A European summit in my front room

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The other day, 60 French and German 15-year-olds danced the conga through our apartment. There's still life and energy in the European Dream. Ask our downstairs neighbours.

The other day, 60 French and German 15-year-olds danced the conga through our apartment. There's still life and energy in the European Dream. Ask our downstairs neighbours.

A class of 30 teenagers from Cologne was on a week's exchange visit to my son's school. In an absent-minded moment, we invited them, and all Charles's classmates, to a pizza boum (ie party) in our flat.

The youngsters were, without exception, charming. The Germans had a tendency to stamp and jump a lot. They kept sneaking German rock music - which sounded like heavy metal performed on tubas and kettledrums - on to the stereo. The German boys were, on the whole, taller than the French boys. The German girls were, on the whole, more pneumatic than the French girls.

Otherwise, in terms of dress and attitude, it was difficult to distinguish between them. They, and we, all got on very well. A French girl and a German girl, both small, blonde and bespectacled, arrived together. They might have been twins. The conga was my son's idea. We also had a brief France vs Germany limbo-dancing contest.

I have been reading a great deal recently about the First World War. To see so many young French and German people flocking together without a backwards or hostile thought was rather touching.

Earlier on the same day, I had been at a conference at the British Embassy on Franco-British relations, Europe, and the proposed new constitution for the European Union. It was an excellent conference, bringing together journalists from both countries. I left the embassy much better informed and rather depressed.

The views of the British journalists, and one historian, ranged from the predictably and arrogantly Eurosceptic to the cautiously hopeful that the British public might be persuaded next year to vote for a modest, and mostly technical, new EU treaty. What depressed me (although it should have been no great surprise) was the eloquently gloomy contributions of the French speakers, including some of the best-known figures in French newspapers and television. They complained that French politicians, from President Jacques Chirac downwards, had abandoned all sense of purpose about Europe. They complained that many French people - especially the left wing and the 50 per cent of French workers employed by the state - now saw Europe as a threat rather than an opportunity.

One veteran TV commentator complained that the young French and young Germans had no passion for the EU. To the post-war and post-wall continental generations, he said, Europe was about easy travel and cross-border shopping.

I'm not a European federalist. I never thought that a European super-state was a) a good idea, or b) ever likely to happen. When I first went to cover Brussels in the "money back" early Eighties, I was vaguely anti-European. But I came to believe that the tedious, imperfect EU does much - and much that only it could do - to promote important national interests (such as peace, prosperity, happiness) for all Europeans, even the ungrateful British. This pragmatic argument has never sold well in pragmatic Britain. We all love cheap European air fares, but how often do we remember that we owe them to Brussels?

On the Continent, the EU was originally sold - maybe oversold - as a noble and spiritual cause. Now a less-ambitious and high-flown European project is distrusted by some and regarded by others as part of the political wallpaper. In Britain, the EU is menaced by relentless ideological propaganda; on the Continent by apathy.

That night, my modest and rational (I believe) European faith was restored by the sight and sound of 60 French and German teenagers doing the conga through my front room. However, in the interests of balanced reporting (as invariably observed in the British, Eurosceptic press) I have to admit to two things.

The language that our young French and German guests spoke among themselves was English. "No one's interested in learning French. What's the point?" said one large German boy.

Later in the week, French teachers in Charles's school threw a wobbly - as only French teachers can - with the whole German group. Lessons had been prepared for them, in German, on French history and Franco-German relations. The German teenagers preferred to gossip about the best and cheapest shops in Paris.

Literary legend plays hard to get

Alain Robbe-Grillet - now there is a name to slip into cocktail-party conversations. Robbe-Grillet, now 82, invented a new kind of novel-writing in the 1950s, which abandoned character and plot in favour of lingering descriptions of objects and lurches into sado-masochism. If you like Robbe-Grillet's work, you are an intellectual; if you don't, you are not. I failed the test long ago. He is invariably referred to in France as " le pape du nouveau roman" (the pope of the new novel).

A year ago, Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie Française, the body that pronounces on proper usage of the French language. One year on, Robbe-Grillet has yet to make his inaugural speech. He refuses to wear the green, embroidered uniform, the admiral's hat and the ceremonial sword worn at academy gatherings. Will the other "Immortals", as Académiciens are dubbed, throw him out? No one has been ejected since Marshal Pétain and other Nazi collaborators in 1945.

Robbe-Grillet points out - with more humour than one would expect from his writing - that he should definitely be excused the sword. "Ecclesiastical members don't have to wear it," he said. "And I'm the pope of the new novel."

Joking apart

Coluche, a stand-up comedian little known outside France, came in the Top 10 in a poll for a TV programme to find the Greatest French Person of All Time. Napoleon failed to make the Top 10. Clearly, the emperor needed a better gag writer. Here's one of Coluche's better jokes: "What first strikes an immigrant when he comes to France? The police."