Barry A. Whittingham
A potpourri of serious, humorous and seriously humorous reflections on the French and English viewed through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman.
Copyright © 2017 by Barry A. Whittingham
The moral right of Barry A. Whittingham to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and patents Act 1966
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Our inner Frenchman often imagines he can hear the souls of Calvin, Wesley, Luther and Cromwell laughing their heads off on high (where they were pre-destined to be) at having managed for so many years to terrorize an entire nation into believing that life was far too serious a business to indulge in the sinful vanities of ostentatious display and frivolous pleasure, and that any deviation from the straight and narrow path of strict sobriety and unflinching Sabbatarianism was tantamount to signing your own warrant to be skewered and barbecued in the fires of hell. But what our Frenchman finds particularly deplorable in you English is that a country whose literary heritage includes writers unashamedly vaunting the subtle plays, indeed sensual pleasures of heterosexual love should have allowed itself to be influenced by a mixed bunch of self-righteous prudes to the point of producing a reign – almost a century long – which undertook a ubiquitous, in-depth, long-term operation to convince our planet it would be a far more decent place to live on if a way were found to perpetuate the species without the slightest contact between male and female. For what other judgement can we have on an era where matters of the flesh were viewed as being so shockingly improper that chairs, tables and pianos were guilty of indecent exposure if their legs were not hidden beneath long woollen socks? Even the most innocent display of heterosexual affection was considered shamefully offensive. As a child, I (we use the pronoun ‘I’ as this was well before we developed into the Frenglishman we now are) I remember Grandad often telling the story about Grandma and himself when, one spring afternoon, shortly after becoming officially engaged, they were strolling arm-in-arm in the local park. Suddenly they saw Grandma’s father striding resolutely towards them. ‘What’s up wi’ thee, lass? Is tha lame?’ was his dour reaction to such unbridled debauchery*.
So profound and far-reaching was this rigid sexual morality that even the most innocent reference to the natural consequences of the procreative act was still considered shamefully taboo. The young English boy I then was used to spend a week of the summer holidays with Grandma and Grandad who lived in a small coalmining village in the heart of the then West Riding of Yorkshire. Perhaps it was the influence of the burgeoning Frenchie within (I’d already started learning French at school) which, one Sunday lunch over roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, prompted him to remark – with only the vaguest of notions as to what it meant – that their next-door neighbour, Mrs Shufflebottom, was pregnant. Now, as Mr and Mrs Shufflebottom had been united in holy wedlock for well over a year, and nothing went to indicate that the inseminator was anyone but her husband, Mrs Shufflebottom’s condition was above all moral reproach. But, while any French parent would have seized on this heaven-sent opportunity to give a first lesson on the birds and the bees, something in Grandma made the word unmentionably indecent, especially in the mouth of an eleven-year-old, and he was told with grim firmness never ever to be heard using that word again.
However, Grandma’s condemnation of all things remotely sexual never put into question her own systematic, protracted and, as the growing boy later came to suspect, delectable post-prandial perusal of the pages of a Sunday newspaper, popularly referred to as the ‘News of the Screws’, the main articles of which involved the repetitive narration of illicit encounters of the flesh, going at that time (to his utter mystification) under the term intimacy, and usually spiced with vaguely perverse details: ‘They had their four o’clock Sunday tea, and intimacy then took place on the lambs’ wool hearth rug in front of a roaring fire,’ or: ‘She was in the habit of sucking a piece of Cinder toffee while they were being intimate.’ But, as our Frenchman often points out, what more can we expect from drinkers of tea with milk that this strong Puritanical brew should have been served up with a good dash of hypocrisy.
* The Englishman in us is of Yorkshire extraction. For the benefit of readers unaccustomed to the esoteric vernacular of this northern part of England, the Queen’s English rendition would be: ‘What’s the matter with you, my girl? Have you hurt your leg?’
What is less surprising, then, that those Puritan censors of even the most harmless manifestations of heterosexual attraction should have profoundly modelled your English character, and that, like fish and chips, sexual scandal should have become a staple part of your national diet, served up in generous daily helpings by your numerous popular tabloids?
In this respect our Frenchie has just reminded us of one occasion some years ago when one of these newspapers gleefully disclosed to an avid public the exclusive news that the personal publicity agent (the article included a head and shoulder photo of an attractive, demur-looking brunette) of an English soccer star had made some interesting revelations concerning her employer. The footballer in question had recently been transferred to a foreign club and, according to her, in the absence of country and spouse (she’d preferred to remain in Blighty), had sought and obtained consolation in her arms.
In the following day’s edition our footballer (he had hitherto enjoyed a shining public image of model husband and doting father) attempted a brave shot at denying everything en bloc. After crunchingly tackling him on this, the young lady counter-attacked by trying to pass herself off as the victim of foul play. At the end of their sporting encounter, she claimed, our soccer star had more than intimated that his official partner just wasn’t in the same league, and that the quality of play had been such (apparently even extra time couldn’t separate them, and the match was finally brought to a climax in an exciting shoot-out) that he was prepared to consider the contest as more than just a friendly. But now his denial of any form of association other than that imposed by strictly professional requirements caused her to feel cheapened and betrayed. As a result, she was left with no alternative but to come forward and defend her reputation by revealing the whole and nothing but the truth to the great British public who, she was sure, would not hesitate to give our soccer player a red card.
The attractive, demur-looking brunette’s credibility was placed in some doubt the following morning, however, when it was revealed she had accepted the tabloid’s generous invitation to present an exclusive, fully-detailed, after-match report on the soccer star’s on-the-ball performance during the encounter – to appear the next day. But the young lady’s plausibility took a really bad knock when the following day’s edition showed a prominent photo of herself, still looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth (together with a much smaller one of a glum-looking soccer star), crouching semi-naked, dog-like on all fours, with a notice dangling from a collar round her neck, proclaiming to all in bold, capital letters that she was HOT STUFF. And in true bulldog spirit, the opposite page bore a lengthy, pontificating editorial lambasting the shameful immorality of both!
Not only did Grandma’s notion of respectability do its best to erect an impregnable bastion protecting her secret delectation of the carnal from public scrutiny, but surrounded it by a deep moat, the sombre waters of which provided an additional line of defence against any attempt to violate her private affective territory. The result was a general emotional atrophy, characterized by a profound reluctance to express inner feeling of any kind, whether pleasant or not. And in her mind you never even talked, let alone complained about your ailments. You had to ‘grin and bear it;’ and the only time she really gave vent to her grumbles was when others had the indecency to mention theirs – which automatically prompted an, ‘If she had to put up with what I have to, she’d really have something to moan about!’
What exactly Grandma had to put up with always remained a mystery to the child we then were. It was certainly not Grandad, a peace-loving, generous-hearted, mild-mannered sort of man who seemed to go out of his way never to give her the slightest cause for trouble, and outbursts of this kind usually met with bemused resignation on his part. Perhaps in the oubliettes of her self-erected citadel there languished a woman of deep passion, and outraged eruptions of this type were prompted by a subconscious sense of injustice which maintained that, if she made such inhuman efforts to conform to the rigid dictates of Puritanical repression, it was only right that others should try to do the same.
And what is more normal in a country which counts twice as many religious denominations as cheeses that Grandma’s efforts to present an appearance of moral seemliness should have been reinforced by membership of a fundamentalist Evangelical sect whose austere creed demanded extreme sobriety of worship (no statues, no musical accompaniment to song, no graven images, no official minister), along with a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and the strictest plainness of person. For the brethren, the ‘respectable’ folk of the village, consisting mainly of the mine’s managers and deputies (not surprisingly since non-membership of the flock was an insurmountable impediment to promotion), the only road to Salvation involved implacable observance of the Lord’s Day in particular, and rigorous abstention from all forms of entertainment in general. As a result, normal distractions such as card-playing, dancing, going to the cinema, playing (even watching) a sport, gambling of all kinds and, above all, imbibing alcohol (at a very early age children were obliged to sign a formal pledge never to touch one single drop of tipple for the rest of their days), were considered so many enticements proffered by Satan.
Pleasure-inducing activities of this kind were not only considered to be fiendish traps tempting us away from the straight and narrow but were also associated with the most unacceptable forms of Popery. For on that path of righteousness Roman Catholics, in their moral levity, and frivolous ritual and ceremonial were so much foreign matter to be swept pitilessly aside.
At least one of these upright servants of the Almighty seemed to have had difficulty in comprehending that the real hard work began once you came home from Chapel. Grandma’s nephew, Jacob (a temptation the brethren could not resist was to inflict Biblical names on their progeny), used to tell the story about his father, Israel, a particularly committed member of the sect. As no ordained ministers were allowed, it was chosen members of the congregation who took turns to rise and preach. One Sunday morning, Jacob’s father delivered himself of an impassioned sermon on the theme ‘Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself’. His verbal endorsement of Christ the Redeemer’s exhortations to universal affection among men proved itself rather restrictive in scope, however, when put to a real life test.
Now Jacob, aged around 18 at the time, had recently discovered the innocent bliss of first love with a girl of Irish extraction. Knowing nothing about the young lady, and perhaps with an eye to assessing her eligibility for both the sect and his son, Israel suggested he invited her over for four o’clock tea and cakes the following Saturday. The day duly arrived and, while buttering their scones, Jacob’s father, with feigned innocence, asked the girl what her religious persuasion was. On her replying that she was a Roman Catholic, a high velocity bullet could not have matched the speed with which he shot up from his chair and, pointing an imperious finger in the direction of the back door, summoned this daughter of Beelzebub to ‘get out of his house right away!’ It goes without saying that this enforced departure not only marked a traumatic end to Jacob’s romantic idyll, but poisoned all future relations between father and son.
Nevertheless, our French alter can’t stop himself from admiring Calvin, Wesley and crew in a grudging sort of way for having accomplished the awesome feat of turning for so long what could have been a perfectly enjoyable day into such an interminable, daunting ritual for so many. For while on Sundays the French have always been free to do a spot of shopping, go to the cinema, watch a football or rugby match, go for a drive in the country, or simply put their feet up and relax, in a not too distant past, for you English the only alternative to killing time behind a newspaper (or at most, cleaning the car when the weather allowed) was to be frightened out of your wits by grim morning, afternoon and evening sermons on the wrath of God, and the inherent sinfulness of Man.
And since our Dad’s parents were also members of this same fundamentalist Evangelical sect, what is more normal that this same strong religious brew should have been forced down his throat during the Sundays of his childhood and early youth? Though in manhood he managed to distance himself from it, this was not enough to spare the young English boy we then were; for even today our Frenglish heart still sinks when we think back to that icy church mustiness, those bum-numbing pews, and the excruciating boredom of the interminable, canting, barely understandable sermons.
So great was his loathing that he would stretch himself out on the sofa after Sunday lunch, and pretend to fall asleep – not because he seriously believed his parents would be fooled by the ploy, but somewhere he hoped that the sight of a little boy reduced to this kind of subterfuge might prompt a modicum of pity. But his attempts to bring to their notice that a forced diet of morning Church and afternoon Sunday School were more than a little boy could stomach always ended in miserable failure. For an irony-tinged voice would always sound at the appointed hour, ‘Come on, wake up, we don’t want to be late for Church now, do we?’
Sunday evenings did, nevertheless, provide a slight variation. At that time Dad was employed as a commercial traveller for a wholesale grocery firm, one of whose directors, a Mr Digbert, was an itinerant Methodist lay preacher. Since Mr Digbert didn’t drive, Dad, who had just acquired a company car, used to chauffeur him to the different chapels where he was engaged to preach. In return, Mr Digbert bestowed on the family tins of chicken soup and salmon – inaccessible luxuries for most during those immediate post-war years of rationing when families were limited to a packet of margarine and half a dozen eggs per week. Mr Digbert sat in the front, of course, with Dad, while Mum and I sat behind with Mrs May – an attractive, dark-haired woman whose official function was that of Mr Digbert’s housekeeper (though the cynicism of later years led us to believe that she probably spent as much time sharing his bed than making it). We still clearly recollect Dad arriving home from work one evening and announcing, thunderstruck, that Mr Digbert had mysteriously vacated his office. Rumour had it that he’d been dismissed for purloining company goods. Whether the allegations were true or not, we never knew: for not only did our Sunday evening revivalist outings come to an immediate end, but the names of Mr Digbert and Mrs May were irrevocably consigned to shameful oblivion.
It was around the age of nine that the deliverance the little boy had so fervently prayed for finally arrived when Dad bought a car of their own. Without further ado, the Lord was sent to the Devil and, like the changing of water into wine, those hated Sundays were miraculously transformed into heady countryside treats and exciting seaside frolics.
Even though in later life Dad did manage to dilute that strong religious brew he was obliged to swallow during his childhood and youth he never really eliminated its effects: for they were frequently brought to the rest of the family’s notice, usually early on weekend or holiday mornings, in the form of sonorous, painfully out-of-tune renditions of hymns such as All Creatures of Our God and King, Praise My Soul the King of Heaven, Onward Christian Soldiers, All People that on Earth do Dwell, to name but a few. Despite the awesome proportions of Dad’s repertoire, his particular favourite seemed to be Love Divine All Loves Excelling. However, his repetitious singing of the praises of Godly supra-love never enabled him to surmount his own aversion to men with long hair, ear rings, tattoos and, above all, beards (discreetly-sized moustaches were grudgingly tolerated); and to the end of his days he never ceased to castigate this form of facial growth, displays of which were, no doubt, perceived by the Puritan still lingering within as an outward sign of personal vanity in that they were rooted in an excessive concern for the effect produced on others. And though he did his best to suppress these, the results of a rigidly-imposed childhood observance of the Sabbath as a no-work, no-play holy day, devoted exclusively to worship of the Almighty, also re-surfaced whenever he caught sight of a line of washing hanging out on a Sunday morning. On occasions like this, his fury could only be compared to that of a bull close to whose nose a bright red rag was being waved.
It might, nevertheless, be thought that Puritan-inspired Sabbatarianism in Britain is now a thing of the past. Broadly speaking, this is certainly the case. A recent newspaper article, however, would seem to indicate that, in certain backwaters at least, feelings on the matter can still run deep. A short while ago the remote Scottish Islands of Lewis and Harris almost foundered in a storm which blew up over a decision to launch a Sunday ferry service from the mainland. Unfortunately, the very first ferry happened to break down – an incident which was immediately seized upon by some as a manifestation of divine displeasure. Those who consider religion as little more than an elaborate superstition can only have their views confirmed when they learn that the Reverend Minister of the Islands himself described the mishap as a reminder of ‘God’s Providence,’ while one inhabitant had enough faith in the power of divine intervention to declare: ‘Anyone who works on a Sunday is making a mockery of God and His laws, but God says He will not be mocked. He has the power to sink a Sunday ferry.’ The skipper, passengers and crew had better make sure they don’t walk under any ladders over the next few months.
Would our Frenchman be wrong in thinking that our Dad’s condemnation of what he viewed as an excessively self-regarding concern for personal appearance was just one reflection of your general English distrust of all that smacks of showy outward form? While the French are firmly convinced that making an effort to present a harmonious, elegantly refined exterior is a good general indication that everything is in well-oiled working order within, our Frenchie can’t help feeling that for the English a polished appearance has very much the same effect as a flashing red light on a car dashboard. But, on reflection, what’s more normal that a nation which was preached to so often, and for so long, that a modicum of pride or application in your appearance, qualities, gifts and achievements was a deadly sin, should have developed a deep suspicion towards anything in a person which is reminiscent of personalized, sophisticated or ostentatious display, and has made you raise ordinariness and modest self-effacement to the status of a national virtue? For you are certainly the only people on our planet who seem to have made a quality of all that is plain: plain manners, plain common sense, plain dress, plain food, plain English – and, you’ll forgive the Frenchman in us for adding … plain women.
That same Frenchman is also very much tempted to think that it’s again your Puritan heritage which has gone towards making you English not only a nation of admirers of modesty and down-to-earth pragmatist but a people wary of anything which could be remotely considered as pretentiously intellectual or convolutedly theoretical. In France, on the contrary, we tend to hold in some esteem a person displaying a modicum of grey matter and a capacity for abstract, logical, even philosophically-oriented thought. You are more likely to label him a ‘show-off’, a ‘clever Dick,’ a ‘smart Alec,’ or even an ‘egg-head’ – an ivory-towered dreamer ten thousand metres above the practical realities of everyday life.
Take that last time we were in Blighty. An English friend was driving us through a large town when we were caught up in a long hold-up caused by traffic lights located at a T junction some 200 metres ahead. After containing himself for a few minutes, his exasperation finally got the better of him:
‘You know, this is just typical!’ he exploded. ‘There used to be two lanes here, one for drivers turning right and the other with a filter for those turning left. Traffic was fluid and there were never any hold-ups like this. Then some bright spark on the town council came up with the idea of reserving the left lane for cyclists only! Now we’ve got just one single lane for motorists turning both right and left, and this is the result! The idiot’s probably got a university degree!’
It’s yet a further indication of the diametrical opposition of approach which has always reigned between the two nations that, as a general rule, the pragmatic Englishman, when confronted with the blueprint of a new project, will pose the question: ‘All right, so it seems to be fine in theory, but will it work in practice?’ He will then go to considerable lengths testing on a workbench whether it does so or not. The Cartesian Frenchman, on the other hand, will ask: ‘D’accord, so it seems to work in practice, but will it hold up in theory?’ He will then devise a complex mathematical formula demonstrating that this is or isn’t the case.
It would, however, be an absurd generalization to maintain that all French people are impractical imbéciles. Enough of them are in contact with down-to-earth reality for a number of jokes to be in circulation regarding the theoretical intelligence, lack of practical awareness (mixed in with a good dose of arrogance) of some Enarques (graduates of the E.N.A., the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, a prestigious university charged with producing the nation’s political, industrial and administrative élite). One joke tells of a recently-graduated Parisian civil servant who decided to spend an Autumn weekend breathing the fresh country air. As he was rambling through the hills, he happened to meet a shepherd leading his sheep down from their summer pastures.
‘Tell me, my good man, do you know how many animals you have?’ asked the Enarque. ‘You do? Well, I’m willing to bet you 100€ against one of your animals that I can confirm the exact number of ewes, rams and lambs you have in your flock at this moment.’
Certain he was on to a winner, the shepherd immediately accepted the bet. After making a series of what seemed complex mental calculations, the Enarque declared, ‘At the moment, old chap, you have 251 ewes, five rams and 157 lambs. These figures are correct, are they not?’
‘Why yes, you’re dead right!’ exclaimed the astonished shepherd. ‘O.K. you’ve won. Go ahead and pick a sheep!’
The Enarque proceeded to choose an animal. As he was leading it away, the shepherd shouted, ‘Hey, stop! That’s one of my dogs you’ve got!’
Another joke tells of a former Président de la République, also a graduate of the E.N.A., who was visiting a primary school one day. When the teacher asked her pupils if there were any questions they’d like to ask the ex-Head of State, a little girl put her hand up.
‘Could you please tell me, monsieur,’ she asked, ‘why you don’t have any hair on the top of your head?’
‘Oh, the answer is very simple, little girl. That’s because I’m very, very intelligent,’ Monsieur le Président replied. ‘You know, all exceptionally clever men lose their hair. It’s because they think a lot!’
Pointing to the growth on his temples, the girl exclaimed, ‘All right, but in that case you must be a bit stupid on the sides!’
Another of the things the Frenchman in us finds contradictory in you English is why such a pragmatic, no-nonsense nation, proud to call a spade a spade, and so mistrustful of anything vaguely smacking of verbal ostentation – especially when it comes in the form of words of more than two syllables in length – should be so increasingly given to hyperbolic extravagance in their choice of language. For there is certainly no other people on our planet who have incorporated into their everyday speech such effusive adjectives as ‘fantastic’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘marvellous’, ‘incredible’, ‘amazing’, ‘stunning’, to name just a few (and if this wasn’t enough, frequently reinforced by ‘absolutely’ or ‘utterly’) to qualify what is barely distinguishable from the mundane.
Why, only the other day we had lunch with a friend in an English pub. The waitress, a pleasant, not unattractive young lady, brought us the menu, came back five minutes later, took down our order, and then departed after gratifying us with the sweetest of smiles along with a mystifying ‘Wonderful!’ If, by this, she wished to compliment us on our choice of fare, the Frenglishman we are is yet to comprehend what she could have found so extraordinarily delightful about steak and kidney pie, peas and chips.
But what annoys us most is the use of the word ‘awesome’. Perhaps it’s because of the increasing ascendency it seems to be enjoying over all the others. Only last week an old school friend with whom we’d recently re-established contact after a lapse of many years was describing his two grandchildren, aged 10 and 12. ‘They’re little angels,’ he wrote. ‘When you next come to England you must visit us and see for yourself. They’re really awesome.’
It’s not that we wouldn’t like to believe him. The problem is that our three years as a schoolmaster in England soon taught us that if you don’t keep on top of these awesome little angels they can make your life worse than Hell. Mind you, at first we didn’t exclude the possibility that the meaning of the word had changed since our dim and distant youth, and that it was now more or less synonymous with ‘nice’, or at most ‘excellent’. So we got out our Shorter Oxford just to make sure. But there it was in black and white: ‘Inspiring wonder, dread, or amazement’.
And then, to cap it all, last Friday evening we received an email from somebody (he was American, so it must be the same over there) offering his services to help us market this book.
‘Hi, I was checking out your Call of France website,’ he began. ‘It’s really awesome, but I see you’re not ranking well on Google.’
Now don’t get us wrong. In all modesty, we think our website isn’t at all bad. In fact, between you and me, we’re quite proud of it. Why don’t you have a closer look and judge for yourselves? But we couldn’t help thinking that a less extravagant-sounding word such as ‘nice’ or ‘attractive’ would have been nearer the mark. Mind you, he was trying to sell us something, so we did grant him some leeway. But it was the ending, ‘Have an awesome weekend’ that really got our Frenglish goat.
It wasn’t as if we didn’t appreciate his politeness in wishing us something pleasant. The French tend to do it all the time. And it’s not that our weekends aren’t usually agreeable affairs. I mean, this Sunday – providing the weather’s reasonably nice – we’ll probably go out for a run in the car. And on Saturday, we’ve arranged to play a round of golf. But what could be awesome about this? What on earth could make it such a wondrous weekend in the true sense of the word? And then, all of a sudden, it struck us! Couldn’t anything so sublime only come from on High?
Now, to be honest, we must confess that in our mature years we’ve become increasingly sceptical about the presence of a Supreme Being. Perhaps the seeds were sown in our Englishman’s formative years when both morning and afternoon dominical presence at church was mercilessly imposed. Mind you, we might possibly repent when we feel that last breath coming. But, right now, we’re in desperate need of some material proof of His existence. And we’d certainly be prepared to reassess our position if He decided to deposit a brand new Aston Martin DB11 Coupé in our garage (we don’t mind the colour as long as it’s not pink). Wouldn’t that be truly awesome?
And, as for our golf, what if our usual drives, instead of systematically deviating to the right or left not much farther than we can spit, suddenly found themselves hurtling as straight as a dye for a distance worthy of Tiger Woods at his best? What if our twenty yard pitches, instead of failing miserably to attain the green, fell consistently within six inches of the flag? And what if our puts, instead of running a couple of times round the inner lip of the hole, and then defiantly popping out, were made to drop reverentially down with a satisfying plonk? Now, that would be more than awesome. That would be simply divine.
