Howard Davies: The French are getting a bad press again

Russia is causing more problems for French-US relations.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2014

The French are getting a bad press again in the US, after a brief thaw when Hollande visited the Obamas, and the press conference was full of lovey-dovey talk about their oldest ally, and references to De Tocqueville. This time the problem is Russia.

The administration has been looking desperately for some impressive-sounding sanctions to impose on Putin and the Putinistas. Without many good options, they resorted to jawboning corporate executives and telling them not to go to this year's St Petersburg economic forum.

So it was a bit galling for the State Department to discover that the French are continuing to build two small Mistral-class warships for the Russian navy, which might prove quite helpful if and when Putin decides to bite off another chunk of Southern Ukraine.

The French say there's no question of not fulfilling the contract. Over a thousand shipyard jobs are at stake. Their foreign minister says they will only consider stopping the delivery if the British seize the assets of oligarchs in London.

That seems far-fetched as a comparison. While it is true that Chelsea have some tough defenders, it is hard to see that even John Terry would be as useful an addition to Russian firepower as a couple of aircraft carriers.

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There is a little-known radio play by Tom Stoppard called If You're Glad I'll Be Frank about a chronically late bus driver who takes to consulting the speaking clock (it's quite an early work) and discovers that the voice intoning 'at the third stroke' is his estranged wife's.

He tries to rescue her from the telephone company's HQ, where she has been in captivity, reading out the time, for years. I won't spoil the end.

I acted in it once, and it came back to me recently as I listened to the woman on the Hammersmith and City Line who tells you where you are. She has a pleasant voice, but the announcements are clearly cobbled together from a series of individual recordings of words. So you hear: 'This is a Hammersmith and/City Line/train to/Moorgate.'

I am quite fond of the line, especially as it ran through the Tube strike, and I like its pink colour on the Underground map, but I do think they were a bit mean with the fee to the announcer.

I can see why you wouldn't record a separate sentence for each station - the woman would be there all week, like Glad - but not to record 'Hammersmith and City Line' in one take strikes me as a false economy.

Still, she does at least sound happy in her work, unlike the Heathrow Terminal 5 shuttle announcer, whose voice falls sadly at the end of every gloomy phrase. I fear she may have been doing the job for too long already. They need someone who sounds as though she is keen that you get to the right gate on time. I plan to mount a rescue bid next time I pass through.

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Spending time worrying about the announcers on planes and trains (I have no estranged wife as an excuse) may be a danger sign. Too much travelling perhaps. I have been to New York (twice) and Paris (three times) this month, and then to Greece and Albania. A varied diet, but too few days at home.

France continues to play the traditional Turkish role of 'Sick Man of Europe'. Unemployment is at 12% and purchasing managers' surveys are much weaker than in Germany or the UK. Confidence is low. But, to my surprise, I found that the big issue is the Marseillaise, not the economic situation.

At the World War Two victory celebrations in May (the French won, by the way), the Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, failed to join in the singing of the Marseillaise. It was a John Redwood moment.

Elderly subscribers will recall that, as Secretary of State for Wales, he was famously caught on camera mumbling incomprehensibly while the crowd around him sang lustily in Welsh. But rather than claiming a sore throat, Madame Taubira came out fighting and said she saw no point in 'stage karaoke'.

Cue for a lot of huffing and puffing on the Right and calls for her resignation. Some even argued that she had broken the law. It turns out, though, that only schoolchildren are obliged to sing the Marseillaise on state occasions such as the commemoration of the fall of the Bastille or the President taking a new mistress - that sort of thing. Ministers can do what they like.

The fuss caused me to look again at the words of the song. What bloodthirsty stuff it is, all about foreign blood watering French furrows. I also found out that the version we sing at Twickenham, where the chorus starts 'Ou est le papier?', is not quite the sense of the original.

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As a one-eyed Manchester City supporter, I am prepared to believe the worst of Chelsea. But they helped us out by beating Liverpool at home and Mourinho has so far not been anything like as rude about Pellegrini as he has about Wenger. And we light blues from Manchester have a new hate figure in the form of Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA.

Dyke said he found City's win 'depressing', a judgement that might be thought to have some force, given his elevated position in the game.

But as someone once observed in another context: 'He would say that, wouldn't he?' Dyke is a Cockney Red, a member of a displaced tribe who live mainly on the West Coast mainline between Euston and Manchester Piccadilly. He was also a director of the club in Fergie's time. I hope, and indeed expect, that he may remain depressed for some years to come.

- Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies.

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