Merde in europe, p.16
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       Merde in Europe, p.16

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  I’ve never been to Luxembourg myself, but I gathered from her expression that it probably didn’t possess many designer shops or manicurists.

  There was, as Elodie had promised, a real railway station below ground level, complete with a gently purring French high-speed train. It was, of course, much cleaner than a real station, and had no homeless people sleeping on its scrubbed floor. It felt almost eerie to see the elite population of eurocrats hurrying towards the lone train as if this were a nuclear bunker with an emergency exit on rails.

  Elodie elbowed us politely through the crowd towards her carriage, apologising as she nudged her colleagues aside, and very soon we were sitting opposite one another in plush red-velvet seats, watching as several hundred MEPs of all shapes and sizes ambled on to the train, which wasn’t going to leave without them. Only a Parisian like Elodie felt the need to shove her way on board first.

  ‘At least this is going to be a twenty-four-hour trip,’ she said. ‘Usually we have to go to Strasbourg for three whole days. God!’

  ‘So it’s an extra journey?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, specially for you. You Anglais, I mean. We are going to debate the referendum.’

  ‘Couldn’t you do that in Brussels? This must be costing a fortune.’

  ‘Exactly. You know what your English press calls this – the gravy train. A stupid name – gravy is that tasteless, greasy sauce, isn’t it? Well, I guess that does describe some of your English MEPs. But anyway, each trip to Strasbourg costs about twenty million euros. And this one is all your fault.’

  ‘I’m sure the British MEPs didn’t demand to go to Strasbourg. They’re all against excessive spending.’

  ‘No, but your government has been demanding special membership conditions, and we are going to debate them.’

  ‘In Strasbourg.’

  ‘Take it as a compliment, Paul, a sign of your country’s importance. It is probably France who wanted to hold the debate there. We need to make some more money out of the MEPs, before Britain leaves and the EU goes bankrupt.’

  I couldn’t tell whether she was joking or not. In any case, our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two Frenchmen, who said a perfunctory ‘Bonjour’ and then proceeded to argue about who was going to sit beside Elodie, facing the engine.

  ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ one of them asked.

  ‘Well, no, but I also prefer to face forward,’ the other replied.

  ‘If you prefer to sit here, go ahead.’

  ‘No, no, you sit here.’

  ‘No, you go ahead.’

  Elodie watched them politely annoying each other, but never offered to let either of them take her seat facing the engine. One of them finally said, ‘Oh, si vous insistez’ and, with a big show of reluctance, sank gratefully into the seat he’d wanted all along.

  I recognised him as Cholpin, the ex-Minister, the guy who’d been hugging non-consenting women in the Plux pub. He was looking as grey, well worn and pleased with himself as ever.

  The other guy was a similar model, a few years younger, with a classier suit and stiff hair that looked like a wig, but was obviously real because I could see from his roots that it was dyed. He could have been quite a handsome bloke, I thought, if it weren’t for his disgruntled expression, which seemed to be permanently wrinkled into place.

  Elodie gave them a brilliant smile – the youngster acknowledging her elders.

  ‘Vous êtes . . . ah?’ Cholpin stared at her face, then down towards her shirt, which as usual had one button too many undone. Perhaps that was how he remembered women.

  ‘Elodie Martin,’ she said.

  ‘Martin, oui,’ he said. ‘The daughter of the MP, n’est-ce pas? We have met before.’

  ‘Oui, bien sûr, Monsieur le Ministre,’ Elodie confirmed, not at all shaken by the overt ogling of her cleavage. ‘This is Dominique Cholpin,’ she informed me, ‘ex-Minister of Agriculture.’

  ‘And of Commerce, Education and, briefly, Defence,’ he added, waving his hands as if modesty almost – but not quite – prevented him from mentioning them.

  ‘And this is Yves Remord, MEP for Picardie, in the north of France.’

  ‘Bonjour,’ I said to them both. ‘Pol Wess. Assistant de Madame Martin.’

  Remord twisted his neck to look at me, the underling sitting beside him.