When tracing the evolution in French attitudes towards those mutually antagonistic ideals of individual liberty and social equality (for an increase in one necessarily entails a decrease in the other) there emerges a generally constant movement away from the liberal principles enunciated by the Fathers of the Revolution of 1789 towards – under Napoleonic and later increasing socialist and communist influence – an ideal of equality evidenced by the rise, development and ultimate triumph of an all-present, all-powerful, all-pervasive central state authority which over the years, from commencing merely as the guarantor, arbitrator and organizer of collective rights and duties, gradually invested itself with legal powers enabling it to intervene significantly in the management of all aspects of national life, that of private enterprise and of the ordinary citoyen, thereby contributing towards making the country that curiously unique, and at times schizophrenic hotchpotch of liberalism and egalitarianism that it is today.
So, in this more than two-century-old contest between those principles of liberty for each and equality for all, which game does the France of today play? Is it an individual or a team sport? Does she privilege the citizen or the collective entity in which the citizen lives? Does she prefer a society whose laws guarantee the freedom of each, or one which seeks to impose equality on all? Should the individual be free to run his own life and, if he does this badly, be obliged to accept the consequences? Or should he allow the state to impinge on this liberty but, in return, be comforted in the knowledge that this same state will provide him with all necessary means of assistance and subsistence in case of need? In short, can modern day France be considered to be a liberal or a socialist (even Marxist)-oriented country?
Economists seem to agree that there are three simple, mathematical (and, therefore, perfectly quantifiable) operations we can use to determine on which side of the border a country’s heart really lies. The first of these is what the French call les prélèvements obligatoires, expressed as a percentage of the Gross National Product. Now the prélèvements obligatoires are the mandatory contributions, that is to say the different taxes, duties, levies, fees, tariffs, charges, contributions, etc. which a state or collective authority requires its citizens to pay in return for the various benefits, allowances, pensions, indemnities, compensations, grants, subsidies which it grants them in certain defined circumstances. The GNP, on the other hand, is a measure of the total value of the goods and services which a country’s citizens produce. And it’s perfectly understandable that the higher the prélèvements obligatoires are in relation to the GNP, the more this reflects the obligation the individual is under to finance the collective body, and the more this collective body has the financial means to manage the citizen’s affairs. It also means that the citizen is less free to do what he wants with his money. In present-day France the prélèvements obligatoires represent approximately 53% of the GNP. It’s generally agreed that below 40% we’re in a country which gives priority to individual liberty (in the USA it’s around 30%, and in the UK 36%). Above 40% it’s one where social equality has precedence. So, there’s no doubt about it. On this score, at least, we’re well into socialist territory.
The second criterion, equally mathematical, is the percentage of public sector workers which a country employs in relation to the active working population as a whole. And, once again, the higher the percentage, the more we’re in socialist-dominated land. This is once again perfectly logical in that a state which undertakes to manage the lives of its citizens must have the necessary administrative structures and personnel to do so. In France it’s estimated there are around six million state workers representing roughly 20% of the working population. The average for the 26 most industrialized countries on our planet is around 15.5%. So, here we have additional confirmation that the political colouring of France tends towards a brighter shade of red.
But perhaps the most important indicator as to whether we’re in a country which gives precedence to individual liberty or social equality is the number of laws, decrees and legal texts which a state imposes on its citizens. For, though laws are necessary both to guarantee the liberty of each of us and provide a certain harmony in the social structures within which we live, when we have a multitude of laws regulating the citizen’s life in the minutest detail these necessarily limit his freedom to manage his own affairs. In this respect, it’s significant that in a country where individual freedom dominates, laws are kept to a minimum. In France it’s estimated there are at least 520,000 laws and diverse legal texts – more than twice the number in force in the other G7 countries!
The only conclusion we can draw, then, is that a country which has been given (or granted itself) the financial, legal and human means to decide what’s good for the individual rather than allow the individual the necessary freedom to decide for himself is a country which, while perhaps not being Marxist in the strictest sense of the term, is one whose heart is firmly implanted on the left.
The French peuple are provided with permanent, daily reminder that the edifice of state reposes on the three Republican virtues of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité by their prominent display on postage stamps, coins, the frontage of public buildings as well as on official documents and tax declaration forms – the latter presumably in an attempt to assure the citoyen that the money thus levied will go towards furthering a noble cause.
Total liberty – living without the slightest restriction – is, of course, an impossible dream. Even if we were marooned on a desert island we could never do what we want, when we want, where we want or how we want. For though Robinson Crusoe was free to walk about stark naked had he so desired, his liberty was considerably limited by the obligation to respect those implacable, natural laws of survival which compelled him to devote significant time and effort in finding bodily sustenance, providing himself with protection from the elements and any predators he might have been sharing the island with. And since, at the beginning, at least, he lived outside all human society the question of equality never arose.
But when Man Friday appeared things became more complex: the two men had to accept certain limitations on their freedom by establishing a number of rules with the aim of making cohabitation as harmonious and fair as possible. And here another problem arose. What should the aim of these rules be? Should they be based on the principle that the right to freedom of each can only be limited by the right of the other to enjoy the same? In other words, should they be oriented towards creating and maintaining the maximum of liberty for each? This, in fact, was the substance of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789: ‘La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui ; ainsi l’exercice des droits naturels de chaque homme n’a de bornes que celles qui assurent aux autres membres de la société la jouissance de ces mêmes droits. Ces bornes ne peuvent être déterminées que par a loi’. (Liberty consists in being able to do everything that is not detrimental to others ; thus the limits to each man exercising his natural rights are those which ensure that other members of society enjoy these same rights. These limits can only be determined by law).
Or should the rules be directed towards benefiting both Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday in terms of the social entity they now constituted? In this case the notion of social equality predominates. So, to which principle should the laws of a society give precedence: freedom for each or equality for all? For in spite of what the French national slogan would seem to suggest, individual liberty and social equality are antagonistic rather than complimentary concepts. Too much individual freedom will automatically result in too little equality, and too much equality in too little individual freedom. A 100% private, fee-paying education system where parents are free to send their children to the school of their choice would automatically exclude the offspring of parents who didn’t have the financial means to do this, and thereby increase social inequality. On the other hand, an exclusively state-controlled system of free, obligatory schooling for all, regardless of whether parents were rich or poor, would deprive the latter of any freedom of choice. And even further proof of this diametrical opposition between individual liberty and social equality resides in the fact that they provide the ideological basis for those antithetical political notions of right and left, of conservatism and socialism. We can only conclude that it will take a good dose of fraternity (the French now seem to prefer the word ‘solidarité’) to create some kind of conciliation between the two.
From the Revolution of 1789, then, to the present day, the different French Constitutions which began by giving almost total priority to the notion of individual liberty have gradually – though there have been periods of hesitation – come to place more and more emphasis on social equality, thereby creating that unique, incongruous mixture of conservatism and collectivism which has come to characterize the France of today. For it is yet one more paradox that France is perhaps the only developed, capitalistic country on our planet where so many citoyens are ready to believe that society is composed of a Manichean division between rich and poor, and where so much credibility is lent to an ideological doctrine which seeks to create an egalitarian, classless paradise on earth. And this vision imparts a distinctly red hue to the French political scene where it not only colours the moderate left (which, in consequence, has less room for manoeuvre than its European neighbours), but also weighs heavily on centre, and even right – to which it lends a more leftist inclination than with many socialist governments elsewhere.
It also constitutes a central cog in that machine of state, la Fonction Publique, the Public Service, and is present enough to divert union efforts from necessary social reform by assigning to them a strongly ideological role. For, paradoxically, the main reason France is constantly ravaged by strikes is not due to exceedingly high union membership (the opposite is the case compared to most countries), but because left-wing extremism is not diluted enough by the presence of sufficient numbers of non-politicized members. As a result, the more leftist syndicats are frequently controlled by a minority concentration of hard-liners who consider their function to be more political than social in so much as they perceive their union as a counter power to capitalistic government and are, therefore, more intent on imposing egalitarian doctrine than improving the working conditions of members. In addition, egalitarianists tend to be portrayed by much of the leftist media as being not half so diabolical as their extreme right-wing opposites, the nationalistic, anti-immigration stances of which are associated with strong fascist tendencies, reminiscent of Vichy collaboration with the Occupant during the Second World War, and as such a denial of the legacy of the Revolution, and the values represented by a country still proud of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and a refuge for the politically oppressed.
So anchored in the mentality are these egalitarianist attitudes that they can frequently be observed in the banal situations of everyday French life. And it is certainly this same egalitarian factor which has spawned that exclusive French tendency by which more private satisfaction is gained from the failure of others than one’s own success, and which has produced in many a Frenchman the secret urge to end what he perceives as ostentatious personal advancement by reducing the successful person to the level of everybody else. In this respect, our English alter recalls that experience our businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had during a period when the relative tranquillity of the town where we live was disturbed by a series of thefts of top-of-the-range cars.
One evening, on leaving the restaurant where he had been dining with a customer, Monsieur Martin was mortified to find that the space in which he had carefully deposited and locked his newly-acquired limousine some two hours previously was now as vacant as the most gaping yawn. The same soporific simile having certainly occurred to Monsieur Martin, it took a series of vigorous, self-applied pinches to convince him he was not in the land of dreams, and send him hurrying along to the police station to report the theft.
A policeman was seated at the reception desk, his eyes intently focused on the sports page of the local newspaper spread out before him. It soon becoming obvious to Monsieur Martin that his precipitous arrival had in no way altered the policeman’s determination to finish the article he was perusing before indulging in any professional activity of note, the former took the liberty of emitting a discreet cough. The policeman slowly lifted his head and, raising a peremptory finger in the vague direction of the three subdued-looking citizens Monsieur Martin had failed to see perched on a bench opposite, gruffly enjoined him to ‘Wait your turn … like everybody else!’ Monsieur Martin meekly complied. A few minutes later, wishing to inform Madame Martin of his predicament, and realizing he had left his cell phone in the stolen car, Monsieur Martin again approached the policeman, and politely asked if he might avail himself of the telephone reposing on the desk. The same imperious forefinger was lifted, this time towards the door, and the same grumpy voice was heard to say, ‘You can use the public phone box outside … like everybody else!’ After a lengthy wait, the officer finally summoned Monsieur Martin to come forward to take down his statement. After noting his name and address, he asked him for the registration number and make of the stolen vehicle. On being informed it was an expensive German marque, the policeman’s eyebrows shot up, and his lower jaw dropped down in an expression of irritated stupefaction. ‘But why can’t you drive a Renault,’ he growled, ‘… like everybody else?’
Is it a Marxist-inspired egalitarianist perception of society (reinforced, no doubt, by Catholic-sourced notions of the iniquitous nature of monetary pursuit) which has firmly anchored in the French popular mind the belief that all human efforts tending towards pecuniary gain must necessarily be soiled by the stains of exploitation and immorality? Whatever the explanation may be, the view is rooted deeply enough in the national identity to make many of those whose professional activities are oriented towards financial return and management of others feel guilty enough to withdraw into postures of self-defense.
Take our bourgeois, company-owning neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Now Monsieur Martin informs us that when he’s on holiday, and is asked by a stranger what line of business he’s in, he’ll talk vaguely about ‘being in industry.’ And if pushed for more details, he’ll mutter something about working in an accounts office.
‘I prefer this,’ he smiles, ‘it doesn’t cause any embarrassing tensions and gives the impression I’m just an ordinary employee … like everybody else. Then we can go ahead and have a nice, friendly, relaxed relationship between seeming equals!’
Only the other day Monsieur Martin took delivery of an expensive new Mercedes limousine. Now, an Englishman or an American would have taken the first opportunity to show it to his friends and neighbours with undisguised pride. He might even have revealed, without the slightest complex, how much it had cost. And this would probably have set most of his friends and neighbours dreaming of the day when they’d be able to buy one, too. In France, on the contrary, not only would Monsieur Martin have been labelled ‘un m’as-tu vu’, a show-off, but his friends and neighbours would secretly have dreamed of the day when his business went bankrupt and he was reduced to driving a Renault – like everybody else. So, when we (it was mainly our Englishman) complimented him on his superb new car Monsieur Martin adopted an almost apologetic attitude. It was only after informing us that, ‘Ils m’ont fait une offre que je ne pouvais pas refuser!’ – they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse – that he relaxed and a smile began to light up his face.
It has to be admitted, however, that the ordinary Frenchman’s attitudes to money are highly complex, if not contradictory. For, strangely enough, the antipathy which he feels towards les riches does not stop him – along with millions of his compatriotes – from spending considerable sums on the lottery each week – presumably in the hope of winning the jackpot and joining their ranks. And royalty – provided it resides beyond the Hexagon – has a fairy-like attraction for these guillotiners of sovereigns. Moreover, the Frenchman shows little hostility to conspicuous wealth emanating from the world of sport and entertainment (perhaps because these constitute an intrinsic part of his own leisure life), and the extravagant trappings of grossly-overpaid sportsmen and show business personalities which, had they been displayed by a wealthy businessman, would have aroused popular indignation.
What’s more, it’s not unknown for these stars of sport and popular entertainment to undertake the consolidation of their public image by going to considerable pains to convince their fans that, in spite of their millions, their heart is, and always will be firmly oriented towards the left. On the eve of a presidential election an ex-French-tennis-star-turned-pop-singer, now contending to become the champion of inter-racial fraternity, sought to reassure his fans by publicly declaring that ‘Si Sarko passe, moi je me casse!’ – that if Sarko gets in, I get out! If by ‘get out’ he wished to indicate that, in the event of this right-wing presidential candidate being elected, he would have no hesitation in seeking refuge under more brotherly, foreign climes, he seems to have had second thoughts: for even though Monsieur Sarkozy did get in, our ex-tennis-playing pop singer didn’t get out. Would it be cynical to think that this was due, in part at least, to the fact that most of his (considerable) royalties are generated in France? It would appear, however, that he had again hit a winner, as a survey later revealed he’d been voted France’s favourite personality – for the seventh year running!
More recently, in a similar attempt to reinforce his popular image, a retired football-star-now-turned-actor staged a media show, the goal of which was to turn to his advantage the hostility of a good proportion of the French public towards what it perceives as being at the heart of an unjust, exploitative, capitalistic system. During an internet interview, he went so far as to suggest that the collapse of the existing banking structures might be brought about if 20 million people all decided to draw out their cash at the same time. In all fairness, our multi-millionaire ex-football star actor, though busy making a film on the fateful day, did, apparently, practice what he preached by trotting along to his bank during a break in filming to make a symbolic withdrawal.
This firmly-embedded conception of a Manichean society split into opposing factions of rich and poor, places considerable pressure on French governments to remedy the supposed imbalance through re-distribution of what are popularly viewed as ill-gotten gains. As a result it is, above all, the middle-class citoyen who bears the brunt of a complex and, for some, confiscatory system of social and fiscal contributions (France is probably the highest-taxed country in the world), obliging him to part with substantial amounts in the name of solidarité with his fellow man. One of the most controversial of these taxes is the Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune, or I.S.F., a fortune tax levied on all households whose total earthly possessions (including the wife’s gold ear-rings) exceed an amount which would make an American laugh his sides sore. And even though at the time of writing the entry level has been raised, the resulting revenue lost by the French State will certainly be amply compensated for by a substantial increase in taxes on the interest, profits and dividends deriving from the citoyen’s income and investments.
We’d all agree that treating equal things unequally is unjust. Paying Peter more than Paul when both work under exactly the same conditions (same job, same number of working hours, same seniority, etc.) would be grossly unfair. But what if their working conditions weren’t the same? What if Peter worked longer hours with far more responsibility than Paul? Would it still be fair to pay them the same? Most people would answer in the negative, and thereby conclude that treating unequal things equally was also unfair – perhaps just as unfair as treating equal things unequally.
However, the contents of some readers’ letters and emails published on the Forum Page of our local weekly provide a measure of the extent to which this Marxist-inspired principle still permeates the popular French mentality.
Now, the Forum Page of our local weekly newspaper invites readers to express their views on matters of topical concern. On one occasion they were invited to send in their reaction to the declarations of a right-wing Presidential candidate who, as part of his pre-election campaign, was going to considerable lengths to convince the voting public that, if elected to office, one of the first measures taken would be to reduce the amount of income tax the citoyen would be required to pay. The country was immediately split into two ferociously opposed camps: the income-tax payers (around 50% of the population in France), and those who paid none. The Englishman in us recalls one indignant reader who wrote in protesting that the poor non-income tax payer would be unjustly penalized by this proposed measure which would be to the sole benefit of the ‘rich’ income tax payer and would, therefore, only serve to increase even more the shameful inequality which existed between la France d’en haut, the upper, privileged classes, and la France d’en bas, the lower, working classes. He then went on to condemn the ‘inequitable’ attitude of those who maintained that, since this measure was aimed at reducing the level of income tax, it was logical that it should concern income tax payers only. On the contrary, he contined, the government should treat unequal things equally by providing non-income tax payers with some form of direct financial compensation which, if not reducing the gap between rich and poor, at least would go some way towards preventing it from growing wider.
On another occasion the same newspaper invited its readers to send in their reactions to a government proposal to increase substantially the price of cigarettes. One reader expressed his exasperation at the proposed measure which, he declared, reeked of provocation, injustice, inequality and … class distinction: for not only would the impecunious working-class smoker be once again penalized in that he would have to make a financial effort out of all proportion to that required from the ‘rich’, but this would compel the government (tobacco is a state monopoly in France) to market cigarettes in miserable packets of ten or even five. This would lead to the same scandalous situation as the one which used to exist in England where the rich were instantly recognizable by their elitist packets of twenty. He could only conclude that the sole equitable solution was, once again, that of treating unequal things equally: the government should place a total ban on the sale of cigarettes.
From the Revolution of 1789 up to recent times perceptions of liberty had a balanced dimension in that they contained a general acceptance of the equilibrating social and political function of equality – the equal right of others to enjoy the same liberty as oneself, along with one’s own duty to abide by the decisions of an elected majority. Regrettably, in present day France, we can observe a growing bi-polarizing movement which rejects the limitations imposed on personal liberty by these social and political considerations. As a result, the country is withdrawing into self-seeking egocentricity which, in defense of personal or corporate interests, considers authority, not only in the form of persons or bodies professionally, legally, traditionally, or institutionally invested with the right to direct others, but that constituted by the obligation to respect democratically-established laws or generally-accepted rules essential to the harmonious functioning of society, as a constrictive force, and as such the enemy of individual freedom. Consequently, more and more widespread is the attitude that personal liberty and fulfilment can only be obtained at the expense of, rather than in co-operation with authority. Authority, by very nature, works against individual and corporate liberty, and all forms of resistance, even when illegal, violent or extortionist in nature, are justified. When, in order to obtain higher salaries, better working conditions, or in protest at planned Government reforms, truck drivers hold the country to ransom by paralyzing road networks in defiance of national and European law; when strikers hold their boss prisoner, threaten him and his family with physical reprisal (or worse), or intimidate non-striking colleagues; when workers menaced by redundancy threaten to pollute rivers, burn down (or blow up) their factories, or even sabotage the security systems of nuclear power stations; when small farmers and environmentalists illegally destroy fields of genetically-modified plants; when strikers and demonstrators block petrol refineries with the aim of creating national fuel shortages, these forms of action are considered to be justified – not only, of course, by their perpetrators, but are often sympathetically perceived by a large section of the population as part of the free and legitimate entitlement of a minority to defend its specific interests or views against the powers-that-be.
Not only are these self-appropriated rights upheld by a large section of public opinion, but often by the media, opposition parties (anxious to glean a few votes for the next elections), and even spiritual leaders who display public sympathy for such movements by depicting those responsible as hapless victims, or defenders of freedom against oppression, and designating authority, in the shape of the government, as the real culprit. All too often, the latter, after repeated appeals to demonstrators’ sense of responsibility and respect of the law (while at the same time instructing the police to adopt a policy of non-intervention), attempt to obtain a semblance of moral victory by trying to convince us that their surrender is due, above all, to their willingness to make concessions in a spirit of conciliation and tolerance. Of course, this mix of corporate protestation, violence, blackmail and government pusillanimity throws considerable discredit not only on laws, institutions and politicians, but on the democratic system itself, with the result that an increasing number of citoyens are becoming more and more convinced of the futility of participating in a system of elective government, when the combativeness and determination of a minority can override democratically-established laws. In the France of today, then, with regard to that most basic of equalities, the one before the law, some are far more equal than others, and may manifest their opposition by going to sometimes spectacularly unlawful lengths to achieve their ends, while comforted in the knowledge they will be able to do so in all impunity.
Just one example of how an aggressive and resolute body can disregard legally-established laws in total impunity was provided some time ago, when a powerful, extreme left-wing trade union decided to call a dockers’ strike in protest at the government’s declared intention of placing in private hands, with the aim of reducing heavy financial loss, a state-owned shipping company operating cargo and passenger ferries between Marseilles and Corsica. Union leaders went to some pains to point out that, since the principle aim of the company was to provide a service for all, and not a substantial dividend to capitalist shareholders, their militant action was prompted by a desire to protect public interests rather than the wish – admittedly less commendable – to preserve their own.
The strike was particularly effective: the ferry service was totally paralyzed, passengers and truck drivers were blocked for several days, considerable damage was done to local business, not to mention to the image of the port – all to the accompaniment of daily demonstrations and violent clashes with the police. But what followed was more in the tradition of an action-packed Hollywood movie. In a spectacular sign of defiance, and to a backcloth of carefully orchestrated media coverage, the hardline leaders, along with a group of the more radical strikers, hijacked one of the company’s ferry boats moored in the port of Marseille, and promptly set a course for Corsica. On the evening T.V. news, we were informed that this type of action, like skyjacking, was considered by law to be an act of blatant piracy and as such punishable by long years in prison. A military force of intervention was helicoptered out, and the following evening we were treated to a stage-managed reality show of armed, masked commandos sliding down lines and retaking the ship, all to a background of ironic applause on the part of the perpetrators, filmed from the deck of the ferry. The pirate crew was, of course, taken into custody, shipped back to Marseille where its members were ‘interviewed’ by the police. In the following morning press there was vague talk of legal measures being firmly applied – to which the union promptly responded by issuing a declaration to the effect that, if this were the case, even more extreme insurrectional methods would be implemented. After a day or two of negotiation, however, an agreement was apparently reached: for the hijackers were discreetly released, everybody went quietly back to work … and that was the last we heard of that.
