Back at the time I lived in the heart of Paris, I would often—of a Sunday morning—ride my bike out in the direction of the Vincennes woods, to the east of the city, where the old vélodrome was located. [I even did a season of track racing there, in 1972.] If it was sunny and I had time on my hands, which was generally the case, I would often be tempted to ride lazily along the cobblestones of the Bercy quarter, past the ancient wine warehouses.
Sadly, all this quaint old-worldliness was soon to disappear, making way for two landmark constructions. First, the Bercy stadium is big enough to house windsurfing demonstrations and motor-cycle races.
Then there's the home of France's treasury ministry, on the right bank of the Seine. It's a curiously-shaped building, like the start of a bridge that had to be abandoned, maybe because they ran out of funds. I often used to think that this building is designed in such a way that, if ever a treasury minister were to act in an unskilled way that forced France into bankruptcy, he would be able to put an end to his disgrace, effortlessly, by wandering to the end of the upper-floor hallway and jumping out the window into the noble river of Paris. His body would then float down past the Ile de la Cité where the people of Paris, thronged around the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, could hurl invective upon the corpse of the minister as it passed by. An event of that kind would indeed be very Parisian.
As of today, a brilliant woman named Christine Lagarde is holding the purse strings of the French Republic in her hands. In this role, she ranks fourth in the hierarchy of the French government. Prior to becoming the first woman to occupy this position in France, the lawyer Lagarde, with a natural gift for oratory, was accustomed to being a very big chief. In 1999, she had been placed in charge of the major US law firm, Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, with 2,400 associates. Not bad for a French female!
What exactly was it, in the profile of Christine Lagarde, that persuaded Nicolas Sarkozy to hand over to her the "reins of Bercy" (to employ a metaphor that's often applied to this ministry)? Well, she's something of a Martian in France, where the political milieu is not accustomed to the idea of a woman who evolves in the English-speaking world like a fish in water (as the French saying goes). It's a fact that we shouldn't expect this grand lady to ever set foot in such-and-such a French village to see if the local vineyard or cheese-making firm is getting along well, but she will surely be a precious diplomatic asset for France at the next World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2008. In other words, Christine Lagarde might be seen as a symbol of the desire of Sarkozy to move away, once and for all, from the false but enduring image of France as a land of wine, cheese and economic frivolity.