For a low-grade hack to get a one to one interview with a sitting President ain't half bad, right? For a low-grade hack to get one to one interview interviews with two sitting Presidents......
I know. Please feel welcome to worship at the altar of the great Sam. What a gal!
My meeting with the President of France was certainly the easier of the two to arrange. Basically, I called my best friend's dad and he made a call and a day later I had a date in the diary.
President Valerie Latour was in Edinburgh for a two-day visit and she could fit me in at 5 pm for 20 minutes at the French Embassy.
I made sure I was in a coffee shop a few hundred yards around the corner an hour in advance. No unforeseen traffic jam was about to put a spoke in the wheels of this particular low-grade hack.
They were expecting me. I glided through security whilst a succession of gym fit types in designer clothes called me Madame. Up some stairs and along a shining corridor.
And there she was behind a huge hardwood desk with the sun pouring in through a tall set of sash windows. She jumped up and stalked around the desk like a giant stork in the kind of sleek suit that seemed to scream Paris.
“Sam. Hello. Bonjour. Please, sit. Come. We will sit on the couch. You will have coffee? Tea?”
“Coffee would be wonderful Madame President." Oh yes, I could play the Madame game with the best of them. Was I simpering? Of course I was bloody simpering. What do you expect?
In what seemed a matter of seconds yet another angular, power dressed woman brought in coffee.
Madame President poured whilst I felt under dressed, overweight and out of place. All the while she chatted away in her trademark low voice.
“So Sam. You are writing the story of what happened. Very good. I am jealous. I would love to write a book. Maybe one day. Cream? Sugar?”
“Black please. Two sugars.”
To my amazement, she followed up the two sugars in my cup with three in her own. Then she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket and lit up with evident relish. She cocked her head back and blew a plume of smoke up at the ceiling.
“OK. We have the usual rules, yes? I can say 'Off the record' at any time?”
“Oh yes. Absolutely. Of course. I won't write anything about the smoking.”
This made her cackle. "Mais Non! You can write what you like about the smoking. I am President of France, not fucking England. All the press in Paris knows I smoke. How you say, like a chimney? Oui?"
“Yes. That's right.” I thought about asking if mentioning the swearing was OK as well, but I didn't. I tell you, up close this woman was seriously scary.
My mind drifted to a screaming front page from the crisis. Valerie's bony face filled the space and her eyes seemed to burn.
“LATOUR DE FORCE!!”
She smiled at my discomfort. “Relax. It's OK. I am not as bad as they say I am. Sure, I smoke, I swear, but really I am a just a kitten. Now, I understand you want to know why people did what they did, yes?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. I want to know if there are reasons why the main players decided to step up. To choose a side."
She leaned back into what was probably many thousands of pounds worth of sofa.
“I have to give it some thought. Maybe we will start off the record, OK?"
“So. Sixteen years ago I went through my first divorce. Jaques was a cheating bastard. I should have been clever enough to spend every night drinking champagne. Instead, I was like a pathetic school girl. I was 35 years old and I had only been in the Assembly for one year. I felt like my world was falling apart. I spent many nights with my oldest girlfriend. Beatrice. She had been through her divorce two years earlier. So we stayed up late. We got drunk. We ate so much chocolate. And we watched 'Highlander'. You know this series?"
“Yes. Of course.”
Again the dry cackle. "Picture us. Two grown women acting like fifteen-year-olds. OOOOH!!!! Jamie!!!! He is so handsome, no? Like your Wendel, Oui?"
“I suppose. Apart from the colour.”
“Of course. One night we were quite drunk and decided what the hell, let's go to Scotland at the weekend. We booked seats online and three days later we landed in Glasgow. We hired a car and drove for miles and miles. We didn't bother with any hotels. We just drove and slept in the car. It was summer and the weather was perfect. I think we both fell in love with the place. And when I got on the plane on Sunday evening I had cleaned that bastard Jaques out of my head. Voila. Scotland won a special place in my heart.”
“And that's off the record?”
