The power of intelligenceApril 28, 2008
With the French doing rather badly in Formula 1, The Mole has not seen much of Isabelle, his beautiful spy within the Renault empire. He thought of her suddenly on Sunday afternoon, as he was walking on the grid in Barcelona, glad-handing and checking out the grid girls. Suddenly in front of him was the unlikely sight of Fernando Alonso’s Renault, second on the grid. Everyone in the paddock knew that it was all down to a small fuel load. There was no logical strategy for the race and even Alonso had tried to prepare his fans for the inevitable failure, by saying that he did not expect to finish better than seventh. The Mole thought it was all rather sad.
At that moment he felt his mobile phone vibrating in his pocket. He hated being one of those people who take phone calls on the grid, but he saw the name “Isabelle” appear on the screen and answered with a big smile.
“Allo, ma cherie,” she said. “I was watching the race on TF1 and I saw you on the television.”
The Mole scurried away into the paddock so that he could hear what she was saying. They talked for a few moments and Isabelle insisted that The Mole visit Paris on his way home.
“Paris in the spring,” she said. “A sexy woman in a summer dress. How can you have a choice?”
She was right. The Mole kept himself amused during the race by changing his flights.
For some reason he had agreed to meet her at the Pont de Sevres Metro station. It was close to Renault HQ.
“It’s on the end of the Metro line,” she said. ” I don’t know the number. I don’t use the Metro. The men are always touching my bottom.”
It was rather a grey day and The Mole decided on arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport that a taxi was a much better idea. He arrived at the Pont de Sevres to find Isabelle’s Clio parked illegally by the exit of the Metro station. Everyone was hooting and waving their arms about. She was doing her lipstick.
“Salut, cherie,” she said, as he climbed in, throwing his suitcase into the back seat. She pecked him on the cheek and he caught the whiff of Arpege, the only perfume for grown-up girls. She started the car and, not even bothering to look to her left, accelerated away from the kerb.
“Connard!” she shouted when a taxi driver hit the horn. The feisty little Clio accelerated across the bridge over the Seine and into the town of Sevres.
“It’s famous for the china,” she said, swerving around a bus, and narrowly avoiding a rather large wobbly lady on a bicycle.
“We are going to have a pique-nique,” Isabelle said, with a brilliant smile, as she jinked around a woman pushing a pram across the road.
After a minute or two she swerved to the right and the road climbed uphill to a sign that said Ville d’Avray.
“It is a cute,” she said. “Antiques and a very good cheese shop. Now we go into the Parc. It is where Corot did his paintings.”
The Mole nodded with an air of knowledge, although he was trying to remember if Corot had been an impressionist, or one of those post-Picasso, paint-all-over-the-carpet, types.
The Clio screeched to a halt in a leafy parking area and Isabelle swept him from the car, grabbing a wicker basket on the way. She looped her arm through his and led him to an area where they could look over the city. In her summer dress, Isabelle did look stunning.
As they headed for the picnic site, The Mole watched a man in a yellow jersey ride his bike into a hedge.
“My fault,” she laughed. “Men are so ridiculous.”
Suddenly, they were looking down on Boulogne-Billancourt. Beneath them was Renault world headquarters, around which much work was going on.
“We are flattening everything,” Isabelle explained, as she opened a bottle of rosé. “We had all these boring old factories and now we are knocking them up and building new things.”
The Mole paused for a moment to consider whether to correct the English.
“You see the island?” she said. “That is the Ile Seguin. Louis Renault bought it in 1919. He wanted to make a park for his workmen to have pique-niques, but in the end he turned the island into a big factory. It was like an aircraft-carrier in the middle of the Seine. This was the great symbol of French industrial power, but really it was where the unions built their power. The factory was always on strike. Then during the war you English came over and bombed it.”
“Was that to stop the unions or the Germans?” said The Mole.
“We could not all be in the resistance. There were not enough armbands,” said Isabelle, with the faintest twinkle in her eye. “After that they went back to more strikes and after a while Renault’s costs were so high that the company had trouble making any money. They closed the factory in 1992. They wanted to build something less troublesome. But they cannot agree on what that should be.
“Maybe we will have a park full of statues.”
The Mole was listening only vaguely. He was aware that he was gazing at Isabelle, in a very English sort of way. She spotted it, of course.
“You can look at me like a Frenchman does,” she said. “I don’t mind. It’s true I am beautiful. You English are very strange people. You are always pretending not to have the hots for anybody and you all want to do this spanking. Really, I don’t understand. I don’t mind handcuffs, once in a while, but really it is strange to hurt the things you love.”
The Mole blushed and felt a sudden urge to talk about the weather. It was a grey day and offered little hope of salvation.
“Well,” he said, finally discovering a little James Bond-like brio. “I hope that you called me to Paris for something other than handcuffs.”
She smiled in a rather naughty fashion and sipped her wine.
“Ah oui,” she said. “I wanted to talk of the Grand Prix de France.”
The Mole took a drink and smiled.
“So what’s new?” he asked.
“I hear that the federation is looking at Disneyland Paris again,” she said.
“An excellent idea,” said The Mole. “It makes a lot of sense.”
“I was out there shopping the other day,” Isabelle continued. “They have all these outlet stores. C’est formidable! Very cheap designer clothes. I am not a great navigator so I got lost. I was going around and around. It is a huge place.”
“Do you know,” said The Mole. “They have 5,800 hotel rooms, plus another 2,400 that are run by other companies. The occupancy rates are around 90%. There are two convention centres, shopping, a golf course, perfect transport links to everywhere. It is brilliant. Last year they had 14.5m visitors. They pulled in $1.8bn. The trouble is that they spent it all and more. And they had very big debts.”
“They are doing a lot more international advertising these days,” Isabelle said. “I think their target audience is now more international. They want more Spanish and English. They even have a new attraction called Cars Race Rally, so they obviously understand that people are interested in cars.”
“The problem,” said The Mole, “is that they need to expand the park to make more money, but they do not want to invest too much to build new attractions.”
“That is not easy,” she said.
“Well, I am not so sure,” said The Mole. “The one thing they have in abundance is land. Disneyland has 5,000 acres and they have developed only half of it. I think the best chance for them is to do a deal with the people in Dubai. You know the ones who have the worldwide rights to build the F1 theme parks. They are building this thing called MotorCity, which includes residential, business, sports and leisure facilities on a 880-acre site in Dubai. That includes a racing circuit, karting tracks, a commercial zone with an automobile shopping mall. There are offices and two residential zones, one with a lot of expensive apartments and another thing called The Green Community. The whole thing has cost them about $3bn to build and now they want to sell that expertise to other places. I heard they are building something like it in Russia.
“Maybe they could convince Disney to do something like that. That way you pay for the circuit by selling houses and apartments and you end up with a sustainable business to generate profits so you can hold events.”
“There are two parks in Disneyland already,” Isabelle said. “The Magic Kingdom and the movie park.”
“Sure,” said The Mole, “but a third one would push up the potential for Disney to earn more. And advertising that would be cheap if you had a Grand Prix. If the Dubai people are willing to invest and they can figure out how to divide up the costs and the profits they could design whatever they wanted to have. They could build it on a lake or something like that. To make it interesting.”
Isabelle look hard at him.
“Intelligence is so sexy,” she said.