`Blairmania' abroad as France takes shine to Tony

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TONY BLAIR received a nostalgic reminder yesterday of the adulation that he encountered in the early months of his government: not from his own electors, however, but from a French television presenter renowned for her steely appearance and formidable interview technique.

So enthusiastic are our closest neighbours about Mr Blair - whom they regard as a dynamic and forward-thinking politician - that commentators across the Channel have christened the phenomenon "La Blairmania". Tonight, an entire 90-minute programme devoted to the Prime Minister will be screened on France 3, one of the main terrestrial channels.

Yesterday the entire production team of France Europe Express, a weighty current affairs series, decamped to London to pre-record the programme, the thesis of which is: "Is the England of Tony Blair a model for the Europe of Tomorrow?"

After showing film clips of selected moments in the prime ministerial career - Tony being cheered by crowds in Downing Street the day after his election victory, Tony sharing a drink with Lionel Jospin, his French counterpart, while on holiday in France last summer - Christine Ockrent, the grande dame of French television, asked, by way of introduction: "What is it that intrigues us about Tony Blair? Is it his youth? Is it his style? Is it his popularity?"

To help her answer these searching questions, she was joined in the studio by a select panel of guests including Joyce Quinn, the junior Home Office minister, Lord Simon, the European competition minister, and Pierre Moscovici, the French minister for European affairs.

Nicole Notat, a union leader, declared Mr Blair "seductive". Jacques Seguela, a French spindoctor, was even more effusive. "There is something of the Kevin Costner about him, or perhaps James Dean," he said. "He is a matinee idol."

Finally, the man lauded in France as one of the rare British prime ministers with a command of the French language arrived to be interviewed by Ms Ockrent and inquired, in impeccable French: "Can I perhaps speak in English?" As she looked up disappointed, he explained: "I don't think I'm altogether capable of tackling very complex subjects. When I talk to Prime Minister Jospin and President Chirac, I speak in English and they speak in French."

And so, for his grilling about the economy, the welfare state, foreign affairs and new Labour values, Mr Blair stuck doggedly to his native tongue. Despite this, he succeeded on several occasions in melting Ms Ockrent's glacial features into an expression resembling a smile. By the end of the interview, she was positively purring.

The Prime Minister's love affair with the French will continue when he addresses the National Assembly in Paris in a fortnight, the first British politician to be thus honoured. And what would he be telling French MPs, inquired Ms Ockrent. "I think we'd better wait until then," replied Mr Blair. "To be quite honest, my speech is still to be written." But he would address the Assembly in French, she persisted. "J'espere," he replied, flashing her a smile.