'You work so hard - I love it'
Sabine Herold, 21, has been called France's answer to Margaret Thatcher. Alice Thomson brought her to London and showed her the sights
Sabine is my new French exchange partner. She is a political science student, very beautiful and speaks perfect English. She has also just become the most famous 21-year-old in France.
Dubbed France's Lady Thatcher by the newspapers, Mademoiselle Herold has been leading the rallies against the unions who have been crippling her country. Standing on a telephone box in her pearl earrings and high heels, she addresses crowds of 80,000, urging them to rise up against the striking teachers, Metro workers, rubbish collectors and air traffic controllers who are ruining people's lives. With her student friends, she has set up an organisation: Liberte J'Ecris Ton Nom, which has thousands of members, demanding that France reforms.
Now, she wants to come to Britain. Her email is simple: "I would like to spend my time meeting politicians. I don't wear jeans; I like red meat; please could I bring a camera crew?"
Here, she has been called Joan of Arc. "That is stupid," she says. "I love Britain. I love Margaret Thatcher. I love the way you have overcome the unions and are not afraid to privatise. I love the way you work so hard. In France, we have become lazy and staid. We think only of weekends, holidays and how great we once were. We need a dose of Thatcherism."
She doesn't want to go to Wimbledon. "No, I am here to work. Margaret Thatcher lived on five hours' sleep; so can I."
As it is Sunday afternoon when she arrives, I explain that most politicians are in their constituencies. "Well, maybe I have time to shop," she says. Going down Oxford Street, she is thrilled. "All your shops are open. In France, nothing is allowed to open on a Sunday."
She has been to Britain before - as an exchange student in Birmingham for a year, where she earned extra money as a "dinner lady" in a canteen. Was the food awful? "No - in France, our supermarkets close at 6pm, so I never get there in time. In Birmingham, the supermarkets stayed open all night, and I cooked myself delicious suppers. My hobby is cooking five-course dinner parties to relax."
Back on Oxford Street, she wants to go to the cheapest stores. "Our Left-wing newspapers say that I must be rich not to champion the workers. They say I dress only in Hermes. But my coat is from Etam. My mother is a school teacher who refuses to strike, my father a professor. My brother is a table-tennis player. We are from a small village near Reims. We work hard but I have no family money."
Next, she wants to go to Speakers' Corner. In one corner, a Christian is ranting against sex in public lavatories; in another, a Muslim is sounding off against the Iraq war. "In France," says Sabine, "we have no freedom of expression. Being different is frowned upon. Everyone must conform. I want to give power back to individuals."
At supper, she meets three of the youngest high-flying Tory MPs: Boris Johnson, MP for Henley; David Cameron, MP for Witney; and George Osborne, MP for Tatton. She is smitten. They start talking about the 48-hour working week. "In France, it is 35 hours - ludicrous, no?" George Orwell's Animal Farm, she tells them, was the first political tract she ever read. "It blew me away. In France, communism is not a dirty word - many of the trade unions are openly communist. Being Right-wing and libertarian is considered dangerous."
She asks them for advice on addressing crowds of 80,000. "After 10 minutes of shouting, I lose my voice," she says. They explain that they have never addressed rallies that large, and are more used to village fetes. "But you must," she says. "It is the most exciting thing in the world, getting up in front of a huge crowd. I have had a few threatening letters, and I have two student bodyguards, but it is worth it for the adrenalin."
They suggest whisky, explaining that this is what Margaret Thatcher drank. "I will try some," she says, taking a sip. She nearly chokes, but keeps going. "Very earthy," she says. "In France, we are told that British Conservatives are all stuffy reactionaries. But you're very open-minded. You shall be my pen friends."
The next day, we go to the Palace of Westminster. We take the Jubilee line which, amazingly, is extremely prompt, clean and efficient. "In Paris, I never know whether I will get to my lectures on time. The crowds who joined our rallies are young, working people who have had enough of their lives being disrupted by workers who are just greedy for more money, more pensions and less work."
David Cameron takes her on a guided tour of the Palace, where one of his constituents recognises her. "Aren't you the new Margaret Thatcher?" she says. Sabine is amazed. She wants to touch the foot of Winston Churchill for luck. "I have studied his speeches, they are incredible," she says.
We arrive at the paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo. "It is a pity that France and England still fight," she says. "President Chirac was spineless over the war. I led a pro-war rally. I almost collapsed in shock when I heard he was up for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Saddam Hussein's regime, not President Bush's, that was despicable. I adore France. I will never leave - I love my cafes too much - but that does not mean I hate Britain or America."
Lord Deedes takes her to lunch in the Lords, where she orders steak (English beef) and chips. "I don't have to call them freedom fries, do I?" She has no problem with McDonald's, either: "The French should be allowed to eat them if they want, even though they taste disgusting."
