Our Man In France: How the PM made my daughter cry

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The Independent Online

Jean-Pierre Raffarin has killed my daughter's cat. She was a half-wild cat, very thin and very old, which used vaguely to belong to our hopeless, and now departed, farming neighbour in Normandy, Jean-Michel. When he disappeared, the animal was looked after by our fifty-something neighbour, Madeleine, and my daughter, aged nine.

Because she loves cats and cannot have a pet of her own in our flat in Paris, Clare doted on Minette, her weekend cat in Normandy. A few days ago, Minette disappeared. Clare came back to the house after a fruitless search for the cat and declared, in tears, with a nine year old's conviction: "It's Monsieur Raffarin's fault. It's all M. Raffarin's fault that my cat is dead."

Clare barely knows who Jean-Pierre Raffarin is, or what he looks like, but she knows that he is the Prime Minister. Like many people in France, she assumes that the Prime Minister is responsible for anything bad that happens and, on extremely rare occasions, for good things that happen. In this instance, influenced by Madeleine who has become a surrogate granny, Clare had a specific trail of clues that traced Minette's disappearance, or death, back to the Palais Matignon, residence of the Prime Minister.

Earlier this year Madeleine was authorised by both her doctor and her employer to retire early, on health grounds, from her job as caretaker of several blocks of flats near Caen. She was therefore able to live full-time at her house, next door to ours, 20 miles away in the Norman hills. She was also able to offer a virtually permanent home to Minette and several other semi-feral cats that haunt the village.

A month ago, Madeleine's employer retired and the business was taken over by his brisk and business-like son, who challenged her right to retire early. Despite her worsening health, an independent medical report concluded that, under the present rules, Madeleine must go back to work for another three years or lose part of her pension rights.

Madeleine connects this decision directly to the Prime Minister's efforts to reform the French pension system. "M. Raffarin says I cannot retire," she says. "M. Raffarin says that I must work, even though I am sick."

Because she can no longer live in the country, except at weekends, Madeleine cannot offer a permanent home to the village cats. As a result, she believes Minette wandered away or died of hunger. (In truth, she was a very old cat and might well have died of natural causes.)

To Madeleine and Clare, however, the chain of evidence is clear and complete. The Prime Minister killed Clare's cat.

Under the present French constitution, the Prime Minister plays an almost medieval or pre-democratic role. Like a sort of Lord Chamberlain or Grand Vizier, he is the man held responsible for great and petty evils. The President of the Republic, the Prime Minister's boss, normally enjoys a kind of royal privilege, not only a legal immunity but an indulgence in the hearts of the people, who vaguely assume that - unlike the Prime Minister - he understands their problems and would help them if he could.

Usually President Jacques Chirac plays this - ultimately hypocritical - part brilliantly.

Thus the recent searing heatwave, which may have killed 10,000 (mostly elderly) French people, was self- evidently M. Raffarin's responsibility, if not M. Raffarin's fault. It was M. Raffarin who was obliged to interrupt his holidays and declare a medical emergency, by which time the heatwave was already over.

President Chirac remained on holiday under the cooling showers of Quebec, where the worst thing that happened to him was that his wife's pet dog, Sumo, was attacked by three savage strays and had to be rescued by the presidential body-guards.

M. Chirac said nothing about the heat-wave back home; he did not cut short his Canadian idyll. He did not want to be associated with the bungled reaction of the government. (In truth, the fundamental cause of so many deaths, apart from the devastating heat, was the insistence of the French nation, and its medical system, on virtually closing down in August.) On this occasion, however, M. Chirac seems to have overdone the royal aloofness. He returned to a barrage of public and media complaints. More than 10,000 of his fellow citizens had died and M. Chirac had said nothing.

A few months ago, both M. Chirac and M. Raffarin were at record levels in the opinion polls. Their fund of popularity is drying up as rapidly as the nation's rivers and corn crops. They cannot afford to lose another stray cat.

They donÿt make them like they used to

Thirty two years ago this month, I hitch-hiked from Cannes to Cherbourg. On my feet I wore only a pair of transparent plastic sandals, which were then the height of fashion on the Côte d'Azur (or so my memory insists).

Soon after I reached my home in the north of England, the sandals fell apart. Ever since then I have wanted to own another pair, but somehow the opportunity has not arisen. The other day, sheltering from the heat wave in a shopping mall near Caen, I discovered - priced €6 - a pair of see-through plastic sandals exactly like the ones I had worn in the summer of 1971.

Plastic beach sandals can now be found almost anywhere, but the French still make - or get the Chinese to make - the fully transparent ones, which they call "Meduses" or jelly-fish.

My joy was great but not shared by my family. They said that the sandals made me look as though my feet were held together with Sellotape.

On the second wearing of my new sandals, one of the buckles fell off. The old plastic craftsmanship is dead, I fear.

Three feet good...

Alluring sign in a butcher's shop in a Norman village: "Buy two pig's feet pickled in vinegar and get a third for free."

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