In contrast, an article which appeared in our local weekly newspaper during a period when truck drivers were blockading the country provided perfect proof that, though authority can be mercifully accommodating in face of mass protestation, it can be mercilessly unyielding when confronted with lone dissent. The owner driver of a small itinerant greengrocery business who plied his trade at the different fruit and vegetable markets of our region, rolled up early one morning at the town where he was in the habit of pitching his weekly Saturday stall, only to discover that the place normally allocated to him by the municipal authorities, the central position of which favoured rapid disposal of his wares, had been erroneously attributed to a competitor. Furious at the mistake of the former and the stubbornness of the latter (he systematically rejected all attempts at conciliation), and presumably encouraged by the success of his fellow drivers at a national level, our itinerant greengrocer decided to register his personal brand of protest by driving his van into the town centre, bringing it to a halt in the middle of the narrow one-way Grande Rue, locking its doors and … vanishing into thin air. The blockage which ensued caused indescribable confusion and popular fury for the next two hours. The police finally hunted him down in one of the town’s numerous cafés where he was quietly savouring his revenge behind an umpteenth pastis. He was promptly arrested, handcuffed and frog-marched off to the commissariat where he was charged, and left to spend the rest of the day and following night in solitary contemplation of the vulnerability of lone opposition. A few days later, he was sentenced to a stiff fine, plus a three-month license suspension, for impeding the free circulation of traffic.
Like all developed European nations in the fifties and sixties, confronted with a lack of home-grown labour to satisfy the demands of a developing economy, France opened up her borders to massive immigration from her former African colonies and protectorates – in particular the Magreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The same phenomenon was observed in Britain where considerable numbers of workers from the Commonwealth countries of Pakistan, India and the West Indies were encouraged to emigrate by promises of regular work and access to a better life. And in France, as in Britain, not much beyond the economic needs of the moment was taken into consideration, and no serious thought was given to the long-term integration of these expatriate communities who have since profoundly modified the ethnic composition of much of Western Europe, and whose social, religious and cultural divergences still keep them as far separated from the indigenous population as the distant continents they originated from. In France, these immigrants formed ethnic communities in les banlieus – the outskirts of large cities where, over the years, a number of factors, including high unemployment, discrimination, and rootlessness have created, especially among les beurs, (the original immigrants’ children and grandchildren, born in France but, in reality, only French in name), an explosive atmosphere of insecurity, crime (particularly drug-dealing), gang warfare, hopelessness, hate, violence and, of course, Islamic extremism, which have led to the establishment of ‘no-go’ areas, no longer governed by Republican law but that of the street, where the police fear to tread. Even though politicians have promised to make every effort to find solutions to the problem, very few tangible results have been obtained, and in the absence of any determined policy regarding social, educational and professional integration, successive French governments seem determined to entertain the illusion that pusillanimous, provisional and sometimes unofficial expedients, in total contradiction with the sacrosanct principle of equality before the law, will produce durable, long-term solutions. Our English part will be only too pleased to relate one graphic illustration of this which the experience of our neighbour, Monsieur Martin, recently provided.
A few days after the theft of his newly acquired limousine a raging toothache drove Monsieur Martin to his dentist’s. Now, since Monsieur Martin’s dentist’s surgery is located in close proximity to the commissariat of the small town where we live, it’s hardly surprising that he counts a number of policemen among his patients. While waiting for the anesthetic to take effect, Monsieur Martin and his dentist had a little chat about things in general, and the government in particular. During their conversation Monsieur Martin’s dentist informed him that some policemen had been grumbling to him recently about certain instructions they had received ‘from above’. Apparently, they had been told ‘to go easy’ on certain sections of the immigrant population. Monsieur Martin was soon to have first-hand experience of what this really meant.
That same day Monsieur Martin phoned the police station to enquire how investigations were proceeding in regard to the recent theft of his car, and was promptly informed by the policeman in charge of the case that he had some good news, but also some bad and that he would start with the good. By a remarkable coincidence he personally had found Monsieur Martin’s stolen vehicle. The previous evening, he explained, while driving home through the centre of town, he happened to bring his car to a halt behind another vehicle at a red light. Imagine his astonishment when, on closer examination, he realized that the car corresponded in every detail to the description Monsieur Martin had given of his. He immediately leapt out of his car, arrested the driver (a youth of immigrant extraction), drove him back to the police station where he was charged and placed in custody for the night. But then came the bad news. He’d just received a phone call from his ‘superiors’ instructing him to drop all charges against the youth! It goes without saying that, on arriving home, the young man received a hero’s welcome from his peers.
And contrary to what might be thought, it would appear that this government policy of appeasement towards certain sections of the population is barely concealed. A few weeks ago, a television news report, focused on police work in the Paris banlieus showed gendarmes stopping cars to check the vehicle documents of their drivers – mainly young beurs. One youth, when asked to produce his driving license, car insurance certificate and logbook, cheerfully replied that this would be impossible as he was, and never had been in possession of any of these. After an engaging smile and a brisk salute, the policeman beckoned him to continue his way!
It is yet one more measure of the vast differences exisiting between two nations – geographically divided by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but, mentally, deep oceans apart – that what is a veritable institution on one side of the Channel, is totally unknown on the other. So, for the benefit of our Anglo-Saxon readers the Froggy in us will begin with a brief explanation of the etymology of the term ‘le Système D’, followed by a definition, along with some examples of its modus operandi in daily life.
Now, our non-French-speaking Anglophone readers will certainly have realized that, in regard to the word système, the two languages converge so closely that deleting the grave accent and the last letter leaves us with an English word meaning ‘a scheme, or plan of procedure’. But it’s the capitalized fourth letter of the alphabet which imparts that same French flavour to the expression as garlic does to a roast leg of lamb when pushed in near to the bone: for this ‘D’ represents the initial letter of the commonly-used reflexive verb se débrouiller, literally meaning ‘to disentangle’ or to ‘extricate oneself.’
Now you unimaginative, sheep-like, stick-to-the-rule Anglo-Saxons tend to adopt a submissive attitude towards those relatively minor obstacles which everyday life, at some moment or other, inevitably places in our path. These little problems may be of a practical nature, can be caused by rules and regulations, or by those officially appointed to make sure they are applied. In contrast, the more creative, individualistic Frenchman has developed what is termed ‘le Système D’ – an implicit, institutionalized anti-code, perhaps not always perfectly licit, but never more than marginally detrimental to others, which relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each to improvise an immediate solution. De plus, ‘être débrouillard’ is a positively-perceived trait, an attribute it is considered desirable to possess when confronted with life’s daily hassles and, as such, a quality which French parents encourage in their offspring.
In its most rudimentary form, le Système D consists in improvising a practical solution to a concrete problem by adapting any material at hand. Let me illustrate this by two examples. A few summers ago, we spent a couple of weeks’ holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Now, in view of the long journey ahead and the likelihood of encountering dense traffic on the way, we decided to set off well before dawn. However, while loading up our car of that time, an old 2CV, we realized we’d forgotten to remove the many insects that had come to a sticky end on the windscreen over the previous days.
‘I’ll go and get the window spray,’ I said to my English friend. On coming back I directed the nozzle towards the glass and applied my right forefinger to the button. Nothing happened.
‘The bloody thing’s U.S.,’ he muttered in dismay. ‘What the heck are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux !’ I replied. ‘On va se débrouiller!’ – ‘Don’t worry, old chap ! We’ll sort something out!’
Being slow-on-the-uptake, what our English part didn’t realize was that the same, even better results can be obtained, totally free of charge, simply by using a few sheets of newspaper, a drop of water, and a bit of elbow grease. Soak the newspaper in the water, rub away and squashed insects disappear like magic!
‘Elémentaire, mon cher Watson!’
On another occasion, a rather more serious problem enabled me to come up with a more daringly imaginative application. I was driving us along with Priscille, our girl friend of that time, when a red warning light started flashing on the dashboard of that same old 2CV. Of course, I pulled up immediately, jumped out and proceeded to lift up the bonnet. It didn’t take long to see where the problem lay. The fan belt had chosen that moment to come apart. Now, as our more mechanically-minded readers will know, this type of breakdown, while not being a disaster in itself, would have made any further attempt at motorized advancement liable to seriously compromise the future health of the engine. So, we had to find a makeshift solution to get us as far as the nearest garage.
‘Oh, shit!’ said our Anglo. ‘We’re stranded. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux!’ I replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘Il n’y a pas de problème. On va se débrouiller.’
Needless to say, I’d already found a solution. Now, the armour of Priscille’s virtue constituted an impenetrable shield against every conceivable type of incursion, whatever form it came in, whatever direction it came from, and whatever part it was aimed at, and I had to use all my charm to get her to divest herself of her tights (after all, weren’t we in a tight spot?). But the rest was plain sailing. After twisting them into a rope, I knotted them round the pulleys of the dynamo, and hey presto! two minutes later we were breezing along again. C’est ça, le Système D!
In the course of our everyday life petty officialdom frequently places in our path a host of silly little rules and regulations which, as our Frenchie frequently observes, you English resignedly accept as insurmountable hurdles. You just don’t seem to realize it only takes a modicum of resourceful and audacity – the very essence of the Système D – to reduce them to mere stiles to be hopped over with ease. Nothing illustrates this better than that masterpiece of bold inventiveness our Frenchie is especially proud of, which got us round a little snag we had with the la Poste, the Post Office, last year. We’ll leave it to him to relate.
The other Saturday morning, on getting back home from our weekly shopping, we found reposing in our letterbox an official post office form, duly completed by the postman, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. with a lettre recommendée avec accusé de reception, a registered letter whose receipt had to be acknowledged by the signature of the recipient. However, in view of our absence he’d been obliged to take it back to the main post office where it would be available for collection the following Monday morning from eight o’clock onwards (the main post office in the town where we live closes for the weekend at noon on Saturdays). Now past experience has taught us that this sort of missive, often arising from official sources, can, like tap water in foreign climes, be the prelude to a messy business. Being a born worrier, our English half began to fret so much about what it could contain that this threatened to spoil our weekend.
‘Well, we’re going to have to wait until Monday morning to know what it’s all about!’ he muttered resignedly.
‘Pas du tout, mon pauvre!’ I retorted. ‘Leave it to me. On va se débrouiller!’ It didn’t take me long to concoct a way of getting round all this. Here’s what I did:
Picking up the phone, I called the main post office and asked to speak to Monsieur le Receveur, the Post Office Manager. Once I’d been put through I began by politely explaining that I had in my hand a post office form which the postman had deposited in our letterbox, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. that morning with a registered letter which in view of our absence he’d been obliged to take back to the post office.
Monsieur le Receveur replied – not, I noted, without a trace of irritation – that he didn’t really understand why I was calling, as it was certainly indicated on the said post office form that the registered letter would be available for collection on Monday from 8 o’clock onwards.
‘In addition,’ he added, ‘the postman was simply following post office regulations.’
‘Do post office regulations stipulate,’ I asked, ‘that before taking the registered letter back to the post office, the postman should first use all reasonable means at his disposal to ascertain whether the addressee is, in fact, at home?’
Monsieur le Receveur confirmed that official post office procedure did, in fact, require the postman to first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether or not the addressee was, in fact, at home.
‘And does using all reasonable means include ringing the doorbell or applying his knuckles to the door?’ I then enquired.
‘En effet,’ Monsieur le Receveur replied, ‘official post office regulations are to be interpreted in that sense.’
‘And is it your honest opinion we can be absolutely sure the postman acted in full accordance with post office regulations?’ I continued.
‘Since all postmen have received strict instructions in this respect, monsieur, I have no reason to believe that he did not act in full accordance with post office regulations.’
‘But don’t you think that, since I’ve not put a foot out all morning, some doubt might be cast on whether the postman really acted in full accordance with post office regulations?’
‘Might I be justified in thinking,’ the post office manager retorted, ‘that when the postman rang the doorbell, you were engaged in some form of sonorous household activity – vacuum cleaning, for instance – which prevented you from hearing him? But whatever the case may be, you’ll only have to wait until eight o’clock on Monday morning,’ he went on, ‘so I don’t really see where the problem is. And since I’m a busy man, would you please forgive me for abridging this conver…’
‘On the contrary,’ I interrupted (and here I showed all my inborn inventive genius), ‘there is a very real problem. You see, I was expecting this registered letter. It contains vital information, determining whether or not I take the six o’clock T.G.V., the High Speed Train, on Monday morning for an important nine o’clock business meeting in Paris. And since I’ve spent all morning quietly reading the newspaper, the only explanation for me not now being in possession of the letter in question would seem to reside in the fact that the postman, for reasons known only to him, did not act in accordance with post office regulations.’ I paused for a moment to let my words sink in.
‘But, whatever the cause may be,’ I continued, ‘there’s absolutely no question of me letting the matter rest here. If I don’t obtain satisfaction, I’m going to lodge an official complaint. So what do you suggest we do about it?’
After a long and heavy silence, it was, I must confess, with some relief that I heard him pronounce those magic words I was waiting to hear:
‘Bon. Exceptionnellement, on va se débrouiller! Voici ce qu’on va faire.’
He then proposed the very solution I had in mind. Though, normally, it would have been out of the question, in view of these exceptional circumstances, he was prepared to bend the rule. Since it was now going on for midday and the post office would be closing shortly, if I presented ourself at his private flat located to the rear of the building, and identified ourself by giving three sharp raps on the door, he would personally remit the letter to us. This, of course, we did. Everything went without a hitch, the contents of the registered letter weren’t half as bad as our Englishman had thought, and we had an excellent weekend. C’est ça, le Système D. En France, on se débrouille!
When it comes to getting a bargain you’ve got to go about it in the right way. And once again the Système D comes in handy. I mean, it’s amazing what you can gain with just a dash of imagination and a touch of daring. Now it must have been our English half who took it upon himself to buy the second-hand car we owned before our present one. After reading through the used car ads in our local newspaper, he informed us that he’d found a vehicle which seemed to fit the bill, and off he drove us to the dealer’s to have a look at it. He then took us on a test drive, after which he haggled a measly discount of 3%, before driving us back home, satisfied that he’d done a great deal. I couldn’t help muttering in one of our ears that this wouldn’t have been my way of doing things.
So, when we decided to buy our present car I insisted on taking charge. It goes without saying that I adopted a totally different approach. But first, just as he’d done, I went through all the second-hand professional car ads in the local newspaper until I came across something like what we were looking for. It was at this point that I began to apply le système D.
I started by phoning the dealer. Now, since profit margins on deals between professionals are much less than when they sell to members of the public, I pretended to be a professional car dealer like him, based in another town far enough away for him not to know all the dealers there. I then proceeded to inform him that I was acting on behalf of one of my customers who had expressed great interest in this model – which I would be pleased to take off his hands … provided he could manage a discount of 15%! Even though he hesitated a bit I finally got him to agree, and off I drove us to the garage. And the dealer only realized we were a private buyer at the last minute when I handed him our cheque! It’s true that our English part couldn’t help feeling a bit embarrassed, but the dealer said nothing and we got away with it. ‘Vous savez, you English are far too straight. Il faut être malin dans la vie! You’ve got to play it smart in life. C’est ça le Système D.’
You know, I just don’t seem to be able to get it through our English alter’s thicker part of our skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted blindly following the rule. During the time we were together, Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where we lived and which could only be reached by a twisting main road. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a large No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when our Englishman was at the wheel the words No Entry constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscille’s virtue and, as I never failed to remind him, we stupidly lost up to five minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the short-cut.
Things really came to a head, however, when a section of the main road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was put into operation. When he was at the wheel, not only did our English part continue to take the same route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting precious time. What I could never get into his bird-sized part of our brain was that, even if we took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as the time of day (usually we called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of us not meeting a going-downer on our way up.
Of course, much to our Englishman’s extreme discomfort, whenever I was in control, we always took the shorter way up. This choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when we had to stop and pull in to one side to let a coming-downer through. He, of course, in true French fashion, left us in no doubt of his opinion on the matter by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing, ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ However, this allusion to the softness of our brains was due less to the fact that we’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused: for this certainly didn’t prevent him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back.
Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected. It must not be imagined, however, that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What I don’t seem to be able to get through to our Rosbif is that, with the help of le Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the short time Priscille and ourself were together (the poor girl soon realized she couldn’t cope with two men rolled into one), whenever I was driving and we were stopped by les flics for exceeding the speed limit, I’d given her strict instructions to pretend to give us a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time, our Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to our face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let us off with just a warning! C’est ça, le Système D!
Though the word ‘queue’ is shared by both English and French, nothing embodies more the gaping chasm that exists between the two peoples than their attitudes to, and behaviour in this mundane line: for its configuration differs so much in outward appearance and inner workings that, for the Englishman in us, it is doing the term a grave injustice to use it to embrace the loose bunching and jockeying for position which goes under the same name on the Gallic side of the Channel.
The English approach to queuing is of child-like simplicity, being based exclusively on the principle of military-style, single-file alignment in strict accordance with the rule of ‘First In, First Out.’ As a result, the Englishman is prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time patiently waiting his turn – provided, of course, that others do the same. For when other queuers show the same scrupulous respect for the rule he will relax and, amazingly, even enjoy himself. And believe it or not, our own Englishman will while away time spent in a supermarket line by honing his skills of empirical deduction through a fascinating diversion which consists in determining the occupation of fellow queuers by the articles reposing in their trolley. At the time of writing, he has identified – with a high degree of probability – an alcoholic bee-keeper, a sweet-toothed house-husband, and a transvestite hooker with bunions.
However, the slightest deviation from the implacable rule which states that the first to join shall be the first to leave will unleash unbounded fury on the part of the English – so much so that very few allowances are made. In this respect we are reminded of an incident some time ago when our poor mother who, in her mid-eighties and only partially sighted, mistakenly joined a queue in the middle. In spite of her age and infirmity, that stony-hearted English law was applied in all its relentless rigour, and she was sternly enjoined to ‘get to the back!’
The Gallic attitude to queuing is, on the contrary, of Freudian complexity. After close observation of his French alter our English part is tempted to think that when a Frenchman appends himself to that shapeless formation which in France masquerades under the name ‘queue’ (in spite of Cartesian precedent when it comes to queuing the French have a roundabout conception of linearity), he is seized by feelings of depersonalization and a resulting loss of esteem. Thus, the only way for him to re-find his identity and self respect is to accept the challenge which consists in proving to himself that he has enough personal resources to minimize to a maximum time spent in the line.
Nevertheless, far be it for our Englishman to suggest that the rule of ‘First Come First Served’ is unknown to the French, and that the Gallic is not aware that un-queueing – necessarily to the detriment of others – can be judged contrary to accepted standards of fair play. The importance he attaches to le Système D is such, however, that he simply has a far less degree of conviction than the English queuer. And so, though he may well be piqued on observing that another has jumped the queue before him, his annoyance (which may even be tinged with grudging admiration), results less from the fact that the offender has infringed the sacrosanct Anglo-Saxon rule than that he has proved himself beaucoup plus malin, much smarter, in finding a way round it. As a result, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the non-rule of ‘Every Man for Himself’ is applied.
In this respect our Frenchie is especially proud of one instance last year when we went along to our local supermarket to do some last minute Noël shopping. As in England, French supermarkets are very busy places at Christmas time, and our local supermarket is no exception. After completing our purchases, we wheeled our heavily-laden trolley towards check-out (I say ‘we’ but, in reality, it was our wily Frenchie who positioned himself so that our Englishman did most of the pushing). Now check-out at this supermarket consists of three cash desks, only two of which were, for some reason or other, in operation at that precise moment. And such was the afflux of shoppers that two long queues snaked back some twenty metres or more between the shelves. It goes without saying that our Englishman tried to persuade us to walk right round and dutifully join one of the queues from the back. But our Frenchie would have none of it, and positioned us laterally at the front, just by the side of the unstaffed check-out. And then, as he had certainly anticipated, a third girl quickly appeared and proceeded to open up this cash desk. So, all we had to do (in fact, it was our Frenchie who took complete control) was push our trolley smartly over and empty its contents onto the conveyor belt. The result was that we were checked out first, well before those sheep who, in some cases, had joined their queue as long as twenty minutes before us!
Does he consider that detection is far less likely on the part of an unwary foreigner than from one of his more seasoned countrymen? Does being with those he’ll certainly never in his life see again make him feel free to operate with no discredit to his name? Or is it simply the desire to have a final fling on home territory? Whatever the case, it is the anonymous, international context of French airports which provides our Gallic with the conditions in which he can apply his subtler un-queuing techniques.
Take, for example, that time last December when we flew to England. It goes without saying that the anticipatory excitement of a typically English Christmas had caused our Frenchie to withdraw within us, thereby leaving our Englishman in almost total command. Arriving at the terminal we checked in, went through security control and on to the departure lounge. Ten minutes after the scheduled take-off time, however, no announcement had been made that we could proceed to boarding. And as the minutes ticked by, we became more and more uneasy. Finally, our worst fears were confirmed: fog, we were informed, had caused the incoming plane to be diverted to another airport.
The vociferous protestations which this unleashed among the scattering of French passengers in our midst might have led the casual observer to think that our Englishman’s countrymen (who, of course, maintained a phlegmatic silence), were in a considerable minority. Once these unpleasant Gallic clamours had more or less subsided, a member of the ground staff invited us to follow her in order to retrieve our previously-registered luggage. We were then led to the airline’s reception desk in the main terminal hall where it was announced that those who wished could be re-routed via a connecting airport (our cancelled flight was direct).
Now, this re-routing involved two new tickets being issued for each passenger (we were about 50 in all) – the first to the connecting airport, and the second for the flight from it to our final destination in England. This operation was carried out manually by two ground hostesses sitting next to each other behind the airline counter. Accordingly, we proceeded to form two parallel queues of similar length with a space of some three or four feet between. Naturally, the two queues did not advance at the same pace: each hostess was frequently interrupted by phone calls, direct enquiries from other travellers, etc., and, whenever this happened, advancement in the queue leading to her was temporarily halted. It goes without saying that the patient Englishman in us was determined to make the best of a bad job, and waiting in this line provided him with the opportunity of indulging in a slightly modified version of his favourite supermarket pastime – deducing the occupation of fellow queuers from their general appearance together with the size, colour and type of luggage accompanying them.
Two well-dressed, respectable–looking, middle-aged French ladies with identical pink suitcases (probably retired primary school teachers on a pre-Christmas shopping fling), caught our eye. The two ladies had, in fact, arrived a few minutes after us, and had duly joined our queue seven or eight people behind. But now they were in the other parallel queue, four or five people ahead and surging onwards with consummate ease. How had they done it?
It only took a minute’s observation for our Frenchie to rumble their little game. Instead of committing themselves to just one of the queues and then staying in it, their strategy consisted in straddling both: for there was always a leg and a bit of the body of one or the other in the gap between the two. So, whenever their own queue came to a halt, legs were casually introduced and bodies then unobtrusively worked into the other one. By slaloming in this way they were blithely enjoying the best of both queues. What struck us most (our Englishman was now becoming slowly aware of their antics) was the obvious complicity of the two (they’d probably been at it for years): not only was their synchronization perfect but, while they were surreptitiously transferring themselves from one queue to the other, never for one moment did they mark a pause in their chattering; and not for one instant did they look round to see if anybody was watching. As a result, they gave the impression of being so absorbed in conversation as to be totally unaware of what they were about. But you can take it from the Froggie in us that they knew exactly what they were doing. Faced with our Englishman’s remonstrations the two had the usual French reaction when caught en flagrant délit of un-queuing: a profuse, apologetic show of innocence was staged, with just enough trace of supercilious condescension to suggest that we were the guilty one in creating such an unpleasant scene for so trifling a matter.
In his permanent quest to prove it is in no way impossible that those who are the last to join a queue can be the first to leave it, the Frenchman has, of course, at his disposal an infinite number of techniques, one of the more widespread of which is the practice of ‘lateral’ or ‘side queuing’. Our French alter has kindly offered to explain.
