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BY THE time you read this you'll know the answer: did France vote oui or non for the European constitution?

A few days ahead of the vote it's impossible to say which way it might go. I wouldn't stick my head out that far. I'm always wrong a

BY THE time you read this you'll know the answer: did France vote oui or non for the European constitution?

A few days ahead of the vote it's impossible to say which way it might go. I wouldn't stick my head out that far. I'm always wrong about these things, anyway. You could probably make a comfortable living from betting against my prognostications. Two or three years ago I thought that I had an infallible crystal ball in the activity in our letter-box, which was occupied just before the last presidential elections by a spider and a wasp, both trying to set up home in there. Whichever got the upper antenna would prefigure the outcome of the election. Eventually the wasp succumbed, but which of the protagonists did it represent? You see the problem. Even the Delphic oracle, a priestess in a trance rather than an insect in a letter-box (yes, I KNOW spiders are arachnids: please don't interrupt the train of my thought, such as it is) gave cleverly ambiguous answers to questions of moment. The Romans sought the future in birds' entrails, but Josephine always buys oven-ready chickens. So that's no good. In any case, here in the Deep South of France it's difficult to judge the general feeling of the entire country, because everyone tends to be against everything, all the time.

But that doesn't mean we're not interested. Why, the other day we went to a political meeting, goodness knows why: as British citizens we don't have the right to vote. Unfortunately we've lived in France so long that our right to vote in the UK seems to have evaporated too, which at least allows us to claim that whatever disaster strikes either country, it's not our fault.

18h, the notice on the mairie door said, so at five past six we turned up, confident that in this as in most things in the Midi nothing would actually happen until at least twenty minutes after the advertised start time. We weren't wrong. We were greeted by Isabelle, who has taken the local European Constitution Information Point under her wing, by all accounts not a time-consuming responsibility. One other member of the public was there,  a neighbour of ours who under the pretence of being a left-wing militant, thus ingratiating himself with the local anti-everything faction, peddles - in writing - some pretty crisp right-wing notions. The Maire was there, arranging a projector and screen. The speaker turned up, having driven from Montpellier, 90 minutes away, and by the time he was ready to begin his audience consisted of 7:

 1. The Maire.
 2. Isabelle.
 3. Isabelle's friend.
 4. The pseudo left-wing militant.
 5. A little man who turned up with a mobile.
 6 and 7. Josephine and I, disenfranchised Brits.

Eventually 8 and 9 appeared, senior local councillors, who spent their time arranging papers for a municipal council meeting due to start at 8.

So this was political France, the France of daggers-drawn dialectical conflict, of fiery fist-shaking debate, the France of street demonstrations, impassioned demagoguery, political arson, roadblocks, wildcat strikes, lockouts and all the rest of the dissident armoury that makes France such an uncomfortable country to govern. Even General de Gaulle recognised this: what can you expect, he's supposed to have said, from a nation which produces 246 different cheeses?

The speaker from Montpellier spoke ably, hardly fazed at all by the little man with the mobile making no attempt to lower his voice or the rustle of order papers from the senior councillors. The meeting ended, as things always do here, with a little apéritif, and we left much better informed than we were when we went in. But if everything goes wrong, France votes non in the referendum - or, as I've heard it called here, the Raffarindum, after Jean-Pierre Raffarin the present Prime Minister - and Europe finds itself governed by the fallback Treaty of Nice, don't blame us: it's not our fault, we couldn't vote.

*   *   *

I'M AT the annual Montpellier Book Fair, which they call La Comédie du Livre because it takes place in la Place de la Comédie, i.e. the vast pedestrianised city-centre square dominated by the Opéra-Comédie. I'm signing books as the guest of one of the city's two English bookshops, prosaically called 'Bookshop', so there can be no mistake. (The other's called 'Book in Bar', which I can't quite get my mind round. A pun? A double-entendre? Does it mean something different in, say, Swedish? You never know in Montpellier: there used to be a shop called 'The Athlete's Foot' until somebody told them this wasn't an entirely suitable name for somewhere selling sports footwear.)

Business is slow. It's a warm Sunday afternoon, just after lunch, and the punters are in no hurry to buy. Security guards and municipal police stroll past our tent occasionally.

Suddenly all is drama. A pair of security guards approach Winston, the proprietor (he's appeared in this column before) to tell him they've caught somebody red-handed, stealing  from a display stand of small books. They've detained him the other side of the avenue. Will Winston please come over and press charges?

Winston, whose French is excellent, goes over to a knot of excited security guards. There's a cringing north African, wrists manacled behind his back. He's stolen a book priced at 6 euros, about £4. Winston, kindly soul, is uncertain about pressing charges, but the municipal police say he mustn't be allowed to get away with it. Winston eventually agrees. The culprit offers to pay for the book, an empty gesture because it turns out he hasn't got any money. The miscreant is told to return the book, he's put under an immediate interdiction from the city centre and is frog-marched off to the nick to be charged.

Full of admiration for the vigilance of the security guards, Winston returns to the tent with the recovered book. Naturally it's in English, a language absolutely meaningless to the culprit. There are a couple of pictures, neither in the least suggestive.

The book? It's the Kama Sutra.