Arts: The Week In Radio

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a telling moment in one episode of Yes, Prime Minister when Jim Hacker was asking about the point of the independent nuclear deterrent - could it really scare the Russians? Of course not, he was told, the point was to scare the real enemy: the French.

A joke, you may think, but there are times when it seems unsettlingly close to the truth. Anglo-French relations came up for discussion on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday), where it was suggested that the old stereotype of perfidious Albion is alive and well, and living in Paris. We fondly imagine that the Second World War created bonds of loyalty and gratitude between France and Britain; in fact, it seems, France regards Dunkirk as one item on a long list of betrayals, along with the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kabir, and the embarrassment of Suez.

The problem is, Paxman suggested, that where we take defeats as lessons in realism, the French continue to believe in a grand global destiny, thwarted by lesser nations.

This sounds like flighty, big-headed Continentals versus sturdy British common sense - but there is hard evidence that at least some French officials still think this way. In the past few weeks, there has been the case of Major Pierre-Henri Bunel, a French officer who has admitted passing operational details of Nato air-strikes to the Serbs; and in 1994, a retired French general wrote to Radovan Karadzic claiming that France and the Bosnian Serbs share a common cause, "the right of nations to reject German imperialism". In A Mission to Civilise? (Radio 4, Tuesday), Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is examining France's role in Africa.

France has a tradition of pouring money into its former colonies - to help democracy, according to one Frenchman. Others see the picture through less rosy spectacles. One expert, discussing France's involvement with the genocide in Rwanda, characterised their policy thus: "We are fully prepared to support dictators here and there, provided they kill reasonably. But these guys were something else altogether; they were total psychopaths." Meanwhile, opposition politicians in Gabon complain that the presidency is, in effect, in France's gift. In return for France's support, oil flows from Gabon to Elf, the French national oil company; and suitcases of money flow from Gabon to French political parties.

One Gabonese politician interviewed could see no problem here, so long as everybody gets a slice of the cake. But of course, not everybody does: Gabon enjoys the highest per capita income in black Africa, but ranks way down the tables on UN measures of development.

This was a disturbing programme - but not just because it exposed French corruption. As a French politician pointed out, France's African policy can be criticised, but at least it has one: the amount of aid France gives to Africa dwarfs the puny amounts this country sends, and not all of it goes into the pockets of the continent's politicians. We may be realistic; but perhaps an unrealistic sense of global destiny would have made us a bit more useful.

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