You get to know a man only when you meet him. Although we’re all aware of this truism it hasn’t stopped many forming unshakable opinions of people they don’t know. And when it comes to politicians what we read in the papers or see on television is sufficient to usually conclude we don’t like them.
On Republic Day I discovered how mistaken we can be. Till then I had judged Francois Hollande by his appearance and the Financial Times criticism of his economic policies. He’s short and squat, has no neck, wears big glasses and seems a little awkward. To this unappealing description the FT added a stinging critique of his decision to increase tax to 75% for the super-rich, driving the actor Gerard Depardieu out of the country and provoking French football clubs to strike.
I think it’s fair to say M. Hollande isn’t considered the politician people would most want to meet. Well, they’re terribly wrong. Though the sad part is until they meet him they won’t know it.
On the 26th of January I had that good fortune. The French president was invited to a private lunch by my old school chum Analjit Singh and I was one of the 30 other lucky guests. All of us were excited. Who isn’t when you’re about to meet one of the most powerful men in the world?
However, what none of us knew was how big a surprise lay in store. M. Hollande is charming and chatty. His conversation is informal, informed and interesting. His presence is inviting and not the least bit intimidating. In short, he is an extremely nice and likeable man.
On his arrival the French ambassador — another Francois but this time surnamed Richier — introduced the president to everyone. No doubt M. Hollande was brilliantly briefed but he used it to astonishing effect. He chatted effortlessly about subjects connected to each of us.
In my case he recalled an interview I requested which he had been unable to fit in. But he referred to it with a delightfully wicked touch of humour. “I’m told saying no was the wise thing to do. I believe Mr Modi once walked out but if I did that the French press would crucify me.” The smile that followed was bewitching.
Before lunch the president walked from group to group, often on his own, to talk to different sets of people. He listened avidly, smiled a lot, laughed often and made them laugh a lot more. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
At lunch Francois Richier asked me to sit at the president’s table. There were just five of us. M. Hollande asked questions about politics, terror, books, the media, cricket and young fashion. He seemed genuinely curious. But what fascinated us was his account of the terror attack at the Stade de France last November. He told it like a story, graphically and grippingly. Everyone stopped eating, listening intently to every word.
In between, there were MPs wanting selfies, authors bursting with pompous advice on tolerance and a few loud braggarts out to attract attention. In each case M. Hollande good-naturedly played along. He even seemed pleased by their outbursts or interruptions.
When it was time to leave — and he was already out of the dining room — he walked back to shake my hand. “If you ask again I may not say no!” he smilingly added.
M. Hollande can be certain I will.
The views expressed are personal.