If France tends to believe that no one does eccentrics like the British, then Johnson is seen as the benchmark.
The mayor of London has both irked France for what it deems his relentless "French-bashing" – saying the French government had been "captured by sans culottes" running a "tyranny" of the like not seen since the French Revolution – and fascinated them with the inexplicable hair, the crumpled suit and what Le Monde called his "clown-like" way of doing politics. So when he turned up at Paris city hall brandishing a Corgi model of a red Routemaster bus as a gift to the Socialist mayor and was the top guest on the French equivalent of Radio 4's Today programme, where he held forth in accented but near-perfect French for 40 minutes, Paris journalists couldn't but wonder whether he was after David Cameron's scalp.
"We're like Wallace and Gromit," he told France Inter radio, although he didn't say which was the absent-minded inventor and which his far brainier dog. Asked later by the Guardian to expand on the parallel with the plasticine figures, he said only: "I was under severe mental pressure trying to speak in French."
Johnson side-stepped questions on his ambitions for Downing Street, saying he had another three years as mayor. But he stood by comments in the Sun, seen as a rebuff to the home secretary, Theresa May, that Conservative cabinet ministers accused of positioning themselves for a post-Cameron leadership should "put a sock in it". He said he wasn't aware of the "political chunderings" that media insisted were going on within the party but said ministers should "save their breath" at this mid-term stage.
Johnson's French charm offensive, which coincides with the French release of his new book about London, could have been risky. France bristled when, at the Conservative party conference last year, he said he welcomed "talented French people" who wanted to flee François Hollande's tax rises, adding: "Not since 1789 has there been such a tyranny and terror in France."
During the Paris radio phone-in, a listener called Paule said: "He's charming today, a change from his insults to the French, but he's got a book to sell." Like 61% of French people in a recent poll, she was in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. Johnson said he would not vote for the UK to leave the EU if Cameron succeeded in securing some reforms.
Johnson, who said his "barbarian form of French" came from his time as a Brussels correspondent but also cited his French grandmother from Versailles, made a speech to the Franco-British chamber of commerce warning that bashing London bankers was to the detriment of Europe as a whole, and arguing that the benefits of French people coming to London worked both ways. He said French companies controlled some of London's buses, cleaned its streets, provided its water and electricity – an example of British openness to European procurement treaties. He said he couldn't imagine a Paris mayor welcoming British involvement in the same way.
Later he acknowledged that the French "are very sensitive about their Revolution". But he ended his speech on a welcoming note: "Such is our willingness to make French people at home that every Londoner can now say, wittingly or unwittingly, 'Ici on mange du cheval". (Here, we eat horse).
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