Not a dream but a senatorial dinner

CHARLES ROBERTS There were only three of us, sitting by the swimming pool and watching the day's last sunshine sink smoothly into the horizon. I did remember I had been too busy that afternoon to take an afternoon nap.


There were only three of us, sitting by the swimming pool and watching the day's last sunshine sink smoothly into the horizon. I did remember I had been too busy that afternoon to take an afternoon nap. So there was every possibility that now I'd slipped into a light snooze.

Then came reality: a senator of France was deftly opening a bottle of good champagne, and mine was the first glass to be filled. But of course. Happens every day.

Not that the senator in question goes for pomp and ceremony. Far from it. Politics may be his life. But I get a strong impression that, had he not become a politician, he would have made it big as a stand-up comedian. In fact he became a lawyer. He was elected a senator only four years ago.

Paris makes considerable demands on his time and talents, though that has eased since the immediate past prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was removed from office as political scapegoat for the banlieus (suburbs) affair. Past PM and present senator have been close friends for years, and remain so.

During the Raffarin period, one could hardly pick up a newspaper within the huge Poitou-Charentes region (of which the Vienne is a part) without seeing a photo of Raffarin with his old ally (rarely smiling) at his shoulder.

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Face to face, as I discovered at last week's dinner gathering at his country home, he is sociable, amusing, a raconteur and a natural comedian.

His house on the edge of a small village rather complements its owner. Fairly plain on the outside, despite the tennis court and swimming pool (both modestly concealed by mature greenery). On the inside, much gleaming structural woodwork, some beautiful small bronzes, largely of horsey subjects; and elegantly chosen furniture.

The senator happens to be a member of the local branch (as am I) of that admirable charitable organisation, the Lions. It is a tradition that, about once a year, a member (or members) hosts fellow members to dinner. The senator was accepting his date!

And a fine dinner it was, as nine of us in all sat down to a meal prepared in advance by Mme la Gouvernante (the housekeeper). It started with a homemade pâté (recipe secret!) which was one of the best I've ever tasted. Next, a main course of veal casserole, excellent again. Then cheese. And finally a luscious chocolat marquise. A series of Bordeaux wines added their special touch to an outstanding meal.

Around the table was a collection of diners as diverse as the wines they were imbibing. They could, with a little imagination, become transmogrified into adult representatives from those celebrated books about the Adventures of Little Nicolas - French children's books on one hand; hilarious tales on the other for Brits of all ages who think the French have no sense of humour.

A few examples: next step down from the exalted senator, in political terms, would presumably be our two mayors. Before he retired, one of them was chief of the local gendarmerie - and often behaves as if he still is. The other is amiable, smiling, patient, the kind of friend to have around when the going gets tough.

Then we have a cheerful chap whose good humour is as ample as his proportions. Follow him with one who is witty and funny - but likes to dominate the air around him. Not to forget the well turned out gent who favours tie and dark suit in full summer time.

Wasn't it the Norfolk poet William Cowper who said that "Variety's the very spice of life"? More to the point, was he a Lion?

I note in passing that, according to the Lions World Guide, there are eight clubs in Norfolk, and three in Norwich alone. From south-west France, greetings to you all.

It's certainly a talking point in my bit of France, but there's no guarantee of getting anything close to a unified opinion. I talk of the hunger strike in the Béarn province at the foot of the Pyrénées, when a local member of parliament refused all sustenance for 39 days. His objective was to force Japanese owners of a factory in his fief to reverse their decision to close the business.

The French government and representatives of the Japanese finally came to an accord. It was enough to persuade the MP to end "his long calvary", as one paper described it.

Beyond the immediate political point, the issue has been hotly debated. Was this bravery or cheap publicity? Was it madness or an inspired action to take to save 150 jobs? Did the action deserve respect - or was it worthy of contempt?