It’s a funny old game…

The big news in France this week is that ex-President Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail – two of them suspended – for bribery and influence-peddling. He is the first former President to receive an actual prison sentence since France’s collaborationist leader Marshal Pétain in 1945. (Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds when he was Paris mayor.)

The good news for Sarkozy is that the appeal he has launched is probably going to take years to be resolved. Even if this fails, it’s likely that his sentence will not be spent behind bars but under house arrest with an electronic tag. The bad news is that he is due to appear in court again later this month over the so-called Bygmalion affair, in which he is accused of having overspent on expenses in his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. If found guilty, he could face another one-year prison sentence. As Oscar Wilde might have said, ‘to be sent down once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be sent down a second time makes you look a very dodgy geezer indeed’.

I still find it difficult sometimes to remember that the French President, being the head of state, equates to the Queen in the United Kingdom, rather than to the Prime Minister. The problem being that the equation doesn’t really work, the Queen’s role being largely ceremonial, whilst that of the President is anything but. Whatever one’s view of the UK monarchy, it needs a superhuman stretching of the imagination to picture Her Maj being accused of slipping backhanders to Privy Councillors. (Picturing other members of the Windsor clan being so accused requires less-demanding mental gymnastics.)

In very broad political terms, I think it’s easier to see the position of the French President as being closer to that of the UK Prime Minister, and here, at least, the UK would appear to have the moral edge. No Prime Minister has ever even been prosecuted, let alone convicted of any crime. In 1848, there was an attempt to impeach Lord Palmerston for having taken money from the Tsar of Russia, but it came to nothing. More recently, there have been attempts to get a case going against Tony Blair for going to war in Iraq, but they never get anywhere. Finally, just to bring us right up to date, whilst the current Prime Minister may be a serial adulterer who has twice been sacked for lying to his employer, none of this, as he would be the first to point out, is any business of the boys in blue.

Right now, for the first time in a while, Johnson has grounds for feeling a little bullish, as the Covid-19 crisis and its management in the UK and France only serve to underline the ephemeral nature of political reputations. For much of the past year, he and his government have been roundly berated for their mishandling of the situation: too slow to impose lockdowns, too quick to lift them, an expensive test and trace fiasco, unimpressive ministerial press conferences, it seemed like a masterclass in incompetence.

In France, on the other hand, the government appeared cool, calm, and in control: clear countrywide rules, quickly imposed lockdowns, compulsory mask-wearing in public, curfews where necessary. In quietly assured TV broadcasts, President Macron made us all feel we were in good hands.

Then came the vaccines. To its credit, the UK moved swiftly and decisively. A comprehensive vaccine programme got under way quickly, and the results are now obvious; the numbers of cases and deaths are falling steadily. June 21 has been set as a target for the end of all restrictions.

Here in France, the roll-out of vaccines has, in comparison, been painfully slow. There are a number of reasons for this. The need to act at an EU-wide level in terms of some administrative and distribution processes didn’t help, and neither did an element of rigidity in the workings of the French health system. President Macron chose, perhaps for his own political reasons, to highlight some elements of uncertainty about the AstraZeneca vaccine and said it would not be used on those under the age of 75 (a decision since reversed).

Whatever the reason, the result is that France continues to see rising numbers of cases and deaths in parts of the country. So far, another nationwide lockdown is being resisted, but more and more areas are having weekend lockdowns introduced. Hopefully, the slow but steady increase in the number of vaccinations will eventually lead to a return to normality, but whether it will be as quick as that hoped for in the UK is debatable.

One thing worth pointing out is that the UK took a significant risk in two areas. Its regulatory agency authorised vaccines more quickly than the EU’s, and its government adopted a single-shot policy, allowing it to roll out first doses faster so that more people could have some protection quickly. Both these gambles, at the time of writing, seem to have paid off. Speaking personally, if faced with a similar situation again, I would still be inclined to endorse the EU approach.

It’s fair to say that, while the Macron market is suddenly a little uncertain, Johnson shares have risen in value quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. I would not be in too much of a hurry to invest, though. The impact of Brexit will become a little more noticeable in April, and, as Chris Grey says in his excellent Brexit and Beyond blog, the response ‘yes, but vaccines’ to any new setback will quickly become extremely irritating.

***

This tweet from Paul Eggleston made me laugh:

[Roadside cafe]

I’ll have a hotdog please, with onions.

Sure. You travelling far?

I’m just going to recover a van that’s broken down and take it to a museum. It contains the skeleton of a stallion that belonged to Joan of Arc.

The martyr’s horse?

Yes please, and mustard.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Schimpf-los is a 24-hour German hotline that allows customers to release pent-up aggression by swearing at telephone operators.

In France, it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon.

Vatican City is the only place in the world where cash machines offer instructions in Latin.

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