LETTER from THE EDITOR

It wasn't so long ago that the President's people were sneering at Blair as `Clinton Lite'. Now Clinton is happy to bask in the newness of Blair's menage
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The Independent Online
So, one great worldwide political system, is it? The Blair effect in the French elections, the Clintonian hobnobbing at London restaurants ... it has been a week when we relished the rare sensation of a British Prime Minister being chic. It wasn't so long ago that the US President's people were sneering at Blair as ``Clinton Lite''. Now, facing various sexual harassment charges - what Rupert Cornwell in yesterday's paper called his ``unspeakable courtroom embarrassment to come'' - Clinton is only too happy to bask in the newness and comparative innocence of the Blair menage.

One can't imagine Tony B engaging in sexual harassment. In fact, sex seems to be something which traditionally divides the American and British political systems, Camelot or not. There's an old story about President Kennedy meeting Harold Macmillan for their first summit. Kennedy is stumped for an opening conversational gambit. So he asks the aged aristocratic Prime Minister: ``Harold, I find if I don't have a woman every coupla days, I get a terrible headache ... Do you find that?'' I don't know Macmillan's reaction - his idea of a wild time in bed was to spend a couple of hours with Jane Austen or Trollope (perhaps, come to think of it, a piece of shoddy briefing on these lines was responsible for the Kennedy gaffe). Anyway, I like the idea of a similar exchange between Clinton and Blair over the rabbit and salmon at the Pont de la Tour this week. But somehow, I think not.

A better source of conversation might have involved Clinton advising Blair not to ``beat up on the press'' - one of the biggest mistakes made by his first administration. Last week I met some Washington-based journalists, who had hair-raising stories of the vitriol and crude abuse that winged to and fro between the press and the White House. It has certainly done the presidency no good, as George Stephanopoulos admitted in London recently. But Americans still write the best headlines: that George S is described in the current New Yorker under the rubric, ``Brit birds rate cute guy, liken ex-Clinton aide to stuffed animal''.

But if Blair makes an unconvincing soulmate for Clinton, the French socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, is an equally unconvincing Blair. If the polls are right and he is heading for victory too, how will Paris cope with having a socialist prime minister who is less chic and less charismatic than the British one?

Not that the average French voter has a clear picture of the polls, of course. Publication of opinion polls is banned in the immediate run-up to the two-stage elections. They are still commissioned, though, by newspapers, as well as banks, big companies and so on, so you can read (as I have been doing, during a week's holiday) nod, nod, wink, wink reporting which is informed by polls but doesn't refer to them. It is a rule that many British politicians and readers, including of this paper, wish were in force here. But not only would that be an infringement of free speech, it is becoming increasingly impractical. French political addicts have long turned to Swiss and Belgian papers to discover what is going on. Now the publication of polls on the Internet - including by the Daily Telegraph - means that French anoraks are in on the secret, too. Yesterday morning, finally, Le Parisien broke the law in the interests of logic and fairness, and published a poll. It will face a modest fine, but it will have been worth it.

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