The MT Diary: Paris to Chicago

Howard Davies buys a blue suede jacket in America, tackles a veal chop the size of a small heifer, and discusses French austerity.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 02 Feb 2012

Is it possible to do full justice to the cornucopia of delights offered by a midwinter visit to Lansing, Michigan in the restricted space the editor allows me in his organ?

Yes is the honest answer to that question, and I say so with due respect to my gracious hosts. Lansing is the state capital, so there is a monster Michigan State university campus - Go Spartans! - and a row of vintage clothes shops, where I snagged a blue suede jacket for $40. There aren't many events in the London season where blue suede is the dress code but, at a show in the Lansing arts centre with a tribute band line-up of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, my new purchase was right at home. I will let you know if another appropriate event comes up in the next decade to allow further amortisation of the investment.

That's about the size of it for Lansing, but to reach these three-star delights you need to pass through Chicago, a city I wish I could visit more. Over here, it has a kind of 'second city' reputation, but the Art Institute is a world-class gallery, the Chicago Symphony is a Champions League Orchestra under Riccardo Muti, and the lakeside setting gives it a slight edge over Birmingham.

I like the brutalism of its skyscrapers, and bought a T-shirt at the Architectural Association shop with 'Less is more', the Mies van der Rohe motto, printed on the front in 10-point type. Since I play cricket with a bunch of post-modern architects, I will have many opportunities to wear that to provocative effect.

I was invited to dinner at the Union League Club, a heavy Pall Mall tribute club, one might call it, complete with hunting scenes and portraits of 19th-century Illinois worthies - the giants of the meatpacking trade. The difference from London is that the steaks are four times as large. I tackled a veal chop the size of a small heifer and it is still working its way through my digestive system. It was washed down with a large draught of Chateau Romney. The midwest view is that Mitt will come through the primaries in the lead. They aren't squeamish about firing folk: it goes with the red meat.

This beefy interlude was a pleasant change after a heavily French-accented diet in recent weeks. I geared up for the new term at Sciences Po in Paris with a provincial jaunt to take the temperature in the Hexagon as the French gear up for their own presidential election in May and wrestle with the continuing eurozone crisis. We called in at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where de Gaulle is buried under the shadow of a huge Croix de Lorraine. I could feel the earth move as the French debt downgrade caused the General to turn somersaults in his grave.

While Sarko has many defenders, generally on the grounds that at least he is trying to get the Germans to do the business, one can't help thinking that de Gaulle would have found him lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi. The founder of the Fifth Republic had no need of built-up shoes to enhance his stature and dignity.

If you had to sum up the French view on the crisis, it would be that for France to be in the eye of the storm is, frankly, a swizz. They do not have a neat equivalent for that sophisticated concept but feel it no less strongly.

The way they see it, on the one hand the PIIGS (cochons doesn't work so well as an acronym) have let the side down by being too idle and profligate, while on the other the Germans have been too hard-working and prudent. The French are stuck in the middle - not quite German enough, and in danger of being typecast as yet another piggy. For the rating agencies to mark them down for living in a bad neighbourhood is just not 'le fair-play'. (Note there is no French translation of that elusive idea.)

So their policy response is a little confused. The government says it has set its face against austerity, but is cutting spending nonetheless. It generally favours pan-European solutions, including collectively guaranteed eurobonds, but the rating downgrade diminishes its ability to stand behind others. The Merkozy combination is an unequal partnership. And, at home, the National Front under Marine Le Pen is singing a seductive anti-euro song. Polls suggest that over a third of French voters share her views, even if they are not yet ready to say they will vote for the far right.

So the French predicament is no laughing matter. To confirm that, right on cue, the Comedie Francaise has gone on strike.

But at least there is no sign of France breaking up, like the UK. Selling Alsace back to the Germans might solve the debt problem, but it isn't yet on the agenda, as far as I know.

One wonders whether an independent Scotland would re-establish the Auld Alliance and put an economic noose around its common enemy. So far, Alex Salmond hasn't committed to extending the exciting French plan for a financial transaction tax to Edinburgh, but he would need some additional revenue when I stop sending part of my tax cheque north of the border to support McBenefits.

The first Franco-Scottish summit cannot be far off. They could hold it in New Caledonia.

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