Bunhill: France's driving force

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'IN FRENCH mythology', says the head of one of France's most important financial institutions, 'networks mean networks of preference, of nepotism, that links business with politics and the state administration.

'The idea is that there is secret trafficking in the corridors of power.'

In Britain, we have always suspected the French were the puppet-masters of a giant network steeped in a culture that was kept obscure to all but those born to it.

Now we know this for sure, because a new book - or as its publisher describes it, 'management report' - tells us so. Perhaps Lafferty Publications has described it thus to justify the price - pounds 395.

Entitled Power Brokers, this large tome fulfils all our prejudices about the secret life of France, while also throwing quite a lot of light on its inner workings.

The road to becoming a member of the elite in France is well established and short. It is based on the concours, the competitive exam. Success at the concours opens the door to the right school and then the right job. And the children of advantaged families always do better there than anyone else. Thus those who follow the system successfully are set for life by the time they've graduated from university in their mid-20s.

The author, Leslie Mitchell de Quillacq, aims to give foreigners playing in France a full deck by explaining who counts in France in general, and in the French financial institutions in particular, and where they fit in the networks of relationships and in the main events of the past 10 years.

There is a method to her intrigue. She uses a system devised by Yale University's Management School. First you compile a list of people who appear often in the financial press or who hold serious titles at major financial institutions. Ask each of these to name 20 people who count. Then ask for names on who influenced him (only two of the 125 original names on this list were women) and lastly ask him to name his friends.

These lists, reworked and distilled, provide the original ingredients for the book. But what adds the final touch - the Grand Cru - to the book is the gossip that fills the biographies of the ruling class.

Among the choice titbits are these:

When the daughter of Lazard Freres chairman Michel David-Weill got married, there were 1,000 cars lined up outside the reception; 950 of them had chauffeurs.

When the daughter of former Pargesa chief Gerard Eskenazi got married, there were 250 cars; 230 of them had chauffeurs.

Clearly his next book should be Les Chauffeurs de l'elite.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament passed a proposal that would have made it legal for private citizens to distil 11 gallons of spirits a year, as long as it was made and drunk at home. That would have been enough for nearly a litre bottle a week - and all duty-free.

Unfortunately, the proposal had to go to the Council of Ministers for final approval and was never heard of again. The French, in particular, would have been very worried at the possible re-emergence of the bouilleurs de cru, the hundreds of thousands of small-scale rural distillers who traditionally made a variety of more or less poisonous brews from apples, pears, potatoes and beetroot, as well as surplus grapes (and their skins, pips and stalks). The bouilleurs contributed greatly to France's record rural drunkenness, but they formed a powerful lobby and it took until the 1950s to get them under control. Even then, anyone who had a licence could continue, so there are still a few - legal - rural stills scattered around remote corners of the country.

In this country, Section 25 of the Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act remains in force and anybody distilling spirits without a licence is liable to a pounds 2,000 fine.

Free marketeers fare even worse: former publican Brian Girvan, 39, is now serving 12 months for running an illicit still on a farm a dozen miles from Glasgow and trying to evade more than pounds 9,000 of excise duty.

He rented his shed from the unsuspecting farmer and invested pounds 10,000 of his own money in the still. He went round local factories selling the moonshine for pounds 5 a bottle, or pounds 30 a case.

The still operated for only a couple of months and produced only 40 cases before, in the best traditions of the Excise, police and Customs men swooped.

Surely justice demands that hosts who press dandelion wine and airing-cupboard ale on defenceless guests should receive a similar fate.