Bonjour tout le monde. The aim of side queuing is, above all, psychological in that it is directed towards creating and then exploiting confusion in the minds of other queuers. As the term suggests, the technique consists in casually positioning yourself at the side, as near as possible to the front, rather than tidily behind the last person at the back as the sheep-like English are programmed to do. By doing this, it is hoped that at some time during progression towards the exit, it will be possible to take advantage of the doubt created in the minds of those already queuing as to the exact moment of your arrival in relation to theirs, and sneak in well before your turn. Moreover, in the event of protest on the part of those behind you (it does occasionally happen), positioning yourself laterally presents the immense advantage, especially when your trolley or basket is heavily laden, of allowing you to justify your action by invoking the pointless expenditure of energy required in pushing it right round to the back. Moreover, the more accomplished side queuer can make the strategy even more convincing by an accompaniment of heart-rending sighs of fatigue.
Another not negligible advantage of this method is that when objections are encountered you may save face by retreating into feigned absent-mindedness, or ignorance as to the exact instant of your arrival at the side of the queue in relation to those already in it. But you can take it from me that, contrary to appearances (in France, things are never what they seem and never seem what they are), this type of master un-queuer is keenly alert – stealthily poised to exploit the slightest inattention. And what beats it all is that, when more stubborn opposition is encountered, you can even obtain a rousing moral victory by withering the remonstrator(s) with a look of lofty disdain, intended to bring it firmly home that there are more important things in life than this type of petty consideration. Obviously, this kind of creative un-queuing can only be effective under the right conditions, i.e. busy airports, supermarkets on Friday or Saturdays evenings, or on the eve of public holidays when the volume of trade is such that queues stretch a long way back.
Similar techniques may also be resorted to in ski-lift queues. In these circumstances successful application is considerably facilitated by the nature of the sport itself which requires participants to wear appendages extending some distance ahead of, and behind feet, thereby rendering conventional rectilinear queuing totally impractical (ten skiers aligned with skis attached would probably occupy a distance which could accommodate 50 ski-less queuers). As a result, ski-lift queuing automatically generates lateral bunching which provides even the most inexperienced un-queuer with a multitude of opportunities to improve his technique. And so much do queues of this kind make speedy advancement a matter of such elementary simplicity that they provide the perfect training ground for our French youngsters to begin their un-queuing apprenticeship. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, in spite of my English brother’s attempts to make us believe his compatriots are at all times respectful queuers, English skiers – no doubt working off the accumulated frustrations occasioned by the uncompromising rigidity of queuing at home – are, along with their skis, letting their sense of fair play slip. And such is the enthusiasm shown that I have every reason to believe they will take full advantage of the lessons and experience it has been our privilege to provide them with in order to apply similar techniques on returning home.
As my English brother has so rightly pointed out, we French un-queuers are, above all, daunting opportunists endowed with an awesome ability not only to adapt to a queue’s specific profile but to exploit those objects at our immediate disposal. A perfect illustration of this was provided last year when we set off for our Summer holidays. The airport was busy and after checking in we joined a long queue of passengers waiting to go through security control. It goes without saying that my English alter ego couldn’t stop himself from observing that the queue had only the remotest of resemblances to that (sic) ‘splendid linear arrangement’ he was so proud of on the English side of the Channel, and was, of course, the scene of the ‘usual disgraceful bunching and incessant jockeying for position’. It’s true that at the beginning, it was little more than a wide, loose grouping of people loitering five or six abreast; but, on nearing the entrance to the security control area it narrowed progressively into a sort of bottle neck purposely created by two parallel, Anglo-Saxon-style metal barriers, not much more than a metre apart, channelling queuers into a corridor narrow enough to oblige them to continue in single file.
As we came to this final short stretch it was my English sibling who made the almost fatal mistake of causing me to relax my guard on us. A young Frenchman, whom I’d distinctly observed joining the queue some 15 minutes after us, drew up level and, at the last moment, just as we were about to enter that narrow, delimited area where overtaking would no longer be possible, he negligently kicked his large hold-all, previously deposited on the floor, into the small unoccupied space in front of us in what was obviously a blatant attempt to stop us advancing any further, thereby facilitating a last-minute overtaking manoeuvre on his part. It was certainly this same ploy he’d been using from the very moment he’d set foot in the queue, and which explained his astonishing advancement up to this point. Such was my admiration that I was tempted to let him through; but my English alter positioned our right leg between him and the hold-all in a blocking movement, designed to let it be known that this little game wouldn’t work with him. And as the young man glanced up our Englishman who gave him a withering look.
‘Ah, vous estimez que vous étiez avant moi!’ he declared with well-feigned innocence.
‘Absolument!’ my English brother replied.
‘Ce n’est pas vrai du tout!’ he retorted. And then, in a praiseworthy attempt to retrieve a resounding moral victory from humiliating defeat:
‘Mais comme vous y tenez tellement je vous laisse la place!’ Ignoring him completely, our Englishman stepped us forward.
On another occasion this same airport presented us with a far more impressive queue, and with it an even greater number of opportunities for our English half to observe ‘those incorrigible Gallic un-queuers up to their usual tricks’.
We had booked a package holiday abroad through a well-known French tour operator who, a few days prior to our departure date, had informed us that, on arrival at the airport, we must collect our plane tickets and hotel vouchers from their reception counter located in the main terminal hall. Even though we arrived well before the specified time and found the desk without the slightest problem, great was our dismay on seeing that the wait would be particularly long: for stretching back some 70 yards or more was a monstrous muddle of a queue, getting longer by the second, composed of at least 500 holidaymakers and their children, frequently four or five abreast, complete with luggage of varying types and sizes, jostling for position in circumstances which could only be described as chaotic. Apparently, our tour operator had been inspired enough to schedule three departures to different destinations within the same hour, so what we were observing was the future contents of no less than three planes. To add to the pandemonium, the counter was manned by just one person, with the result that travellers seemed to be advancing at a pace which would have shamed a snail. And not only was the queue horrendously long, but the configuration of that part of the terminal hall, together with the location of the tour operator’s counter, had caused it to assume an inverted L-shaped form; for in order not to unduly impede other travellers walking along the main aisle of the hall, it stretched for 50 yards or so in as much as a straight line as you can expect from the Frogs before bending sharply at a 90° angle to the counter situated some 20 yards away.
Our Englishman managed to resist all attempts from his French alter to persuade us to indulge in a spot of crafty un-queuing and guided us to right round to the back. But, as we edged patiently on, we couldn’t help noticing that a good number of the people we’d seen walking by and who, in many cases, had arrived half an hour or more after us, were now popping up 30 or 40 yards ahead in that final stretch of the queue after the sharp 90° turn. How had they managed it? A few yards further on and the answer became perfectly clear. Many of those we’d seen walking by – whom my Englishman had naively taken to be passengers for other destinations – were, in fact, joining the queue at that point in front of us where it branched at right angles towards the tour operator’s counter, thereby saving themselves a good half hour’s queuing time. For true to their nature, they had been quick to identify and exploit the principal weakness of our queue: the 90° turn. For this right-angle provided what could possibly have been conceived as a starting point to which any Tom, Dick or Harry of an un-queuer, under cover of the passing crowds, could append himself far more discreetly than joining it laterally at some point along the preceding stretch. What’s more, in the unlikely event of reprimand from others, joining the queue at this point presented the further advantage of supplying offenders with the pretext that they had mistaken it for its beginning. In short, it was a dreamed-of scenario for the Gallic queue-jumper.
At this moment our Frenchie brought to our attention the antics of one particularly crafty un-queuer – an unremarkable-looking, diminutively-sized monsieur (probably a hen-pecked bank clerk, our Englishman commented ruthfully) wheeling a suitcase almost as large as himself. As he reached that point ahead where the queue began its 90 degree turn he stopped, let go of the suitcase handle, pulled a large handkerchief out of his pocket, and began mopping his brow. Then, with a resigned look ahead, he expelled a lungful of air in what was certainly intended to be interpreted as a deep sigh of fatigue, designed to give any casual observer the impression that he was simply pausing for a breather before continuing on his way. But, after stealing a furtive glance around him, he lifted his suitcase an inch or two and then let it drop again. The same observer would have thought he had simply decided to grant himself a few more seconds’ rest; but it didn’t escape us that the suitcase had been deposited just a little nearer the main body of the queue. Another sly glance around followed, and again our little man picked up his case. It was as if he simply intended to disencumber the busy main aisle. Again he put the case back down – even nearer to the main queue.
To cut a long story short, the same procedure was repeated a dozen times or more until the case had been worked far enough into the line to clear a path for its owner, after which it was relatively easy to swing in a leg followed by most of his body until complete integration had been obtained. And then, by some mysterious airport version of the jungle telephone, he was immediately joined by two small children and a woman, twice his size, whom we assumed to be his spouse.
But what astonished our Englishman was the fact that, though some people did vaguely grumble at this mass un-queuing, all direct remonstration was carefully avoided. But he himself could take no more. Observing an attractive young lady in the act of shamelessly positioning herself laterally to the queue only yards from the tour operator’s counter, he loudly enjoined her to get to the back. She stubbornly stood her ground and, in typical French fashion, made a not unconvincing attempt to designate us as the real culprit by indignantly inferring that we were lacking in gallantry. This prompted our English part to appeal to the more vociferous grumblers among us for moral support.
‘Ah, vous savez, c’est sûrement la même chose à l’étranger!’ – ‘It’s certainly the same in other countries,’ one of them exclaimed, – no doubt detecting the slight foreign accent which our voice assumes whenever our Englishman expresses himself under duress. Despite his attempts to convince her it certainly wasn’t the case, in England, at least, she remained unmoved. Being totally isolated, we could only resign ourself to letting the whole matter drop.
It is a generally admitted fact that when an Englishman is confronted with a rule or regulation he makes two simple additions: it applies to the 63.4 million sum total of his compatriots – plus himself. When a Frenchman is faced by a rule or regulation he makes a simple addition and then a subtraction: it applies to all 65.8 million of his compatriotes – minus himself. Take our company-owning neighbour, Monsieur Martin.
Now you can ask Monsieur Martin if he thinks the Code de la Route should apply to all and his reply will be ‘Oui, bien sûr!’ And when we got a fine the other day for exceeding the speed limit by a measly 10km/h, he told us it’s perfectly normal that we should have been punished in this way. But our English part can’t help noting that this doesn’t stop him from trying to cover the distance between A and B in a time normally associated with the Monaco Grand Prix. And when he gets a fine, not only does he protest about the injustice of a law which penalizes drivers like him who are a danger to nobody, but he’ll go to extraordinary lengths not to pay it.
Now the other day we had a game of golf with Monsieur Martin at a course located some distance from our abodes. He insisted on driving us there in his brand new, top-of-the-range Mercedes. Coming home in the evening we were just beginning our approach into town when we had the misfortune to fall foul of a police speed camera ambush: for only the tip of the camera was visible, the rest, together with its two képi-topped operators, being concealed behind a wall. Usually, in this type of situation, in a rare display of solidarity, oncoming motorists will flash their headlights to warn drivers of the presence of the common enemy ahead. But implacable fate had decreed that at this time and place we should be alone on the road, and we could only resign ourselves to the sight of the blue-clad arm of the law being raised.
Now a blue uniform having much the same effect on a Frenchman as a red rag on a bull, Monsieur Martin could have been expected to give a furious snort. But it was with the docility of a sheep being led along the way to transformation into mutton that he allowed us to be directed into a lay-by where the hand of the law proceeded to write out a fine. Strangely, Monsieur Martin took it with a broad smile on his face, and a polite ‘merci beaucoup’ on his lips. After tucking it into his pocket, he tucked himself back into the driving seat, we took off again, and set a course for home – though at a less supersonic speed than before. On touchdown, he taxied into his parking bay, pulled out his cell phone, called the Mairie, the Town Hall, and asked to speak to his friend, Monsieur le maire. To cut a long story short, Monsieur le maire phoned Monsieur le commissaire, the police station superintendant, asking him to have a quiet word with the policeman, the fine was reduced to confetti-sized proportions and consigned to the ignominious oblivion of the wastepaper bin. And since one good turn deserves another, Monsieur Martin despatched a case of wine (nothing exceptional, just honest, straightforward claret) to Monsieur le commissaire – to which he attached a note expressing his sincere congratulations on the magnificent job he and his men were doing in reducing dangerous speeding in and around our town!
On another occasion we were with Monsieur Martin who was hurtling along, well on his way to reaching the speed of sound, when through the viewfinder we observed a small village fast approaching. Not being equipped with parachute-assisted braking, a split second later we found ourselves in the middle of the village, still at a speed well above the legal limit. This was confirmed by the appearance of a képi-topped head surmounting a blue-uniformed body to which were attached two blue-sleeved arms, the the right one of which was hoisted vertically, while the left was pointed horizontally towards a small parking area where we could observe, not without some consolation, several hands of the law engaged in writing out fines to two or three sheepish-looking motorists. As we reached a final halt and the engine was being shut down, a policeman marched over and gratified us with a smart salute. Suddenly, recognizing Monsieur Martin, he greeted him with an embarrassed, ‘Ah, Monsieur Martin, c’est vous! Bonjour, Monsieur. Comment allez-vous?’
Monsieur Martin replied that, even though he could have been worse, he would have felt considerably better had he not found himself in the predicament he was presently in. The policeman cast a furtive look around, opened his carnet, and proceeded to write out the fine – with the ball point of his pen still retracted! On being handed the blank contravention, Monsieur Martin’s face produced an appreciative smirk, the eye of the law replied with a collusive wink, the arm of the law gave a parting salute, and we took off again. As we were accelerating to cruising speed, Monsieur Martin explained to us that it was his policy to encourage the warmest possible relations with the local constabulary through liberal contributions to the police benevolent fund, together with the generous bestowal on the policemen themselves of products manufactured by his company – namely sunglasses – the design and quality of which made them an object of desire for all.
‘Vous savez,’ he remarked, ‘it’s one way of showing my gratitude for the fantastic job they’re doing. I mean, some drivers are a public danger!’
Our Anglo-Saxon readers might be tempted to think that in France those in authority go to active lengths to cool that urge which drives the French motorist on in his permanent quest to set a new land speed record on the public highway. They would be quite right. They might also think that those in high authority themselves lead the way. They would be hopelessly wrong. For this would be to forget that in this land where the exception reigns supreme, the rule is for others. But what, after all, is more understandable that those in high government office should grant themselves the privilege of jet propulsion when they are safe in the knowledge of being 10,000 metres above the law?
This was brought home to me that very first time I took my car over to France. I use the pronoun ‘I’ as we were then a single identity Englishman. And what can be less surprising that, on arriving in Paris, I decided to spend an hour or two seeing the sights? But while driving gently down the Champs-Elysées I was rudely interrupted by a police motorcyclist who suddenly shot from out of the blue, drew up alongside and, incredibly, almost shook me out of my skin by administering a hefty, booted kick to the driving door, while at the same time signalling by a most disagreeable gesture of hand that I should pull in to one side. And then, before I knew it, a cavalcade of three dark-windowed limousines, blue gyro lights flashing, escorted by two more police motorbikes, zoomed by at supersonic speed, totally ignoring red lights, stop signs, continuous white lanes and bus lanes. Now, I could have been excused for thinking I was either dreaming or witnessing the filming of some action-packed movie where the public enemy number one was being chased to ground. But this was neither dream nor movie. This was the Président de la République on his way to work!
Many years later when we had become the Frenglishman we now are we read the confessions of a retired Presidential chauffeur. They provided further proof that in France, once you are at the wheel of state, there’s no brake on what you can do. Not only, he wrote in his Mémoires, did he receive official instructions never to ‘hang about’ at red lights, stop signs or pedestrian crossings, but he also remembered one day in particular when he drove his boss from Paris to Metz (distance 310 kilometres) on the motorway at one of the busiest times of day in two hours flat, at speeds often in excess of 200 km/h. (the speed limit on French motorways is 130 km/h). He even admitted using his siren on several occasions in the middle of towns (presumably with Presidential approval) in order to attract the attention of ‘sexy-looking blonds.’
Some months later the President’s newly-elected successor declared that, as he was now in the driving seat, he was going to steer a much straighter line: not only would cars carrying or accompanying himself and members of his government no longer use gyro lights and sirens, but in future the Code de la Route would be unbendingly followed by ministers and their chauffeurs. His Premier Ministre even added that ‘from now on, the French State, in matters of road safety, will play an exemplary role.’
A few weeks later, a popular motoring magazine decided to conduct a survey to determine whether the new government was as good as its word. In a scenario worthy of a spy film, two scooters (used alternately to avoid the risk of being spotted), each mounted by a reporter and photographer, discreetly shadowed government ministers over several days in their official movements through the metropolis to the Assemblée Nationale, the Sénat, inaugurations, television interviews etc., and all misdemeanours faithfully recorded. A mobile laser speed camera, identical to the type used by the French police, measured the extent of the transgression, and the same scale of fines and loss of licence points applied as for the ordinary citoyen.
The driving force of the nation, the President of the Republic, though shadowed for only one day, did show promise. True to his word, his car idled patiently in traffic jams like everybody else, and neither gyro light nor siren was used. The only blot on his copybook was when his cavalcade (three limousines escorted by two police motorcyclists) blew a 50 km/h limit in a ring-road tunnel by 30 km/h. This lapse would have cost Monsieur Tout-le-Monde a fine of €135, and two licence points.
His Prime Minister didn’t really set the example he had so faithfully promised, either. Over the ten-day period he was tailed the final result was: one red light jumped, one right of way refused, and one continuous white line crossed – which would have condemned Monsieur Dupont to €1,650 in fines … and 11 points less.
The Ministre des Transports could also have carried himself off better. Having publicly declared that ‘simply respecting speed limits would save more than 3,000 lives per year,’ the road he followed was in tireless adherence to that same principle: ‘You do as I say, but I do as I may.’ He managed to drive through two red lights, three amber lights, use a bus-only lane as well as commit three speeding offences more than 20 km.h in excess of the authorized limit. Not only would these misdemeanours have lightened the citizen’s wallet by a total of €2,250, but would have deprived him of licence for an appreciable length of time.
In all impartiality, the efforts of the Garde des Sceaux, the Minister of Justice, couldn’t even be described as fair and, had she been Madame Dupont, she would certainly have been courting disaster. The verdict on the nation’s top judge was: guilty of jumping three red lights, crossing one continuous white line, and taking a one-way street – in the wrong direction. Her results (estimated, as the pace she set was too hot for the shadowing scooters) would have meant a sentence of €3,200 in fines as well as a lengthy licence suspension.
Surprisingly, these revelations, though widely publicized by the media, neither raised many eyebrows nor had any great lasting effect, and another similar survey conducted two years later produced very much the same results.
What’s more normal, then, that, in face of the non-example from the bridge above, the engine-room workers should consider themselves invested – albeit more modestly – with the same right to exception as those at the helm of the vessel of state? For even the modest facteur is firmly convinced that the immunity bestowed by guaranteed employment with the all-powerful Fonction Publique, the Public Service, places him far above the common mortal by allowing him, in all impunity, to apply his own special stamp to the Code de la Route. Take our own postman.
Since our postman serves a number of surrounding villages as well as that part of the town where we reside he has been provided with a post-office van. Now, it’s evident that the stop-and-start nature of a van-driving postman’s round deprives him of any significant latitude for speedy advancement. Consequently, the time needed to accomplish his daily labours depends less on the velocity he can extract from his van’s modestly-powered engine than the degree of proximity he can obtain between his vehicle and the citoyen’s mailbox. In short, his problem is one of parking. Astonishing as this might appear, parking in France is regulated by law, generally conceived to be applicable to all … en principe. For, like many things in France, such is the gap between theory and practice that our van-driving postman feels impregnable enough to grant himself the right to bring his vehicle to a halt on pavements, in the middle of roads, alongside other vehicles and by no-parking signs. And he will frequently park in front of private drives and garages (blocking them completely when he could easily have parked three or four metres to the left or right). In this respect our Englishman was particularly infuriated (our Frenchie simply shrugged our shoulders) by an experience we had recently.
The other morning we left home, walked round to the garage (it issues directly onto the street), opened the door, jumped into the car, started up, and were just reversing out (our English part was at the wheel) when, lo and behold, a yellow post-office van appeared from nowhere and pulled up right behind us, making any further rearward progression impossible. Without so much as a glance in our direction the postman eased himself out, sauntered round to the back of his van, extracted a small parcel from it, and began strolling leisurely away. Our Englishman impelled us out, loudly enjoining him to move his vehicle immediately.
‘Two minutes!’ the postman replied, casually holding up a couple of fingers, and not even turning round to face us as he spoke.
Though the Frenchman in us seemed quite ready to let him get away with it, our Englishman certainly was not. Abandoning the little that remained of his phlegm, he proceeded to let it be known in the strongest possible terms that if he didn’t shift his van immediately he would be in no way responsible for the consequences. It was with an ostentatious show of reluctance that the postman consented to comply.
It might, nevertheless, be thought that our postman’s self-granted right to exemption from the normal rules of parking is limited to working hours. This is not at all the case. For we often see in the centre of town the same post-office van lodged in a disabled-person’s parking space, located in front of the café where he’s in the habit of taking his after-work apéritif. And this daily transgression (which if committed by the ordinary mortal would be pitilessly sanctioned by a fine) is totally ignored by the two patrolling policeman (also state workers) who regularly pass that way.
It would, however, be a grave mistake to think that it’s mainly state workers or those with power and influence who place themselves above the rule. This is not the case. For in this land of equality, where everyone considers himself to be more equal than others, it’s the driver of the more modestly-sized car who is guilty of some of the worst excesses – especially of speed. Is it that same Marxist egalitarian factor which grants him license to compensate for the modest cubic capacity of his vehicle by a more generous interpretation of the Code de la Route?
What’s more, it would seem that similar considerations inspire the pedal-propelled road-user. Now we might be forgiven for thinking that the cyclist does not share the same lofty aspirations to air-born status as his motorized brother, and that his reduced dimensions, limited power, and greater vulnerability keep wheels firmly on the ground. In this land of total contradiction how could the opposite not be the case? For placing his bum on the saddle of his _petite reine_* invests him with a regal precedence which allows him to ignore traffic lights and stop signs far more than the combustion-engined commoner.
* The little queen. It’s hardly surprising that in a country which organizes the greatest cycling competition in the world the humble cycle should have acquired the status of royalty.
In a free-market economy a sacrosanct commercial rule states that the supplier should do his best to satisfy the requirements of his customer as obligingly and efficiently as possible, and that the latter’s preferences should always have priority over his own. What is less surprising that in the land of the exception this same commercial rule should be subject to individual interpretation? For that yawning gap which exists in France between what should be and what is, was again brought home to us one Saturday morning when the need to ensure another week’s survival obliged us to go along to our local supermarket.
As the items on our shopping list far exceeded the carrying capacity of a hand-held basket, we made our way to the trolley storage area. Now, in order to persuade shoppers to bring their trolleys back to the storage point after use, those provided by our local supermarket are equipped with a coin or token-operated locking mechanism, along with a chain shackling them to the others. Being in possession of neither a one euro coin nor a plastic substitute counter, we stepped inside the supermarket. As there was nobody at the information desk we headed towards the nearest checkout where a rather sour-looking lady seemed to be doing her best to let everyone know she was engaged in a job beneath her. Just as she was opening her till, it could only have been our Englishman who politely asked if she could let us have a euro coin for the two fifty cent ones we held in our hand.
