John Lichfield: 'The dwarf' to the rescue in France's crisis

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The Independent Online

In France, trades unions sometimes strike against proposals which have not yet been made. Just in case. The nation of "pre-emptive strikes" has now invented a new game: the "day of action" against a law which is already dead.

Despite the confusion caused by a television address in which Jacques Chirac stood on his head, in prime time, it is now clear that the hated "first job contract" is deceased. Defunct. Mort.

That did not prevent more than a million people from taking to the streets of France again yesterday to protest against it.

The law encouraged employers to hire France's many jobless young people by making it easier to fire them. President Chirac announced on television on Friday last week that he would approve it and then suspend it so that his government could, in effect, scrap it.

The Le Monde leader writers are unsure which adjective best suits the situation: Surreal? Baroque? Unprecedented? Calamitous? Most surreal of all is the identity of the man who has emerged as political undertaker of the old law and midwife of a new one. (Almost any old law will do, it seems, so long as the kids go back to school.)

Nicolas Sarkozy, the number two in the government, is convinced, despite his small stature, that he is the Next Big Thing in French politics. M. Chirac, his former mentor, detests him. Dominique de Villepin, the never-elected poet-Prime Minister, loathes him, invariably referring to him as le nain or the dwarf.

There are presidential elections in 12 months' time. Since he became Prime Minister last June, M. Villepin has painted himself as a man of moderation, capable of uniting France and saving the French "social model". He has been busy portraying M. Sarkozy (aka "the dwarf") as a right-wing extremist, who will tear France's delicate social fabric apart.

Who did President and Prime Minister turn to in a crisis partly manufactured by M. Villepin's arrogance and ineptitude? Le nain. Or at least, at the weekend, they appeared to surrender all responsibility to "Sarko". They have since tried to claw themselves back into the game.

Who said that France was an immobile country? In the space of four weeks, everything on the centre-right of French politics - not just President Chirac on television - has flipped on to its head. It is M. Villepin who is now reviled as an ultra-capitalist promoter of forced child labour for the under-26s. It is M. Sarkozy who is presenting himself as a man of compromise, capable of getting the students off the streets to take the exams they have not studied for.

M. Sarkozy's reasons for seizing this role are obvious enough. It "re-centres" him as a moderate, not an extremist. It adds to his myth as L'homme providentiel. Why Chirac and Villepin should hand him such a gift - like the ugly sisters giving Cinderella tickets to the ball - is less clear. Maybe they were convinced he would fail.

In any case, after 48 hours, the ugly sisters tried to get the tickets back. M. Chirac now insists that le nain is only one part of the government team looking for a solution.

We will see. A worrying question remains, however, for even such a self-confident little man as "Sarko". If such a tiny reform can cause France to have such an enormous nervous breakdown, how would a President "Sarko" deliver his promised "total rupture" with 30 years of "failed policies" of left and right?

Angelina and Brad at home in jolie Paris

The 15th is the dullest of the 20 arrondissements of Paris - home to the white, middling, conservative middle classes. It would be a bastion of readers of the French Daily Mail, if the French were enlightened enough to have a Daily Mail.

Imagine my surprise, on Monday, therefore, to find the 15th subjected to an extraordinary attack in the Daily Mail itself. A large article presented the 15th, which is just beside the Eiffel Tower, as an "insalubrious" place of "muddy wastelands", "crack dealers", "unsightly overland railway stations", "notoriously run-down boulevards" and "dog mess". No quarrel about the dog mess.

The story was written to justify a headline suggesting that Brad Pitt, the actor, was living in "the Pitts". Brad, and his actress girlfriend, Angelina Jolie, right, moved into the dull 15th a couple of months ago. Their choice attracted sniggers in chic Paris. Imagine if they had moved to London and chosen to live in High Barnet.

Sniggers were not enough for the Mail. The punning headline required that the 15th should be presented as an urban disaster zone. Presumably Brad and Angelina think the 15th is perfectly jolie.

* Probably Jacques Chirac knew that the game was up when he saw a large banner in one of the anti-youth-contract marches which read (in English): "We will never surrender".

M. Chirac threw a wobbly when a French business leader spoke English at the European Union summit in Brussels last month. Now here was the French left - far more inward-looking and nationalistic than the right - using English for their street banners.

Personally, I knew that the game was up for France's anti-English language lobby the previous week. One of my daughter's friends failed to turn up for her birthday party. Her mother explained that she was being punished for scoring only six out of 20 in an English test, despite four years of special classes.

My daughter, and her friend, are eight years old.