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Andrew Neil on news, politics and life in France

From the Archives: The Connexion speaks to former Sunday Times editor and Daily Politics Show presenter about politics, papers and life in the Côte d’Azur.

Political broadcaster Andrew Neil, 59, presents the Daily Politics Show and This Week for the BBC and edited The Sunday Times from 1983-94. When not tied to London by the need to be near the studio he spends his time in New York and at his home in Grasse, near Nice, which he has owned for 15 years.

You are a political commentator in the UK- do you follow French politics?

I keep in touch with French politics. I interviewed Sarkozy. He was very assured, confident and arrogant. He was interior minister and this was at the time of the riots [2005]. He talked non-stop. He said he would win by 59 to 49%. The interview was all about his campaign.

How do the French and British media compare?

I think the French media is much more docile than the British media. The serious parts of the French media - they don't really have a tabloid tradition - Le Monde and Le Figaro - regard themselves as the publishing arms of the state. They are very gentle in their criticism.

I remember in the 80s James Goldsmith had a dinner with the editor of Le Monde. When he talked about France and foreign policy it was like hearing a government minister. There is less of an independent Anglo-Saxon tradition - there's almost no investigative journalism tradition.

I remember on the Sunday Times when we revealed the blowing up of the Rainbow Warrior had links with Mitterrand's private office. They were asking themselves why do we have to read this in the Sunday Times? Even up to the 1960s, I was told, the running orders of the main network news was telexed to the interior minister in advance. I think it means that French politicians have traditionally been able to get away with a lot more than British ones.

How would you rate French politicians compared to UK?

The calibre of French politicians is just as high. In fact at the moment it's probably higher. An important thing is local politicians matter in this country. The Mayor of Grasse can make important political decisions. That's just not true of Britain. I would like to see that there. It's ironic as France used to be the most centralised European nation - now that's Britain, or at least England.

Comparing the two country's news agendas - is the UK press terror obsessed?

France is not at war in Iraq. They did not have a 7/7. It's a big political issue. With the French Islamic community - their extremists are not going to the Pakistan border to train as terrorists. I think it's only natural that this issue should be higher up. I don't think the British news agenda is any less diverse than the French agenda.

How often do you come to France?

I have to be in London when the TV programmes are on but because they are linked to the parliamentary sessions I have university-style holidays.

When I don't have to be in London for the shows I either come down here or to my apartment in New York

My proprietors the Barclays live in Monte Carlo and I have an office down here. It's a good place to get things done and to relax.

I have got an office away from the house in the garden so even if the house is full of friends and children I can go there. It's all wi-fi-ed up with broadband. I can listen to Today and watch Newsnight. If something important happened that meant I had to get back to London there's flights from Nice. I'm chairman of a magazine company in Dubai and there are direct flights there as well and to New York.

One Christmas Eve I left New York at 7.00 and arrived in Grasse at 9.00 the following day. I like Christmas and New Year here. I like the atmosphere of the hills - the wood burning season. I like being off season - I love it down here in November and February. You can still sit outside and have lunch on the terrace.

I've heard you have quite a lot of fun here...

There are plenty of parties, long lunches that finish at midnight but there's a lot of work that gets done too. The good thing with this setup and location at Grasse is you can play hard and work hard. It's a very child-friendly location. 

I enjoy being on my own in the house and I also enjoy it when the house is full. I tend to be down from the beginning of July to the end of September.

Any plans to retire?

No plans to retire yet. At some stage when I stop doing the TV it will allow me to be here more, a lot more - and to be in New York. At the moment I spend seven to eight months in London, two to three months here and a couple in New York.

With the magazine work in Dubai you don't have to be there all the time. I can keep an eye from a distance. I don't think I would live in Dubai. I feel as at home in New York as London.

How's your French?

Terrible - because I never meet any French people and only watch British TV. I think if I was here more often I would put that right.

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