Captain Moonlight: At the court of St James

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The Independent Online
PARIS in the spring: the tinkle of glass and the promise of CS gas. Students and workers marching through Les Invalides protesting against a cut in the minimum wage for the young. Side streets barricaded and blocked by the CRS, the riot police. Well back behind them, Sir James Goldsmith, 61, once a man who moved markets and Marmite; now, slightly improbably, a candidate for the European parliament.

Sir James has many houses. This one used to be the stables of a Bourbon scion, Louis XVI's brother, he thinks. There have been additions. Sir James's drawing room is the size of a small church. We are talking money, after all. Sir James gives you one of his sudden, beaming smiles if you ask how much he is worth, but the best estimates seem to be about pounds 800m to pounds 850m. Sir James, after all and famously, is the man who got out just before the '87 crash.

Or perhaps we should say Jimmy. In Britain and the United States, he explains, lying back on one of his sofas, he is known as Sir James; in France, Jimmy, always. It is as Jimmy that he will contest the European elections, as deputy leader of L'Autre Europe, a new ad hoc anti-Maastricht group. And it is as Jimmy that he has had great success with his book, Le Piege, reprinted and out again this week.

Le Piege (or The Trap) is the latest exposition of the thinking Goldsmith, the Jimmy who emerged four years ago, apparently divested of all greedy entrepreneurial ambition, hot to save the world from itself. Jimmy, it will not surprise you to learn, thinks big: 'Despite our awesome cleverness, the extraordinary invention of the most unbelievable technologies . . . the sum of human misery has moved exponentially . . . It is time to reassess the path that we have chosen. We must consider more profoundly the criteria which we employ to assess prosperity and contentment . . . and we must recognise that at this moment we might be riding the accelerating merry-go-round to hell.'

All this is very much an echo of Jimmy's brother, Teddy, the most apocalyptic green of them all, to whom Jimmy acknowledges a debt, and whom he has supported these many years. But whereas Teddy urges a return to Rousseau and nature, Jimmy wants to get even. So the Goldsmith Foundation, private not charitable, dishes out pounds 2.6m a year to fund opposition to nuclear power, intensive farming, Gatt and Maastricht (it financed Lord Rees-Mogg's legal attempt to . prevent the signing of the treaty.)

He rails at the 'quasi-worship' of free trade. Gatt, he argues, will expose the developed world to impossible competition from cheap labour made yet more attractive by increasingly sophisticated trading and communications, with riches for a few and increasing poverty for the first and third world poor, increasingly driven to the cities by intensive agriculture. And the EU, he says, is exacerbating this by eroding the nation state and encouraging the mobility of labour, at the cost of family life and support.

By now he has sunk so low on his sofa that he is almost horizontal. He rises and falls, occasionally clutching a cushion to him while making a point. It is a splendid room, the sort that tends to deaden a doomy message, despite the distant cries of the demonstrators, cited by Jimmy as evidence of the beginning of the breakdown he is talking about. Louis XVI's brother probably heard much the same.

He had given up business, he said, 'to try and enjoy the benefits that I had been able to accumulate through business by a series of miracles and a lot of luck'. He bought a 16,000-acre estate in Mexico and built a home which resembles a large cathedral, domes and all, but was lured back by offers of platforms for his views in Britain and France. Now, he said, not without satisfaction, he had scored 20 per cent recognition in a French poll. Phillipe de Villiers, the young, rich, right wing, royalist deputy from the Vendee who has formed L'Autre Europe, will not be sitting in the European parliament. Under the French voting system, the party needs only 5 per cent of the vote to gain a seat, which will go to Jimmy.

Would he have any success? Well, he had tried influencing politicians as a businessman with 'zero result'. 'You have three choices in life: you accept something, you change it, or you walk away.'

Jimmy is keen on listing things like this in argument; he must be a nightmare to negotiate with. He gives a lecture rather than an interview. It is difficult to ask too many questions. Express surprise that such a noted beneficiary of the free market should be against Gatt, and he will argue that he is in favour of regional free trade between more equal partners. His championing of the family is even more arresting. This is the man who has maintained three women and four families at once, and has eight children by four different mothers. This is the man who said 'When you marry your mistress you create a vacancy' - and filled it. The multi-line telephone in the drawing room appears to have lines marked for both his mistress and his wife. He does not wish to discuss his private life: people who look askance at it, he says, 'don't understand my culture'.

There has been talk of a political career in Britain: his father, a soldier and international hotelier who took a French wife, was an MP. Jimmy will have none of it. But he is anxious to encourage anti-Maastricht candidates over here. He is, however, not hopeful: 'Britain is in a mood for self-destruction. Political debate currently seems based on sexual trivia . . . there is no sign of any fundamental debate about where Britain should go or what it should do . . .'

He poses outside, in the courtyard for photographs, amiably: the famed fierceness that once plagued Private Eye has not been noticeable. Yes, he thinks he will still have time for Mexico if he's elected. Outside, the demonstrators have gone, the police are going, and it's turned a bit nippy.

(Photograph omitted)