School head tells les Rosbifs why he doesn't mind being told to hop off

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HEADMASTER LIONEL Jospin invited the Sixth Form (the unruly British press) into his study yesterday to explain why, in all conscience, he could not put beef back on the menu in his school canteen.

The French Prime Minister's reputation as a politician depends on what the French press call "la methode Jospin". The Jospin method - or the Jospin "touch" - is a head-masterly mixture of charm, mild bullying and a willingness to argue any subject to death, or at least to sleep.

Mr Jospin is wary of journalists and rarely wastes his methode on the press. This was the first time British journalists had been invited en masse to the Prime Minister's gilded office in the Matignon palace since he became prime minister two and a half years ago. It was one of only a handful of occasions on which any group of journalists have been invited.

Mr Jospin says that he does not care about the apoplectic reaction of the British press and public to his decision last week - and it was largely HIS decision - to continue the illegal French embargo on British beef exports.

It is clear, however, that the French Prime Minister does care, a little.

As we sat in a polite circle and drank coffee, he said that it did not worry him at all that a "certain British newspaper" had pictured him as a cow, divided diagramatically into prime cuts of beef. He laughed merrily at this example of "l'humeur Britannique".

But Mr Jospin had also armed himself with a cutting from the "pas tres francais" Evening Standard - stable-mate of the frogophobic Daily Mail, no less - which offered aid and comfort to the French position. "I see that in London there are school canteens which refuse to take British beef," he said, triumphantly holding up a photocopy of the article in question.

We had not been summoned for a press conference, Mr Jospin said, but for "an informal exchange".

He wanted to set the record straight. All was not lost, he said. It might be possible, on the basis of new scientific evidence, or with new tests for BSE now under development, to resume negotiations "in a few months" and avert a lengthy legal battle in the European Court of Justice.

The French prime minister also revealed that he had once suggested that separate arrangements could be made for "grass-fed", top-quality Scottish beef but this had been rejected by Britain.

His comments, reported by news agencies, caused a brief political flurry in Scotland yesterday afternoon.

British officials pointed out, however, that similar "separate arrangements" already existed for Ulster farmers but they had proved so bureaucratically complex and burdensome that no meat had actually travelled. Mr Jospin's offer was a red herring, they said.

Back to the headmaster's study. Mr Jospin patiently explained that an independent committee of French scientists had decided - for a second time - that even carefully controlled British beef imports would be risky.

Once that happened, he said, he would have been "crucified by French public opinion" if he had lifted he ban. "Quite honestly, given the choice, I prefer to be crucified by the British press. I have to be quite honest about that," Mr Jospin said. "I am convinced that in a similar situation any British government would have taken exactly the same position as me."