Just by means of a preamble, I clearly don’t expect when ringing either the French President’s office in Paris or the British Business Secretary’s equivalent in London, to be immediately rushed the minutes of their various meetings by high-speed courier.
I know my place as it were – but the extraordinary cloak and dagger dealings this week of President Sarkozy’s office from the Elysée Palace in a rather good arrondissement in central Paris – seem to me more reminiscent of Monty Python – a series incidentally when I was living in France which used to be sub-titled word for word including memorable translations such as the ‘second eleven Surrey cricket team.’
But to business. This week – after much kerfuffle and being batted back – the Elysée Palace finally – and rather grudgingly – confirmed PSA Peugeot Citroen CEO Philippe Varin had been summoned by Sarkozy to a Saturday morning meeting – the confirmation of which was pretty much like extracting teeth.
Quite apart from Varin’s presumably irritated response to having his round of Saturday golf disturbed, the meeting is widely thought to have been about the on-going speculation surrounding PSA’s Aulnay plant near Paris that produces the C3 model and it comes right at the end of some pretty intense political campaigning that will see the first round of France’s Presidential elections this weekend.
With thousands of jobs potentially at stake in an economy where the unemployment rate has already hit 10% – the French President clearly views any more joining the dole queue as alarming – particularly in election week.
But politicians talk about jobs the entire time, it’s one of the main things they do. I don’t expect to be given chapter and verse, but maybe just a general outline of what they discussed? It’s pretty important isn’t it but I seemed to be sailing in some choppy waters trying to secure even the tiniest detail.
Both the Elysée and PSA finally confirmed the meeting did take place on Saturday morning – echoing the summons of Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne to Rome – but of any flesh on the bones there was precisely none.
PSA of course, is a private company, as the French manufacturer is repeatedly emphasising to me this week and does not have the same deep involvement with the French State, that say, Renault does, but any move to close plants will rise swiftly to near top of the political agenda, if it hasn’t already done so.
Varin has already indicated some serious over-capacity issues need addressing in the French sector and if it is to be Aulnay – a possibility first mooted with the leaking by the hardline union CGT of an internal PSA report – then those working at those plants could do with more than a terse couple of sentences from the Elysée.
But back to Monty Python. The quirky British series lampooned just about everyone and everything, albeit in a fairly surreal manner, with one sketch parodying people paying to have an argument.
What they actually end up doing is not having a paid argument, but in fact ending up arguing about the fact the conversation was actually, well, a discussion and not a dispute. That was extra.
So, I rang the Elysée to check if indeed, the fabled meeting had taken place between Varin and Sarkozy and after what appeared to much flannelling – including a bizarre request to email that question – a tactic designed to ensure it is lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the Presidency – I received a seemingly reluctant call back from the French capital.
“It is confirmed. He [Sarkozy] met M. Varin this weekend,” sonorously intoned the line from Paris. “And what did the meeting discuss?” I asked brightly.
That request produced precisely rien from the Palace who then proceeded to inform me if I wanted to know anything else, I should have asked beforehand.
Eh? Call me old-fashioned but protestations I’d like to know well, pretty much everything about the meeting and could I ask it now, fell on distinctly deaf ears.
As I write this, I’ve asked the Elysée again for the “maximum” details they have, in the hope that insurance will cover any and every possible question I might have, but so far there has been a deafening silence across the English Channel or La Manche as the French have it.
I’m not making any claims here about the merits or otherwise of the French and British bureaucracy – I’ve lived very happily in France and have encountered enough English red tape to sink a battleship.
But when the emotive subject of possibly closing Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port in the UK reared its head recently, the snappily-titled Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), at least talks to me about efforts Secretary of State Vince Cable is making on the site’s behalf.
Cable travelled to New York where he met General Motors CEO, Dan Akerson and while not exactly giving me every dot and comma of those discussions, the Business Secretary’s department was fairly candid about why he had gone over there, which was essentially to bang the British auto drum.
I realise it’s election week in France, but maybe the Elysée is spooked by the chance of Sarkozy’s rival, the unabashedly left-wing, Francois Hollande, seizing the reins of power.
Hollande might almost certainly take a different view to Aulnay closing, having adopted a fairly robust approach to the site during his election campaign and noting to boot, some 100,000 auto jobs had been lost in France during the past ten years.
He’s clearly not the incumbent and without the constraints of office, he can promise a lot more, but it might be interesting to hear some more detail from his rival.