Saturday, August 8, 2009

Turning our backs on the Queen

Because of health and safety, we are no longer expected to walk backwards before the Queen, observes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

So 'elf'n'safety have proved that they outrank the House of Windsor. From now on, no one, except for two particular courtiers and Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, will walk backwards from the presence of the Queen. The practice is deemed too dangerous, we are told, but Her Majesty can't bring herself to see it disappear altogether.

In anyone else, you would suspect that this would derive from the levity that the sight presents (and the irrational hope, perhaps, that Lord Irvine might one day return to the Lord Chancellor's office). But in the case of the Queen, what you see is what you get. Whatever her personal preferences, she is resolved to follow the law of the land at all times.

I wonder, though, how it was decided that the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps and the Queen's equerry would be the ones selected. Did the current holders, Charles Gray and Andy Calame, draw lots? Did they have to pass a strenuous physical exam? Will they be forced to carry beepers that whistle out a warning to passers-by during the procedure, like articulated lorries? And hasn't Mr Straw done enough backing down to last a lifetime?

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Twisted histories last the longest

Writers from Shakespeare to Walter Scott have fired our imaginations with gross but entertaining fallacies, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

According to a new study, Hollywood films that take liberties with the past damage people's knowledge of history – even when they once knew the correct facts. But while this is likely true, it's nothing new. Writers from Shakespeare to Walter Scott have fired our imaginations with gross but entertaining fallacies: Cleopatra, Richard the Lionheart and Richard III have never recovered from the extreme makeovers they received according to Elizabethan or Victorian tastes.

Alexandre Dumas rewrote the Counter-Reformation in France; Schiller created folk heroes from scratch (a revisionism abetted and amplified by the Italian librettists employed by Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi).

On screen, too, for every painstakingly accurate – yes, superbly entertaining – I, Claudius, there are a dozen Troys, Gladiators and Romes. And yet even if they scramble the viewer's knowledge, these works still send people in droves to classical history courses, and fire up lasting enthusiasms. Old Carlyle can't have recruited a tenth of the amount.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Harriet Harman and Ségolène Royal: sisters under the skin

Harriet Harman's political style, if nothing else, recalls the bossiness of French socialist Ségolène Royal.

Segolene Royal
Ségolène Royal: a firm believer that the state knows best Photo: Reuters

What is it with Socialist women politicians and their seemingly uncontrollable urge to give feminism a bad name? As part of the improbable duo left in charge during Gordon Brown’s Scottish staycation, Harriet Harman managed the feat of making Lord Mandelson seem like a safe pair of hands. Between criticising men (“they can’t be left running things on their own”) and turf-brawling with Jack Straw’s mandarins over the announcement of new measures for rape victims, Miss Harman certainly made a lasting impression.

Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her. In fact, that seems to be the plan – to make herself so omnipresent, whether out of genuine conviction or tactical positioning, that her ascension to the leadership becomes inevitable.

Yet one Continental example should serve as a warning. Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist, rammed her candidacy for the presidency through her party’s primaries with exactly the same combination of ostentatious feminism and obsessive self-promotion. Whenever she was rebuked for one of her numerous gaffes (from praising the “speed” of the Chinese law courts, to being hoaxed by a comedian into supporting Québecois and Corsican independence, to getting the number of French nuclear submarines wrong), Royal blamed the attitude of men – whether her adversary, Nicolas Sarkozy, or her own party grandees – faced with a female candidate.

Soon, any question she didn’t wish to answer was brushed aside angrily on feminist grounds. “You wouldn’t dare pose such a question to a man,” she spat at a bemused New York Times reporter who asked her to outline her foreign policy.

Like Harman, Ségolène comes from a privileged background. The daughter of a career officer, she was educated in select Catholic schools. Again like Harman, her accent combines the populist vowels more often heard from shop stewards with the preachy – occasionally downright messianic – overtones of the Sunday sermon. She attended ENA, the elite government school that has produced eight of France’s last 15 prime ministers, two of six presidents, almost half the cabinet and almost the entirety of the civil service elite.

ENA does produce competent people, but they are often accused, with good reason, of being detached from everyday reality. Few “énarques” have any experience of the private sector; far fewer are entrepreneurs. They have abstract notions of what it means to meet a payroll, and are great believers in social engineering and that the state knows best. Sound familiar?

Of course, Ségolène differs from her British counterpart in one crucial aspect – although blessed with a good figure and a lovely oval face, there has been much speculation that she underwent radical cosmetic surgery to firm up her jaw, accentuate her cheekbones and give her a radiant smile. (She has never commented, but comparing the cover of an early autobiography raises certain questions.)

The British don’t object to their women politicians looking more schoolmarmish than glamorous, and they might mistrust the kind of unmarried glamourpuss who, after a hard-fought campaign, kicks out the father of her four children, and gets chased by the paparazzi during the holidays she spends with her new beau. Over the Channel, it’s a non-issue. Even among French feminists, some attention is paid to looks and to fashion.

On the other hand, Ségolène, like Harriet, has few women friends and supporters. Her colleagues find her arrogant and unpredictable: her feminism is on her terms only. More reticent (and competent) female politicians are known to complain in private that Ségolène’s grandstanding sets back women’s political advances. “She fabricates issues where progress had already been achieved,” Michèle Alliot-Marie, one of the Sarkozy government mainstays, has complained.

But as both Harriet and Ségolène might tell you, when you’re a self-proclaimed champion of women everywhere, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009