‘Ah non!’ she snapped with a determined shake of her head.
‘Mais pourquoi, Madame ?’ he enquired.
‘Because I need all the change I’ve got!’
It must have been the same Englishman who gave our cheek a vigorous pinch: for our Frenchie didn’t seem at all surprised; and he even suggested we should go back to the information desk and patiently wait until somebody appeared. But our bulldog Englishman insisted on us standing our ground. So, mustering all our self-control, we appealed to the checkout lady to reconsider her decision by pointing out that, since we were a customer, and a regular one at that, she might consider placing our satisfaction before her own. The argument fell as a seed on desert ground. In a final attempt to kindle a spark of commercial awareness, we proceeded to point to the banner hanging just above our head, proclaiming in bold capital letters that CHEZ NOUS LE CLIENT EST ROI, ‘Here The Customer Is King’. Her shoulders projected themselves upwards while her lower lip stretched itself downwards in that facial configuration commonly termed a Gallic shrug. But our bulldog could muzzle himself no longer. Abandoning all restraint, he loudly declared that if we were not the recipient of the required coin within the next ten seconds, the arguments we had presented would be brought directly to the ears of her boss. It was with undisguised bad grace that she complied.
So, after obtaining our trolley, we got down to the business of shopping. Having a typically English sweet tooth, our Englishman wheeled us straight to the biscuit shelves where a young lady was engaged in erecting a tall pyramid-like structure – presumably as part of a promotional display – composed of packets of the chocolate-coated digestives he’s especially partial to. Bringing our trolley to a halt next to her, we were just about to grab a couple when she called out in a tone of barely-concealed irritation, ‘Mind you don’t knock them all down. You know, it won’t be me who’ll put ’em all back up again!’
It must have been our Frenchman who made us to bite our tongue by whispering that après tout she was only doing her job, and that it would be better if we got out of her way; and since it was Saturday why didn’t we treat ourself to some delicious mountain-cured ham as a starter for dinner that evening? It would go down well with a glass or two of light, dry Riesling. So off we went to the charcuterie, the cooked meat counter.
Now the charcuterie counter at our local supermarket displays a mouth-watering variety of cooked meats: pâtés, pâtés en croûte, saucissons, terrines and saucisses, to name just a few. It could only have been our Frenchie who dug us in the ribs and slyly whispered in our ear that the young girl assistant behind was just as mouthwatering as the wares she was serving. But when we requested half a dozen slices of mountain-cured ham, cut thin, she gave a shake of her pretty little head, and with a charming smile proceeded to ask if we would do her a little favour. Could we possibly accept the same … in pre-packed form? She’d just spent a whole quarter of an hour stripping and cleaning the cutting machine and didn’t really want to have to begin again. It was certainly our English half who prompted us to enquire whether the supermarket closing time was seven o’clock or a quarter to.
‘Oui, vous avez raison, Monsieur,’ she replied with an even sweeter smile, ‘mais, vous voyez, I’m meeting my boyfriend at half past seven. Since I need at least half an hour to get home and change, I cleaned the machine in advance so I can leave dead on seven. I’m sure you’ll understand!’ We meekly settled for a wedge of modest pâté de campagne which she cut with a carving knife.
And while we have no cause to doubt their technical competence, those who staff our local garage show the same individualistic approach to established commercial practice. We might have been excused for thinking (though our Frenchie did express some doubts) that our purchase last year of a brand-new car from this same garage (the official agent of a well-known marque) ranked us among their better customers – with all the attentive commercial consideration this should imply. Well, events once more went to suggest that this was not quite the case. A week ago, we took our new car along to the garage for the first scheduled service, which included, of course, an oil-change. A few days later we received the invoice. Glancing through the listed supplies, we noticed the mysterious item chiffons, rags, at the bottom – to which the sum of 3,75 € had been attributed. So, our Englishman persuaded us to go along and pay in person, and at the same time ask for an explanation.
‘Oh, that’s in payment for what the mechanic used to wipe all the oil and grease from his hands,’ the receptionist breezily replied We paid without a murmur.
But that was not the end of it. Two days later, we received a second bill to which a hand-written note was stapled. On the original bill, it explained, there was a mistake: a medium grade oil had been invoiced, whereas a high-grade one had, in fact, been used. Since the latter was, naturally, more expensive, the sum of 4,50€ was still owing. Could we please settle the difference without delay!
Though our Frog would be the first to admit that, in contrast to you follow-the-rule English, some of his concitoyens may be accused of lacking in citizenship, he can’t help thinking that extenuating circumstances can be found in the fact that the freedom granted to you to do what you want in public places is far more restricted than in France. For not only are you at constant risk of being brought to order by authority or, incredibly, by your fellow citizens, but he doesn’t know of any other nation which displays such a generalized obsession for regulating public behaviour in the minutest detail. What other conclusion can we draw about a country where the ubiquitous presence of such a multiplicity of signs, notices, placards, boards, stickers, plates, pointers, arrows, warnings, instructions, recommendations, injunctions, enjoinders and sundry symbols makes it perfectly clear to all what they can and, above all, what they can’t do in publicly-frequented places, and leaves them in no doubt of the dire consequences of failing to comply? And this can be carried to the most ridiculous extremes. In some public places it’s even forbidden to kiss!
Imagine, par exemple (you’ll certainly have realized it’s mainly our Frenchie who’s guiding our hand) that a businessman decides to take a train to go and see a customer in London. His wife drives him to the station in the morning and stops at the drop-off point in front. What’s more natural that, just before he gets out of the car, their lips should come together in a parting kiss? But, incredible as this may sound, at one station in England at least, they can’t do it. It’s not allowed! Presumably, in an attempt to get us to swallow the idea that it increases the fluidity of traffic, the area has a prominent sign displaying a man and woman in the act of kissing – with a prohibitive line drawn through! But don’t worry! Inside the station another sign indicates that kissing is allowed. The only problem is that his wife is on her way back home and there’s nobody left to kiss! And nowhere was your English fixation with the punctilious regulation of public behaviour better illustrated than that time last Summer when we visited one of your stately homes.
This is not to say that things didn’t get off to an encouraging start. For, on arriving, our spirits were raised by the prominent greetingWelcome to Grumblesby Hall attached to a pillar of the palatial lodge gates. But we were immediately brought down to earth by the No Dogs Allowed sign suspended beneath, making no bones of the fact that if anyone thought he could take Rover for a run (or more) in the grounds, he’d be barking up the wrong tree. Good humour was, nevertheless, restored when, after driving through the gates, a Car Park – 200 Yards notice informed us that little more than a stone’s throw ahead a place had been provided to deposit our vehicle in; and the large arrow displayed beneath removed all possible doubt as to the direction it was in. But a few metres beyond a Maximum Speed 5 mph made it perfectly clear to the boy racers among us that any attempt to cover the distance at a rate not much beyond the locomotive capacity of a snail would be deemed perilous enough to render them liable to a Fine Not Exceeding £100.
No doubt in an effort, to deter the more adventurous soul, eager to get off the beaten track, it was next announced there was to be *No Parking on Grass Verges._ And as proof that this was no empty warning a [[*Wheel Clamping in Operation – Release Fee £100]_] brought it frighteningly home that not only would the offending vehicle be clapped in irons but an extortionist ransom would be required to free it. As we inched forward, another No Parking on Grass Verges came into view. And this time the addendum At Any Time inscribed beneath made it perfectly clear that military discipline was in operation here, and that under no circumstances would quarter be shown.
After crawling on for a hundred metres or so, an Official Car Park placard ahead informed us that the limits of authorized advancement were now being reached; and as we pulled into the car park an All Vehicles Must Be Parked Well Within Lines – Penalty £100 left us in no doubt that those who didn’t park with satellite link-up precision would render themselves liable to a hefty fine. And just in case any simpleton had got it into his head that parking was on the house, a Pay and Display sign brought it to the attention of all that permission to leave your vehicle inside the park was dependent not only on payment of an appropriate fee but visible evidence that you had acquitted yourself of it.
After carefully depositing our vehicle within the prescribed lines, we followed the sign Exit and accompanying arrow. This led us to two mean-looking appliances squatting beneath the appellation Ticket Machines. And their ungenerous disposition was immediately confirmed by a Ticket Machines Do Not Give Change; and a Parking Tickets Must Be Clearly Displayed at All Times provided not only one more reminder that unmistakable proof of payment must be permanently shown but a Tickets Must Be Affixed To Windscreen Or Side Window Of Vehicle So As To Be Clearly Visible At All Times gave a detailed explanation of the method required to achieve this. What’s more, some marginally smaller letters below made it uncompromisingly clear that the operation described was the entire responsibility of the vehicle owner and that absolutely no allowances would be made should the ticket become unstuck and fall from view. And a Time Paid for Must Not Be Exceeded left us in no doubt that only Swiss punctuality was acceptable here.
As we walked to the car with our ticket another Wheel Clamping in Operation – Release Fee £100 sign (at this stately home £100 seemed to cover every type of transgression) supplied yet one more warning of the fate reserved for the more absent-minded parker. And if any bright spark was under the illusion that all this was bluff, a Wardens on Patrol and CCT Monitoring At All Times made us grimly aware that this car park’s surveillance system had nothing to envy that of a maximum security prison.
As we strolled past the manicured turf a succession of enjoinders to Keep of the Grass served to remind us that in England this type of covering is for the eyes alone, and that any intrusion by foot is deemed as outrageously profane as entering a mosque with shoes still on. A little farther on, however, and our moral was slightly raised by the indication that a Picnic Area had been reserved for those seeking prandial communion with nature. But it took not much more than a couple of strides for a No Picnicking Beyond this Spot to make it soberingly clear that the previously-mentioned concession had narrowly-defined limits. And a minute later a Visitors Must Use the Benches and Tables Provided put a stop to any bright idea Mum might have had of sunning herself on the car rug; while a No Ball Games Allowed made it equally plain to Dad that if he got the bat and ball out for a game of cricket with the kids, he’d be playing on a sticky wicket.*
Close by, a Please Use Litter Bins – Fine £100 brought it plainly home that any attempt to apply the precept ‘If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s on somebody else’s doorstep’ would be at the offender’s considerable financial risk. Straight after, a splendid ornamental lake, complete with fountain and ducks brought a No Feeding the Birds and No Feeding the Fish, leaving animal lovers in no doubt that any uneaten bread must be taken home for tomorrow’s breakfast toast; and the triple injunction No Swimming – No Paddling – No Fishing threw cold water on any plans we might have had of either depositing ourself wholly or partially in the liquid element or extracting existing occupants from it.
As the house came into view, a prominent Admission: Adults £10 – Children and Senior Citizens £6 sign brought the sobering realization that a price was to be paid for the privilege of viewing the treasures within; and the bracketed parenthesis (Non–Refundable) beneath let it be firmly known that once you were in you were in, and that, financially at least, there would be no getting out. And yet another CCT Surveillance in Operation at all Times served as a stern reminder that Big Brother had his beady eyes constantly on us, and that any idea we might have of pocketing a silver teaspoon by way of a souvenir had better be dropped without delay.
Before committing ourself to a paying visit we decided to step into the nearby café and discuss things between us over a cup of coffee. In the unlikely event that someone had escaped that genetic programming which lines you English up with the same fatalistic resignation as lambs waiting for slaughter, a Please Queue Here notice herded us towards the usual roped passage, not much more than a metre wide. While waiting, we couldn’t fail to observe hanging from the ceiling a Customers May Not Consume Their Own Food and Drink. And below a Food and Beverages Must Be Paid For Before Consumption made it clear that any Froggy nonsense about only settling after wouldn’t be entertained here.
As we were drinking our coffee, we gave some serious thought to whether we should go in. Here my Frog and Bulldog seemed to agree. ‘Why not?’ we finally decided. ‘After all, we’ll certainly see some splendid things.’
But as we were getting up to leave one of our arms (our Englishman can be a clumsy devil at times) caught the empty cup and sent it crashing to the floor. Immedately a waitress came marching up.
‘That’ll be £5, please!’ she announced.
‘But,’ we protested, ‘we’ve already paid!’
‘Oh, it’s not for your coffee. Haven’t you seen the notice?’ she replied, nodding towards an All Breakages Must Be Paid For we’d not observed. After paying up without a murmur we headed straight for the coast.
* For the benefit of our non-English readers ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ means to find oneself in a difficult or delicate situation. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this quintessentially English sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ may be used to qualify an activity which our Frenchman describes as ‘more akin to ritualized loafing’. The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, again according to our Frenchman, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it, a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain) the ball can rebound in a frequently unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation. Our Anglo-Saxon readers will certainly be surprised to learn that it is not unknown for this typically English expression to be used by our French half. The only explanation our Englishman can find is that prolonged and intimate co-habitation with himself, a passionate lover of the game, has caused our Frenchie, in spite of himself, to be permeated by one or two rudimentary notions of the sport.
Recent events might have gone to confirm for some Anglo-Saxons that the French are at all levels a nation of cheats. And it’s certainly true that during our more than 40 years of co-habitation our Englishman has had numerous occasions to observe (our Frenchie usually turns a blind eye) that the average Gallic’s conviction that rules are necessary – as long as they’re for others – has generated treasures of resourcefulness and daring in devising ways of getting round them. As we have already dwelt on at some length, nowhere is this more evident than with the common queue.
What’s more, not only has our Anglo witnessed supermarket customers sticking the price tag issued by the fruit and vegetable weighing machine onto their plastic bag before surreptitiously adding a couple of bananas or tomatoes more but people jumping over a Paris Métro station tourniquet rather than pay the price of a ticket is a fairly common sight. Moreover, a third of those aged between 18 and 65 questioned in a recent survey admitted that at some time in their lives they had stolen at least one article of less than 20 euros in value. And undeclared work and fiddling the national health, family allowance or unemployment benefit system cost the country billions, while tax evasion seems to be a national sport. Mind you, what else can you expect when those at the helm of State set a deplorable example?
You know, somewhere our Brit can’t help thinking that holding public office in France gives some high flyers the idea that they’re 10, 000 metres above the law. Take, for example, the case of Jérôme Cahuzac. Now Jérôme Cahuzac, a former reputed surgeon, was until two years ago the brilliant Socialist Budget Minister entrusted by Monsieur le Président with the arduous task of fighting tax fraud. The problem was that, after promising a merciless clampdown on those of his concitoyens who held secret tax haven bank accounts, he was finally obliged to confess (after weeks of vehement public denial) that he himself had salted away an estimated 600 000 euros in a Swiss bank account. He’d even reportedly tried to invest around 15 million euros (£12.7 million) in a Swiss fund in 2009. It goes without saying that not only was he obliged to resign his government position but also that of député (though he was extremely reluctant to do so), and is now being investigated for tax fraud.
And, if that wasn’t enough, it was revealed more recently that when it came to not paying bills Thomas Thévenoud, a former Secretary of State in the Socialist Government at the time of writing was one of the most accomplished cheats. Not only had he not bothered to pay his local taxes but was late in declaring his taxable income for 2012 and 2014; and he’d even ‘forgotten’ to make a tax return in 2013! Mind you, he was finally obliged to settle a total amount of 41.475 euros to the French Inland Revenue this year, including some 12.000 euros in penalty fines.
But that wasn’t all. Over the years he’d also failed to pay a number of parking fines and seems to have been convinced that the electricity and water came absolutely free. And after hearing all this we can’t really blame a former landlord who revealed that his former lodger hadn’t deemed it necessary to pay his rent for the last three years. Then there was a physiotherapist who declared that the same highly-placed politician had been reluctant to pay for his two daughters’ physiotherapy sessions back in 2007. Apparently it took two years, several reminder letters, and a visit from a bailiff to remind him that he hadn’t settled the bill. What’s more, Monsieur Thévenoud also omitted to inform the appropriate authorities that he’d been the director of a wholesale wine company in 2010 – though admittedly it only lasted a month. Mind you, as our Frenchman says, you’ve got to hand it to him. For in his defence our former Secretary of State (he’s still a député, though now disowned by his Socialist brothers) was imaginative enough to have put all these omissions down to what he described as a chronic case of ‘phobie administrative’. We’ve heard of claustrophobia, arachnophobia, agoraphobia and even acrophobia, but we’ve got to confess that ‘administration phobia’ is a new one on us.
Though, generally speaking, the average Englishman’s respectful attitude to rules and regulations can be considered socially desirable, it is not without its limits, and the Frenchman’s more questioning mentality can, under some circumstances, have undeniable advantages. This was brought home to the English part of us one Christmas Eve some years ago.
On 24th December we drove to the airport to take a flight to England where we’d planned to spend Christmas with the English part of our family. Our English alter was at the wheel; for it must have been the prospect of overwhelming portions of rich, heavy Christmas pudding soon to be engulfing our stomach (as well as the idea of pulling stupid crackers, trying to find the answer to moronic riddles, and wearing ridiculous paper hats for two days on end) which had caused our Frenchman to go into such a sulk that the only thing which could be got out of him was the occasional scornful grunt. On arriving inside the terminal building we checked in, took our boarding card and then, thinking it would be better to go straight to the boarding lounge where we could relax over a cup of coffee and perhaps have a bite to eat, we marched straight off to the passenger-screening entry gate. A security agent was seated at a desk in front. The screen behind him displayed two flights but not ours.
‘You’re too early!’ he exclaimed, nodding towards the screen. ‘It’s been snowing a lot where your plane’s flying from so it’s probably been delayed. I’m sorry, but airport rules won’t allow me to let you through until your flight’s actually displayed on the screen!’
‘Oh, all right,’ our Englishman replied, ‘we’ll come back in a quarter of an hour.’
It goes without saying that, had our Frenchman not been in a state of semi hibernation, he would have found a way of getting us through there and then. But, as usual, the Englishman in us insisted on playing it by the rule and walked us unquestioningly away. Over the following hour, he frequently brought us back to the gate, only to note each time that the flight was still not displayed on the screen. Finally, since the scheduled boarding time was now well past, and sensing that something was amiss, our Frenchman extracted himself enough from his torpor to suggest that we ask the agent if it would be possible for us to go through.
‘It’s O.K. for your flight now,’ was the agent’s reply. ‘You can go ahead through.’
We walked through the scanning portal, submitted ourself to a body search, showed our passport at the police control and then strolled into the boarding lounge. The sight of empty seats by the departure gate told us something was horribly wrong. We immediately made enquiries, only to be informed, to our Englishman’s stupefaction (and our Frenchie’s heart-felt relief), that boarding was now impossible as the plane was just taking off! In fact, we’d been the victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances. Apparently, the incoming flight had been delayed because of snow, and the airline company’s ground staff had either failed to activate the outgoing flight display system, or it had simply broken down. And no doubt realizing this, the security agent had allowed the passengers who came after me to go on through – even though the flight was still not displayed. And now, since no alternative flights were available, we were obliged to collect the car in the car park, pay the exorbitant minimum parking fee, and drive back home. And no doubt reinvigorated by the prospect of a Noël à la française, our Frenchie had no hesitation in accepting his English alter’s invitation to take the wheel.
Even though a case could possibly be made out in defense of the foreign beginnings of a limited number of minor sports, little doubt can be entertained as to the English origins of the major ones and, above all, the source of the sporting spirit in which they are played.
Readers will have already realized it was our Englishman who won the toss and kicked off this article with the above lines. Initially he set the ball rolling by: ‘Even though absolutely no doubt whatsoever may possibly be entertained as to the English origins of all popular sports…,’ but was crunchingly tackled on this by his left-wing French team mate. Our Gallic vehemently protested that, contrary to general belief on the English side of the Channel, well-known sports such as football, rugby, or tennis are, in fact, of French origin. He went on to insist that if his English alter ego were to remain true to the principle of fair play he claimed for himself and his compatriots, the very least he could do was to admit the existence of doubt on this score.
Our French left winger then proceeded to declare that, though English history maintains that the game of rugby was inspired by a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the Public School of the same sporting name who, in November 1823, during a game of soccer, hit on the brilliant idea of picking up the ball and running with it towards the opposing goal, this sport can actually be traced much further back in time to the ancient French game of la soule. This contest, apparently originating in Brittany, took the form of what was little more than a mass punch-up between two gangs of young men from rival villages, with few, if any rules – the goal being to carry a bran-filled pig’s bladder over a predetermined line. ‘If no rules existed,’ retorted our Englishman, ‘then I grant you it must have come from France!’
Similarly, again according to our Frenchman, tennis has its origins in the French jeu de paume. For him, indisputable proof of this is provided by the word ‘love’, signifying ‘nought’ in this sport only, and which is, in fact, a corruption of the French word oeuf, meaning ‘egg’– an egg having much the same shape as the figure nought. Imagine our Englishman’s stupefied indignation, however, when his French alter tried to bowl him over by declaring that even the quintessential English game of cricket was of Gallic inspiration. So silly was this point that our Englishman was stumped for a reply. After a few seconds, however, he creased himself with laughter but, realizing they were playing on a sticky wicket* here, he made an appeal to call off play.
Our Frenchman then served for the match by announcing that even the concept of ‘fair play’ was of French inspiration. The Englishman in us managed to get the ball back into the other half of the court by arguing that proof of its English origins would seem to be provided by the fact that no linguistic equivalent exists in the French language (the Gallics readily use the English expression), and even less in the French mentality. To this, our Gallic was unable to hit back a winner, and after a protracted rally our Englishman finally managed to win his point.
In all justice, however, it has to be admitted that, though our rosbif remains unshakeably convinced that the spirit of fair play left the shores of Albion in unadulterated form, only to arrive on the Continent considerably diluted (perhaps it got dropped in the water on the way), he is fair-minded enough to concede that the actual level of playing ability of sports, reputedly English in origin, is often considerably improved upon when exported abroad.
* For an explanation of the meaning of the typically English expression ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ see note to Reflection 35.
A not negligible factor in the English sense of fair play involves a feeling of sympathy for the underdog. Not only is this type of adversary generally expected to be the loser because of his inferior sporting skills, but the circumstances surrounding the impending contest may also be to his disadvantage: the fact that he is operating away from home can have a significant part to play. In these conditions, giving the away-player(s) a sporting chance means going some way towards redressing this acknowledged handicap.
In England, this is usually echoed by a round of warm applause when the visiting team runs onto the pitch, by an acceptance of the referee’s decisions when these go against the home side and, above all, by the cathedral-like silence observed when penalties are being taken by the visitors. In contrast, for the Gallics, performing before your own supporters is an advantage which must be pushed firmly home. As a result, any self-respecting French supporter will use all means at his disposal to make the time spent on the playing field as much of an ordeal for away-team players and supporters (together with linesmen and the referee) as that suffered by General Gordon and his besieged forces on it becoming clear they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Dervish hordes, and that in the impending assault not the slightest quarter would be shown.
