But the location was Londona former fish market in the Citywhere one of Frances leading candidates for this springs presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week took his campaign, calling the British capital one of the biggest French cities.
Mr Sarkozys audacious rally, in the heart of a foreign country, was designed for Londons French population, which is thought to be at least 300,000-strong. Many of the audience, holding up their mobile phones to record pictures of the celebrity-candidate, had stepped straight from the nearby international banks. Such were the crowds that some 1,000 invitees were shut out in the street. Mr Sarkozys message to the 2,000 squeezed inside was partly a call to vote to revive Frances blocked society that they had left behind in desperation, and partly a call to come home and make France a great nation.
Mr Sarkozys London trip, though, carried a wider symbolism. He dropped in for lunch with Britains prime minister, Tony Blair, and took television cameras with him to a London job centre. The point was plain: the British have made their economy work, I could do the same.
In any other country, this message might seem banal. Frances unemployment rate is 8.6%, compared with 5.5% in Britain, and has not dipped below 8% for nearly 25 years. Britains lower-taxed, less regulated economy has helped to encourage entrepreneurship and dynamism, and its GDP per head has overtaken that of France. Pragmatism suggests that there might be a lesson in there somewhere.
Yet, in France, too close an association with les Anglo-Saxons is usually seen as a liability, and not just because of differences over Iraq. On the right, as well as the left, there is a lingering suspicion of what is regarded as a heartless laissez-faire economy, in which low unemployment disguises a world of precarious McJobs. President Jacques Chirac once said that there was nothing to envy nor to copy in the British model. Britains economy may have grown faster, sniffs one senior Socialist, but it is a deeply unequal society with millions in poverty.
Moreover, his London trip was not the first time that Mr Sarkozy has tried to seduce the French with an Anglo-Saxon foray. In September he jetted to Washington to see President Bush. This provoked consternation and derision in equal measure from the Socialist Party, and has fed its election campaign ever since. Eric Besson, economic adviser to Sgolne Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate, recently called Mr Sarkozy an American neo-conservative with a French passport.
So why does Mr Sarkozy pursue this strategy One answer is that he is trying to model himself as an alternative to the president he now serves. Although he says he will leave the interior ministry before the official campaign kicks off in April, he remains for now a member of an unpopular government. Hanging out with Anglo-American friends shows how different he is. On the steps of Downing Street this week, Mr Sarkozy carefully placed an affectionate hand on Mr Blairs shoulder as they said goodbye.
A second explanation is that Mr Sarkozy believes that French antipathy to Anglo-Saxons is an elitist indulgence not shared by the French at large. As he told a Washington audience: The truth is that the French listen to Madonna, just as they used to love listening to Elvis and Sinatra... And all French parents dream of sending their child to an American university. His conclusion was that the virulence of the press and a portion of the French elites against the United States reflects a certain envy of your brilliant success.
He has a point. If the French are so scornful about the low-paid jobs in London, why do so many young French people head across the Channel to fill them Jobs may be less secure, but they are more plentiful. The biggest cheer during his London rally this week came when he chastised French society for not rewarding effort and risk-taking. In other words, if the French do secretly admire the American and British record on employment, they may reward a pragmatic electoral message that disregards ideology.
All the same, it carries a risk. Indeed, Mr Sarkozy is seeking to temper his liberal message with speeches about the France that suffers. He is treading a perilous line between promising to shake things up and reassuring voters that he will protect them.
For now, the risk seems to be paying off. One poll, by Ipsos, this week gave him 54% of the vote in a run-off against 46% for Ms Royalthe widest gap of any poll taken since Mr Sarkozy got his partys nomination on January 14th. Ms Royal has been damaged by a succession of foreign-policy gaffes in recent weeks, which have lent her campaign an air of amateurism. She badly needs to appear both competent and concrete if she is to reverse her slideand close off the space for the political gymnastics of the daring Mr Sarkozy.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007