Friday, March 18, 1994

The Renault Blues (and Was De Gaulle A Royalist?)

Moutet's Paris: The Renault Blues (and Was De Gaulle A Royalist?)

The European, 18 March, 1994

Renault's boss Louis Schweitzer, the quiet Protestant Polytechnicien who used to be chief of staff to Socialist PM Laurent Fabius (and is a direct descendent of legendary Dr Albert Schweitzer), has cause to feel sore these days. First of all, his long-planned merger with Volvo, the ailing Swedish carmakers, was botched at the last minute. The jittery, privately-owned Swedes left their French bride standing at the altar after our new Minister for Industry Gérard Longuet's undiplomatic gesticulations, insisting to announce and sign the new contract himself, thereby showing how little the French government believes in the independence of the companies it controls.

This cost Renault, in addition to a massive loss of face, hundreds of millions of francs in fees to their investment bankers, the arch-establishment Lazard Frères. (The Lazard partner who drew up the contract, énarque François Polge de Combret, a former aide to President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is also said to have included, with Giscard-like arrogance, clauses leaving the Swedes in casual ignorance as to the French government's golden shares.)

Secondly, Schweitzer, who thought he would preside over the Renault privatisation, now awaits to be sacked on 22 May, the date at which he could reasonably have expected his mandate to be renewed. (The company is comfortably in the black and the entire Renault range of cars is a success, to the extent that the R21 is now the best-selling foreign car in Germany.) Longuet, a naive soul, was all in favour.

Yet instead of Renault, the government will next put the loss-making Bull computers company on the block, even if it means flogging it off at bargain basement prices to IBM: Edouard Balladur has decided that no Socialist could possibly have the power to set up a noyau dur, the tightly-knit group of influential shareholders which prevent large French corporations from being taken over. Instead, Schweitzer is currently being enticed to accept the chairmanship of SNCF, the national railways, which has posted losses of FF 10Bn last year, is overstaffed, strike-ridden, under attack from the Greens for its projected TGV-Provence, and has just failed miserably to introduce its new reservations system, Socrates. Schweitzer's qualifications, you are told in Paris, is that he has always collected model electric trains and of course that he's a Fabiusien.

POOR Jacques Delors is rumoured to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. At the very time when he is being pressed to run for the presidency by a wide majority of left-wingers, who believe he can attract enough votes from the centre to win in 1995, his strong-willed daughter, former employment minister Martine Aubry, has put her foot down. Aubry has a good shot to become France's first woman president in 2002, and reportedly told her father that his taking the top job would be damaging to her own career (she would hate the likely suspicions of nepotism). The mousy Madame Delors herself, a bespectacled, unfashionable woman who may not relish the perspective of living in the Elysée glass-house, is said to have sided with her daughter, telling the beleaguered Delors that it was ''Martine's turn.''

WAS General de Gaulle a Royalist? So says Henri, Comte de Paris, 85, the pretender to the throne of France, who for years told intimates (and not-so-intimates) how Le General really intended to make him his successor in 1965.

The Comte prefers to underline that he's descended from Louis XIV younger brother, Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, than from France's last reigning King (and first Constitutional monarch), Louis-Philippe, called ''the regicide'' by most of his family since he voted the death of his cousin Louis XVI in 1793.

Barred from living on French soil by an 1886 Bill of Exile repealed only in 1950, Henri de Paris fought in the Foreign Legion during the Second World War, and finally came back to France with his family, soon to be sought out, says he, by General de Gaulle. They started meeting regularly over lunch, a habit which didn't stop with de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. The Comte claims de Gaulle had in mind for him a scheme not unlike Franco's high-handed restoration of Juan-Carlos de Borbon in Spain - but that the General's entourage almost coerced him into standing a second time. Surviving Gaullists guffaw at this. One didn't coerce de Gaulle, they say, adding that the Comte would have believed anything.

Now the Comte has published in book form his entire correspondence with de Gaulle (Dialogue sur la France, éditions Fayard), as well as what he claims to be exact transcripts of their conversations. The result is, how shall one put it, embarrassing.

The conversations show de Gaulle discussing everything from Algerian independence to the Fifth Republic Constitution with the Comte. The letters are considerably sparer, to the extent that the Comte has had to include absolutely every single piece of paper that ever circulated between them: bread-and-butter letters, Christmas cards, condolences, congratulations for the Comte's thirteen children's marriages, cover- and thank-you notes, stiffies from long-forgotten State dinners at the Elysée (robe longue, décorations), transcripts of telephone calls between de Gaulle's and the Comte's private secretaries, opinion pieces the Comte wrote for his own political newsletter and sent to the Elysée, everything is grist to his mill to fill up some 200 widely-spaced pages.

The most interesting revelation is no doubt that the General usually signed off with l'hommage de mon fidèle devouement, while the Comte never failed to conclude as votre affectionné, Henri., which I can't help believing must have sounded to the General as a deplorable instance of familiarity.

HOWEVER ungallant this sounds, it's hard not to notice that as his ratings plunge in the polls, Edouard Balladur seems to have gained the few extra pounds that cause his beautiful, made-to-measure Henry Poole Savile Row suits to strain at the seams. In his five years in Opposition, preparing for his current job with amazing determination (and a full-time staff of half a dozen political advisers), the sweet-toothed Balladur lost over 10 kilos in order to look younger on the day of his projected appointment as PM, a remarkable achievement for a man of 60 whose favourite pudding is a heavenly confection of whipped cream, chocolate and chestnut mousse called a Mont-Blanc from the renowned rue de Rivoli tea-room Angelina's. Vowing he'd never regain his flab, Balladur intrepidly had all his pinstripes, herringbone tweeds, exquisite Prince of Wales checks and heather mixture sports jackets flown to London to be taken in. Considering the price (some 2,000 for a coat, a decent shirt and two pairs of trousers) of a single Henry Poole outfit suitable for the nattiest man in France, the PM now has what might be called a considerable vested interest in staying popular and keeping off the gratification food.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1994.

No comments: