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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Putin’s fallen out of favour with the French – bar Marine Le Pen

As swear words go, “putain” is up there with the best. But considering what most French people think of the Russian Tsar, is it time to revert it to “Putin”?

Image: The New European

OK, Brextremist trolls – and I know you’re reading, with your “if you love Europe so much why don’t you f**k off and live there?” taunts – stand by for something to excite your narrow, nationalistic little minds. I am going to say something critical about La Belle France.

The most obsessed of the trolls have a habit of trawling online for bad stories about anything happening inside the 27 countries of the EU, and then tagging me in a link with a message on the lines of “look at this… in your beloved European Union”. It means pointing out that insofar as I have a “beloved” landmass, it is Britain, and if I have a “be-loathed”, it is what the lying crooks who led the Brexit campaign have done to my beloved Britain in recent years.

It is evidence of the Brextremists’ political and moral bankruptcy that they have virtually given up saying anything positive about Brexit. The ambition of their sunlit uplands arguments now, insofar as they have them, is to insist that anything that goes wrong in the country has “nothing to do with Brexit”. They are helped enormously in this endeavour by our morally corrupt, knighthood-yearning, non-domming, tax-dodger-owned right wing press, a BBC that appears scared to use the B-word at all even when its consequences stare them newsworthily in the face, and an opposition happy to live with a gigantic elephant in the corner of the room, crapping all over the red carpet.

So, to my criticism of La France, and in particular of Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Flying in overnight from Côte d’Ivoire, sleep-deprived and grouchy, I was confronted by a vast, slow-moving mass of humanity queueing at passport control.

I am not even going to point out that the EU queue, the one I would have been in pre-Brexit, was shorter and faster – oops, I just did – because there is no escaping the truth that there were too few border officials, too few open booths, too few machines, and no sense that anyone had a grip. Then, when I was about a dozen places away from the booth to which my bit of the queue had been crawling, the official inside it suddenly upped and left without a word, the light on the front of his booth switching from green to red.

For a minute or two, I thought the hugely overweight man in front of me, who had been huffing and puffing, saying “merde” and “putain” at ever-shorter intervals, was going to explode, or murder the sole official who was doing his best to herd the hordes into some kind of order. His rage became so volcanic I started to laugh, prompting him to turn and ask me, snarling, what I found so funny. For the first time in my life, I pretended not to understand French.

Half an hour later, having been transferred to another queue, I was finally free.

I have been in some pretty chaotic UK airports in my time. But Charles de Gaulle topped them, and will need some major grip ahead of the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Talking of “putain” – as swear words go, it is up there with the best. I particularly enjoy it when used with a sneaky “de” after it, such as “Mon Dieu, comme je déteste ce putain de premier ministre criminel”. Or “quand est-ce qu’elle va s’arrêter, cette putain de corruption?

As used by Monsieur Angry in the queue, “putain” would normally be translated as “f**k”. The “de” is like adding an “-ing,” so “My God, I loathe this criminal fking prime minister… when is this f**king corruption going to stop?”

It stems from the word “pute”, which means “tart”, as in prostitute, rather than tarte de pommes. It also explains why the Anglo-Saxon world spells the Russian president’s name as Putin, but the French call him “Poutine”. In French “Putin” would be pronounced the same as “putain”, namely pu-ta with a short a and a slight hint of the n at the end.

Given how often his name is now mentioned across the media, it would turn the TV and radio here into the French equivalent of a never-ending Malcolm Tucker monologue. So “Poutine” – pronounced “Poo-teen” – is both more diplomatic, and less liable to offend.

However, given what most French people, though not Vlad-fan Marine Le Pen, think of the Russian tsar these days, I wonder if it isn’t time to revert to “Putin”. “Ce putain de Putin”… now you’re talking, Malcolm.

The first round of the French presidential election was remarkably low-key. You would see the official posters bearing the photos and slogans of all the candidates alongside each other in every town and village, and try to gauge the politics of the area by seeing which had been defaced the most. Marine Le Pen was defaced and removed most, I reckon, with Emmanuel Macron second, the reverse of the actual result when it came to votes. But beyond that, driving round the place, you would be hard pressed to know there had been an election going on.

Partly, that was because Macron fought a deliberately low-key campaign, busying himself with Ukraine, while also helping to starve his opponents of publicity, which they were mainly generating via attacks on him. The second round run-off with Mme Le Pen will be a very different matter, and last week we saw both of the surviving candidates cranking through the gears.

The TV debate this Wednesday – I am writing ahead of it, you will be reading after it – will be a key moment. Last time around, Macron destroyed her, revealing a deep understanding of major issues and exposing a basic incoherence in her programme. This time, the bar for her is low, and she is playing into the Michael Gove philosophy that “people have had enough of experts”.

Macron’s problem was encapsulated when I went for a haircut. The guy cutting my hair had voted for Éric Zemmour, who outflanked even Le Pen on the right. His fellow crimper said he had voted for the hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. So what now that it’s a Macron-Le Pen run-off? I asked. “Le Pen”, they said in unison.

I still think Macron will win, but given that his record on the economy is pretty good, his handling of Covid likewise, and he has a plan for the future that at least adds up to a vision, he ought to be out of sight. That he isn’t is what is giving some of his supporters the anxiety that France may yet be daft enough to have its Johnson or Trump moment. On verra.

At Avignon station, I picked up a book by Vladimir Fédorovski, half Russian, half Ukrainian, who was a senior diplomat and government spokesman under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the president who picked out Putin to be prime minister, currently have 2% approval ratings in Russia, he revealed. And whereas at one point in the Gorbachev era 80% of Russians defined themselves as “pro-West”, the figure is now between 10% and 15% (and may have fallen since the invasion and the accompanying propaganda bombardment).

Historically no fan of Putin, Fédorovski does make the point that the West’s failure to draw Russia more closely to Europe after the collapse of communism was a huge error, leaving Russians feeling the West did not merely want to kill communism, but Russia itself. He believes Putin sees himself as the fourth in a historic quartet of Great Russian Leaders… with Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin.

For years, Nostalgie, playing all the hits from earlier parts of my life, has been my car radio station of choice whenever I am in France. They now have a rival, however, Crooner Radio.

In one glorious two-hour drive, I had Elvis P and Edith P, Jacques B and Johnny H, Frank S and France G, Michel S, Diana R, Aretha F, Charles A and Charles T… and if you need to ask what any of the surname letters stand for, you don’t deserve Crooner Radio.

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