  ‘You’ve brought an assistant?’ He scowled even more than usual, as if everyone except him had been given a biscuit. ‘I thought we didn’t need assistants for this trip?’

  ‘Yes, but I am in the fortunate, yet ambiguous and ultimately fascinating, position of having an assistant of British origin,’ Elodie said, adopting the inflated wordiness that the French use when they’re trying to impress people.

  ‘Un Anglais?’ Both of the men chorused the word and stared at me, Cholpin with amusement, Remord with a display of angry-looking wrinkles.

  I remembered where I’d heard his name before. Yes, Yves Remord – Ed Fürst had mentioned him. This was the man who refused to let meetings go ahead if there was no French translator present.

  ‘You know why les Anglais don’t respect the EU?’ Remord demanded and, as the French so often do when they want to rant at you, quickly answered his own question. ‘Because you don’t understand it. How could you? You weren’t there at its creation. You begged us to join in the 1960s because you thought you could get something out of it, and when you realised that it came with responsibilities as well as advantages, you started to complain. Well, in my opinion you can go away and play the poodle of your American masters – see how well they treat you. Go on, foot the camp!’

  He used the classic French insult ‘foutre le camp’, and I really felt as though he would prefer me to get off the train and out of his life, along with all my compatriots.

  ‘Of course, that isn’t official French policy,’ Elodie said, with an uncharacteristically meek giggle.

  Cholpin had been sitting there smiling, not giving a damn, but took the opportunity to stroke Elodie’s hand encouragingly.

  ‘Très juste,’ he said, moving his hand up her arm.

  ‘Well, it should be our policy,’ Remord retorted. ‘Let the Anglais go, kick them out – they don’t give a damn about Europe. They never have.’

  Now I am of the generation whose grandparents spent the early 1940s either tramping across Europe getting shot at by men in jackboots or having bombs dropped on their rooftops. And I’m afraid that, after a couple of years of living in Paris, I had reached my threshold of listening to middle-aged French people telling me that France had been liberated in 1944 by General de Gaulle and a few men in French berets. Not everyone in Paris was so forgetful of Britain’s role in the Liberation, of course, but when I met one of the forgetters, I found it hard not to rise to the bait.

  ‘I think my great-uncle cared about Europe,’ I said. ‘He was on the beach on D-Day. And my grandfather was in the RAF. He cared about Europe so much that he used to fly here every night.’

  There was a silence, filled only by Elodie giving a little squeak of alarm at my misbehaviour.

  Then Remord groaned loudly as if I’d made a bad pun.

  ‘And you won’t let us forget it, will you?’ he said. ‘Petit con, go and fetch us some coffees.’

  Petit con is one of the French language’s worst insults. Not only are you a twat, you’re an undersized one.

  ‘Boubourse,’ I replied.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Oh, is that the wrong word?’ I asked. ‘Sorry, I am studying the different French patois. You come from the north, and I was trying to translate what you said into your local language. Boubourse. Con.’

  Remord growled. Elodie squeaked again. Cholpin laughed and stroked her shoulder.

  ‘I think Yves is right,’ Cholpin said. ‘Our English friend should leave our little European Union. He can sit in the bar for the journey.’

  The growling Remord got out of his seat to let me pass and I made my exit, wishing them, ‘Bonne continua
tion.’ It’s one of those polite-impolite expressions that the French are so good at. It means: ‘I hope you enjoy whatever you’re going to get up to in the future, not that I really give a toss.’ No wonder French used to be the international language of diplomacy.

  It wasn’t unpleasant sitting in the buffet carriage, dunking a Speculoos in a surprisingly decent coffee while watching MEPs of all nationalities progress quickly from hot drinks to beers to little snifters on the side. Their main subject of conversation seemed to be the fact that these trains left Brussels at an inconvenient time, so that the VIP passengers had the choice of eating railway sandwiches or starving until a very late lunch in Strasbourg – and a rushed one at that, because meetings usually started in the early afternoon. It was, they agreed, a scandal. Only the subsidised booze seemed to console them.

  I was expecting Elodie to come and bawl me out, or at the very least force me to play the waiter and bring coffees, so when I saw her striding into the bar, I braced myself.