And this same notion of being on home or away ground has an equally important part to play in the ethics of hunting and shooting, too. In this respect, our English half remembers a conversation we had during a dinner party in England a few years ago. As venison was on the menu, talk turned to hunting and shooting. On learning there was a French side to us, the elderly, distinguished-looking English gentleman sitting opposite immediately related an experience he’d had in the fifties while on holiday in the South of France. Hearing there was a ‘pigeon shooting competition’ in a neighbouring village, and being a clay-pigeon shooter himself, he decided to go along to watch. The same horror-struck indignation which had certainly seized him at the time was repeated when he informed us that the ‘clay’ pigeons released were, in fact, made of bone, flesh and feathers!
‘What a shameful transgression of sporting fair-play!’ he went on to add. ‘It was like shooting a sitting duck!’
‘I fail to see the difference, monsieur, between shooting live pigeons and live grouse!’ our Frenchman countered.
Though the gentleman confessed to being a keen grouse-shooter himself, he adamantly denied infringing any sporting rules. For him, what distinguished shooting grouse from live pigeons boiled down to a question of playing at home or away. Since grouse shooting takes place on their natural moorland habitat, he considered it was the birds which had the advantage of playing on home ground. This was enough to make them fair game. With live pigeon shooting it was not the case. Releasing them from the away territory of man-made cages made them the defenceless victims of a shameful massacre; for what can be more disgracefully unsporting than to remove this last small chance an adversary has of escaping?
Moreover, the no doubt aristocratically-rooted English attachment to this notion of sporting fairness is still in evidence today: for an Englishman can come home at the end of a day’s shooting empty-handed but, as long as he has respected the ethics of the sport, rapturously happy and satisfied with time spent. The French chasseur, on the other hand, is of le peuple. What’s more, he is, above all, a predator. Far be it for our Englishman to wish to imply by this that the chasseur is not insensitive to the profound communion with nature his sport provides, nor to the warm camaraderie the pursuit of a commonly-shared passion procures; nor, at the limit, is he ignorant of the more rudimentary rules of sporting fair-play. But this notion of playing at home or away leaves him cold. For the French chasseur takes a far more pragmatic view: his primary aim is to avoid the humiliating ridicule involved in not obtaining tangible results, and any shame he might feel would be caused less by shooting a sitting duck than coming home with an empty game bag.
And it is certainly this point which goes somewhere towards explaining why in France at the beginning of each shooting season thousands of human-friendly partridges and pheasants are released from the farms where they were reared, and which they certainly considered as home, to be pitilessly massacred in less than half the time it takes to reload. In a good season’s shooting some 30 million of our feathery and furry friends (15 million of which are farm-raised ‘sitting-ducks’ – pheasants, partridges, mallards, rabbits etc., released as gun fodder) meet a premature and gory end.
The English hunter or shooter, then, is far less obsessed with the notion of return on effort which permanently haunts the back of the French chasseur’s mind. So, not only is he left with enough peace of mind to be able to consider a much larger part of the activity as pleasurable in itself, but he also enjoys a far greater scope to concentrate on the ethics of the sport. Nowhere is this more evident than in angling. It would, for example, be unthinkably improper for the true English trout angler to extract his adversary from its liquid element simply by standing on the bank, and dangling his line in the water with a vulgar worm or tiddler wriggling on the end. Attempting to catch a trout in this way would show a total lack of respect for a noble adversary. Since, for the Englishman, angling is far more a challenging sporting contest between equals, where he pits his skill, patience and experience against a mistrustful, home-based fish, the only fair way of enticing it to bite is by standing up to his thighs in water with an artificial fly on his hook. And usually when the fish has been successfully extracted, the contest is deemed to be over: it will be weighed, perhaps photographed, and then placed lovingly back. It is, nevertheless, true that if the English angler caught the biggest trout or pike of his life, he might be tempted to have it stuffed, encased and placed on public display. But this would be as much, even more, a tribute to the fighting qualities of his adversary than to his own angling prowess.
The English angler could, therefore, remain from dawn to dusk at a lake or riverside, catch nothing and go home in rapturous bliss. Not so with a Frenchman. The French angler who caught the biggest pike in his life would be driven not only by the constant fear of ridicule which gnaws permanently at his soul, but by this same obsessive notion that everything must serve a practical purpose. He would, therefore, have it weighed, have himself photographed with it, then take it home and (what is more natural in a land where cooking has the status of a religion?) seek consecration in the eating. An article which appeared in our local newspaper provides a perfect example of this.
Now, throughout the summer months our local newspaper regularly publishes photos, supplied by the anglers themselves, exhibiting the monstrous specimens of trout, carp, catfish and pike they have extracted, after prolonged and heroic struggle, from the depths of the region’s numerous lakes, étangs and rivers. It even offers an end-of-season prize for the largest capture in each category. Our Englishman remembers, in particular, one photo showing an angler proudly displaying a gigantic pike. Such were its monstrous proportions (dwarfing his ten-year-old son purposely placed by its side) that considerable concern was expressed as to the cooking which was far beyond the capacity of an ordinary kitchen oven. In a reassuring attempt at dissipating readers’ fears that the fish’s very size might be an insurmountable obstacle to gastronomic consecration, it was explained that the local baker had kindly offered his assistance by placing at the disposal of the angler’s wife his professionally-sized oven. This, it was emphasized, would have no problem in accommodating the inordinate proportions of the beast. For the true English angler, such shamefully unsporting disrespect for a noble adversary would be considered akin to cannibalism.
Not only does the French chasseur seriously deplete the ranks of our furry and feathery friends, and is not averse to using the odd road sign, stray cat or dog as target practice, but he also represents a considerable danger for some 15 million of his outdoor-loving compatriotes: walkers, ramblers, joggers, mushroom and blackberry-seekers, horse-riders, mountain-bikers, photographers, and general wild-life observers. In his favour, however, he does seem to be conscious of this: our Englishman has just reminded us of one occasion when, while strolling through a public forest one Sunday afternoon, we ourself, were the object of a peremptory warning (to the indignation even of the Frenchman in us), from a group of chasseurs that: ‘Vous vous promenez ici à vos risques et périls!’ – ‘Here, you’re walking at your own risk!’ For the French chasseur is enough of a bad shot to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Though 150 of these accidents stay in the family, roughly 20 involve non-shooters – even the most innocent of these.
Evidence of this was provided by a short article which appeared recently in our local weekly newspaper evoking a scenario worthy of the gun-toting Wild West. Last Saturday afternoon, it related, a young boy was playing in a junior football match with his local team when the ball happened to be kicked over onto the nearby road. As he was retrieving it, he was struck in the leg by some sort of projectile. He was immediately rushed to hospital where, after examination, a bullet was extracted from his knee. The article went on to reassure us that the boy’s life was not, however, in danger, and the following morning the gendarmes in charge of the investigation reported that a hunter had presented himself at the gendarmerie, along with rifle and cartridges. It was probably, they explained, a stray bullet which had ricocheted on a rock. It goes without saying that no French government has the political courage to ruffle the feathers of this powerful lobby counting more than 1.4 million voters who dictate their law of the gun.
You know, after giving the matter much thought, when it comes to sporting involvement we’re tempted to conclude that most of the difference in attitude between French and English boils down to a question of passion. As a general rule the flames of strong emotion leave the English cold. Is this part of their Victorian heritage? To what extent is it due to the Puritan factor? Can it be the result of a philosophy of education which placed strong emphasis on the systematic inculcation of phlegmatic restraint? Or could it simply be attributed to the sobering effects of a damp climate?
Credibility would seem to be lent to this thesis by the fact that an English judge would certainly not hesitate to sentence a compatriot to life imprisonment in the unlikely event that he emptied a gun on his wife and her lover after finding them in bed together. The French, on the other hand, warm much more to the idea that the fires of intense feeling may destroy rational behaviour. As a result, le crime passionnel would be much more liable to provide a plausible argument for extenuating circumstances, and hence be treated with far greater leniency than a crime of this nature perpetrated in cold blood.
Similarly, in the world of sport, an Englishman tends to show a much greater inclination to accept adversity with the same undemonstrative equanimity as he would show on discovering his spouse in bed with the window-cleaner. As a result he’s inclined to take the relatively dispassionate view that the opposition could actually prove itself equal or even superior. And so, when his team has the misfortune to lose, though some disappointment is naturally felt, that is usually the end of that. The Frenchman, on the other hand, takes a more committed stance – so much so that the Englishman in us cannot help but think that competitive sport for the Gallic is based on a fundamental principle which states that the triumph of the French sporting person or team is inscribed as much in the immutable order of things as the rising of the sun in the east each day. When harsh reality proves the opposite and they have the misfortune to lose, considerable imaginative prowess is shown in invoking reasons which might lead one to believe that defeat was due more to unfavourable circumstance than their own intrinsic inferiority. So frequently is this view encountered, especially in the media, that our own Englishman, has had no difficulty in compiling the following examples of some of the explanations used to absolve the non-performance of his French alter’s sporting countrymen:
‘For some reason we played badly.’
This penetrating analysis was advanced by a French international rugby player to explain defeat at the hands of the hereditary enemy at a Six Nations’ Tournament rugby match. Perhaps the reason he seems to have had so much difficulty in finding was simply the fact that the English played better. Oddly enough, when victory is on the French side it has yet to be heard suggested that the opposition played badly.
‘They were more realistic than us.’
The word ‘realism,’ or rather the lack of it, often crops up to explain French defeat, and our Englishman is not 100% sure what is really meant – perhaps that the opposition got their heads down, took their chances, and generally adapted their game to the conditions they were actually operating in: unplayable pitch, foul weather, hostile opposition supporters, incompetent referee, etc. In an ideal world, of course, where opponents are determined to let the French win, and playing conditions couldn’t be better (pitch like a bowling green, holiday weather, opposition supporters and referee entirely devoted to their cause) there can, of course, be only one winner.
‘The pitch was so uneven it stopped us taking advantage of our superior technique.’
The French B Soccer Team Manager offering his explanation as to why his prodigies managed only a disappointing away draw against a lowly African team by doing his best to convince us that bumps can be great levellers.
‘He was the victim of a boxing accident.’
A French T.V. commentator attempting to get us to swallow the fact that a French boxer being knocked out in the first round of a World Championship contest after two minutes flat was due more to the disastrous effects of his chin finding itself in the wrong place at the wrong time than the effectiveness of his opponent’s left hook.
‘They didn’t win. We lost.’
Yet another attempt to retrieve a semblance of superiority from humiliating defeat. Curiously, when victory is French, we have yet to hear ‘We didn’t win. They lost.’
‘His game was just stifled by the incredible heat.’
One journalist’s explanation as to why a French tennis champion lost a five-set marathon during the Australian Open against a lesser ranked opponent. Things must have been much cooler on the other side of the net.
‘Everything was against us.’
The weather and/or pitch conditions, physical and/or mental state of the French player(s), the referee, the opposing team and/or their supporters, fate, etc. can all unite to cause a catastrophic accident of nature.
We were unnerved by the deafening silence.’
So accustomed are French rugby players and footballers to converting tries or taking penalty kicks to an ear-shattering accompaniment of hooting, howling, whistling, drum-beating and horn-blowing on the part of opposing supporters that these have become a sine qua non for their successful accomplishment. This the perfidiously hypocritical English have long since understood and, consequently, providing the very opposite type of environment, i.e. where a pin can be heard to drop, is a nigh-on infallible way of putting off the most accurate of Gallic kickers.
While some historians maintain that the first golf ball was lofted in the Low Countries (the Dutch word kolf meaning ‘club’), and others point out that the Romans played a sport using a bent piece of wood and a ball made of feathers, it’s generally agreed that it was the Scots who defined the rules, and obtained official recognition for the game in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And, as our Frenchman has just chipped in to say, the course of history shows that the game of golf is not devoid of Gallic influence too; for not only do links exist between golf and Mary Stuart, future queen of Scotland who, in the sixteenth century, introduced the game to France, but the word ‘caddie’, he maintains, is a derivation of the French word cadet (junior) used to designate the young men who helped players carry their clubs at that time.
Our Anglo-Saxon golf-playing readers might be tempted to think that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ multitudinous rules and regulations leave golfers no option but to be a model of correctness on the fairways and greens of our planet. Regrettably, this is not always the case. For this nit-picking complexity provides the French golfer with an infinite number of opportunities to torture them into complying with what he wants them to say. Take an experience we recently had.
Now, our Englishman’s inborn modesty does not prevent him from encouraging in us the belief that we are a considerably better golfer than our neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Yet, whenever we play together he usually manages to win. Just how does he do it? The case of the rotten stake says it all.
The other day Monsieur Martin and ourself played a round of golf together. Now, honesty compels us to admit that, on this occasion, Monsieur Martin played well enough to merit our scores being level as we teed off at the eighteenth. Now the eighteenth hole of our local course is a relatively straightforward par three of around 160 yards, the only hazard being a small, deepish bunker placed just in front of the green with two thick bushes along its right side. Even though both Monsieur Martin and ourself hit reasonably straight drives, neither of our balls were to be seen when we walked up to the green. After some searching, we finally located ours which had rolled so far beneath the low-hanging branches of one of these bushes as to render any form of club-based extraction impossible. We had, therefore, to resign ourself to declaring our ball unplayable, picking it up and dropping it with a one-point penalty. Our initial dismay was, however, somewhat attenuated by the fact that Monsieur Martin’s ball had suffered a similar fate, as it was reposing beneath the other bush.
‘Ah, a penalty for you also, mon cher Martin!’ we exclaimed.
‘Mais pas du tout, mon vieux!’ Monsieur Martin retorted, after bending down and lifting up the overhanging branches of the bush to reveal an old, rotting, barely-visible wooden stake still attached to its trunk.
‘Vous voyez,’ he triumphantly declared, ‘my bush is still staked. I can drop my ball without a penalty point!’*
Whereupon Monsieur Martin proceeded to drop his ball and finished on a par – thereby winning the round by one stroke. Afterwards, over a drink in the clubhouse, it was certainly our Englishman who prompted us to ask whether he would have informed us of the stake’s presence, had it been our ball which he’d found under that bush.
‘Who knows?’ he replied with an enigmatic smile.
* My environmentalist readers will be pleased to learn that, in order to protect young staked trees, bushes and shrubs from the risk of collateral damage when a golfer attempts to strike a ball lying in close proximity, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrew’s rules stipulate that it may be dropped at a distance (in accordance with a strictly defined procedure), with no penalty point. It goes without saying that in the above case, though technically-speaking the rule still applied, the tree had attained a degree of maturity which had long since caused the stake, and consequently the rule to have lost all raison d’être.
I n the French sporting field it’s hardly surprising that absolute loyalty is required of the T.V commentator whose role is to provide constant proof that he fully shares the 150% commitment of the average French viewer to his favourites. A supreme example of this ideal type of commentator was provided by the late Thierry Roland whose partisan devotion to the French soccer cause not only endeared him to his sporting public but has made of him a legendary figure of football commentary. Just one example of his sectarian allegiance was supplied by an international match we watched on T.V. some time ago.
It is, of course, normal that the elevated position of a T.V. sports commentator should sometimes give him a far better vision of the game than its arbitrator who can, in all fairness, on occasions be unsighted. At one point in the match (which had a high level of what is commonly termed ‘physical commitment’), a defender from the foreign team committed a disgraceful foul on a French forward, which the referee failed to notice. ‘Foul, monsieur l’arbitre, foul!’ Monsieur Roland howled into his microphone. A few minutes later a French defender was guilty of what could possibly have been an even worse foul on a foreign attacker, which the referee (he must have been English) once again seemed not to notice. ‘Oh, the referee is nearer than me!’ Monsieur Roland calmly declared.
On another occasion during a France-Bulgaria soccer match, so great was this same commentator’s passionate commitment to the French cause, and so vigorous his hostility to the referee (who had just proved he was doing his best to deny the French a just victory by awarding a penalty to the opposing team), that in a moment of uncontrollable fury he announced to millions of viewers: ‘Monsieur Foot, vous êtes un salaud!’ – Monsieur Foot you’re a bastard. This considerably increased his popularity with the French sporting public: for in view of the hundreds of supportive letters received, the T.V. channel which employed him announced that previously-envisaged sanctions would not be taken. And surprisingly, the referee in question was Scottish, not English.
Indeed, a whole book could be devoted to the sporting comments of Thierry Roland, and the following constitute just a short selection of his more memorable pronouncements:
‘Don’t you think we could have found something better than a Tunisian to referee a match of this importance?’
Surprisingly, this remark was prompted by the famous goal scored by Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ – which the referee failed to see – during a World Cup soccer match between England and Argentina (Thierry Roland was a great Anglophile). So much did it pose a threat to Franco-Tunisian relations that the French ambassador was obliged to offer his apologies to the then Tunisian Prime Minister, Ben Ali.
‘Rumanians are all chicken thieves!’
An aside made to the other commentary-team member, his ex-football-star chum, Jean-Michel Larqué, during a France-Rumania match.
‘Koreans are all alike … they all measure 5’8” and they’ve all got brown hair.’
A comment made during a France-South Korea World Cup preparation match. During the match, in reply to Larqué’s astute observation that a lot of South Korean players were called ‘Lee,’ he retorted: ‘Since there are several ‘Lees’ (lit = bed), we can put them all together in the same bedroom.’
Other legendary remarks include, ‘Those two won’t spend their holidays together!’ ‘The flies have changed donkeys,’ and, when France won the 2002 World Cup, ‘Now we can all die in peace … but as late as possible!’ Unfortunately, his wish hardly came true as he departed our planet at the relatively premature age of 74.
Though the French sportsman is firmly convinced that, all things being equal, Gallic triumph is proclaimed in golden letters on High, he is not above giving destiny a helping hand. This was no better illustrated than by the French international team captain who during extra time of a Football World Cup qualifying play-off, generally dominated by their Irish opponents who were leading 1-0, and where everything seemed to indicate the final outcome was heading for a penalty shoot-out, received a pass (from an offside position), controlled the ball in the goalmouth with his left hand in full view of everybody (err… everybody, that is, except the referee and his two linesmen), and centred for his team mate to head a goal, thereby qualifying France on aggregate for the final stages of the World Cup the following year. Here are some of the resulting reactions from the main people concerned. The citations and comments which follow are from the English half of us:
‘Sure I handled the ball, but I’m not the referee.’
Our French captain seeking absolution during an after-match press conference by placing all responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the man with the whistle. If we understand correctly, what he seems to be trying to get us to swallow is that it’s not his ball handling which was at fault but the ref’s inability to spot it. Is this a tacit acceptance of the trickery and simulation which seems to be endemic to the game? So, according to this logic, if you feel like strangling the wife and then getting rid of her body by cutting it up into little pieces and burying them, well, err … go ahead! That’s fine – as long as you get away with it!
To be fair to the man in the middle, though, there must have been a modicum of doubt in his mind as he did briefly consult one of his linesmen before validating the goal. It still remains that he and his two partners were guilty of a degree of incompetence (some say even worse) which not even a short-sighted, soon-to-be-retired music teacher in charge of an Under 15B school soccer match on a foggy November Saturday morning would have shown.
‘What’s done is done. At least I’m honest with you.’
The same French captain during the same press conference philosophically admitting there’s no going back, and making a valiant attempt to get us to think he’s not such a bad guy after all. It would, however, have been difficult for him to do anything but come straight, as the T.V replay proved beyond doubt to millions that his hand had deliberately come into contact with the ball.
‘I was behind two Irish players in a crowded goalmouth and the ball came to me, bounced up and hit may hand. The referee didn’t blow his whistle so, of course, I continued to play …’
The same French captain still denying the evidence by maintaining that not only was the whole dirty business the ref’s fault but the ball had a hand in it, too.
‘I am, of course, embarrassed by the way we won, and extremely sorry for the Irish who really deserved to qualify. The fairest solution, of course, would be to replay the match, but it’s not in my power to take this decision. I’m not a cheat, and never have been …’
Part of the communiqué released later by a more repentant French captain. In fact, he was on pretty safe ground when he talked about replaying the match as the FIFA, the governing body in soccer, had already ruled that, given these particular circumstances, any replay was against the laws of the game, and that once the referee had validated a goal that was the end of that. Are we being cynical in thinking that this sudden desire for a fair outcome was inspired, partly at least, by a growing awareness that if he didn’t make a considerable effort to re-polish his tarnished public image (he was copiously whistled even by his own Spanish club supporters when he came on to play a few days after), his advertising sponsors would be inclined to consider him a less viable product?
‘I did consider withdrawing from the French World Cup team but then I thought this would be letting my country down.’
The same French captain continuing the same re-polishing work.
‘In spite of all the ups and downs, the main thing is that we are qualified.’
After paying due tribute to the courage of the French players, Monsieur le Président de la République seems to be suggesting here that, though the French nation reposes on those idyllic virtues of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, in sporting matters at least, a solid foundation in realpolitik is more effective.
‘What do you mean by hand ball? I saw nothing!’
The reaction of his Secretary of State for Sport, also present at the match, in a heavy-handed attempt to make light of it all.
Though manifesting great jubilation at France’s qualification, the French team manager refused to comment on the hand ball incident, simply declaring that it was all behind them now, and only the future mattered. It’s true that with a qualification bonus of nearly a million euros in your pocket, it’s not difficult to turn the page.
‘I’m not in favour of video replays.’
The whole controversy could, of course, have been nipped in the bud, had a video replay system been in operation. It appears, however, that the President of the UEFA (a former French international of repute) whose words are quoted above, is, for reasons known only to himself, resolutely opposed to this type of control, which has proved extremely effective in rugby and tennis. It’s true that during his own playing career he did reveal himself to be a consummate master in that French speciality of obtaining penalties by diving spectacularly in the penalty area at the slightest contact with a defender or – what requires even greater skill – when there’s no contact at all.
The unparalleled prowess of the French footballer in making the referee look a complete idiot was again demonstrated only a week later during a European Cup match between a French and, if our English alter remembers correctly, an Austrian team. Not only did the French forward obtain a penalty (which was gratefully converted) by collapsing dramatically in the penalty area (the following T.V. replay showing that the opposing player had not come within two feet of him), but so convincing were his antics that the guiltless defender was even given a yellow card.
‘You’ve got to have never played football in your life not to know that this sort of thing sometimes happens.’
The President of the FFF (French Football Federation) getting philosophical, and trying to convince us that, as all true footballers know, ‘C’est la vie!’
‘Football is all about RESPECT.’
The theme of the French Football Federation’s TV video clip we were treated to just before the match began, during half time, and probably after the match finished (we can’t be sure, as by this time we’d switched off the telly in disgust). The spot showed a group of youngsters happily kicking a football about with the message that the name of the game was RESPECT. Err… what do they say about the road to Hell?
‘The decision of the FIFA is final and applies to both Federations.’
In a last-ditch attempt to obtain a replay, the Irish Football Federation appealed to their French counterpart to join with them, and the captains of both teams in bringing pressure to bear on the FIFA for special permission to replay the match (apparently an agreement could possibly have been reached) in the interests of the integrity of the game, and the reputation of the French team. The appeal, of course, fell on deaf ears, the French Football Federation invoking the ‘irrevocable’ decision of the FIFA. By relegating all considerations of honour and fair play to the third division, our Anglo cannot help but think that a heaven-sent opportunity was thereby missed in restoring some kind of dignity to the game – especially since the French team was not without the means of winning. It’s true that taking this sort of risk would have required considerable courage and, as usual, commercial considerations and national prestige won the day.