“I have a reputation to keep. I can't have the world knowing I can behave like a silly girl. I can see you don't agree.”
“No. It's not that. It's just a shame. I think it's a lovely story. Can I be frank?”
“Well, it would take a lot more than this to put a dent in your Iron Lady of France image. Take it from a journalist who knows about these things."
She raised an eyebrow and grinned. “OK. Fuck it. You can write it. So. Number two. You will have noticed my nose is a little large?”
Noticed! Christ. The whole bloody world was aware of the nose size of the French President. Every cartoon ever drawn of her featured her mighty beak.
“It's OK. No need to be polite. My nose is huge. Of course, it is. I am used to it. I have had this nose for fifty-one years. I actually quite like it now. But when I was a young girl at school? Non. I didn't like it at all. I was bullied all the time because of my nose. And of course, I learned to hate bullies. When I was 12 my father moved the family to London. He worked for a bank. He insisted I went to an English school. Both of my parents told me how good it would be for me. I could learn the most important language in the world and immerse myself in a different culture. It all sounded very nice. In reality, my strongest memory is of the little bitches who bullied me for four very long years. I was the Frog with the beak. So when I came home to Paris, I didn't just hate bullies in general. I hated English bullies in particular. Does that make me racist? Maybe. Or maybe it just makes me an angry young girl who was carrying a few scars. You can put that in. I don't care. I hope those bitches read it."
My turn to smile. This was turning out a million times better than I could possibly have expected.
She lit up again and checked her watch.
“Sam, I am so sorry. I have another appointment and I must start to wrap things up. One more, OK?”
“I am President of France, Oui? Of course, I must look after French interests. And that is what I did. I looked after French interests. Boring but true. I think you need to write that down. Now there is one more thing. Are you planning to talk with Marc Romaine?"
“Well, yes. I thought about it. But I decided it would be too hard to fix up."
“No problem. It is done. He will see you. I called him. You owe me one. Marc hates journalists so I had to give him a direct order. Mon Dieu. You think I can swear...”
She jumped up and retrieved a piece of paper which was waiting on the desk.
“Here. This is a bar in Castelnaudary. You can be there on Friday? Seven o'clock?”
“Urm. Well. Yes. Of course I can.”
My turn to stand up. I shook her outstretched hand and pocketed the paper.
“So. Bon Voyage. And good luck with the book. I look forward to my signed copy. Please give my regards to the beautiful Wendel.”
“I will. And thank you.”
I left the Embassy and returned to the same Cafe to Google 'Castelnaudary'. I discovered a small town in the south west of France which was home to the home base of the French Foreign Legion.
Of course it was.
Three days later I was in place in the bar forty-five minutes before the appointed hour. It was a rough and ready kind of a place. About half of the drinkers had cropped hair and hard eyes. No prizes for guessing where they were from. The room was thick with smoke which wasn't so very surprising. The life expectancy of any Council smoking officer who tried to tell these guys to dock their fags would have been measured in minutes.
I had done my research, most of it through Google. Marc Romaine. Born 1975 in Lyon. French Army 1995 to present day. Now General Marc Romaine. Commander of La Legion Etrangere. Croix De Guerre. National hero. The other source of my research was Wendel who had laughed his head off at the news of my upcoming appointment.
“Bloody hell, Sam. Best of luck with that one. Tell you what girl, I've met plenty of hard guys in my time. Hackney. Paras. SAS. But this guy.... He's in a class of his own...”
Romaine snapped through the door on the dot of seven. Washed out grey eyes quartered the room and landed on me. All around the room cropped heads nodded respect as he marched at me.
“You are Sam?”
I stood and was worried sick he would notice my shaking legs.
“Yes. That's me. And you are General Romaine?”
“Oui. A drink?”
“Please. Red wine.”
A path opened up to the bar and he was back in no time bearing a bottle and two glasses. He sat, poured and dropped a pack of Gauloises on the table.
“I don't like journalists.”
“No. I was told as much. Sorry.”
