A long (French-related) lunch
DECEMBER 28, 2001
The Mole did not go to Renault launch in Paris. Seventeen Sundays in a year are enough time spent worshipping at the Temple of St Bernard and The Mole did not want the Reverend Sidney Overton-Fuller to frown upon him from the pulpit at St Christopher's if he were to grab an 18th Sunday to visit the Renault Technocentre at Guyancourt. And, let us be honest, who wants to go and listen to Flavio Briatore chewing up the French language when one can stay at home and listen to a gentle and educated sermon on the subject of - um - whatever if was the good Reverend had been talking about?
The meadows of merry England were pleasant enough on the walk home from church and then, safely returned to the family pile, The Mole and his luncheon guests indulged in thoughts of a higher nature, safe in the knowledge that nothing of any value would be said within the shiny walls of the Renault Technocentre. Over a sherry and some of those more-ish nibbly things the subject was never mentioned and they were halfway through the salmon (with a dill sauce) and some rather fruity Cloudy Bay before a rather impetuous young university lecturer at the table asked about Formula 1.
A venerable dowager tut-tutted from behind her moustache.
The Mole was feeling indulgent, however, and the conversation turned to Renault with The Colonel (The Mole's next door neighbour and a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party) expounding the theory that the French are "quite incapable of running modern racing teams". He put forward a very decent argument: Simca-Gordini was never much good; Matra only won races by giving its engines to Tyrrell; Ligier had a moment of glory in 1979 and then the whole team went off to have lunch, leaving Ferrari and Williams to sneak in and lift the top two places in the World Championship. Renault's first F1 team was a nest of rotating vipers which ended up in disarray with Alain Prost being fired and the whole thing falling apart with one of the executives getting caught with his hands in the till (actually, if The Mole remembers correctly, the gentleman in question was at least up to his elbows and, as a result, went for a short stay at one of France's government-run penal establishments).
Gerard Larrousse, The Colonel continued, had an amazing talent for finding partners who ended up in jail (or being gunned down by the police); Cyril de Rouvre wasted his family fortune on not one but two different F1 teams and Alain Prost's career path as a team owner was similar to the trajectory of the average downhill ski racer.
The Colonel stopped talking. The dowager said "Quite." and The Mole steered the conversation to things that the French do very well: notably wine, cheese, perfume, fashion, literature and art.
"And they have very good railways," said the dowager, rather too sharply.
The Colonel tut-tutted.
By now they were deeply into the roast beef, washed down by a very smooth bottle of Chateau Trotanoy and the conversation turned to the state of the British railways and from there, by an amazing lateral leap, to how disappointing the sales have been this year and how Harrods is not what it used to be. Before they knew it, it was time for the rather spectacular sherry trifle with lots of whipped cream.
"Now I'm not a big fan of the French," said The Colonel, "but I never have understood why the English eat the cheese after the pudding."
"How very European of you," said the dowager.
A lively debate ensued over the Euro, during which The Mole received whispered word from the staff that reports were coming in from the Renault launch. It had been much as expected. Everyone important had been told to say "100% French" in every sentence they uttered. The French media loved this, of course, and scribbled frantically, feeling warm thoughts about the land of liberte, egalite et fraternite. The Mole's troops on the ground thought it rather contrived.
To annoy the dowager, The Mole decided to bring up the subject over a very fine piece of Camembert and a lovely bottle of Chateau Troplong Mondot. He related the story of the Renault launch and mentioned that in his knowledge the area around Chipping Norton is still very much part of the English-speaking world. The Colonel said that he doubted that much French was being spoken inside the Renault F1 factory, which had looked remarkably like the old Benetton factory when he had driven by the previous week.
"Renault F1 is about as French as Yorkshire Pudding," he said.
"No, no," said The Mole. "Even as we speak, down the car assembly bays they are exclaiming "Sacre bleu!" and shrugging their shoulders a lot."
The Mole reminded his guests of the famous Jaguar Racing F1 launch at Lord's Cricket Ground where Dr Wolfgang Reitzle tried, in German tones as clipped as his moustache, to convince the assembled international media that Jaguar Racing vould become ze British national racing team.
"They should have held the launch in Coventry," said The Colonel unkindly. "After all the Germans did help to redevelop the place back in 1940."
The Mole thought it best not to mention the second Jaguar Racing launch - in Coventry - and steered the guests to the drawing room for some coffee.
"Don't you think it ironic," said the university lecturer, "that they launch a brand new all-French F1 team at Guyancourt, the very place where on Monday Prost Grand Prix is going to go out of business?"
"The torch of failure has been passed to a new generation," said The Colonel.
To lighten the mood, The Mole related the tale of a brave French journalist who had asked Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer whether, given the French nature of the new team, it might not be a good idea to relocate the Renault F1 factory from Chipping Norton to the Renault Technocentre.
Schweitzer had looked rather appalled but had then embarked on a very tedious explanation as to why it is fine to have a little piece of England which is forever France.
"They will never move it to France," said the university lecturer. "There are the French unions, the 35-hour week and all the social charges which are compulsory for any enterprise based in France. It would be impossible for them to compete. They have no choice but to pretend."
The vicar, who had been very quiet for most of lunch, suddenly spoke up.
"I don't see why they need to create a false image," he said. "Nor, come to think of it, why they would hold the launch on a Sunday. A poor show!"
"Absolutely," they all agreed and helped themselves to some more of those delicious chocolate mint things.
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