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SO NICOLAS Sarkozy - known universally as 'Sarko' - got it in the end, becoming the 6th President of the 5th French Republic, defeating the willowy but really rather weedy and woolly Ségolène Royal by a substantial majo


SO NICOLAS Sarkozy - known universally as 'Sarko' - got it in the end, becoming the 6th President of the 5th French Republic, defeating the willowy but really rather weedy and woolly Ségolène Royal by a substantial majority.

I could have told you so. If you're a regular of this column you'll be aware by now of the unsuspected accuracy of foretelling the future by means of champagne corks. Just in case you need a reminder, a few days before the final presidential election in France I was opening a celebratory bottle of champagne in the company of my small choir. I explained to Patricia on my left that champagne should be opened gently, with the slightest escape of gas, just enough to put you in mind of the sigh of a contented woman. I proceeded to a practical illustration, squeezing and easing with the sensitive but firm touch of an attentive lover, twisting the bottle rather than the cork. Suddenly there was a minor explosion and a mighty surge of the creamy bubbling juice sprayed all over the place, as though my choir had just won the Ashes. People with a more prosaic turn of mind would have seen nothing special in all this, but I saw in a flash what this portended: a jubilant Sarkozy, an angry and maximumly cheesed off Ségolène Royal seething with discontent.

We watched M. Sarkozy's inauguration on television, partly out of interest in a French event that takes place only once every five years and partly to see what Mme Sarkozy, hitherto a ringer for the Invisible Woman, made of it all. She did indeed appear with the great and good in the marbled reception halls of the Elysée palace, a striking figure in a stunning white Prada dress, accompanied by her children from her first marriage, from M. Sarkozy's first marriage, and Louis, the 10-year-old son they have between them. From the start of her husband's campaign Mme Sarkozy has claimed that she hasn't the slightest interest in politics and that she found the prospect of becoming France's First Lady really boring. She conducted herself absolutely correctly, only asking Louis once what the time was, with a super-elegant, indeed Olympian, detachment, as though all this brouhaha was really nothing to do with her. As far as I could see she paid equally little attention to an orchestra partly concealed round the corner playing in her honour a piece called Asturias by her great-grandfather, the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. Any tiffs the Sarkozys may have in their new home may possibly be about music, but they're not likely to be about politics.

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M. SARKOZY has thrown himself into his promised reforms with a zeal and seriousness at some remove from the champagne skittishness at the start of this article. Two of the reforms announced so far perhaps show the way France is leaning. They won't please everyone. Reforms never do.
The first is long overdue. Until a few days ago it had been the custom for the incoming President to call an amnesty on certain misdemeanours, chiefly outstanding road traffic fines. Some drivers used to take extraordinary advantage of this, persuaded that they could do more or less as they liked and that all would be forgiven and forgotten, the slate wiped clean, when the new President came in. Reports used to circulate of people who flouted parking regulations, refused to pay fines, tore up the notice of fine attached to their windscreen wipers, confident that they'd get away with it if they just stuck it out for a year or two until the next presidential election. A businessman in Nice, admittedly not the easiest place in the world to park in, deliberately accumulated parking fines equalling £60,000, snapping his fingers at the pervenches, periwinkles, as traffic wardens are nicknamed from the colour of their uniform. It must have been like holding a Get Out Of Jail Free card in Monopoly and then suddenly discovering that you've lost it.

No longer, heh-heh. The amnesty's over, the Presidential grace and favour is shown in other ways, and traffic delinquents now have to fork out, compounded interest for non-payment included. So far there don't seem to have been too many voices raised over this. Nobody has as yet taken to the streets or set up the barricades, the traditional form of French public dissent. (True, there was a short-lived spate of protest car-burning in the most troubled urban areas as the news of M. Sarkozy's victory came in. As far as I know no one has yet advanced the theory that these cars were burned in order to claim on the insurance, so as to be able to pay the now inescapable parking fines.)

But what of the other reform? Something that English-speakers have problems with is about the use of the pronouns tu and vous. They both mean 'you', but which you use, and when, and to whom, is subject to the most complex set of conventions. Basically you use tu when you're speaking to animals, small children, close friends and relations and equal-ranking mates at work. Oh, and in prayer. You use vous in all other circumstances. A further complication is that while tu refers to one person, vous refers equally to one person or several, just as 'you' does in English. Address your restaurant waitress as tu and she'll think you're over-familiar, disrespectful or about to chat her up. Address the lad who's kicked his football by mistake into your garden as vous and he'll think you're a nutter. Misuse isn't usually considered rude, just ignorant and ill-mannered. But there are other subtleties: people from North Africa expect to be addressed as tu. Even as the air grows heavy with sighs of contentment, your lover may expect to be addressed as vous. And there has been a growing tendency, in the interests of liberté, égalité and fraternité, for teachers and pupils to call each other tu. Traditionalists recoil in horror.

They need recoil no longer. The Ministry of Education has put its foot down. From now on pupils have to call their teachers vous. Similarly, teachers are expected to address students from the age of about 14 onwards as vous. Maybe this isn't particularly significant in itself, but it's a pointer to the nature of the Sarkozy reforms, and who knows where this will lead? Who knows what the future holds?

Well, actually, I can probably find out for you quite easily. It shouldn't be too much of a problem, really. Just send me a bottle of good champagne and I'll be very happy to tell you how things are going to work out.