Jean-Pierre Raffarin has killed my daughter's cat. She was a half- wild cat, very thin and very old, which used vaguely to belong to our hopeless, and now departed, farming neighbour in Normandy, Jean- Michel. When he disappeared, the animal was looked after by our fifty-something neighbour, Madeleine, and my daughter, aged nine.
Because she loves cats and cannot have a pet of her own in our flat in Paris, Clare doted on Minette, her weekend cat in Normandy. A few days ago, Minette disappeared. Clare came back to the house after a fruitless search for the cat and declared, in tears, with a nine year old's conviction: "It's Monsieur Raffarin's fault. It's all M. Raffarin's fault that my cat is dead."
Clare barely knows who Jean-Pierre Raffarin is, or what he looks like, but she knows that he is the Prime Minister. Like many people in France, she assumes that the Prime Minister is responsible for anything bad that happens and, on extremely rare occasions, for good things that happen. In this instance, influenced by Madeleine who has become a surrogate granny, Clare had a specific trail of clues that traced Minette's disappearance, or death, back to the Palais Matignon, residence of the Prime Minister.
Earlier this year Madeleine was authorised by both her doctor and her employer to retire early, on health grounds, from her job as caretaker of several blocks of flats near Caen. She was therefore able to live full- time at her house, next door to ours, 20 miles away in the Norman hills. She was also able to offer a virtually permanent home to Minette and several other semi-feral cats that haunt the village.
A month ago, Madeleine's employer retired and the business was taken over by his brisk and business-like son, who challenged her right to retire early. Despite her worsening health, an independent medical report concluded that, under the present rules, Madeleine must go back to work for another three years or lose part of her pension rights.
Madeleine connects this decision directly to the Prime Minister's efforts to reform the French pension system. "M. Raffarin says I cannot retire," she says. "M. Raffarin says that I must work, even though I am sick."
Because she can no longer live in the country, except at weekends, Madeleine cannot offer a permanent home to the village cats. …