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A Parisian interlude

Between two rounds of a presidential election, the city seems untypically calm

2 May 2007

5:48 PM

2 May 2007

5:48 PM

Paris, 1 May

Between two rounds of a presidential election, the city seems untypically calm. But from my observatory, two floors above the campaign headquarters of Ségolène Royal, there is a clear view of the frantic efforts underway. I have been staying in this building, with my host, a celebrated surrealist sculptor, on occasional visits for over five years. Until now its chief claim to fame has been that it was here that French Military Intelligence brought the lovely Mata Hari to be questioned in 1917 before she was taken out to be shot on trumped-up charges of espionage. But Ségolène Royal — whose campaign has been founded on the idea of ‘femmes victimes’ — has not spotted the reference, and Mata Hari has not been mentioned once during her entire campaign.


This is quite appropriate in a way since, if I were forced to criticise the Parti Socialiste, I might murmur that it does not seem to have much sense of the past. The party’s headquarters are just round the corner in the Rue Solferino. In French political jargon, ‘Solferino’ means the Socialists just as ‘Transport House’ once meant Labour. But until the Socialists moved in, Rue Solferino was famous as the street where the Vichy minister of propaganda Philippe Henriot was brutally assassinated by the Resistance in 1944. Not a good omen. Had they reflected further, they might have remembered that the street is named after a battle in Lombardy in 1859 between the armies of Napoleon III, the most ridiculous ruler in French history, and the great Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. The French won, but the consequences were calamitous.

As a result of the carnage of Solferino, the Habsburg empire went into decline; Napoleon III thought he was a great commander and cheeked Bismarck, thereby losing his throne; German nationalism turned into German militarism; Serbian nationalists, believing that their moment had come, assassinated the Austrian archduke at Sarajevo; the Emperor Franz Josef declared the Great War, which led to Verdun, the Somme, Stalin, the Anschluss, Guernica, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Osama bin Laden, health and safety and the whole damn thing. Now, as the nation’s attention focuses on 282 Boulevard St Germain and it becomes impossible to get out for a cup of coffee without forcing one’s way through a scrum of my colleagues in the political paparazzi, another Solferino debacle may well be on the way.

If anyone can prevent a Socialist defeat, it will be my old friend Jean-Louis Bianco, who is Ségolène’s campaign director and who used to give me off-the-record briefings in his office in the Elysée Palace while he was masterminding Mitterrand’s 1988 election victory. But rumour has it that Socialist party leaders are ignoring Bianco. Returning from my morning coffee, I find the usual media scrum in front of the door in a more than usually excited state, but I cannot pass through because the entrance is blocked by a distinguished old gent in quite a good suit, and a beautiful young woman with black hair, a tight black skirt and a superbly tailored grey check jacket. The old gent is trying to shake her hand but the beautiful young woman is so busy smiling at the photographers that she has not noticed. Suddenly I recognise the old bloke; it is Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, who was my fellow parishioner in the days when we both lived by the church of St Jacques du Haut Pas. He should be ashamed of himself at his age, trying to chat up this lovely young thing. I might report him to our curé. If only he would get out of the way, I could take her up in the lift and ask her which floor she wanted. There is something familiar about her, too, and then comes the realisation, horror, that it is Her, ‘la Candidate’. I shall be clubbed to the ground by one of her tame gorillas if I don’t move on.

Ségolène’s gorillas are camouflaged in pink ties and dove-grey suits, presumably to fit in better with her touch-feely presidential campaign, but they don’t fool me. They are quite obviously flics. Later that day I meet my sculptor host on the doorstep, who wants me to help him wash his car as it is covered in bird shit. Moments later we step out together before the television cameras of a nation, dressed in paint-spattered overalls, carrying buckets, sponges, scrapers and chemicals. Just as we are about to set to work on the car, my kindly host spots his concierge, who has become quite impossible since Ségolène moved in and who spends his whole day chatting to the gorillas and ordering us about. My host, one of nature’s anarchists, immediately rushes in front of the cameras and engages the concierge in an angry conversation about the poubelles or some other domestic flashpoint, while the concierge, who can see his legion d’honneur going up in smoke, desperately tries to ignore him and look like a member of Security. Standing patiently by the bird-spattered car, I reflect how life has changed since the last presidential campaign, when I too had an official label round my neck and polished shoes upon my feet.


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