Straw learns French to make entente more cordiale entente

Jack Straw is taking French lessons. So are other members of Tony Blair's Cabinet. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports on the efforts around Whitehall to make the entente more cordial with the French.
Click to follow
When Jack Straw meets the French interior minister for talks, he can confidently get past the opening exchanges of "ca va?". The Home Secretary is privately brushing up on his French.

A French teacher called Nicole arrives at the Home Office at crack of dawn to help Mr Straw improve his accent and master his French verbs before he turns to the crackdown on crime.

"I have always been slightly embarrassed by my French. I have got cafe French, so I can always get myself fed and watered," the Home Secretary said.

"It's survival French. I can count well in French, add and subtract, but my accent needs some improvement and I literally face a verbal challenge - my verbs are awful."

Mr Straw passed his O-level in French and began polishing his verbs with a language course at the House of Commons.

That enabled him to conduct conversations in French with Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister.

Many of Mr Straw's Cabinet colleagues are also brushing up on their French. One of the first orders that Jack Cunningham issued when he was appointed as the Minister for Agriculture was to get lessons in French.

Many officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, have to be multi- lingual in order to conduct their hard bargaining with their European counter-parts, when it is important to have something better than Franglais to understand the nuances.

At one Council of Europe lunch, Jacques Chirac, the French President, told the Prime Minister in French: "You are five kilometres to the right of us." Mr Blair is said to have replied: "Oui, c'est vrai Jacques, et j'en suis fier (Yes, and I'm proud of it.)."

Mr Cunningham has some French but he is taking a crash course to prepare himself for the negotiations to come.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is another Cabinet minister brushing up his French. "I do speak French but it is a little rusty. I shall be endeavouring to remove some of the rust," he said.

Why the sudden rush to French lessons?

It is not that Tony Blair and his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, showed that they were fluent in the language at the "cool Britannia" summit with Mr Chirac a week ago at Canary Wharf. The scramble to learn the lingo is part of preparations for the Labour government taking over the Presidency of the EU in January.

"We are being communitaire," said one Whitehall source. "And some of these French socialists don't speak very good English."

But it is unlikely that the whole Cabinet will be following the stampede to brush up their French.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has led a Labour delegation in Europe and travelled the world as a steward, but is not expected to be joining the Cabinet classes in French.