25 October 1999
Legal journalism is not particularly well paid, but it does offer some consolations. The other day, for example, I interviewed the President of France. I don't imagine I would have spoken to Jacques Chirac very often if I'd continued working as a solicitor.
We met in Finland, where he was attending a European Union summit. It was the first time that European leaders had discussed issues such as cross-border crime, extradition, and criminal justice. But most UK news organisations were much more interested in the continuing French ban on British beef imports.
The presidents and prime ministers were due to arrive at their hotels on the evening before their meeting. With perhaps as many as 100 television crews covering summits, arrangements are made for material to be "pooled": filmed by one crew and then given to the others. The BBC was scheduled to film Tony Blair meeting his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. This was of limited interest. But it gave me the chance to accompany my crew into the foyer of Blair's hotel.
I was told firmly that the Prime Minister would not be answering questions. I decided to try my luck. As he drove in from the airport, Blair was probably warned that a reporter was waiting to throw questions at him. In any event, my shouts of "Prime Minister, welcome to Tampere, what are you going to say to the French about beef?" were met with a fixed smile.
I had better luck with Chirac. "Monsieur le President," I hollered across the lobby. "What are you going to say to the British about beef?"
It's well known that President Chirac speaks perfect English. It's equally well-known that no self-respecting Frenchman will speak English unless he has to. The president smiled sweetly and told me, in French, to ask the question again, but this time in his language.
It is true that I passed O-level French rather more than 30 years ago. Even so, I would not consider French one of my strongest subjects. But I was determined not to be beaten. I blurted out something about "vaches folles". The president took pity on this mad Englishman. "You'll see," he told me in French. "The subject is not on the agenda."
It was not a lot. But it gave me an exclusive interview for the next morning's news. All that was needed was a deliberately loose translation ("beef is not on the menu") and judicious editing of my schoolboy French. Judicious editing is what these summits are all about. It's up to the host nation to produce a draft set of conclusions for approval on the final day. Although this draft should bear some similarity to the views expressed in the earlier discussions, the officials who prepare it sometimes seem to slip in things they rather hope the governments will be willing to accept.
So it was that governments were told they had agreed to "harmonised conditions of reception of asylum seekers". But that phrase had to come out: "harmonised" in this context means laid down in European law, and that was not acceptable to the British, among others. The final wording spoke, much more loosely, of "common minimum conditions". There were other, equally subtle changes. Who knows, if I'd become a government lawyer I might have found myself changing a word here or there myself.
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