Monday, May 07, 2007

Harold Nicolson and Nicolas Sarkozy

As France went to the polls to choose its next president yesterday, I was reading Harold Nicolson's diary during the 1919 Peace Conference and came across a pithy observation about the French that rings a bell.

"One must force oneself to see the French point of view and to visualise in terms of their minds the nightmare of French security. They are a profoundly defensive people. And they long to create a ditch between themselves and the outer world."

(1 May 1919)

The reaction here in Britain to Nicolas Sarkozy's victory has been broadly positive. For too long France has been stuck with obstinately high unemployment. Its 35 hour week - an ill-conceived idea designed to share the work around - only served to make employers less willing to recruit at all. A massive brain-drain has followed. Travel into London from the west on the District Line in the rush hour and you will almost always hear French being spoken. There are an estimated 300,000 French men and women in Britain now and the average age of those of them who had registered to vote in this election was 29.

Mr Sarkozy billed himself as the candidate who will face up to these problems. Yet whether he really believes in the economic liberalism that will be necessary and has the courage to force it through against the militant reaction for which the French are unfortunately world-renowned, remains to be seen. Here he is speaking about the European Union with words which would be familiar to Nicolson. “It must not be the Trojan horse for globalisation’s ills,” he said. I have yet to be convinced that he will live up to already-high expectations.

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