If John Prescott feels at all unsure of himself as the party conference season opens, he should find time for a comforting beer with France's Jean-Pierre Chevenement. It would have to be some chilled French brew: Chevenement is that sort of Frenchman. And the choice of bar might be tricky, since Chevenement, a sublime wordsmith, speaks with a cocktail cherry poised between the lips. But they ought to get along.
Like Prescott, France's interior minister is the old pol of his government, deputy prime minister in all but name. And he, too, despite the status, seems not quite to belong. Chevenement is old left in the French style, champion not of the working man but of the state and its benevolent authority. The pair should have a fine old time discussing the gritting of teeth and how to grin and bear it.
Chevenement's responsibilities include the police, the prefects, intelligence, immigration and the election process, so as day-to-day guardian of state power in France he may derive deeper satisfaction from his job than Prescott does from his transport empire. Also, the Frenchman is a certified miracle man, having apparently emerged sharper of wit and, if this were possible, sharper of tongue from an eight-day coma caused by a rogue anaesthetic administered to him on a hospital operating table last year.
Since his chances of a complete recovery were put at less than 1 per cent by some medical pundits, he has, he says in dark self-amusement, "been to the other bank and returned". What nonetheless binds Chevenement and Prescott is the look they must frequently catch in their leader's eye, a look that says, "Am I saddled with this bloke? Could there be some way to move him out?"
The pair are united in pathos. They somehow embarrass. Yet Chevenement, aged 60, is anything but rough and ready. He hails from the same mandarin class as France's prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and many of the cabinet colleagues with whom he is increasingly out of tune. Hear this senior minister's contrariness, and you wonder why Jospin would retain someone who disagrees with the government on just about everything of importance. He is anti-euro, anti-market, anti-Green (a "fin-de-siecle ideology", he scoffs) and anti-American in the proud French manner Jospin may once have shared but now appears to consider extreme.
Chevenement, though, is beyond being merely anti. All his instincts come together in trying to preserve a France which is moving in a direction he believes damaging to the nation's soul. The words republique and valeurs republicaines constantly pour from his lips as weapons of a political faith that will surely save France if he can keep them firing. They stand for state control - state dominance of education, a powerful civil service and formal or implicit state oversight of business, trade and the economy in general.
Chevenement comes from a schoolteaching family from Belfort, in France's far eastern reaches near the Rhine, still his provincial political stronghold. For him, France's way is forever traced not only by the 1789 revolution but by her ultimate break with comeback monarchs and emperors following the 1870 defeat by Germany. The interior minister sees far, only he often seems to be looking backwards.
Slim, grey-maned and dapper, with a taste for power-projecting double-breasted jackets, he peers at questioners as though they may not quite get his answer. He regularly works a 16-hour day. Long married to a sculptress, with whom he has two sons, he is an accomplished political author with an eastern Frenchman's prickly take on the Germany that loomed large in his childhood. In the 20 years since the left came to power in France's Fifth Republic, he has held three other ministries: industry, education and defence.
The mists of a past France float about Chevenement. Indeed, he so well fits the mould of a left-wing Gaullist that one wonders why he has always been in the opposing socialist camp. His taste for authority impels him to run his own fringe political outfit, the Eurosceptic Citizens Movement (MDC), which he has placed in Jospin's "plural left" majority. Here is the funny part. Chevenement's distrust of Europe now places him in informal alliance with the hoariest old Gaullist of them all, Charles Pasqua, who has launched a successful anti-euro movement.
Several supporters of Chevenement's movement, their political compass gone haywire, have begun siding with Pasqua, most recently in June's European Parliament elections. This is despite Pasqua's flirtations with the far right. The Pasqua venture illustrates, if nothing else, that French public opinion is not as bravely united behind Europe and the euro as is usually made out.
The likes of Chevenement and Pasqua are often labelled "republican nationalists", though the more inventive souverainistes (sovereignists) suits them nicely. Their phantom alliance has acquired flesh as France balks at European Union plans to protect regional and minority tongues. Good Eurosoldier Jospin is prepared to assist endangered languages, but not Chevenement, who is mightily pleased that France's Gaullist president, Jacques Chirac, has thrown up constitutional obstacles. Encouraging sniper tongues such as Breton or Corsican, reckons the interior minister, could "balkanise" France.
What increasingly embarrasses Jospin is his minister's post-coma habit of saying out loud what before he sometimes kept to himself. When France's great bank takeover struggle ended recently with two domestic banking titans still separate, thanks to an independent regulatory commission's attentions to the interests of private shareholders, the interior minister was stupefied. "This is a plot against the state's interest," he exploded, damning the independent body for its temerity. His view was that the two big retail banks in question needed putting together to give France extra international financial whack. Until a year or so ago any French government would simply have made sure the takeover happened on grounds of economic patriotism. The government knew best. Shareholders came second.
Neither Jospin nor his capable finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, want to see markets running wild - but nor would they be seen dead these days publicly interfering. Privatisation has taken off since they came to office. In the bank drama they coyly stood back. Chevenement's outburst made them blanch. Chevenement hates Blairism, just as he hates the notion of economic globalisation, which means not enough France and too much America.
Jospin may be growing tired, though, of picking up the phone after a tough day to tick off his interior minister. He bawled him out with uncustomary irritation before the summer break, it is said, when Chevenement not only paraded his differences over Kosovo in cabinet, in front of President Chirac, but expressed them publicly to the press on the steps of the Elysee presidential palace.
Most of the cabinet battles Chevenement fights turn out to be losing ones. One gets the impression he wages them to top up his considerable self-esteem. Jospin has successively cut him adrift on everything from judicial reform to French foreign policy. His determination to expel tens of thousands of illegal immigrants is too much for some around the prime minister. Inevitably, talk of his departure grows, coming most recently from insulted Greens, whose party shares in Jospin's government.
Like Prescott, Chevenement is a symbol. Jospin treats him with some indulgence. Over three decades the two men have made their way through the left together, sharing contempt for the tacky later stages of Francois Mitterrand's Socialist presidency, from which they presciently stood aside.
Chevenement's most famous maxim, "A minister shuts his trap or quits", was his blunt summation before resigning as defence minister under Mitterrand during the Gulf War, which, like Nato's war with Serbia, made him uncomfortable. He had resigned once before, as industry minister, near the start of the Mitterrand era. These days his maxim seems to be gathering dust in an Interior Ministry drawer. Despite his failure to make Jospin see things his way, he is never, ever, directly critical of his boss. Which leads us back to John Prescott. This pair are well aware of their symbolic value. They also know they must swallow a lot of pride to stay. Neither can reasonably aspire to the top job. To stay is all. They aren't sure where their sticking point comes. Worst of all, they realise there isn't one.