The MT Diary

My Booker surfeit; Sarko swings into action; French eco-nomics; non to a referendum.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A change, we are led to believe, is as good as a rest. So reading the 110 novels entered for this year's Man Booker prize instead of my regular diet of economics, finance and politics, should have made for a restorative summer break.Somehow, it didn't turn out like that. Although I can think of few better ways of spending an afternoon than reading a good novel by a pool in the South of France with a glass of chilled rose at hand, after 36,000 pages you can find yourself with a bad case of emotional indigestion - and a nasty hangover. There are only so many fraught extramarital affairs a man can manage in one summer, if you catch my drift.

But it was a complete break from office life. Only one of the entries is substantially set in an office, and then in the unusual circumstances of the film censor's bureau, with afternoons spent watching anal sex scenes and guessing the ages of girls in gymslips. Contemporary novelists just aren't interested in business, or in the complex web of relationships that build up in workplaces, whether public or private, unless they very quickly pass from the corridor to the bedroom.

So the big swinging Richards of the corporate world, Branson, Harvey and Gervais, need not fear assassination by novel. Tony Blair features as the villain now and again, however, as does David Beckham, once described as a man whose only meaningful relationship is with his mirror.

Judging by their pinched faces, the top Tour de France cyclists are not similarly attached to mirrors, except perhaps as convenient surfaces on which to marshal tidy lines of coke.

The Tour passed close to our village, so we all trooped off to watch those few riders not yet disqualified for use of growth hormones or blood transfusions. The peloton passed by in a flash, but the crowd was genial and colourful, including three youths wittily dressed as syringes.

The French papers agonised about the future of their tainted Tour, or Le Grand Boucle ('the big loop'), as it's called. The general consensus was that the rot set in when foreigners were allowed to take part, and even win. The drug-filled Kazakh cyclist has joined the Polish plumber as a convenient scapegoat for all the ills in Gaul.

But outside cycling, the mood in France has picked up a lot in the past few months. Unemployment is at its lowest for 20 years, and Nicolas Sarkozy has, like Gordon Brown, hit the ground running. He has been helped by the fact that the Socialist opposition, bizarrely led by the dysfunctional Hollande-Royal menage, makes David Cameron look like Bill Clinton.

In one week, Sarkozy reformed French universities (well, up to a point) and banned network-wide strikes on the railways, while his wife freed the Bulgarian nurses in Libya, before jetting off to spend his holidays in New Hampshire, conveniently close to the Bushes. Meanwhile, his erstwhile rival De Villepin was on his hands and knees tidying up the study after the police had ransacked his apartment looking for evidence in the Clearstream affair, a peculiarly obscure saga involving the sale of frigates to Taiwan, at the core of which - it is asserted - De Villepin falsely tried to pin some financial jiggery-pokery on Sarkozy.

This was much more fun than the turmoil in the debt markets, which in any case plays rather differently over there. It is seen as further proof, if any were needed, of the dangerous instability of ultra-liberal Anglo-American capitalism. The Paris stock market suffered too, of course, but that was a modest price to pay for a few buckets of cold water poured over the mad dogs of the private-equity industry.

The French have never been persuaded that you can't buck the market. There is a lively debate about the case for 'decroissance', a term that might be rendered as 'contraction' but carries connotations of sustainable enviro-friendly development, as an alternative to the slavish pursuit of GDP growth and wealth-creation.

It's easy to smile knowingly as its advocates struggle to explain just how they plan to restrain entrepreneurship and expansion without restricting individual freedom. But the debate is more intellectually stimulating than arguments about the congestion charge, which is how the issues are presented in London.

One issue that is completely dead on the wrong side of the Channel is the European constitution. There is now a powerful sense that the French, having surprised even themselves with their Non in 2005, would like to return to business as usual - in other words with their president calling the shots in Brussels, with occasional supportive noises from Berlin. After a nasty couple of years in which ungrateful upstarts like the Poles began throwing their weight around, normal service has now resumed.

So there's little likelihood that a campaign for another referendum will make headway. In that respect - if no other - Gordon Brown must envy Sarkozy. Few tiresome French Europhobes are calling for a vote. Those who do, on the far right and the far left, can safely be ignored, and the parliamentary vote is a done deal.

In Britain, things are a little different, with the Telegraphs and Mails trying to gear up a new campaign. Will they succeed in stirring up apathy, in Willie Whitelaw's memorable phrase? My betting is against, but it will be the most interesting political question this autumn.

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