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The timing is surreal. Just as a big Salvador Dali retrospective opens at the Pompidou Centre, so the world of French politics enters one of its more mind-baffling phases.

As if the extreme bout of internal bloodletting in the opposition centre-right UMP party over the past two weeks was not eye-catching enough, there is now the verbal assault on Lakshmi Mittal launched by Arnaud Montebourg, the Socialist industry minister. Mr Montebourg said he wanted the global steel magnate, who employs 20,000 people in France, to quit the country.

The minister has form: he warmed up with a tongue-lashing against the Peugeot family a couple of months ago and has established himself firmly as the madcap leftwing firebrand of François Hollande’s otherwise rather bland collection of socialist ministers.

His outbursts fuel the longstanding stereotype of French socialism as living in a Daliesque parallel universe where the barricades are mounted against the evils of capitalism, the state commands the industrial heights and the rich are taxed until their eyes water (or they jump on the Eurostar to London).

Spare a thought then for Pierre Moscovici, the world-weary finance minister, who for the past few weeks has been on a mission to persuade the world that the French left has finally woken up to the fact that the earth revolves around the sun – he calls it a Copernican revolution.

No sooner had he coined the phrase to describe the government’s plan to restore national competitiveness than the Economist published an incendiary cover portraying the country’s economy as a time bomb ticking under Europe.

It didn’t help that Mr Moscovici a few days later came 16th out of 19 in the FT’s ranking of European finance ministers, thanks in part to a withering judgment by panellist Jacques Delpla, a French economist, who accused the minister of denying the seriousness of the crisis, badmouthing business and indulging in populist measures.

Hardly fair, protested Mr Moscovici in his blog, for a social democrat regarded by the hard left as a “comrade of the bosses”.

Undeterred by Mr Montebourg and the “Anglo-Saxon press”, Mr Moscovici is sticking to his mission, telling a group of UK and US-based institutional investors in a meeting on Tuesday at the finance ministry that the government is on a “historic” path to structural change.

Apparently they did not raise the issue of the confrontation with Mr Mittal. “I was prepared for questions on the point,” he said afterwards, with grim satisfaction. “But the surprise was there were none.”

Sarko’s dilemma

The Montebourg-Mittal clash has barely displaced the spectacular feud in the UMP from the French headlines. The leadership battle has offered both an opportunity and a problem for Nicolas Sarkozy, evicted from the Elysée palace six months ago by Mr Hollande.

An opportunity because it has reinforced Mr Sarkozy’s status as easily the most popular figure in the party, potentially paving the way for a comeback in time for a rematch with Mr Hollande in 2017.

But also a problem because he clearly had no intention of being drawn back into the frontline so soon. In recent months he has been crafting a Tony Blair-like gig on the international lecture circuit, with plenty of downtime on the side when French magazines love to picture him, with fashionable stubble, relaxing with Carla Bruni, his supermodel-pop singer wife.

Having to wade into the UMP’s bloody feud was not what he had in mind – at least not yet.

Little to celebrate

To avoid tumbling from the sublime to the ridiculous, visitors to the Dali exhibition should steer clear of a stroll through the Christmas market on the Champs Elysées.

A world removed from those quaint German-style festive markets, the Parisian version is made up of rows of large white chalets running from Place de la Concorde up to the Grand Palais and beyond. Stalls selling genuine Christmas trinkets are outnumbered by those peddling fast-food such as hot dogs and burgers. All so very un-French.

Now there’s a bit of cultural crossover that might well be deserving of a blast of Mr Montebourg’s anti-globalisation rhetoric.


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