“No need. It is your job. I don't like the job, but you need to do it. You want to know why I did what I did?”
“Not quite that. I understand the obvious stuff. You are a soldier. You follow orders. You complete the mission. I get it. I live with it after all.”
To my relief, this induced a surprisingly warm grin. Well. Warmish. It also had an undeniably wolfish quality as well.
“Of course. Wendel. How is he?”
“He's fine. He sends his regards. He says you're the hardest man he's ever met.”
And now a booming laugh to go with the grin.
“Bravo! C'est Bon. That makes me very happy. I think you say 'takes one to know one'?”
He raised his glass. I raised mine.
Oh, the joys of having a break-the-ice boyfriend. And then he was all business, snapping out an old story like a post-combat report. And in a way that is exactly what it was. A post-combat report.
Marc was a green-as-grass junior officer two years out of Officer Training. He had applied for a secondment to La Legion Etrangere and his request had been granted. He had only been there for a month when his unit had been deployed to Gabon when the situation in neighbouring Congo was morphing into a crisis. The growing civil war was threatening to become a primordial bloodbath. Brazzaville looked like it was about to become a lawless killing zone. The governments of the West were collectively shitting their pants. There were over 3000 western civilians holed up in Congo and everyone was in a panic. Nobody wanted to have their Expats chopped to pieces by machete wielding nutters off their heads on Meth. Of course they didn't. But at the same time, none of the leaders dared send their troops into such a crazy place.
So what happened? What always happens en Afrique. Got a problem in a place where nobody dares to go? The solution is always the same. Send La Legion Etrangere. They are well and truly disposable.
And so orders were passed down the chain and the Legion landed at Brazzaville airport at the beginning of June.
Things turned out much better than anyone could have expected. The nutters on meth were not nearly so far off their heads to think it was a smart idea to pick a fight with the Legion. It took a week to round up all the civilians and fly them out to safety. Barely a shot was fired. The whole thing ran like clockwork.
Marc's unit was three hours from flying out when word came of a retired French teacher who had been missed somehow.
Her house was only three miles from the airport. Marc said he would sort it. He took a jeep and one Legionnaire to ride shotgun.
As soon as they left the cordon of security around the airport Marc began to wonder if he had underestimated the task. With all the soldiers at the airport, the streets were descending into chaos.
They found the house and were about to get the woman onto the jeep when a group of ten came around the corner and lit them up. A round took off Marc's kneecap and dropped him. His companion managed to take out six of the fighters before picking up his lieutenant and throwing him into the back of the jeep. The journey to the airport took them through all kinds of gunfire, but they made it. Only when they pulled to a halt did Marc realised his brother in arms had been hit three times. The shots to the biceps and calf must have hurt like hell. The shot through the lungs all but killed him.
“He saved my life. 100%. And the teacher too. Want to know his name?”
“Danny. Danny McPhail. He was Scottish. From Glasgow. He had been in the British Army and got into some kind of trouble. I don't know what. It was why he joined La Legion. Many men come to us to hide from a past. I don't know. I don't want to know. All I know is, that man from Glasgow is the only reason I am sitting here today. So. There is your reason. It is why I have always had a good feeling for Scotland. You can use his name. He is dead now."
We finished the wine and reminisced a little about our respective roles. And then he bade me good night. And again there were nods of respect for the short man with a slight limp. The hardest man Wendel had ever met.
YOU CAN READ ALL PREVIOUS CHAPTERS BY FOLLOWING THE LINK BELOW
I HAVE WRITTEN THIS STORY TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE FOODBANK I MANAGE IN DUMFRIES, SOUTH WEST SCOTLAND. OVER THE COMING WINTER OVER 3000 PEOPLE WILL COME THROUGH OUR DOORS AND RIGHT NOW WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO HELP THEM ALL OUT. MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO HELP US OUT BY BUNGING A COUPLE OF QUID ONTO OUR JUSTGIVING PAGE? I HOPE SO. JUST FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW. I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE REST OF THE BOOK AND IF DO, PLEASE SHARE IT. MARK.