Jacques the tourist and French revolutions

Regular readers of this column will know that I live in France, in a peaceful rural world, a million miles away from the hurly-burly of Formula 1 racing. One of the few drawbacks of this lifestyle is that whenever I do get to go home and want to have some peace, I always find myself answering questions about what is going in F1. People want to know. The French love sport - and they like to win.

My cleaning lady told me the other day that she is a big Jacques Villeneuve fan. She doesn't know much about motor racing but since she found out what I did for a living she has taken an interest - which is very touching. She saw Jacques on the television and thinks that he is a very fine driver - even if he wears clothes which are several sizes too big for him - and she loves to lecture me about Jacques's talents.

The only slight problem was that until recently she thought Jacques was French and, being ever so slightly nationalistic, was happy to cheer his every move. It took me a few days to pluck up the courage to tell her that her hero was actually not French at all.

"Of course he's French." she cried.

"Um. Well, actually, he's a Canadian," I mumbled. "From Quebec."

"Eh, bah ouf!" she said - clearly believing that Quebec is merely a foreign dependency of France. "So what nationality is this Panis then?"

"Um. Well, actually he's French," I said. "He's really a very good driver too."

Sometimes, in the rarified world of Formula 1, people assume that the whole world turns on what happens in Grand Prix racing and not vice versa. It seems surprising to some in the paddock that bushmen in the Kalahari do not know that Mika Hakkinen is blond and that there might be Eskimos who have not heard of Bernie Ecclestone. The real world is simply not that important.

A journalist friend of mine tells a story which highlights, dramatically, the way that F1 can be. Back in 1980, during the American election campaign, he asked a Grand Prix driver what he thought about Jimmy Carter.

"Who does he drive for?" came the response - and it was not a joke.

When the Soviet Union was falling apart back in 1991 an F1 driver was asked what he thought about the happenings in Moscow.

"It's okay," he replied. "Bernie says we don't have to race there."

This blithe spirit popped up again when Jacques Villeneuve was called to Paris for a quick smack on the wrist from the FIA World Motor Sports Council. Why was the meeting not scheduled some other time? Jacques said. Having to go to Paris was going to interrupt HIS preparation for HIS home race. Some cried "conspiracy" and that the whole silly interlude was organized so that Jacques would be destabilized for the Canadian race. What a lot of rubbish. It may be boring to point it out but World Councils are not easy things to organize. They only happen three or four times a year and in order to hold them around different 25 delegates - all successful men who have other things to do - from all over the world have to get to Paris. In order to make life easier for planning these are programmed months in advance.

Jacques was lucky in that the Canadian aviation firm Bombardier has some smart PR people who realized it might be a bright idea to lay on a free Challenger jet for Jacques and his entourage to hop backwards and forwards to Paris. Now this may sound like a bit of a drag but out there in the real world people dream about going to Paris; and they dream of flying in private jets so the fact that poor old Jacques had to go to Paris, have dinner, stay in a nice hotel, put on a tie (which was probably the most painful bit of the whole trip for Jacques) have a boring 10 minute meeting and then whizz back to Canada on the jet was not such a punishment.

Still Jacques took it fairly well. If he had been a Frenchman he might have complained a lot more. The French in my experience are a rebellious lot. They have been since the days when Asterix the Gaul and his mates caused the Roman Empire lots of problems. As a nation they love non-conformity. In France James Dean is an icon. Sharon Stone and Jerry Lewis have both been honored with the status of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres - which is a kind of knighthood.

If there has to be change, so the French believe, it should always be done as messily as possible. The French hate smooth transitions. Every so often a nice Revolution is what you need.

In motor racing terms you need only look at the history of Ligier to appreciate this concept. Guy Ligier used to hire the most expensive design team he could find. Give them a year to do the job and when they failed to beat the boring steady English teams, everyone would be dumped and a new mob would be wheeled in. It was a disastrous way of running a Formula 1 team and, inevitably, after losing steadily for 12 years Ligier finally handed the team on to Cyril de Rouvre, who then became an integral part of the French prison system and had to flog the operation to Flavio Briatore.

Flavio grabbed the team's Renault engine supply and then handed what was left to Tom Walkinshaw to run on his behalf. Tom did all the right things to build the team up and thus at Monaco in 1996 Olivier Panis finally gave the team another win - by which time Tom had decided he did not want to run a French team and had bought Arrows. Flavio then flogged it on to Alain Prost.

It will be interesting to see how Alain does. He has a much more measured approach than the average Frenchman, having learned that the best way to win World Championships is to adopt the British work ethic and make steady progress.

A few weeks ago everything in Alain's garden looked rosy but the French people has since decided that it was time for a revolution and pole-axed Alain's republican supporters and elected a Socialist government with policies from the Jurassic period.

This was not because anyone believes that Socialism will ever work in France, it is simply because the Socialists said that they wouldn't do anything nasty and would create jobs, build little houses for poor homeless seals, ban landmines and give everyone free open-toed sandals. There would be no more job losses, no more taxes, no change at all in fact.

This is a disaster for French motor racing and as we head to Magny-Cours it is perhaps worth pointing it out. The last Socialist government demolished most of France's motorsport industry with Evin's Law, which banned the advertising of tobacco and alcohol. This gesture meant that suddenly none of France's young drivers had any sponsorship money because Gauloises, Marlboro and Camel were all forced to stop their promotional activities. All the bright young Frenchmen were condemned to drive dull cars at Le Mans for the rest of their lives. One thinks of Eric Helary, Christophe Bouchut, Yvan Muller, Franck Lagorce, Jean-Christophe Boullion, Emmanuel Collard and about 20 others who might have done something had Claude Evin and his do-gooders not enacted their daft legislation. The French are not smoking less.

When the Socialists were driven out there was a real hope that the Republicans would undo some of the damage. Sports Minister Guy Drut was quietly untangling Evin's Law and Jacques Chirac and others were helping Alain Prost get things together with some of France's big businesses.

Prime Minister Alain Juppe was working cautiously on boosting free enterprise by privatizing and making France a more competitive country but he was too lukewarm for the revolutionary French population - and so out he went.

The Socialists now say that the big car companies should not be allowed to lay-off workers who are not doing anything. This makes it very difficult for Renault and Peugeot to be competitive against their slimline rivals in Germany and Japan. It will also mean that less money will be available for motor racing activities.

If Prost is to survive as a French national team he is going to have to adopt a much more international approach to running his team. He was always planning to do so, but now life will simply be more difficult for him.

It is such a shame because France has such a great heritage in motor racing and views itself - somewhat chauvinistically - as the home of the sport. It was certainly the cradle of the sport, with all the great early racing events organized from Paris to other European cities. The first Grand Prix was at Le Mans in 1906, and the French automotive industry led the way in the 1920s and early 1930s with such great marques as Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage, Talbot Lorraine-Dietrich, Renault, Salmson, Peugeot and Ballot.

When the Germans starting taking the sport seriously in 1934 the French era was over.

"Let's face it," veteran F1 journalist Jabby Crombac said to me the other year, "In the 1930s the French were all second league racers. Only Bugatti was faintly serious in F1. France in those years was in the doldrums. People were only interested in striking and going on holidays."

It is a similar story today and only Prost is there to fight for French motorsport.

Well, I guess he might get some help from that other well-known French racing driver Jacques Villeneuve...

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