  ‘God, Paul!’ she puffed. ‘I envy you.’

  ‘You’re not mad?’

  ‘Of course I’m furious with you for annoying my colleagues, but I envy you for getting away from those two. I’m stuck between a python and a scorpion. One trying to squeeze me to death, the other spitting poison. I need an antidote. Get me three coffees and a schnapps, will you?’ She thrust some euros at me. ‘And don’t forget the receipt.’

  Once she had ingested her caffeine-and-alcohol boost, she told me how she’d had to sit for an hour listening to Remord ranting on about British ingratitude towards Europe, and moaning at her for employing one of the ‘perfidious Albions’. At last, though, he’d fallen asleep and she’d managed to escape.

  ‘If he sees you again, Paul, he will explode. You’ve got to stay out of sight. So when we get to Strasbourg, go straight to the press office at the Parliament and stay there. You’ll be able to listen to the debates without bumping into Remord or any of his friends. And I want you to – how do you say in English? – keep your ears peeled? I want to know if any of your compatriots start talking about France. Not just about oysters. As we all know, most English politicians think they’re still fighting the battle of Waterloo.’ She pronounced it ‘Wah-t-air-lo’.

  ‘OK.’

  Tipping up her tiny schnapps bottle to suck out the last few drops, Elodie announced that she was going back to her seat.

  Before she picked up the two coffees for her travelling companions, she fastened the top button of her blouse, presumably to reduce the target area.

  ‘The things I do for France,’ she said.

  ‘Ah, but are you doing them for France?’ I asked, once she was safely out of earshot.

  To my eyes, the EU Parliament building in Strasbourg looked very much like a cross between a shopping mall and a nuclear-power station.

  It was a huge, curved glass construction embracing a taller, circular tower, the whole thing set beside a river basin that probably provided the water necessary for cooling the hot air pumped out by the debating chamber.

  Inside I found the same chic but corporate decor as in Brussels, with modernistic furniture that probably cost a fortune, but could have been bought from Ikea. The press centre was an impressive lounge equipped with comfortable chairs and TV screens, as well as desks where journalists from all over Europe could plug in and listen to the debates in whatever language they wanted.

  It was easy to blend in with the crowd of laptop-toting journos and grab myself a console. I put on the headphones and switched to English, but heard nothing. The debate hadn’t started yet. I kind of expected a pre-match commentary giving the opposing team line-ups, but the silent TV screen showed the MEPs still shuffling into the immense circular amphitheatre, chatting in the aisles, shaking hands or hugging, dividing up into national and political groupings.

  They got going about half an hour later, and I felt an almost instant need to fall asleep. It wasn’t so much a cut-and-thrust debate as a face-off between zombies. The opening speech went on for at least twenty minutes, with some grey-suited, grey-haired, grey-voiced guy churning out soporific clichés about the need for political unity. They were made even more sleep-inducing by the drone of the interpreter.

  After that, various MEPs were given the chance to contribute to the slumberousness, most of them repeating their countries’ view that the UK would do better to stay in the EU, but that the EU would survive perfectly well without it. I pitied the poor interpreter, who was trying to find different ways of expressing exactly the same ideas.

  The only person to liven things up was the leader of the Eunuchs, a guy called Nick Rummage, who was simultaneously one of the most popular and most despised men in England. When his turn came, he waited for the cameras to get him in focus, gave one of his famously lopsided grins and said simply: ‘Au revoir, les amis.’ In a surprisingly good French accent, I thought.

  The English interpreter in my headphones hesitated for a moment and then translated: ‘Not tonight, Josephine.’

  This got a loud laugh from the press room and, looking round, I could see that the journalists had already decided which speech would be making their headline.

  It was an astute move from Rummage, you had to give him that. A great soundbite, a fuck-off message that would go down well with his supporters back home, but was polite and French enough to earn the grudging respect of his MEP colleagues. A classic case of a politician managing to have his cake and eat it (and then charge it to expenses).