‘I realize it was not my fault. It was an unfortunate event that had big consequences for Ireland, but it wasn’t the fault of the refereeing team.’
The man in the middle and his two assistants getting in on the act by adding themselves to the list of those who decline all liability. So, just who was to blame in all this? Ah yes …. we’ve finally got it. The real culprit was that incompetent, hypocritical, irresponsible, pusillanimous, cheating bastard called MISFORTUNE!
‘Please, messieurs, let’s leave this matter where it belongs: in the hands of the football authorities.’
Monsieur le Président of the Republic of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity also announcing his membership of the ‘It’s-Got-Nothing-To-Do-With-Me’ Club. If he really thought all this was none of his business, why did he turn up to watch the match in his official capacity in the first place? Or is justice simply not on his list of priorities?
‘………… is not a cheat.’
A retired former French captain defending his mate. What he really means, of course, is that, in soccer where trickery appears to be rife, he’s no more of a cheat than I was.
‘If I’d been him, I’d probably have done the same!’
Further admission that the game is rotten to the core, this time from the lips of a Brazilian playing in France.
‘In football, you know, there are lots of heroes who are cheats.’
A respected French manager (of a famous English club) saying more or less the same thing.
‘Do you think the French team deserved to qualify for the World Cup? Yes / No?’
A question asked by a French opinion poll a few days later. In all fairness, it did reveal that a large section of the French public as well as a number of former French internationals, politicians, and even a government minister found the manner in which the nation had qualified shamefully dishonourable on player, team and country, and that the Irish had probably been cheated out of a qualification which would have been not at all undeserved. However, as the soccer enthusiasts among our readers will certainly be aware, as things turned out during the actual World Cup competition some months later, divine justice did take upon itself the task of compensating for what a lack of responsibility, honesty and courage had caused that of Man to fail so miserably to do.
It is yet one more French paradox that a people who taught our world the principles of international diplomacy, and who attach such vital importance to the rules of polite behaviour and restrained elegance of speech should be given to such gross excesses of conduct and language once their derrière comes into contact with a driving seat. And so diametrically opposed is driving in France to that encountered in England that the English motorist who takes the plunge to cross the Channel for the very first time, and compares the speeds at which the French drive with the limits publicly displayed could be forgiven for thinking that their Minister of Transport, considering the English have enough on their plate keeping right (which for them is wrong), and in a laudable attempt not to overface them with too much metric system as a starter, has thoughtfully served up speed limits in mph, and that 50 is really 80 km/h, 70 is 105 km/h, 90 is 145 km/h and 130 corresponds to 210 km/h.
The English are convinced that a plane travels considerably faster than a car. The French do their best to prove the opposite. When an Englishman sets off on a drive of 200 miles, well … he sets off on a drive of 200 miles. When a Frenchman sets off on a drive of 300 kilometres he launches himself on a desperate race against the clock where traffic lights, halt signs, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, the pedestrians on them, other drivers, les flics are so many obstacles placed in his way to stop him from reducing his journey time at a speed more associated with jet propulsion than the combustion engine. And if you ask an English motorist after his 200 mile drive whether he had a good trip he’ll most likely reply: ‘Oh yes, it was marvellous. We took the highways and byways and stopped a couple of times for a cuppa. The scenery was wonderful.’ Put the same question to a French driver, and he’ll proudly declare: ‘Ah oui, j’ai mis deux heures seulement. Ca fait une moyenne de 150 km/h!’ – ‘Oh yes, it only took me two hours! That’s an average journey speed of 150km/h!’
For it’s a measure of the vital importance he attaches to systematically reducing time between departure and arrival at a speed normally associated with an inter-continental ballistic missile that the Frenchman who struggles to divide twelve by three is able to calculate in less than the blink of an eye, and to three decimal points his ‘moyenne’ – the result of dividing the distance he has covered by the time he has taken to do it in.
Proof that motoring in France is not quite the same experience as that enjoyed in England was quickly brought home that very first time we took ourself over to the Continent. As this was well before we developed into the Frenglishman we now are it was a 100% Englishman who was at the wheel. Driving his Mini off the ferry at Calais, he set a nice, gentle course for Paris. A minute later, a configuration of alternating black and white stripes painted on the road some fifty yards ahead gave him every reason to believe he was about to have his first encounter with a passage piéton, a pedestrian crossing. His assumption seemed to be reinforced by the presence of a bent, elderly lady clutching a walking stick standing on the pavement beside it.
Now, this young Englishman couldn’t have been faulted for thinking that a passage piéton in France has much the same function as a pedestrian crossing in England: namely that of providing the muscle-propelled with a clearly designated strip by which to reach the opposite side of the road in conditions offering enough protection against the engine-propelled as to ensure arrival in very much the same physical and mental state as departure. He could also have been excused for thinking that, when a bent old lady clutching a stick is seen standing beside one, not only might it be imagined that she wishes to cross to the other side, but the rules of elementary courtesy require a motorist to do his best to help her do so. So he brought his vehicle to a gentle stop and with a smile beckoned her to cross.
Now, had this scene taken place in England, the elderly lady’s reaction would have been both predictable and polite: she would certainly have returned his smile, and with a wave of thanks slowly made her way across. He would have waited patiently and, once she was safely over, he would have happily continued his way.
It quickly became apparent that this was not England. Oddly, the bent old lady refused to budge one inch. And even more strangely, his friendly smile was met by a hostile glower. It was as if somewhere she was saying, ‘You don’t think I’m going to fall for that one at my age, do you?’ And his growing suspicion that all was not quite right received sonorous confirmation a split second later when a deafening screech of tyres, followed by an ill-mannered blast of horn, prompted him to look into his rear-view mirror. Reflected in it was the furious face of a Frenchman executing a gesture we have now become all too familiar with: a disagreeable screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple indicating that the person it was directed at needed to tighten up on a thing or two.
Our English readers may be surprised to learn that a recent report suggests that one in ten French motorists is not in possession of a driving licence. As our English alter so often reminds us, what matters for the French driver is that he knows he can drive, and that whether he can drive or not is nobody’s business but his own. Moreover, driving in France at night soon brings to light of day the fact that a surprising number of vehicles have defective headlights (i.e. badly adjusted, or in need of bulb replacement). It must again be understood that what is important for the Frenchman is that he can see where he’s going, and that where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own. Similar conclusions can also be drawn with regard to traffic indicators. Now in England all cars are fitted with direction indicators, the purpose of which is, of course, to inform other motorists of their drivers’ intention to deviate from a straight line. In France cars also have indicators. These are almost totally superfluous to needs. For what is important to the French driver is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own.
It would, nevertheless, be wrong to assume that the Gallic never uses his traffic indicators. But what is more normal in a land where everybody does the opposite to what is expected that, though he rarely signals his intention to turn right or left, he sometimes does so when he means to go straight on? An indication of this was provided the other morning when we left home, drove down the side street where we live, stopped at the halt sign at the end, and patiently waited for a gap to appear in the traffic. Finally, everything was clear on the right. On looking to the left, our Englishman (it was he who was driving) observed a small van approaching some 50 yards away with right indicator winking. Now, he might have been forgiven for thinking that, when a vehicle is approaching with right winker on, it’s safe to assume its driver is signalling his intention to turn right. So out he pulled. The screech of brakes and prolonged honking of horn which followed proved our Anglo had made a horribly mistake. Though the van driver managed to stop just in time to avoid a collision his fury was great, and was accompanied by the usual screwing action of forefinger applied to temple. Our Englishman could only surmise that, shortly before, circumstances had obliged the driver (perhaps there had been a police car behind him) to signal his intention to change directions. But so unaccustomed was he to using his indicator that he was simply unaware it hadn’t automatically cancelled itself. Proof that our experience was not uncommon is provided by the fact that the great majority of French motorists wait until a vehicle actually begins turning before pulling out in front.
What is more understandable in a people reputed for their phlegmatic reserve that an English driver usually maintains a respectful distance between his front bumper and the rear one of the vehicle he is following? And what is more normal that the faster the pace the more this distance increases? Now, it would be tempting to think that living in a country almost three times the size of England, the French motorist has enough room to keep an even farther distance away. In reality, the opposite is the case. In France the faster the pace, the more the distance decreases.
As our Englishman quickly came to understand this desire to get closer should in no way be interpreted as a sign of friendliness. On the contrary, it is a carefully thought-out strategy with two main purposes in mind: firstly, by making it impossible for the driver in front to exert even the slightest pressure on his brake pedal without running the considerable risk of being rammed from behind, pressure is placed on him to accelerate by entertaining the illusion that in going faster he will increase the distance between his vehicle and the one behind; secondly, since the Gallic driver’s love of overtaking is only eclipsed by his hatred of being overtaken, the ploy has the additional benefit of providing a remarkably effective way of dissuading all but the most reckless driver behind from even thinking about attempting to pass – it being perfectly understood by both that not enough room will be left to pull back in ahead of the vehicle he has just overtaken. Usually very little quarter is shown and on some occasions we have even observed the vehicle being overtaken move even closer to the vehicle in front.
But in this land where the macho male driver reigns supreme, the ultimate affront is to be overtaken by a woman – even though, under normal circumstances, the lady driver knows perfectly well that the best place for her to be, especially on the highway, is dutifully behind the male. Confirmation of this was provided one day when we were driving along a country road (our Englishman was again at the wheel) at, it goes without saying, no more than the regulatory 90km/h. Suddenly a small car zoomed up from behind. Curiously, instead of overtaking us, it took up a position less than two metres from our rear bumper. Clearly reflected in our rear-view mirror was the face of a pretty blond. Being the patient and considerate driver he always tries to be, our Englishman slowed us down and pulled over to let her pass. But no doubt convinced that any attempt to overtake would be countered by acceleration on our part, she remained so resolutely stuck to our rear that we had to resign ourself to accepting her close company for the next four or five kilometres, despite the long stretches of straight, traffic-free road. And it was only by finally pulling into a lay-by that we managed to get her off our tail – though the prospect of more intimate acquaintance made our Frenchie regret she hadn’t followed us in.
In England, in both public and private areas, the disabled driver is provided with specific, conveniently-placed parking spaces which he may only occupy when proof of disability in the form of an official pass, complete with photo, is clearly displayed behind the windscreen. Though in France parking is regulated in public places, and policemen or traffic wardens are on constant prowl, this is never the case in private supermarket car parks where the police have little jurisdiction, if any at all, and parking attendants together with wheel clamping are practically unknown. Parking spaces for the disabled do exist (often in pairs or more) but, generally speaking, no proof of disability is required; and strangely, in a country whose citoyens are one of the least public-minded on our planet, the only attempts to dissuade the able-bodied driver from parking in them is to colour the space in blue, paint a stylized wheelchair on it, and accompany the whole by the conscience-pricking appeal: ‘Prenez ma place prenez mon handicap’ – Take my space take my disability. Needless to say, the Englishman in us (here our Frenchie seems to be totally blind) frequently observes perfectly valid motorists (and sometimes even les flics) not only parking their vehicles in this type of space, but doing so with wheels unashamedly straddling the dividing line between.
Is it that same Marxist syndrome which drives the ‘have nots’ to seek revenge on the ‘haves?’ Do driving schools in France consider this aspect of driving management beneath their notice? Or can we simply put it down to a lack of proper care and attention? Whatever the case, the French driver reserves his most vicious parking conduct for nice, expensive-looking cars in stationary configuration – usually in supermarket car parks, and especially when deposited there in brand-new, unsullied form. It is our personal experience that a parked vehicle answering these criteria has little chance of keeping virginity intact very much beyond half an hour. During the neigh-on 45 years of our residence in France we have been fortunate enough to possess nine brand new cars, all of which, incredible as this may sound, have suffered varying degrees of damage in just a few weeks after purchase.
Now, only a couple of months ago, we became the proud owner of another new car. It was our Brit who hit on the idea of attempting to extend the duration of its pristine state beyond that of its predecessors by systematically parking as far away from other vehicles as a car park area would allow. This strategy – the effectiveness of which he was beginning to congratulate himself on – worked perfectly for six weeks, until that day when we came out of a supermarket, only to note with much dismay that a dent had appeared in the rear bumper. Mystified (the nearest car was parked some 20 yards away), we proceeded to closer examination, and could only conclude that the damage was more in line with the trajectory of a hand-pushed shopping trolley than that of the combustion-propelled car bumper. At the suggestion of our Froggie we’ve decided that since we can’t beat ’em we’ll join ’em; so now, when we go to a supermarket not only do we park as close as possible to new-looking cars but throw our door open with such vigour that a dent will be automatically inflicted. And you know what? We’re actually getting to enjoy it – especially when it’s a more expensive car than ours!
It goes without saying that this strong Gallic relish for clunking into immobilized vehicles is not just limited to those deposited in parking areas. It is also manifest, albeit in far more lethal form, on the motorway hard shoulder. For here the motorist who has been unlucky enough to be driven to this type of enforced parking through breakdown or puncture, can count on a survival time not greatly exceeding that of a Tommy stepping out of his trench during the Battle of the Somme. Since average life expectancy on this narrow strip of no-man’s land is calculated at no more than 20 minutes, it is vital (and this we cannot emphasize enough) that the English motorist should first switch on his warning lights, invite his passengers to get out (on the opposite side to the flow of traffic), and take immediate shelter behind the safety barriers. He should then don his compulsory fluorescent jacket, place his warning triangle at a suitable distance (though this is not obligatory if, in doing so, his life would be endangered) walk carefully to the nearest emergency phone (they’re at most 2 000 metres apart and signalled by signs every 500 metres). There he must press a button which will put him in contact with the gendarmerie. Give them details of the vehicle – make, colour, direction and position (distance posts are located every 100 metres) as well as the nature of the breakdown. They’ll inform a breakdown service which should arrive in 30 to 45 minutes. Then, he must walk back and join the others behind the safety barriers – that is, assuming he’s still alive to do so.
Any successful transition from engine propulsion to that obtained by foot involves, of course, finding a suitable place to deposit one’s car. In busy English towns the density of traffic, stringent parking regulations, and a general lack of space can make this a daunting task. And even though town centre car parks are usually provided, these require payment of a not inconsiderable fee, together with a scrupulous respect of the length of time paid for. What’s more, English car parks are frequently under the surveillance of sadistically-inclined attendants (often women) who gain fiendish pleasure from issuing the stiffest of fines for the slightest deviation. And in the event of serious transgression, they have at their disposal a form of dissuasion – almost unknown in France – of such redoubtable efficiency that the very mention of it is enough to strike terror in the heart of the most intrepid driver: the offending car will be mercilessly clapped in the steely grip of the wheel clamp, release from whose clutches can only be obtained by payment of an extortionist fine.
What’s more, once he has found a vacant space, the English motorist is required to deposit his vehicle tidily within. For it is frequently brought to his notice that he who leaves his car with wheels straddling, or even just touching the delimitations will expose himself to a punitive fine. While in France a certain tolerance is reserved for this type of minor transgression, it goes without saying that in a country which prides itself on having produced an Iron Lady, sanctions are applied as unbendingly as the parking space lines themselves.
This was brought home to the French part of us when, during a recent holiday in England, we decided to do some shopping in a nearby town. After cruising round the main car park for at least a quarter of an hour we finally spotted someone pulling out of a parking space. Quickly depositing our car in it, we bought a ticket, duly stuck it behind the windscreen, and set off for a stroll round the shops. On coming back (well within the time paid for), we couldn’t help noticing a slip of paper tucked behind a windscreen wiper. Imagine our stupefaction (especially on the part of our Frenchie) on discovering it was notification of a fine, applied, it was explained, ‘for not parking within the designated parking area’. Though it was true that, viewed from a certain angle, one of the front tyres could possibly have been perceived as overlapping one line by half an inch, we keenly felt the injustice of a sanction which imposed such a disproportionate penalty for so minimal a fault. So, on seeing the car park attendant not far away (she was grimly writing out another fine), we walked up to her and explained our point of view. Our words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. It must have been our Frenchman who then decided to change our tactics: in a laudable attempt to apply le Système D, we affirmed that the car next to which we had left ours had been parked so badly that we’d had no option but to leave it with a tyre touching the line. She remained unmoved. Pointing to a nearby car, one wheel of which could also possibly have been conceived as touching one of the lines it was parked inside, we angrily enquired why she hadn’t given him a fine too. With a stiffly polite ‘Thank you very much’ she proceeded to write one out.
When it comes to parking at the roadside an Englishman might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical Cartesian logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking space is considered to be one whose length exceeds that of one’s car. He would be hopelessly wrong. For that same desire to maintain the closest contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town where the French driver shows a remarkable ability to defy the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it’s a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel reposing firmly on the pavement, drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method, that of parking by ear, consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.
In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will, therefore, usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and three behind) so that the driver of the car parked in front or behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring.
It must have been the Frenchman in us who was driving that day when we parked in the street of a large English town. Having left a foot between our vehicle and the one in front, he switched off the engine, and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before our Frenchie had got it fully down, began castigating him in the strongest terms for parking ‘too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users!’ It goes without saying that in France remonstrances of this nature would have been met with general stupefaction.
One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as our Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.
Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.
Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; It’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And then, when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.
We would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.
Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.
It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.
In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by the previously-mentioned screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.
The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.
On English roads where sound travels faster than a car, the horn is resorted to simply as a means of warning other drivers of an impending danger. One explanation can be found in the fact that the English have never been able to rid themselves of the idea that blowing a car horn is akin to making an ill-mannered, aggressive noise – especially when the vehicle is in a stationary configuration. And so limited is the English driver’s use of his horn that it’s quite possible to go on a long journey (including several towns) without hearing a single beep. Is it surprising in a country where cars show a tendency to travel faster than sound that the French conducteur has a much looser interpretation of a car horn’s function? For not only does le klaxon have a considerable part to play in his permanent race against the clock, being frequently used to enjoin others to get a move on, or merely to get out of his way (while being outraged when others do the same to him), but it is also resorted to at the slightest excuse (usually in an urban context where it is officially forbidden) as little more than a form of free self-expression. It goes without saying that this type of public vehicular venting of personal sensibilities is totally alien to the more reserved Anglo-Saxon temperament. The French motorist’s propensity to use his klaxon in situations well beyond its normal field of application is echoed in a number of syndromes, the most frequently encountered of which our English side (at the risk of being accused of dementia by his French sibling) has categorized below:
a) The ‘Joan of Arc’ Syndrome. Signs of this phenomenon are supplied by the repetitious and prolonged use of the car horn (either in stationary configuration or while on the move) in places of public frequentation, on the occasion of major French sporting triumphs, i.e. Six Nations Tournament rugby matches, World Cup or European League soccer matches, especially when victory has been obtained at the expense of the hereditary enemy. Confirmation of this is provided by the fact that sonorous expressions of this type are significantly less insistent when supremacy has been obtained over other nations. On the contrary, defeat at the hands of la Perfide Albion is characterized by a generalized, eerie silence where not one single toot can be heard.
b) The ‘Flic-Goading’ Syndrome. As already observed, the Frenchman is in a state of perpetual war not just against the English, but also les flics. The horn-blowing which characterizes this behaviour pattern may be commonly heard on occasions considered to be festive, i.e. weddings, carnivals, Bastille Day celebrations, etc. The Englishman might be tempted to think that this irrepressible inclination to create noise is simply a frivolous emanation of a wish to participate in the surrounding cheerfulness. Though there is certainly some truth in this, as we have already had occasion to observe, appearances in France are usually deceptive. In reality, it not infrequently constitutes a sonorous taunt directed at any policemen met on the way, unequivocally informing them that they have already had more than enough to drink, and challenging them to be spoilsports by getting their breathalyzers out.
c) The ‘Letting-Off Steam’ Syndrome. Head-splitting examples of this type of syndrome can be systematically heard when vehicles are inextricably blocked in traffic jams. Since concerted expressions of this nature are totally inefficient in so much as they bring no solution whatsoever to bear on the problems which occasioned them, they may be interpreted as yet more proof of Gallic petulance. In reality, this is more a reflection of the pent-up frustration of drivers faced with the inevitable conclusion that journey time will be shamefully below la moyenne than any profound conviction that their action will significantly contribute towards reducing immobilization time.
d) The ‘Mr. Hyde’ Syndrome. Being intimately convinced he has been placed on this planet to do good, the Frenchman normally sides with Dr Jekyll. This goes by the (dash) board when he takes the wheel, and putting the car in first brings out the reverse in him. As a result, he gets a heady thrill of sadistic pleasure in playing the ultimate baddie: stealthily coasting up to senior citizens, disabled persons, schoolchildren, obviously pregnant women, young mothers pushing prams, etc., in the process of crossing on a passage piéton, and fiendishly scaring them out of their wits by a sudden, prolonged blast of horn. A similar effect is produced by charging up at full speed, and then, at the very last moment, jamming on brakes while at the same time sounding his horn when the piétons have visibly resigned themselves to being pitilessly crushed.
e) The ‘Friendly Greeting’ Syndrome. This type of behaviour is characterized by vigorous horn-blowing in the centre of town (where it is strictly forbidden) on glimpsing a friend or relation who can be either in car or on foot. Though this kind of resonant greeting could be viewed as an indication of the French driver’s more convivial side, it is resorted to much more frequently as a sonorous V sign, waved defiantly at patrolling flics, just to remind them that if they think they can ban this form of free expression they’ve got another thing coming.
f) The ‘I-Hate-To-Be-Overtaken’ Syndrome. Like his Latin cousins throughout the world, the car-driving Frenchman only feels comfortable in a situation of superiority. This is reflected in his love of overtaking … and his hatred of being overtaken, which he considers a shameful affront to his male honour. When this occurs (especially when the culprit is female, and even more when she’s blond), the Gallic male ego takes a considerable battering. A compensatory phenomenon then takes place, designed to retrieve lost self-esteem. This consists in him unleashing a reproachful blast of horn aimed at bringing to the overtaking driver’s notice the fact that the passing manoeuvre was not permitted, or dangerous (even when this was definitely not the case). In reality, it is simply a manifestation of sour grapes. The Gallic driver is also prone to accelerating when being overtaken. This is done not only to counter this assault on his virility, but provides the additional advantage of generating a situation of danger which he can blame the overtaker for creating, and which will, therefore, more fully justify his prolonged use of horn.
g) The ‘I-Wouldn’t-Mind-Bedding-You’ Syndrome. Symptoms of this type of syndrome are characteristic of the more macho type of French driver, who just can’t resist blowing his horn at sexy-looking young females (especially blond), strolling down the Grande Rue of any town. Even though practical considerations usually prevent this form of solicitation from being brought to any satisfying conclusion, it does present the double advantage of flattering the ego of the latter (though she will pretend to ignore it), while titillating the imagination of the former. It is, however, not without danger for the ordinary motorist, since sounding one’s horn in a built-up area in France is liable to meet with the disapproval of the law. In consequence, it is more usually resorted to, along with many other infringements, by those whose position of influence or authority (i.e. Ministers, Presidents of the Republic, policemen, postmen, etc.) allows them to get away with it.
h) The ‘You-Can’t-Do-What-I-Can’ Syndrome. The signs relating to this type of process are echoed not by the common-a-garden horn, but its more strident relative, the siren, and specific, therefore, to vehicles whose drivers have been vested with an official function, i.e. ambulances, fire-engines and police cars. This form of resonant warning is, of course, normally resorted to as a means of obtaining speedy advancement through traffic in situations considered to be emergencies, or in pursuit of those suspected of having infringed le Code de la Route. However, the frequency with which this type of sonorous injunction to get out of the way may be heard in relatively peaceful little towns, especially when activated by the hand of the law, leads our Englishman to believe that it may be used for reasons other than those mentioned above. In this land of equality, where everyone takes advantage of the slightest pretext to be more equal than others, not only is it used to enable policemen to drop off their end-of-duty colleagues as quickly as possible at home, but provides a perfect way of bringing to the notice of the less privileged citoyen that they can get away, in total impunity, with what would result in a not inconsiderable fine for him.
i) The ‘We’re Coming-To-Get-You’ Syndrome. This type of behaviour is again characterized by the use of siren as opposed to horn, and is, therefore, limited to vehicles driven by those officially appointed – in this case the police – to labour for the public good. It might be thought that this sort of ear-piercing exhortation is used by policemen solely to warn the law-abiding motorist to get out of their way. In this land where nothing is the same as everywhere else, it may also be used to tell miscreants to move out of their way, too. This was brought home to our English part a few months ago when most of the inhabitants of the small town where we reside were roused from their sleep at two o’clock in the morning by the deafening blare of a police car siren. Apparently, our local weekly later informed us, they were on their way to a High Street jeweller’s shop which, according to information received, was in the process of being burgled. It goes without saying that the thieves, thereby warned of the law’s impending arrival, gratefully seized upon this opportunity to make a hasty escape.
