Howard Davies woos the French

The MT Diary: Howard Davies woos the French with strikes and spends an evening with Julie Gayet.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 26 Feb 2014

British politicians never miss a chance to point out that the French now have more strikes than we do, especially in their transport system, so it was a touch embarrassing to be speaking in Paris when the Crow and Johnson show brought London shuddering to a halt.

I tried to explain that as a Brompton commuter I am immune to these passing irritations, but it was not entirely persuasive. French TV reports lingered lovingly on shots of gridlocked Trafalgar Square, and I had to confess that I had been obliged to carry my wheels over stranded cars to fight my way back to Shepherd's Bush.

Then the answer came to me. It is all part of the Mayor's 'red carpet', laid out to attract more French entrepreneurs to London. The occasional Tube strike will make them feel even more at home.

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The high-minded Parisians like to pretend that they are indifferent to the private lives of their presidents, and that it is only the dreaded Anglo-Saxon press that cares.

The rocketing sales of Closer, the magazine that spilled the haricots about President Hollande's exotic domestic arrangements, tend to give the lie to that, and every newspaper and glossy has had one or other of Valerie, Julie or Segolene on its front cover for the past six weeks.

Closer, in spite of its name, is a French organ, but written in a bizarre form of franglais. The masthead advertises that in its pages you will find 'Tous les stars et les news people en live'.

The word 'people' does not mean what you might think. Indeed, it has become part of the French language, often now spelled pipl. The nearest translation might be 'slebs'.

Mme Gayet was only just a celeb before the President's scooter rolled up at her front door. She is a modestly successful jobbing art-house film actress, who sometimes appears fully dressed. With delicious irony she is a candidate in this year's Cesars (the French Oscars) for 'second role feminin', which is what they call 'supporting actress'.

Just for research purposes, I dropped in on a late-night showing on the Left Bank of one of her recent appearances - Quai d'Orsay, a 'comedy' about the ministry of foreign affairs. You can tell it's a comedy because the characters adopt silly walks, and the soundtrack has bouncy little numbers with a few toots and squeaks.

Sadly, you would not know it was meant to be funny from either the plot or the dialogue. Gayet plays an adviser who comes on strong to anyone who strays into her office. Not much of a part, but I guess she was just auditioning for a real-life role.

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I endured only 45 minutes of this dismal entertainment, but the walk back through Saint-Germain was very pleasant, on an almost balmy evening, which is more than could be said for my stroll through Central Park a couple of days later. We have had our floods and storms, while the East Coast has been in deep freeze. There must be locusts and frogs somewhere.

The Americans are puzzled about their economy. Although the recovery is well established, job creation is weak. It is almost the mirror image of what has happened here, where the Bank of England has been surprised by a sharp fall in unemployment.

So the Federal Reserve, now under female management for the first time, is struggling to decide whether to embark on the so-called 'taper caper' and begin to reverse quantitative easing. Janet Yellen will earn her very modest stipend (you can get almost four Yellens for a Carney) over the next few months.

When rumours of the end of QE began to circulate last summer, several emerging markets fell out of bed, and they have been doing so again. Jim O'Neill of BRICs fame has been coining new acronyms. The latest notion is that one should invest in MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), but the ink was scarcely dry on the press release before they turned out to have holes in them.

Some of the Mints are also members of the Fragile Five, invented by Enid Blyton, I think. That seems a better description just now.

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The Fragile Five, and no doubt the Secret Seven too, were well represented at Davos this year. They gave expensive parties. So did Barclays. This year, the guest speaker was Kofi Annan, to show their caring, sharing side.

It was hard to spot a single dominant theme this time. The eurozone is in remission, so that issue didn't catch fire. There was a certain amount of gossip about the likely new cohort of European 'leaders'.

Is it really possible that Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg could be the President of the Commission? Some recall the less than distinguished reign of his compatriot Jacques Santer. It seems quite extraordinary that the continent cannot do better. In retrospect, Jacques 'up yours' Delors seems like a giant among men.

Elsewhere, China may or may not be slowing down. India is waiting for its elections, as is South Africa. There was a modest amount of interest in the UK. Why are we recovering rapidly now, was a question I was often asked.

Search me, was the honest answer, but it does look as though our long, hard economic winter has ended, not before time. Will it be enough to head off the UKIP threat in the European elections? Nigel Farage was not on the Davos guest list (one day, one day) so no one could ask him. But after the debacle of the Referendum Bill, which their lordships killed off, I would be surprised if a percentage point of growth here or there blunted his appeal.

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

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