Wednesday 22 November 2017

George Walden: Francois Hollande may look and sound inoffensive, but he sees himself as a champion of Europe’s oppressed

French President-elect Francois Hollande
French President-elect Francois Hollande

WHEN the last French socialist president, François Mitterrand, was preparing for victory, it was my job as a diplomat to accompany him on a trip to London to call on UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. En route from the airport to No 10, I arranged for him to drop in to Kew Gardens. A mistake. He was so enthralled I couldn’t get him out, and we turned up a trifle late for the prime minister.

The point of the story is French insularity. Mitterrand was a passionate arboriculturalist, yet he knew nothing of the glories of Kew. In France, insularity can go along with a romantic nationalism, on Left and Right, and with François Hollande’s victory we are seeing more of that today.

“A policy of national conceit” was how my ambassador in Paris, Sir Nicholas Henderson, characterised French attitudes in the 1970s, and in different conditions that same overweening self-regard is there once again. Socialism is about doctrine, and the economic doctrines of the new president combine two ingredients dear to the heart of the French Left for centuries: nationalism and the revolutionary spirit.

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