s reported comments made at the expense of the British. Last July, as the members of the International Olympic Committee were preparing to the vote on which country should hold the 2012 games, Chirac met up with Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin to, as far as I can tell, crack a few undiplomatically, politically incorrect jokes.
As an Englishman I have been genetically programmed to express myself through understatements in the face of adversity. Because of this I have come to appreciate French franchise (except when they begin discussing their medical history). But franchise isn’t what you necessarily want from your head of state. When Chirac said to his buddies about England that “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food,” I took out a second mortgage on my flat, went down to the bookies, and put the whole lot on London’s bid to win the Olympics. Paris up ‘till then had been the favourite to win, though London was catching up. And with two Finnish judges voting it came as no surprise that the final vote was 54-50 in London’s favour. Ah well, no one likes a draw.
This isn’t the first time such gaffes have been made. In 1991 France’s first and so far only woman Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, said in an interview for The Observer that a quarter of all Englishmen are gay. Of course, if it were true there is no reason why this would be a problem. She had, after all, based her comments on her own scientific research - walking around the streets of London she had noticed that men didn’t look at her. No, the real problem lies in the fact that she went on to suggest that men who aren’t interested in women are in some way handicapped. She lasted 10 months. Though many would argue that the shortness of her time in office had less to do with her franchise and more to do with latent misogyny among France’s ruling classes, many would also agree that there is a time and a place for goading. And besides, perhaps we just don’t have a penchant for elderly French women.
However, I must stress that rosbif-bashing isn’t as widespread as frog bashing. In truth, put the two side by side and any sentiment aimed at deriding the English pales into insignificance. As the blackcurrant Tango advert suggests with its sales exec. challenging France to a fight atop the cliffs of Dover all because a French exchange student questioned the new flavour the British media is quick to rally the nation against our Gallic neighbours whether to provoke a laugh or simply because we’re harder than they are. Perhaps it was the spirit of the Blitz that helped Londoners overcome the terrible events of 7th July, but the possibility to gloat over the French was what really pulled us through.
Flippant comments aside though, and one cannot deny that there are real political tensions between the two countries, Rumsden may have once attempted to divide and rule with his comment about Old and New Europe, but as negotiations over the EU budget collapsed towards the end of June this year, the French themselves were talking about nouveau and ancient regime. This, however, was in now way an act of self-criticism. The country being tagged with the ‘Old Order’ label was the United Kingdom, and the reason for this was Tony Blair’s refusal to accept a reduced European Union rebate, a proposal put forward by Chirac himself.
The origins of Britain’s EU rebate date back to 1979 when newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously stated, “What we are asking is for a very large amount of our own money back”. The rebate was finally instated in 1984. For the record, she lasted 10 years. The UK was then one of the three poorest members of the European Economic Community and yet was one of the biggest financial contributors. Times have, of course, changed. Though Britain is now one of the wealthiest member states of the EU the rebate remains in place. So surely Chirac was right.
In an article published in Germany’s best-selling newspaper Bild, Blair’s response was simple: “EU Money for Jobs not Cows!” The rebate must stay, but what does need to be reformed is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Children, children.
This was where the idea for this piece sprang. It was in the middle of Beck’s acoustic set (when the rest of the band sit down at a table and go through the motions of having a meal before ‘spontaneously’ discovering the percussion possibilities of knives, plates and glasses) that I began to think about the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. Put it down to what you will. Was I wondering whether or not the food on the table had been subsidised by my taxes I’d already paid through the nose to go and see the funk-folk maverick or was it simply down to middle-age? Don’t answer that.
Created in 1958, the CAP’s aim was to maintain produce quality, farm structures and, needless to say, prices. Today, through a number of reforms, different agricultural aspects have been emphasised such as the preservation of biodiversity and traditional landscapes. The EU website even informs us that “these reforms are continuing, embracing products [which] include cotton, hops, olive oil, tobacco and sugar”. Hang on a minute! Tobacco! You mean to say that I’m being taxed both to subsidise tobacco growth AND pay for anti-smoking campaigns AND finance the treatment of smoking-related illnesses?! In fact, about 44 percent of the whole of the EU’s budget is attributed to the CAP, and that’s down from a once massive 70 percent. And what really gets Blair’s chèvre is that the biggest beneficiary of the CAP is France.
Blair’s proposal to radically reform the CAP in an attempt to divert budgetary funds towards other industries, notably those that the UK have been investing in, prompted Chirac to say “The only thing [the British] have ever given European farming is mad cow.” Again, not the most diplomatic, though I do wonder if Blair saw the irony.
There is no doubt, though, that most British politicians firmly believe that the UK is the central player in New Europe, that a modern Europe can only be built on foundations laid down by them. And they have the full backing of Bush’s USA on this one. The New World backing the New Europe. A federal state backing an anti-federalist state. Sorry, how does that work? Never mind.
On the other hand, France sees Britain as Old Europe, a feudal throwback. Not so much a nation of shopkeepers as a network of middle managers. And this right down to its absolutist monarch. That’s Blair, by the way.
And who’s right in all this? Well, perhaps Beck is when he sings “Milk and honey pouring down like money”. Though it depends on which side of the farm’s fence your sitting. Mind you, things are set to move once Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy are in power. Or maybe not. Plus ça change.