What a French Farce - and Not Just Its Fortunes on the Pitch! as Wales' Rugby Stars Prepare for Their Six Nations Clash with France This Saturday, Political Editor David Williamson Looks at the Demons Their Opponents Face off the Pitch
IMAGINE if Britain had endured gruelling years of recession and slump without the colourful distractions of the Olympics, the Jubilee and the Royal Wedding.
This is what it would be like to live in France.
These have been truly torrid years for the French Republic, which was recently described in Foreign Policy magazine as a country "on the verge of a nervous breakdown".
Did things start to go wrong in 2005, when Britain beat the French in a closely-fought race to hold the Olympics? Team GB then thrashed their cross-Channel neighbour in the medal stakes.
The UK's athletes won 29 gold medals, while France's took home just 11.
Its own premier sporting event, the Tour de France is mired in doping scandals that have a dealt a catastrophic blow to the credibility of the cycling spectacular.
Meanwhile, its cherished political project of fostering a single currency for the EU has fizzed and spluttered like a nuclear reactor on the verge of meltdown.
When the representatives of these two recession-battered nations face one another on the rugby pitch, fans will long for victories that demonstrate vigour, genius, courage and inspiration - things that have been lacking from so many other realms of public life.
Just as many in Wales fret with good reason about new statistics that show an existential threat to the Welsh language, so a glance at the French box office charts reveals how this proud country cannot withstand the lure of the American Anglophone entertainment industry.
Throughout last year, the number one positions were occupied by the likes of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the Avengers, Prometheus and Skyfall.
Even the mythologised French tradition of wine appreciation has come under attack.
Pundits often contrast the British blight of binge-drinking which turns our city centres into zones of depravity with the supposedly gentle intergenerational wine-sipping culture of France.
But stats show that more than 15% of male deaths are connected to drinking in France compared to around 8% in Britain.
Britain's cinema screens are also ablaze with Hollywood productions.
But when it comes to doing "box office", few heads of state can match the Queen.
In contrast, France is a country that has lacked a unifying, energising leader for many years.
The rather flash Nicolas Sarkozy was derided as President Bling-Bling by an elite that expects its country's leaders to be able to tell their Moliere from their Maupassant.
His marriage to model and singer Carla Bruni captured the attention of the global paparazzi, but French voters were less enchanted.
Francois Hollande, Mr Sarkozy's left-wing successor, made a virtue of his dullness and appeared to even revel in the nickname President Normal.
However, it is one thing for a leader to wander around in suits of various shades of grey, but a head of state needs the power to inspire, and Mr Hollande lacks a crackle factor.
He gained the keys to the Elysee Palace in May, but by December his approval rating hit 40%.
Yet, while Mr Hollande may not have the power to enthral, he has proven he has the capacity to surprise.
Last month, he dispatched French troops to Mali when Islamist militias took hold of the north of the African country.
This high-risk mission is far from over, but last week he arrived in a liberated Timbuktu (a city, incidentally, twinned with the world famous Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye).
And while Britain and France had together pushed the United States to support intervention in Libya when Gaddafi's forces threatened to wipe out the rebellion, this time, without even consulting the French National Assembly, Mr Hollande resolved to shape the destiny of Mali.
Just as the UK intervened in the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, France has demonstrated the prowess of its armed forces and a willingness to dash into danger zones. …