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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: France's election choice is between a jackanapes and a dunderhead

No-one would accuse Boris Johnson of being a thoughtful politician. Over the weekend, he called for tax cuts: not an unpopular slogan. But if he were pressed on how to pay for those tax cuts, his response would be bluster, followed by a peevish bumble.

That does not matter. Boris is not trying to become Chancellor of the Exchequer; God forbid. He would merely like to remain Mayor of London, a post for which he is well suited. The Mayor ought to be a cheerleader with the right instincts. Boris qualifies on both counts. He makes people smile - not an easy task during these dark days - and his core beliefs are sound. Boris is in favour of freedom, smaller government and equality of opportunity. He wants everyone to do well and enjoy themselves. He wants to like, and be liked. That might sound fatuous, until you think of Ken Livingstone, who does not wish to dispense likeability. He is not interested in opportunity, except for his political chums.

In his previous mayoral term, he spent money on Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro; that tells us where he is coming from. His vision of London and Londoners is essentially balkanised. He has no empathy with white heterosexuals who either are middle-class or wish to become so. He is dismissive of Jews. His ideal London would consist of antagonistic minorities. Although Neil Kinnock was rarely right or wise, he did once say something intelligent: "Everybody likes Ken, until they meet him". Let us hope that London will meet him no more. No-one suggests that Boris is perfect. But he will do.

Across the Channel, the wretched French must be wishing that they had someone who would do. This Sunday, they face a dreadful choice, between a jackanapes and a dunderhead. Five years ago, it all seemed so promising. Jacques Chirac had spent 12 years as President, doing nothing except revel in pomposity, and corruption. M Sarkozy appeared to be different. He gave the impression of radical energy: of seeking to occupy the Élysée to do something, not just to be something.

It was a wholly misleading impression. Almost as soon as he took office, the new President went to Versailles. He was given the grand tour, but his guides could not help concluding that this was his first visit. He seemed dutifully uninterested, until he was shown some apartments normally reserved for the French Prime Minister. "I'll have those" he announced: "They're too good for him". Shortly afterwards, he went to see the President of Italy. That office is a dignified part of the Italian constitution rather than an efficient one (if there is such a thing). All the same, dignity matters, and one might have thought that Carla Bruni's husband might have shown some respect to Italy's Head of State. Not so: in the course of a half-hour meeting, M Sarkozy's mobile rang four times. On each occasion, he answered it and had a conversation. At the end, the Italian President said that he had arranged a press conference. "Conférence de presse," Nicholas Sarkozy replied: "ça ne vaut pas la peine". He then left.

The President of Austria received better treatment: only two mobile calls during his half-hour. A senior French diplomat made a despairing comment: "Ce n'est plus la Cinquième République. C'est Louis Quinze et Madame du Barry".

President Sarkozy does not deserve to be re-elected, because he has made no attempt to keep his economic promises. Five years ago, he sounded as if he wished to import the Anglo-Saxon model into the French economy. All he did was import the Italian model into his own bed. That helps to explain why he will lose. The French would probably forgive his economic malfeasance if he had conducted himself with some grace and style. After all, President Chirac was a mediocrity, a failure and a crook. But he won two terms because his personal deportment did not demean his office. As President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy has been a strutting little ponce.

In that regard, President Hollande would be an improvement. But what a prospect. M. Hollande also invites Bourbon comparisons. Like Louis XVIII, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He seems to want to take France back to the disaster of François Mitterrand's first two years, when he steered the economy straight for the rocks.  President Mitterrand had some excuse. In 1981, socialism had not been wholly exploded. It has now, and M Hollande's apparent desire to return to a pre-Thatcherite ancien régime would turn many hard-working Frenchmen into emigres. Although it is not clear why a French President would wish to come to the aid of estate agents in Kensington and Knightsbridge, that would be the consequence of the Hollande economic proposals.

Assuming that François Hollande does win, any sane Frenchman will just have to hope that he breaks his promises. This may prove a vain hope. The fellow does exude a plodding, obstinate, dunderhead sincerity. Poor France. At present, our own politicians do not stand high in public esteem. Yet anyone tempted to despair should look across the Channel, to see what the French have to put up with.

Were I French, I would vote for Sarkozy, faute de mieux: all faute and no mieux. Our sweet enemy, France: it is tempting to mock the Grenouilles in their predicament. That should be resisted. It is not in our interests that an important economic neighbour should be stricken my incompetence. In large measure, the French are the authors of their own misfortunes. Even so, France deserves better.


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