Sylvie-Agnès Bermann must be beginning to wonder why she bothers talking to people from Britain’s opposition parties. Mme Bermann is, you may remember, the French ambassador to this country who was apparently told by Nicola Sturgeon that she “didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material”, according to a leaked memo. Now it emerges – or apparently emerges – that Bermann herself has put some backs up in the office of Hilary Benn, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman.
According to “a well-placed source”, the Mail on Sunday assures us, Bermann and her team were unhappy with the refreshments during a recent visit. “It was incredible,” the unidentified person says. “Hilary’s team could not have been more polite but the French kicked up a fuss because they were served biscuits.” A spokesperson at the French embassy denied the story with the rather underwhelming words: “She remembered the biscuits and told me they were fine.” A Labour Party spokesperson also denied the incident happened: “No such comment was made.”
What the report leaves out, however, is how unreasonable serving biscuits to an ambassador, or complaining about them, would actually be. Really, the rules are the same as for any guest: you politely accept whatever your host gives you, according to Craig Murray, Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan. Even so, it does make a difference what time of day the meeting took place, and whether it covered a mealtime. “Ambassadors, if they are given lunch, expect to be given an extremely good lunch, and extremely good wine,” Murray says. “But if it’s purely a working thing, tea and biscuits happened to me many times. There’s not anything strange about it.”
Indeed, the real test for ambassadors all over the world is not the meagre snacks they must put up with, it is the great banquets they have to eat. Last year, Matthew Barzun, the US ambassador in London, complained that, “I must have had lamb and potatoes 180 times since I have been here.” He might crave a 181st, however, should he ever be posted to Tashkent. “I recall a lamb foetus,” Murray says. “And also a sheep’s head and being told, ‘You should take out the eye and eat the eye as the first thing.’ Those kinds of things happen all the time.” And how do you handle them? “With the eye, I explained that this was culturally very difficult for me and excused myself, which is probably terribly bad behaviour on my part. The foetus, I just kind of picked at.”