John Lichfield: The can-do spirit is finally taking off

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At the foot of the gentle hill which has the Arc de Triomphe at its summit, there is a dull, elegant strip of seven-storey apartment buildings constructed almost exactly a century ago. We live in one of them.

In about half the buildings spaces were allowed on the ground floor for shops; the shops were, for some reason, never built.

There are scores of small businesses on the adjoining streets: bakeries, butchers, grocers, greengrocers, three pharmacies including a pharmacy for pets, an antique shop specialising in old ship models, and many restaurants, including the only Jewish-owned, Kosher Indian restaurant in Paris.

On our street, we have an insurance office, a wholesale china shop and a base for motorcycle couriers. We used to have one smalltakeaway Chinese restaurant called Le Petit Cheval ("The Little Horse"). I annoyed the children by insisting that this was not its name but its menu. I never saw anyone go in. Le Petit Cheval closed long ago. Otherwise, our street has always been lifeless, dull or, as estate agents insist, calm.

Until now. Almost all of those ground-floor spaces, presumably intended in 1911-1913 for bakeries or grocers or shoe shops or milliners or bars, are being busily converted into small offices. Little one or two-person, businesses are moving in. They offer nameless "services" and have titles like BGH or DGT, or appear to sell just one kind of computer screen.

The last time that this happened was at the end of the "dot.com bubble" in 1999-2000. Even then, many of the shop fronts remained blank and unloved. Over the last couple of months, almost all have been occupied, probably for the first time in a century.

What is going on? Something rather encouraging, I believe but also something rather odd; something which proves that you should always look at what the French are doing, and not what the French say that they are doing. According to a couple of recent opinion polls, France, in the fourth year of the can-do, Sarkozy bling-bling dynasty, has plunged into a cosmic gloom. The French are the most pessimistic people in the world, the polls say. They view the future with terrible foreboding.

And yet, at the same time, it turns out that the French are busily making babies: 2.01 babies per woman of child-bearing age, for the first time since the Seventies. Procreation, according to sociologists and other busybodies, is usually a sure-fire sign of confidence in the future. And it turns out the gloomy French are also energetically breeding businesses. In 2009, the Sarkozy government introduced new tax rules to encourage "auto-entrepreneurs" – or one-person businesses with a maximum turnover of €80,300 (around £68,000).

There were 622,000 start-ups in France last year, of which more than half were these one-person enterprises. Even leaving the new, mini-businesses aside, the creation of small enterprises in France is booming, at over 20,000 a month. Not bad for a people which insists to pollsters that it looks at the future with "désespoir" and "pessimisme".

It is my utterly unscientific forecast that something is stirring in France, and not just in the loins of French men and women. Mr Sarkozy's boastful, erratic, error-prone presidency is beginning, as he intended, to mess with the collective French mind and make the country more can-do and more proactive. And it all started down my way...

The TV star, the love letters and a woman's wrath

As one-man businesses go, few are more energetic than Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, 63, a former TV newsreader. Until he was pushed out of his job at President Sarkozy's instigation in 2008 he was one of the longest-lasting TV anchors in the world. Even while he was still presiding on the TF1 news with his characteristic seductive lisp, "PPDA" was a great man for books. He wrote as many as other people read. He has something like 50 titles to his credit, on subjects ranging from pirates to railways.

How does he do it? Earlier this month, it was pointed out that review copies of his latest opus, a biography of Ernest Hemingway, had scores of pages which had been lifted from an obscure biography by an American writer.

The publishers said that this was a "mistake". In doing so, they implied that the new book had been written by a ghost writer. They then backtracked and insisted that PPDA was the true author. An amended version appears next week. Now Mr Poivre d'Arvor is being sued by a former girlfriend, Agathe Borne, 38.

In 2009 he published a novel, Fragments d'une femme perdue ("Fragments of a Lost Woman"), consisting of an exchange of love letters. Ms Borne says that the "fictional" letters from the female character were in fact her own love letters to PPDA. He denies it.

Next month the 17th civil chamber of the Tribunal de Paris will consider whether that this was a case of literary kiss-and-steal.

Desperanto spoken here

An old friend who came to dinner the other night has for many years been an interpreter in Brussels. Rowena was bemoaning – and not just for professional reasons – the fact that English has become a lingua franca in the enlarged European Union. Many officials, she says, speak an approximate English that is perfectly understandable between themselves. If a British or Irish official joins in, however, no one can understand a word.

This Euro-English has many names, including "Globish" and "BSE" (for "Badly Spoken English"). Rowena's favourite is "Desperanto".

The word was new to me, but has been around for a while. It is even the name of a track on a Marianne Faithfull album from 2005, where the refrain is:

"Everybody loves my baby,

Everybody loves my baby,

Everybody loves my baby now."

Sounds like perfectly good English to me.



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