Yesterday I had lunch with Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia. Saakashvili is one of the most media-friendly heads-of-state I have ever come across. He is fluent in millions of languages and seems to enjoy the company of journalists – there were three FT people there yesterday, as well as a smattering of presidential aides.
"Misha" was on jovial form. (The dining room of the Ritz is a convivial spot) But there is no disguising the pressure that he and Georgia are under. Having an angry and paranoid Russia as your neighbour does not make for a relaxing life. Back in March, there was a helicopter attack on government buildings in Georgia’s Kodori gorge – which the Georgians assume was the work of the Russians. The Russians claim the Georgians attacked their own buildings to make Russia look bad.
The accepted narrative about France – at least in the United States – is that the country is a total mess. The economy is a wreck; society is falling apart; radical Islam is on the march and the fascists are on the rise. The first round of voting in the French election on Sunday has provided a corrective to this gloomy orthodoxy.
There were two really good pieces of news, which are testament to the health of French democracy. First, voter turn-out was amazingly high – over 84% of the electorate voted; compare that to the 56% in the last American presidential election and under 60% in the last British general election.
Being asked to discuss "the world in 2020" without hesitation, deviation or massive banality is a difficult task at the best of times. It is an even more daunting when you are expected to perform at 7.45 in the morning. But that was the fate that befell me this morning, when I took part in a seminar organised by the Centre for European Reform, a think tank and Accenture, a consultancy.
Fortunately, the hard work had been done by Mark Leonard, who has just been appointed as the head of a new think tank – the astutely-titled European Council on Foreign Relations, which is being funded by George Soros. Leonard – whose stock-in-trade is to think BIG – has just produced a new pamphlet called "Divided World: The struggle for primacy in 2020". You can find a summary of its argument here; and if you feel inspired to buy it, try here.
The row about whether Paul Wolfowitz should step down as president of the World Bank has nothing to with Iraq. But it also has everything to do with Iraq. How so? Well, as even inattentive readers of the FT will have noticed, Mr Wolfowitz is in a spot of bother about the salary and job he helped to arrange for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza.
Those calling for his resignation (including the FT) argue that it is untenable for a man who has made the fight against corruption the centre-piece of his time at the bank, to hang onto the presidency in these circumstances.
None of that has anything to do with Iraq. But it would also be naïve to suppose that people’s attitudes to Wolfowitz are not deeply coloured by his central role in the origins of the Iraq war.
Five years ago, just before the final round of the 2002 French presidential election, I went to see Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front candidate, address an election rally in front of the Paris Opera House. I was not the only curious foreigner in the crowd. Le Pen had also drawn in far-right zealots from all over Europe – I spotted people carrying Flemish, Spanish and Italian flags. And these guys were the real deal – genuine fascists. When I asked the Italian standing next to me whether he was a supporter of the Alleanza Nazionale – the party once regarded as the heirs to Mussolini – he reacted indignantly, and made it clear that he regarded the AN as sell-outs. No, he proudly informed, he was a supporter of Forza Nuova – a much harder-line far-right outfit.
I have a guilty pleasure. One of the literary forms I most enjoy is the savage book review. The pleasure is a guilty one because you cannot avoid feeling a twinge of pity for the victim. Imagine the mortification: you spend months or years, labouring away on a book. And what do you get in return – public vilification and humiliation.
But the author of a truly savage book review is still performing a public service. If you publish a book, you are asking to be taken seriously. A “good” bad review does precisely this. It engages with the text far more vigorously than the usual tepid praise by a reviewer who has flicked quickly through a volume. And the best savage reviews are usually very funny. All of the four articles that I link to below – by Garrison Keillor, Robert Kagan, Matt Taibbi and Clive Crook – made me laugh out loud. This post is really just a way of drawing them to your attention.
Britain is in a self-flagellating mood today. It is generally felt that “our boys” (and girl) did not exactly cover themselves in glory, after being captured by the Iranians while on naval duty. For a nation brought up on tales of heroic deeds by taciturn British prisoners-of-war, the garrulous and fearful behaviour of today’s captives was hard to take. And the discomfort has only been increased by the fact that the government allowed a couple of the former prisoners to sell their stories to the papers – a decision that has now been belatedly reversed.
The letters page of today’s Daily Telegraph – the paper of choice for retired colonels – is a good read. However the Sun, which bought the rights to the story of Faye Turney, the sole female captive, is naturally casting her in a much more forgiving light. It even offers its readers a ludicrous discussion forum on whether “hostage Faye” should get the Victoria Cross – Britain’s highest award for gallantry. I think the Telegraph’s readers would prefer to see her shot.
The French created the European Union, so it would be appropriate if they destroyed it. Listen to the arguments made by the leading candidates in the French presidential election – Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal – and it sounds as if they are intent on taking a sledgehammer to the “Common European home”, built by their compatriots Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Jacques Delors.
Of course, Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal would reject any suggestion that they are eurosceptics. Both argue that they want a “better Europe” or a “different Europe”. But the visions of Europe that they are dangling before French voters are likely to be unacceptable to the rest of the EU. So the French presidential election is setting the stage for confrontation between France and its European partners in Brussels, followed by rampant euroscepticism at home. Read more
Some politicians have got it, and some don’t. On Friday I watched Nicolas Sarkozy give a speech at a hotel in Paris – and he definitely has it. Sarko – who is leading in the polls for the French presidential election (the final round is on May 6th) – was masterful. By turns he was funny, rousing, aggressive and engaging.
Of course the audience – a group of young French entrepreneurs – was tailor-made for Sarkozy. This above all is the group that is crying out for change and reform, and that is totally receptive to Sarko’s famous call for a “rupture” with the old way of doing things. But one of the impressive aspects of Sarkozy’s performance was the way in which he didn’t totally truckle to his audience. At one point he attacked the use of “golden parachutes” (he used the English term) for chief executives leaving companies. His audience was initially fairly guarded in its response. But Sarko spotted one man in the audience who was applauding – singled him out – and said that this man had understood that the argument for capitalism could not be won, unless the French people knew that the system was just. Cue thunderous applause.