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Jonathan Meades

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Notes From Both Sides of the Channel

Posted: 14/07/11 17:11

Last week I was researching film locations for a series of films I'm doing about a France, which most Britons won't recognise, most French too. Housing projects encircle Paris. Maybe 'encircle' is too mild. Maybe 'lay siege' to Paris is appropriate. Forty years ago these places were sites of optimism -- it went without saying that progressive architecture led to a brighter future. Today, utopia is a catastrophic ruin, desecrated in a sort of collective proxy suicide by its own inhabitants, the creatures of a social experiment conducted by many Doctor Moreaus, an experiment that went hopelessly wrong. The sullen Tours Mondor at Argenteuil no longer exist. They were demolished last December to make way for up-to-the-minute social housing. The feral inhabitants, whom Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, described in 2005 as racaille, (overenthusiastically translated as 'scum') are however still in business, trafficking drugs and guns, protecting 'their' patch against mobs from other 'burbs and doubtless looking forward to the opportunities for fresh trashing, car burning and graffiti that the new housing will offer.

When we reached L'Abreuvoir an estate of sculpturally satisfying and atypically well tended towers in the northeastern suburb of Bobigny, the installation artist Hugues Rochette who was driving me through this epic wasteland made the mistake of getting out of the car and wandering off piste. He was set upon by a racially harmonious gang of young west Africans and young north Africans who beat him to the ground, shredded his t-shirt and stole his satchel. They had run all of 30 metres with it when a middle-aged man appeared and shouted to them to return it. Which they did, seething with meek obedience: such was the rule of the tribal elder. The Vietnamese chemist who patched up Hugues mentioned that a few days previously the same bunch had attacked two septuagenarian women for their purses.

The President, the Interior Minister, Claude Guéant and the Prefect of Seine St Denis, Christian Lambert talk tough. The political will to change things exists. But the gulf between words and actions is chasmic. Save for occasional commando raids when they are accompanied by scores of flak-jacketed television crews the police are seldom to be seen. Too risky. So resort is made to the perennial practice of throwing cash at the burbs' infrastructure. The regeneration, for instance, of the aptly named Val d'Argent will cost in excess of 400 million euros and will solve nothing. It is not a remedy but guilt money, like that doled out in overseas aid. The only difference is that the bagmen don't have so far to go. The third world begins a dozen kilometres from the Élysée Palace.

The palace is an address that will not now be squatted by the burly lothario Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Thankfully. For had he entered the presidential race the signs were that he would have offered a programme that was founded in clientelism. That's the 'cultural' clientelism of New Labour and the communitarian clientelism of Ken Livingstone rather than the economic clientelism of Mitterrand. The problems for the Parti Socialist are that a) the blue collar constituency which Mitterrand relied on 30 years ago has diminished and b) the policies that are attractive to that constituency would alienate the French middle class whose soppily leftist sentimentality about victimised immigrants in the 'burbs (where of course they never venture) is matched only by their contempt for the franco-francais, the franchouillard, the francais de souche etc -- that fragment of the populace which will vote in any case for the Front National. The size of this fragment is unpredictable.

It seems to have escaped the notice of the press that the first round of the presidential election will be held in April 2012, two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the referendum on the Evian Accords, the ceasefire and the grant of independence to Algeria. That war remains an open wound. De Gaulle's treating with minoritarian terrorists and his subsequent grotesque betrayal of the pieds noirs and the harkis never ceases to shock. The post-independence genocide has been airbrushed. Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers, is happily accepted as documentary realism rather than as a one sided work of wishful fabulism spiked by liberal hatred and by what had yet to be called political correctness. That great-man-of-the-people Mitterrand was as contemptuous as de Gaulle of the unwillingly repatriated whom he, like many on the left, assumed to be racist and poujadist. All this is readily exploitable by the Front National leader Marine Le Pen, a calmer presence than her father.

It is an embarrassment for the PS, which earlier this year at Jarnac celebrated the 30th anniversary of Mitterand's election with Kinnockian triumphalism and risible red scarves. Unhappily it's also an embarrassment for Sarkozy, the quasi-Gaullist, the heir to that troublesome legacy. He is hampered by the persistently fresh memory of the most inept, most clumsy, most cruel decolonisation. To millions of French citizens it seems like yesterday. Those who fled the Algerian terror are still damned as 'colonists' and, in the case of the harkis, as 'traitors to their race': that's how loyalty to France is repaid.

The Listening Bank (formerly trading as News International) is, of course, morally bankrupt, ethically null and so on. But buried in the depths of the reeking midden there are refulgent jewels. It's not all squalor, there is first rate comedy too. For instance, Matthew Parris's assertion on Any Questions that the demise of the News of the World, 'a fine newspaper' is 'a tragedy... a disaster. Again, there was the marvellous spectacle of Roger Alton, whose facial features increasingly resemble those of his master Murdoch, sinking as he gamely failed to defend the indefensible. I guess that it has to be understood that these light entertainers were merely following orders. They are, after all, on the payroll. Which is more than can be said for freelance apologists such as Dominic Lawson whose tired schtick in the Independent was that we are all guilty of buying the wretched paper and thus of tacitly condoning its methods. We aren't. More than 50 million Britons didn't read it.

The News International wreckage seems ripe for a film treatment by Peter Morgan, with Mick Hucknall as Rebekah Brooks and Roland Rat as Andy Coulson. In the meantime the BBC ought, without crowing, to transmit The Naked Truth, starring Terry-Thomas, Dennis Price, Peter Sellers and Shirley Eaton. There's even a cameo by Peter Noble. This 1957 film is satisfyingly prescient. It rewards investigation.

There is much that Call Me Dave can be accused of. Dodgy friends, vacuity, smarm, blairolatry. One can now add to that list an admiration of Pol Pot. How else can The Case of the Missing Spectacles be explained? Not one, not two, but three cabinet ministers have shed their glasses in what the French insist on calling a relooking. Gove, Willets, Grieve: this trio of myopes looks weirdly incomplete without their prosthesis. Still, better contact lenses than being put to death as an intellectual.

I want to make an appeal. On behalf of Tibor Fischer, Amy Jenkins, Terry Jones, myself and several other guinea pigs. We are the subjects of a commercial experiment, the first British essay in crowdfunded publishing. Crowdfunding is a means of raising money by micro-patronage. If you want to read our books go to Unbound.co.uk and subscribe. Please subscribe. I'll say that again, please, please. As sometime Principal of the Higher Institute of Aggressive Begging I must warn you of the multiple dangers of not subscribing.