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UK Politics

Bitter? You should see the ex-First Lady! François Hollande given a warm British welcome

Donald Macintyre follows François and David as they try to mend Anglo-French relations over a half-pint in Oxfordshire

As François Hollande stepped from his Falcon presidential jet into a freezing, grey, Oxfordshire morning, it must have occurred to him that it might have been better to stay at home.

OK, there was a red carpet on the Brize Norton tarmac. There was also an imposing guard of honour – the Queen’s Colour Squadron – for him to inspect (fortunately with a podium, so at least while he took the salute we were less conscious of how much shorter he is than David Cameron). And the Central Band of the RAF played the Marseillaise impeccably (twice), having earlier kept warm with stirring tunes ranging from “I vow to thee my country” to “Those magnificent men with their flying machines”.

But the auspices were not good. Le Figaro had recently thundered about the “permanent climate of French-bashing” here, citing as an example the Tory chairman Grant Shapps’ warning that the French President was driving the French economy “into  the sand”.

On the pub lunch he would be having with Cameron (Blenheim Palace having been junked as a possible venue for the summit because of the famous 1704 English victory over the French after which it was named) the paper warned sternly that “it will take more than a pint of beer in the charming Swan Inn” to repair relations between the two men. (In fact, beside a “taste” of the local Hook Norton bitter, they were served what Downing Street described with unhelpful imprecision as “French wine”.)

To make matters far worse he will have learnt on the flight – if any of his officials were brave enough to tell him – that his alleged lover Mlle Julie Gayet had just been nominated for the Cėsars (the French BAFTAs) as best supporting actress, or more literally – and even more poignantly – for “best actress in a second role”. This could only remind him that, while the French press might have moved on, he was unlikely to escape from their British colleagues without a question about his love life.

And he didn’t. If anything it was a trifle less er... subtle than he probably expected. Having clearly decided not to mince words, the Daily Telegraph’s dauntless Christopher Hope declared: “Monsieur Le President, I know this is a very sensitive subject for you. Do you think your private life has made France an international joke? Are you still having an affair with Julie Gayet and do you wish she was here?”

The President does impassive pretty well, to be fair, a minute tapping of his right index finger on his pen the only possible sign of tension, while the British Prime Minister busied himself during the Hope question, looking down and suddenly finding he needed to make a note on his papers.

Luckily this was a press conference equivalent of Anna Karenina (in which the epic love story is interspersed with long passages on Russian agriculture) and there was therefore a minor sub-plot – Cameron’s pledge of a 2017 EU referendum and the tensions between the two men over his demand for Treaty changes.

Immediately before and after Hope’s grenade in the Brize Norton hangar, the two men, standing in the shadow of a gigantic A330 Voyager transport/refuelling aircraft, and beside a mock-up of the combat drone both countries will spend £120m developing as the latest must-have accessory for the medium-sized military power, talked about Europe. Cameron repeated that the EU reforms he wanted would require treaty changes, Hollande that he did not regard changes to EU treaties as a “priority”. It looked during a long Hollande answer that he would simply ignore That Question. Instead of this, with chilly courtesy, he told Hope: “In regard to your last question, I’m afraid I decline to answer.”

By this time, you couldn’t help feeling the two national leaders would have gladly sunk several pints of “Hookie” instead of the two halves which Swan landlord Archie Orr-Ewing later revealed he had served them. In fact, the riverside Swan at Swinbrook is more posh gastro than sawdust and darts, so much so that it is owned by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the last surviving Mitford, and has even featured in Downton Abbey, the scene of Lady Sybil’s elopement with the chauffeur, as it happens. (Orr-Ewing is himself an heir to a baronetcy.)

Anyway by Downing Street’s account the lunch of potted shrimps, rainbow trout and apple crumble was convivial despite Europe being the main topic. Cameron had already been at pains to supersede the Shapps gibe by congratulating the President on his recent change to more business-friendly policies. And he announced more logistical support for the French military mission in the Central African Republic.

So the day ended better than it had looked it might. But the last time a summit with a President was held at Brize Norton, it turns out, was in December 1987 when Margaret Thatcher met her new best friend Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought his wife Raisa. Mrs Thatcher went out of her way to say afterwards that Mrs Gorbachev, who visited a local school while the two leaders talked, had told her she had had “a wonderful time.” You have to hope his host was tactful enough not to mention to President Hollande how much the Soviet First Lady had enjoyed her trip to Oxfordshire.