  When the following speaker, a southern European, began his drone, I wasn’t the only one who decided he’d heard enough for the time being. Several of us took off our headphones. I stretched my legs and made for the water cooler.

  ‘Classic Rummage, eh?’

  A friendly-looking guy was grinning at me as he waited for me to fill my plastic cup. He was dressed pretty smartly. No tie, but everything ironed. One of the serious media outlets, I guessed. Southern English, to judge by his accent.

  ‘Du roomage classique,’ I agreed.

  ‘He’s the only one who makes these Strasbourg safaris worthwhile, don’t you think? I come down here every bloody month for the plenary sessions, feeling guilty about my share of the millions it costs a year, and he’s the only thing that makes me think it’s money well spent. Even when he’s not pissed.’

  ‘Fond of a drink, is he?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh, yeah. Haven’t you seen him in action?’

  ‘No,’ I confessed.

  ‘Really? Who are you with? Don’t recall seeing you here before. Or in Brussels, for that matter.’ He glanced down at my badge. ‘A parliamentary assistant,’ he read. ‘For a French MEP. But you’re a Brit?’

  Now he was examining me with frank curiosity.

  ‘Just a temporary job,’ I said.

  ‘Pretty key time for a Brit to be working with the enemy,’ he replied, obviously mulling over the significance of all this as he spoke. ‘What are the French saying about the referendum?’

  ‘Oh, just that it’s too close to call.’

  But for once my brush-off didn’t brush anyone off.

  ‘I don’t mean the result, I mean the fact that we’re having the referendum at all. Do you think they want us in or out?’

  Oh, kaoc’h, was what I was thinking. Merda, schiss and mokordo. I didn’t want to be quoted by a British journalist.

  ‘From what I’m hearing, they want us out,’ he said. ‘It’ll give them a chance to rule the roost with Germany, get rid of the whingeing Brits. Is that what you’re hearing?’

  What I was hearing was Elodie’s screech when she read next day that Paul West, British assistant to the French MEP for Brittany West, had given this guy an interview.

  ‘Not at all,’ I finally said. ‘They want a strong, united Europe. The French are team players, you know. That’s why they’re so annoyingly good at football.’

  ‘Bullshit! All they ever care about is France. French agriculture, French nuclear power, French companies. Th
at’s the only reason we have to trek to Strasbourg every month. It’s so that they can siphon off a few zillion euros into their hotels. Even the bloody train that brings us here is French. The only team they play for is Team Frog.’

  Maybe he wasn’t with one of the more serious newspapers after all, I decided.

  ‘Well, that’s not what I’m hearing at all,’ I told him. ‘I think you’ve been listening to too many of Rummage’s clichés.’

  ‘Some clichés are clichés because they’re so bloody true,’ he said. ‘You want to do an interview about all this? I don’t have to quote your name.’

  Even if he kept his promise, I thought, Elodie was bound to identify this French MEP’s British assistant giving an ‘anonymous’ interview, so I declined the invitation and decided it was time to go for a tactical toilet break.

  I had just located the sign showing a white silhouette with splayed legs, when somebody grabbed my elbow and shoved me into the Gents.

  Some journalists just won’t take no for an answer, I thought, but turned to see a surprising face. A woman’s face.

  ‘Pol,’ it whispered, and propelled me into the nearest cubicle.

  ‘C’est les hommes,’ I replied, though I guessed that Manon must have known which toilet she was in. I just didn’t know why she was in it, with me as a partner, spectator or whatever I was going to be. For a second or two, every possible fantasy flitted through my brain, and I fought hard to swat each of them away.

  ‘Listen,’ she said in whispered French, ‘we haven’t got much time.’ A couple of the fantasies came back to life. ‘Your phone is being bugged,’ she added, which killed them off again.

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Yes.’ She was looking grave. She did it very well, in my opinion. ‘I enquired about getting Elodie bugged – totally impossible – and discovered that your number is being listened to.’

  ‘Merde!’

  ‘Exactly.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I don’t know. I’m trying to find out what’s going on. I still don’t understand what Elodie is trying to do.’

  ‘Who’s listening to me?’

 
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