She asks him if he ever met Friedrich Hayek, her favourite philosopher (and Margaret Thatcher's). Lord Deedes explains that he gave Hayek his first typewriter after he had commissioned him to write an article. Then he talks to her about the General Strike in the Thirties and the miners' strikes in the Seventies and Eighties, assuring her that the moment is right for a woman of her mettle.
Sabine can't believe that, at 90, Lord Deedes has not only been a Cabinet minister, but also a soldier, a newspaper editor and a columnist, as well as being best friends with Denis Thatcher. She has found a new hero. He tells her how to address a large audience: "Never speak on a full stomach - a tankard of champagne is all Anthony Eden needed."
She asks him advice about her career. Should she become a politician straight away, or get a job first? She would love to become an MEP. "But, in France, these pathetic rules mean I am not allowed to until I am 23, so I will miss the next Euro elections by one month." Also, there is now positive discrimination for women who want to go into politics. "And I would hate to be pitied as a token."
In the afternoon, we hear Tony Blair report on the EU summit. The House is rowdy but she insists that our seat of government is not as raucous as it is in France. She is dismayed that her new Tory friends are against further integration with the European Union. "Why take it so seriously? I am a classical liberal, but I am also pro-European. So maybe I wouldn't fit so well into your Tory party."
She admires Mr Blair. "He was very brave in Iraq. But now he is starting to raise taxes, and that is very bad."
We have an hour's gap - would she like to rest? "I would like to go on the London Eye," she says. "Your publicly financed Dome was a fiasco, but your big wheel is an example of private enterprise." On the wheel, she notices all the cranes. "There is so much building work going on in Britain - that is good. Paris is a very beautiful city but it is becoming like a museum."
In the evening, we go to a drinks party with Lord Black, the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph. She is fascinated by William Hague, "the child politician who eventually became leader of the Tory party". She is more cautious about David Blunkett. "Is he a libertarian?"
Lord Powell, Lady Thatcher's former adviser, explains how Britain cracked the unions. He is helped by Michael Howard, the shadow chancellor, who tells her that he was the minister who finally abolished the closed shop. Jonathan Aitken, the former Tory minister, adds a note of caution. "We're not there yet," he explains. "The prison unions still have a vice-like control."
Anji Hunter, Tony Blair's former aide, explains how to get the best out of the unions. Sabine agrees: "I am not anti-union, just anti the communist ones."
The next day, her mother, who "wishes I'd keep my head down", rings to tell her that there has been a big article about her in Liberation, the Left-wing French newspaper. The French press are in a frenzy about her stay in London. Is she being a good ambassador for France? "Of course. It is because I love my country that I want to reform it."
Every 10 minutes, another French cabinet minister is on the phone, asking her to lunch. She explains that, before her first demonstration, politicians were desperate to distance themselves from the student rabble. "Now that they see the rallies are attended by ordinary, fed-up people, rather than nutters, they are all saying they are my best friend - when I haven't even met them. But I think I will meet the Prime Minister."
The stories in our newspapers fascinate her. "What is this anti-smacking law? What is wrong with a quick smack? I thought only the French liked these silly laws. In Finland, men are made to do 40 per cent of the housework. Libertarians in every country should rise up against this madness."
She wants to go to a bookshop. We pass the pile of Harry Potters, but she heads straight for Wilkes and Burke: "Your great writers about freedom". She is surprised by the amount of books that are anti-American. "I thought it was just us. In France, we are taught in school about American imperialism, that all Americans are either fat or work in sweatshops."
Iain Duncan Smith is waiting for her in his office. "My son has just been to an Eminem concert. You can't fight American culture," he tells her.
They get on so well that it looks as though Mr Duncan Smith wishes she were one of his own MPs. He asks her whether she will side with the Right in France. "It is difficult for me with French conservatives," she tells him. "My group is completely liberal, both economically and morally. We support gay marriages, decriminalising soft drugs and prostitution, and decentralisation. But they are paternalistic and into big state government." Mr Duncan Smith gulps.
A French businessman who has offered to finance her group meets her for lunch. Businessmen, he says, are also sick of the unions, but unlike Sabine, they haven't got the guts to say so. She tells him that the unions have stopped protesting for the moment - "But they will be back this autumn after their long holidays, and we must be prepared."
After lunch, we arrive at the Foreign Office to meet Denis MacShane, the Europe minister, who offers her a glass of champagne and speaks immaculate French. From his windows, we watch the state visit of President Putin. "He used to be a communist, no? It is funny to see him surrounded by gold carriages, when his people killed some of your Royal Family."
Denis and Sabine get on famously, agreeing that there is a need for the European constitution. They admit that Le Pen is France's best speaker. "It is such a shame that what he says is so dreadful," says Sabine. As we head for the Eurostar, she is wistful. "I would love to live here, but my place is in France. I want to make us great again."