Boris Johnson, That Blond Bicycling Bad Boy Of London

London's over-the-top mayor has published a book about Winston Churchill, and may aspire to a similar national destiny. But he strives for greatness by looking for a laugh.

London Mayor Boris Johnson cycling in the city
London Mayor Boris Johnson cycling in the city
Cordélia Bonal

PARIS — London Mayor Boris Johnson hangs his head low and looks a bit like a hunted beast. "They want to kill me," he says. Damn. That sounds serious. But who? "Everyone, absolutely everyone," he says. "Taxi drivers, for starters. They want to tear my guts out because I'm setting up bicycle paths."

He asks for aspirin because he has a bad cold. "That's because the other day, I was on my bike, and it rained twice. You're barely dried off, and bang, you're soaked again." As a result, Johnson's in poor form but still very funny. And exquisitely polite, always taking an interest in people. Did I use the public Vélib bikes in Paris to cycle to work today? He is very fond of cycling.

He arrives with a copy of Libération. On the front page is English politician Jeremy Corbyn, who would become leader of the Labour party a few days later. "A nice guy, but by choosing him, Labour will self-disintegrate, like atoms become fissured with nuclear fission," Johnson predicts.

Churchill with hair?

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson ("Boris" to his fellow countrymen) is visiting Paris to promote his lively biography of Winston Churchill, a bestseller across the Channel. He's delighted to be able to practice his French, and he also gets along in Latin. Which leads to an interview dotted with "fucking hells" and bear-like grumbles when he gets his definite articles wrong.

To start with, Johnson has a very particular physique. He looks like an early Beatle whose hair has been bleached and dried with a fan. He says it's his real color, and besides, he's more of a Rolling Stones guy. It's his trademark. The unruly locks on a rebel who breaks with Tory rank and thumbs his nose at David Cameron's sensible haircut and more. He's built like a rugby player, which he was at both Eton and Oxford. His 100% posh accent is thwarted by his invariably disheveled appearance, even when he's wearing a suit and tie.

So, Churchill. What does Johnson have in common with Churchill? "Nothing," Johnson says. "It's almost depressing." What about ambition, opportunism, upper-class lineage, the fondness for one-liners, irreverence? "Ambition, OK," Johnson says. "The rest, comparing me to Churchill makes no sense!"

Still, the book's publication is a good opportunity for the author, who many believe dreams of a national destiny. After taking the capital from Labour in 2008, and winning re-election in 2012, Johnson was elected to parliament for the Conservative Party in Uxbridge and South Ruislip this year. He won't run for re-election as mayor again, but there is wide speculation that he sees himself in Downing Street. Prime Minister David Cameron, Johnson's frenemy, has announced he won't stand again.

Cunning as a fox, Johnson keeps his cards close to the vest. "I have as much chance of becoming prime minister as being reincarnated into an olive or being decapitated by a Frisbee." He claims to be too worn out for the job. At 51 years old? Nonsense. Especially because he still has a trump card: popularity.

Always hamming it up, with a knack for priceless repartee and absurdly bad faith — "the weather is nice in London 94% of the time," he says — Johnson is completely impervious to ridicule and is his own PR man. He's his own party, and buffoonery is his strategy. He knows that making people laugh is more effective than a speech on employment. "If you vote Tory, your wife will have bigger breasts and you'll have a better chance of getting a BMW," he promised in 2001 for the legislative elections. He won.

A very bad boy

Johnson is capable of answering anything with conviction at any time, with an eternal smirk. No comment on his private life and history of infidelity, which has caused him a few problems but hasn't kept him from being elected. How old are his four children? "No, no, I'd be too scared to be mistaken," he says.

We know only that his second wife, who is half Indian, is a lawyer and that they live somewhere in Islington. His mother was a painter and his father a conservative European lawmaker who used to work for the World Bank (hence Johnson's birth in New York). He's also the oldest of six children. There's a great-grandfather who was interior minister for the Ottoman Empire's grand vizier, as well as a Versaillo-Alsatian grandmother who used to make them "eat chips with a knife and fork," he recalls.

His prodigious capacity to hoodwink people hasn't always been a blessing. When he was younger and working as a journalist for The Times, he was fired for quote tampering. Asked if this was true, he answers in a very British way, "It's maybe a bit exaggerated, but it's undeniably true."

The episode, anecdotal but revealing, didn't end his career, as he was editor of The Spectator until 2005 and still writes a column in the much read and very right-wing Daily Telegraph. He also writes books, including a successful history of London and, to come, a Shakespeare biography.

The British, who are easy to please, have turned turned Johnson, the enfant terrible, into a character of local eccentricity, who exists somewhere between the Queen Mother and Monty Python. But does that make him a credible politician? That's unclear, given that his work as mayor hasn't been sensational. "I've made London more attractive, more secure, more modern, hosted the Olympics, rebuilt East London," he says in his own defense. Labour retorts that putting double-decker buses back into circulation may be pretty, but pollution, inequality and rents have all risen.

If we remove Johnson's clown costume, what's left? A hardline conservative. Someone who welcomes investors and tax avoiders with open arms, but refugees, not so much. The kind who is opposed to limiting the bonuses of traders. He insists that it's "coherent to support bankers and at the same time for a raise for the employees."

He's against gay marriage and has had his share of sexist moments. As for migrants, "the Roman Empire collapsed because of immigration," he says. He doesn't oppose hosting Syrian refugees, but he cautions, "we can't receive everyone." He's for "barriers at the borders and against establishing quotas."

And what about the question of a so-called Brexit? This time, he doesn't hedge. "We won't leave Europe," he says. "Leaving the European Union is something different. Too many regulations, not enough democracy. And the importance of the EU as a market is not as crucial today. If we leave, there will be a period of uncertainty for business, but we'll get over it."

All in all, Brussels can bugger off.

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