John Lichfield: Who rules the world? France, of course

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The Independent Online

My son has made a startling discovery that will confirm the deepest fears of the leader writers of The Sun. Britain, according to French officialdom, is part of the the 99th département (county) of France. So is the United States. So are China, Russia, Gabon, Lithuania and Kazakhstan. In fact, the whole of the rest of the world, save Monaco, is merely the 99th département of France.

This discovery explains many things. It explains why Nicolas Sarkozy thinks he rules the world, even if he no longer reigns supreme in the heart of his ex-wife. It explains why President Sarkozy decided this week to save the planet by building fewer motorways in France. It explains why France was devastated not to win its own rugby World Cup. (Technically, however, France did win. South Africa is also part of the 99th département of France).

My son is sitting his baccalauréat, the French equivalent of A-levels, next June. He recently had to sign his official examination entry form: the confirmation d'inscription au baccalauréat général. He was born in Washington DC and has Irish, British and American nationality but has been living in France for 11 years.

None of these complications troubled the French educational bureaucracy. His form was filled in as follows. Name: Lichfield, Charles. Nationality: foreigner. Born: Washington. Département: 099. Country: United States. Département 099? What is département 099?

There are 95 départements, or counties, in metropolitan France, numbered from 01 (Ain, near Lyons) to 95 Val d'Oise (north of Paris). Their numbers can be found on all French car numberplates. There is no département 96. That space is perhaps reserved for Wallonia, when Belgium finally splits in two. All the overseas départements – Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana in the Americas and Réunion in the Indian Ocean – count as département number 97.

Monaco, supposedly a sovereign nation, counts as département number 98. Has anyone told His Serene Highness, Prince Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre, Prince of Monaco and Marquis des Baux, that he is, in fact, the ruler of département 98? The whole of the rest of the world, my son explained to me, is département 99.

Surely this could not be so, I thought. Not even French officialdom would so sweepingly reject the claims to separate identity of other peoples. Was France so similar after all to the British and the Americans, to whom the rest of the world is merely a source of anger or amusement?

I was reminded of the celebrated New Yorker magazine front cover which showed the world, as viewed by the typical inhabitant of Manhattan. New Jersey took up 70 per cent of the globe. Could the whole of the rest of the world, in the French official mind, consist of one département of France?

A little investigative journalism (one phone call and a trawl of the internet) proved that my son was entirely correct. For the education ministry, all foreigners who take the baccalauréat have been born in département 99. According to the interior ministry, the votes of all French citizens who live abroad are cast in département 99. According to the social affairs ministry, all foreigners who use the French state health and pension system, the Sécurité Sociale, started life in département 99. Much now becomes clear. Consider.

This has been a Black October for President Sarkozy. He had staked much on France winning the rugby World Cup, even announcing in advance that the France coach, Bernard Laporte, would enter his government. When France lost to England in the semi-final, the President was apparently incandescent. "Bang goes 1 per cent of GDP," he said.

The President's wife, Cécilia, finally won the divorce that she has been seeking for several months. In two interviews, she said, in effect, that she no longer loved her husband. She was not prepared to live a public lie as someone defined as merely the "wife of" a powerful husband that she no longer loved. Maybe that makes Cécilia Sarkozy into a feminist icon, of sorts.

The former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin – supposedly Sarkozy's ally, actually a kind of one-man opposition – says privately that "a man cannot govern France if he cannot hold on to his wife". Ninety per cent of the French people tell pollsters that they disagree. In truth, judging by the remarks of my neighbours in Normandy and Paris, they do not entirely disagree.

Meanwhile, President Sarkozy is dealing with the first big challenge to his plans to make France work harder. A second transport strike looms unless he can persuade the railway unions that steam locomotives have (sadly) vanished and there is no longer any justification for engine drivers to retire at 50. The provisional signs are that M. Sarkozy and the more moderate unions are cooking up a deal that will blunt the strikes – and the reforms. The results will then be declared a "rupture" with the fudged reform agenda of the past.

After his environmental conference this week, President Sarkozy promised to save the planet by insulating French homes properly and sending more goods by rail and canal. Much that was agreed at the conference makes sense. However, a couple of months ago, the French state railways announced that they were winding down part of their freight operation. More goods will have to travel by road. No one seems to have told M. Sarkozy.

France has a way of doing things differently from the rest of the world. Small wonder. It now turns out that France believes, at the heart of its being, in its deepest national subconscious, that it is the rest of the world.

What happens elsewhere does not matter too much. President Sarkozy's confidence in his own divine right to succeed rapidly recovered from the economic-growth-threatening defeat of the France rugby team. Challenged on the stuttering outlook for the French economy last week, he said: "France will have the highest level of growth in the world. France will have the lowest level of unemployment. I have been elected. I will succeed." This may seem an empty boast, mere bravado. Not necessarily. If the whole world is really France, it becomes a statement of the obvious.

What of poor Cécilia, meanwhile? She divorced the President to avoid the public eye. She has since been on the front cover of every French magazine, serious and non-serious. The king of the French paparazzi has predicted that she will become the new Princess Diana.

Cécilia is said to be considered fleeing into exile. But exile where? Wherever she goes, she will still be in département 99.