In his indefatigable pursuit of ‘la moyenne’ not only can the French driver show considerable ingenuity, even daring, in covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time normally associated with jet propulsion but he is not lacking in imaginative prowess when it comes to supplying the forces of law and order with explanations designed to justify his transgressions. Our Englishman has noted the following examples:
Driving Is No Picnic
When stopped by police for driving through a village well above the legal limit late one sweltering August Sunday morning, this motorist pleaded indulgence by explaining that his excessive speed was due to the fact that he and family were heading for a local picnic spot, and he didn’t want the food and drink in the boot to get too warm!
Between Two Stools
After stopping a motorist for driving without his seatbelt, two patrolling police motorcyclists were intrigued by the fact that the offender only lowered his window a couple of inches or so to answer their questions. So they asked him to open the door. Imagine their astonishment on seeing that he was sitting on … a kitchen stool! The motorist explained that he was on his way to buy a new driver and passenger seat in a neighbouring town, and he’d thought it would be more practical if he fitted them on the spot.
After the breathalyzer had revealed he was well over the limit this motorist had no hesitation in laying the blame on … his mother-in-law! Apparently, he and his wife were just driving home after Sunday lunch with his in-laws, and that infuriating mother-in-law of his had insisted on serving up an ice-cream dessert copiously laced with rum. ‘I mean, I could hardly refuse to eat it, could I?’ he pleaded.
The breathalyzer test had indicated that this motorist was well over the limit, so the police asked him to get out of his car. Then, suddenly, to their utter stupefaction, he dropped face down onto the grass verge and began executing a series of press-ups. What amazed them even more was that every time his face came near the ground he ate a mouthful of grass. When asked the reason for this bovine-like behaviour, he explained he’d been told that eating grass lowered your blood alcohol level.
A Hair of the Dog That Bit You
Stopped by the police for exceeding the speed limit by 30 km/h this driver explained that he was in a big hurry. When asked the reasons for such haste his reply was that he was on his way to a nearby town where he was to appear in court on a charge of … speeding!
A Flea in Your Ear
After being accused of using his mobile phone while driving, this motorist told the police they were mistaken … he’d only been scratching his ear! Confronted with evidence to the contrary he finally admitted it was true. Suddenly, putting his hand to one ear he started grimacing with pain. When asked what the matter was, he informed them he suffered from chronic ear-ache, and that the waves from his cell phone helped to soothe the pain.
A Quick Bite
Had he been exceeding the speed limit or the length of time a trucker is legally allowed to drive? This we’ll never know. For the method one lorry driver resorted to in order to stop police from examining his cardboard control disc was simply to fold it up, stuff it in his mouth and eat it.
After driving for some five kilometres along a motorway in the wrong direction, narrowly missing a lorry and colliding with another car, this driver finally brought his car to a halt on the hard shoulder. But when the police arrived they found him sitting innocently in the front passenger seat. ‘The driver’s just run off!’ he explained. The police even used a tracker dog in the resulting search … until the ‘passenger’ finally admitted he’d been the one at the wheel. The breathalyzer test he then took revealed an alcohol/blood level of 244 mg of alcohol per 1000 ml of blood (almost five times above the French legal limit of 50 mg).
It is a double paradox that a people like the English or Americans whose perception of politeness requires them to make total strangers believe they are their instant bosom friends should become so coldly distant when it comes to shaking hands, while their more formally polite French neighbours should attach such vital importance to seizing the hands of those they frequently have only the slightest acquaintance with.
Though la poignée de main plays an important part in both Anglo-Saxon and French business culture as a means of expressing sincerity and cordiality when meeting, parting, being introduced or concluding deals, squeezing the hands of others is not systematically resorted to in day-to-day Anglo-Saxon life. In the normal course of events it is mainly restricted to those friends and relatives you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing for a considerable length of time, and is more often confined to men (women tend to kiss). And when you’re introduced to strangers at a social gathering in England you can even get away with a simple ‘hello’, accompanied by a friendly nod of the head. As a result, the Englishman can go for days, even weeks, without being called upon to slip his hand into that of another.
The newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat would do well to note, that France social etiquette requires you to make repeated daily use of the handshake as a tangible sign of your friendly inclinations towards other males, and that staring uncomprehendingly at a Frenchman’s proffered hand can not only be a source of considerable offence, but cause you to run the considerable risk – though some allowances might possibly be made for that legendary English reserve – of being labelled unfriendly or even impolite. So, whenever you meet a French male acquaintance (you don’t need to know him all that well) in the supermarket or the High Street, it should become a reflex to hold out your hand or, if he draws first (as, being French, he almost certainly will), to seize his warmly in yours. This is expected, even if you don’t have time for a chat. And if you can spare a moment to converse, it’s important to note that a second poignée de main, though not systematic, can be required when you part.
If your male friend or acquaintance is accompanied by someone you’re not personally acquainted with, you must first shake hands with the former and then, since it would be impolite to exclude him, with the other. This can, of course, depend on circumstances and the numbers involved. Generally speaking, however, it will be appreciated as a sign of warmth and conviviality. The other day, for instance, we played a round of golf with two French friends. Afterwards, the three of us had a drink together on the terrace of our clubhouse. As we were sipping our beers a pal of one of our friends arrived, shook his hand, and then – since it would have been impolite to ignore the other two of us – proceeded to shake ours and that of our other friend. He could, of course, have simply bid us a friendly ‘bonjour’, but the physical contact involved in shaking hands added an extra touch of cordiality – especially appropriate in a socially-oriented golf club context. Nevertheless, Anglophone expats may be relieved to know that if you meet the same male friend or acquaintance for a second time in the same day you’re not expected to shake hands again (though normally this won’t go amiss), and the simple recall, ‘On s’est déjà serré la main’ will suffice.
As far as greetings between male and female are concerned the rules are a little different as the type of greeting will depend very much on your degree of friendship. If you’re being formally introduced for the very first time the handshake (even between women) would be required. Things are more delicate, however, if you’re already acquainted. Once again, depending on how well you know each other, you might offer her your hand or simply greet her with a polite ‘bonjour’. Be aware, however, that, in theory, at least, the rules of polite French etiquette require a man to shake a woman’s hand only if she first offers him hers. If you know her well, the bise, the cheek-kiss (more about this later), will more likely be resorted to.
At friendly social gatherings it’s considered polite for a man to go round and shake hands with everybody he knows (and also, as described above, with friends of friends he hasn’t met before). When numbers make this impracticable you could possibly get away with a ‘bonjour tout le monde’ accompanied by a friendly wave of the hand. The handshake is less important when you leave, but still appreciated – particularly by those you’ve been in conversation with. Slinking off without saying a word is not to be recommended – so, once again, when shaking everybody’s hand is not convenient, a general ‘au revoir tout le monde’ won’t go amiss.
In similar informal circumstances a woman would be expected to cheek-kiss those men and women she was on friendly terms with, and would normally be required only to shake the hands of the men she had not previously met (though, in very informal circumstances, she could even cheek-kiss these). Shaking hands with a woman she was not previously acquainted with would be reserved for more formal occasions, and at parties and other friendly social occasions it would be more appropriate to cheek-kiss.
Similar rules apply at the workplace where, on arrival, it’s important for a man to go round and shake hands with his closest male colleagues while kissing women on the cheek. Care must be taken not to miss anybody out as this would be considered bad manners and could cause offence. So much a part of polite everyday French culture is this that, in many cases, even the boss will go round the office and factory each morning shaking hands with both male and female staff, regardless of the position they occupy in the company. Similarly, on arriving at company meetings men shake hands with men and cheek-kiss women colleagues. The Brit or American might think this sort of ritual is a source of much time-wasting. This can certainly be true. A French friend of ours informs us that, in the company where he works, one employee systematically goes round both office and factory shaking hands with or cheek-kissing each of a total of around 50 male and female colleagues. He reckons that at least twenty minutes is spent doing this each morning!
It’s also recommended that you shake hands with your plumber when he rolls up to replace a tap washer. In fact, so much importance is attached to this that if his hands are full, dirty or wet a French tradesman will frequently offer a forearm, a wrist – or even a little finger! If you’re greeting him outside in cold weather don’t forget to take off your glove. And even though it’s more appropriate to cheek-kiss small children you could, nevertheless, shake the hand of an older boy. He could be flattered by this since, in his eyes, you’re treating him as you would a man.
The handshake itself should be relatively brief but firm – une poignée de main molle, a limp handshake, will do nothing to convince the other of your sincerity. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a bone cruncher, and the French tend neither to pump nor linger. It’s also important to look at the person whose hand you’re clasping. If you’re talking to someone else at the time, break off the conversation, verbally greet the person you’re shaking hands with, and look him in the eye. Personally, there’s nothing we personally hate more than a man silently extending his hand in our direction while continuing to talk to (and look at) another. It gives us the impression we don’t count for very much. The double-handed shake (i.e. using one hand to shake that of someone, while placing your non-shaking hand either on it or halfway up his arm) is normally confined to politicians. In a world where the word ‘never’ frequently means ‘not today’, it’s not a proof of sincerity. And placing your non-shaking hand on the other’s shoulder or using it to pat or slap him on the back are also not guaranteed to convince – though a previous Président de la République did frequently resort to both!
It’s a measure of the drastic changes in English attitudes towards kissing in general and cheek-kissing in particular that what is now more and more considered as an acceptable form of greeting would have raised eyebrows – even shocked (especially between males) – three or four decades ago when it was mainly confined to theatrical types whose off-stage lives were marked by a general tendency to ostentatious affectation. On the French side of the Channel, however, la bise, the cheek-kiss, has long since been a common form of greeting.
Apart from special occasions such as the New Year when, traditionally, at the stroke of midnight, even those who are little more than strangers will let their hair down enough to kiss each other on the cheek, faire la bise is a friendlier, more informal way for men and women to greet each other than shaking hands (hardly surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath) and, therefore, usually indulged in by those whose degree of familiarity permits this. Unlike men who shake hands when they encounter members of the same sex, women will cheek-kiss other women (handshaking between women is formal and only resorted to when being introduced on official occasions). The cheek-kiss is also common between men and women who are on friendly terms, or simply because they’re close working colleagues or members of the same sporting club or association. When we walk into the clubhouse of our local golf club, for example, we systematically cheek-kiss all the women we know (while shaking hands with the men). And we’ve even known a woman stranger accompanying a friend to offer us her cheek (rather than more formally holding out her hand) on being introduced. In France, however, there can be a considerable gap between private and public behaviour – so you mustn’t be surprised if the woman who readily offers you her cheek at the golf club simply wishes you ‘bonjour’ in the High Street. And though in the past male cheek-kissing took place only between close male relatives, i.e. brothers, fathers and sons (and perhaps very close male friends), today there is a growing trend among young French people (and even older ones) to use la bise on a daily basis when greeting others of a similar age.
As far as the kissing technique itself is concerned, the first question which springs to mind is which chop do you begin with? Well, basically, that’s for participants to decide. Personally, without really knowing why (perhaps it’s because we’re right-handed), we usually go for the left one first, and when she realizes this, the lady usually co-operates by holding it out. But, as with shaking hands, you can leave it to her to take the initiative. And what do you do with your mits? While pulling the lady towards you in an intimate hug would be going too far (the French don’t really go in for hugging), placing your hand half way down her arm (or even on her shoulder) would be a more natural accompaniment, and far more acceptable than keeping them both rigidly stuck to your sides. And how many times do you do it? Well, this is, in fact, a regional thing. Where we live, thank goodness, we’ve never been witness to more than one on each. But, depending on where you are, it can be once on one, once on the other, and then back to the first for a second helping. And in some regions it’s a ritualistic two on each.
What’s more, the word ‘kiss’ is more often a misnomer. Rather than planting your lips on the cheeks of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air – though we do have a copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of a woman he feels real affection for. Wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be careful as their frames have been known to inflict nasty pokes in the eye. And, similarly, if you’re sporting a cap with a long nib, you’ve got far more room for manoeuvre if you take it off.
Anglo Saxons must also be aware that in France cheek-kissing is a manifestation of friendly affection, and has no sexual connotations. On the contrary, kissing on the lips is indulged in by those sharing an intimate physical relationship (i.e. husband and wife or homosexual partners), and never by male and female members of the same family (i.e. brother and sister, or mother and son), as is sometimes the case in Britain.
That romantic gesture of ‘old school’ French gallantry, la baise-main, which consists in the male bringing his lips into light, respectful contact with the back of a lady’s outstretched hand is now less common in higher social and diplomatic circles – though a former Président de la République (a reputed woman chaser) systematically used it as a way of promoting the legendary French touch when welcoming foreign lady heads of state. Though the hand-kiss is, apparently, still quite common in Central and Eastern Europe, the French – in their everyday life, at least – look upon it with affectionate amusement. And on the rare occasions when it is used it is bestowed on the older, usually married woman.
In this respect, we remember one particular occurrence some years ago when we went on a coach trip organized by an association we were members of. Having set off well before dawn one Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast coffee and croissants at a motorway café. Our driver parked his coach alongside a Polish truck. Now in France it’s forbidden for heavy trucks to circulate on Sundays, and we couldn’t help noticing that one of the two drivers, a young man (he must have been in his middle twenties), had – even at this early hour – found no better way of whiling away what was going to be a long, inactive day than by ingurgitating the contents of a bottle of vodka. On seeing us step out of the coach, he leapt down from his cabin (still clutching his bottle), and proceeded to bestow on each lady a mockingly respectful hand-kiss the moment she’d placed a foot on the ground. Not only did these middle-aged ladies find the gesture hilarious but, we suspect, were secretly flattered by his attention – so much so that they readily consented to a group photo being taken with our grinning young trucker in the middle.
It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun ‘tu’?
You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar ‘tu’ to systematically address everyone she spoke to – under the impression she was sending out a signal she wished to establish friendly relations with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using ‘tu’ to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent ‘vous’ and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use ‘tu’ only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by ‘vous!’ And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding ‘vous’ relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use ‘vous’ to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on ‘tu’ terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the ‘tu’ form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to ‘vous’ – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position, however. How do we react? Do we continue to use ‘tu’ or, like him, go back to using ‘vous?’ In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for at least a year.
We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
You know, just one of the things which never ceases to astonish the Frenchman in us is not only how familiar you English are with those you’ve just made the acquaintance of, but how distant you can be with people you’ve known for years. We mean, isn’t it far more logical to be friendly and relaxed with people you know, and just polite with those you don’t? A well-brought-up young Frenchman on meeting a girl for the very first time, will politely address her as ‘mademoiselle,’ and after they get married she will certainly become ‘ma chérie.’ In contrast, an Englishman will use ‘darling’ or ‘love’ to address a girl he’s never met in his life before, yet proceed to call her ‘missis’ once they have walked down the aisle! But on reflection, is it all that surprising that you English should go about addressing people the opposite way to what they ought? Après tout, what can you expect from a people who drive on the left (sure proof they’re not right in their head), and take roundabouts the wrong way round? So who can deny that it’s the French who’ve got things right? For what’s more normal that, when you meet someone you hardly know, you address him or her with a polite ‘bonjour monsieur,’ ‘bonjour madame,’ or ‘bonjour mademoiselle?’ in the morning or afternoon, and ‘bonsoir’ in the evening? And it goes without saying that if you decide to stop for a chat these same rules oblige you to say ‘au revoir, monsieur/madame/ mademoiselle’ when you part.
It’s also important to note that the French titles ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are not, as many of you English seem to imagine, always the exact equivalent of ‘sir’, ‘madam’ and ‘miss’. For while the French titles are simply polite, the English words ‘sir’ (apart from its use as a title of nobility, i.e. Sir Winston Churchill), ‘madame’, and ‘miss’ are both polite and deferential, and as such used to address someone perceived as being in a position of social, professional (or commercial) superiority. Consequently, if you wanted to address a stranger in an English street in order to make a request or ask a question you’d simply say ‘excuse me’ (and not ‘excuse me sir/madam’). In France, on the other hand, it could be considered impolite not to say, ‘excusez-moi (or s’il vous plaît) monsieur/madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur/madame’. If you were addressing a young, unmarried woman, however, it would be a little old hat to say ‘excusez-moi/s’il vous plaît/bonjour mademoiselle’, and a simple, more informal ‘bonjour’ would suffice. But just to complicate matters, it’s probably better to say ‘madame’ when addressing an older, unmarried woman as ‘mademoiselle’ could give her the impression she’s on the way to becoming an old maid. What’s more, in the name of female equality, the public sector has been recently instructed to use ‘madame’ when referring to an unmarried female in official documents.
Normally, then, the codes of French polite etiquette require you to address a stranger or a person you hardly know by his or her title: monsieur, madame or mademoiselle. On getting to know the person a little better you can pop on the surname (i.e. bonjour, Monsieur Martin). Unlike in Anglo-Saxon cultures, however, Christian name terms are usually considered only when you really begin to hit it off. Though this is becoming old-fashioned, a subtler halfway point consists in showing slightly more cordial respect towards someone who is more than just an acquaintance, but far less than a bosom friend, by simply using the title to which the Christian name is appended, i.e. Monsieur Pierre. Considerable time may elapse between each phase – though this is not necessarily a question of duration – and, depending on the case, the relationship may even remain stable at one defined point. As a general rule, the longer you remain at one stage, the more difficult it is to progress to the next, and you may never get beyond the Monsieur Martin point with someone from whom you are separated by a difference in age, social or professional status, or even gender.
In the France of today, there is, however, an increasing tendency simply to use a simple ‘bonjour’ to greet a person we don’t know or only know slightly – especially in the friendlier context of a club or association where adding the person’s title would be considered too formal. Here ‘bonjour’ is very much the equivalent of the English ‘hello’ (though this seems to have been now almost totally eclipsed by the American ‘hi’). If you meet someone you’ve already encountered that same day you would normally not shake hands (or cheek-kiss) a second time. It would, nevertheless, be polite to say ‘re-bonjour’ (literally ‘hello again’), or simply use the abbreviation ‘re’.
Another common mistake on the part of Anglo-Saxons is to confuse ‘bonjour’ with ‘salut’. Be aware that ‘salut’ is far more familiar than ‘bonjour’ and is, therefore, only appropriate when greeting someone (it can be a man or women but is more common between men) with whom you are on very informal terms. I suppose it’s somewhere more or less the equivalent of the American ‘hey’. It can also be used to say goodbye – in which case it’s rather like the English ‘so long’. Curiously, I’ve even heard old male pals greeting each other with a ‘salut monsieur’, where the juxtaposition of the very informal and very polite produces an absurdly comic effect.
Though there are few French equivalents to the numerous terms of endearment you English insist on applying to greet complete strangers (‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘duck’, ‘darling’, to name just a few) we do sometimes hear market stallholders treating some female customers to a familiar, slightly patronizing ‘ma petite dame’, or even ‘ma chérie’. The latter is very much the same as the English ‘my dear’, and offence mustn’t be taken at either. However, we do personally take exception to the ironically familiar appellation ‘chef’ (literally ‘chief’), in many ways equivalent to ‘mate’, and used to address another male somewhere perceived as being ‘superior’. In cases like this we usually reply in much the same vein by a mockingly egalitarian ‘camarade’. But on some occasions we’ve been known not to reply at all!
One of those many things our Frenchie has difficulty in understanding in you Anglo-Saxons is the fact that, in contrast to the more formal French approach where the use of Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to politely address strangers is de rigueur, your notion of ‘friendly’ politeness requires you to greet people you’ve never met in our life before in the most familiar of terms. During our holidays in England last year we walked into a small shop, only to be welcomed by an assistant, young enough to be our grand-daughter, and whom we’d never clapped eyes on in our life before, with a cheery, ‘Hello, young man!’ Her greeting smacked so much of inappropriate familiarity that both our French and Englishman joined together in firmly pointing out that, since she would never have addressed a genuine young man in this way, what really prompted her greeting was, in fact, the very opposite to what she was attempting to imply – namely, that we were no longer a young man. So how is it possible for the uninformed Frenchman not to fall into total confusion in a country where you often call a man ‘a young man’ when he’s not a young man, but rarely call a man ‘a young man’ when he is a young man, and where it’s quite possible to address both an old man and a young boy as ‘young man’, and both a young man and an old man as ‘old boy?’ We mean, isn’t it far more logical to be friendlily polite with people you know, and just politely polite with those you don’t?
Mind you, we probably got off lightly. For such is the importance you English attach to ready-made closeness that when you go into a shop you can be addressed by someone you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting before with a disconcerting variety of familiar appellations which can only lead the foreign observer to surmise that you’re on the most intimate of terms. What’s more, this quest for instant friendship obliges us to invite people we’ve never in our life mucked the pigs out with to address us by our Christian name, or even its diminutive, and to take the liberty of using theirs. Last Saturday evening, for instance, we were invited to a dinner party given by a couple of English friends.
‘I don’t think you’ve met Jennifer and John,’ said our hostess by way of introduction to a couple we’d never come face to face with before.
‘Oh, just call me Jennie,’ replied the lady, her cheeks creasing into the sweetest of smiles.
This obsession with instant friendship does, however, occasionally show its limits. This was illustrated one day last summer when we took ourself along to an agricultural show with an English friend and his wife. As we were walking past one stand a young woman rushed up to our friend’s wife.
‘How marvellous to see you again!’ she effused, seizing her in a smothering embrace. A brief conversation followed between them after which we continued on our way.
‘Yes, I met her at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago,’ my friend’s wife explained, ‘but I can’t for the life of me remember her name!’
All right. So you’ve started out on instantly friendly terms with someone you barely know. But what do you do when things don’t quite work out as friendlily as you’d have liked? Only the other day, for example, someone cold-called us (he was American judging by his accent) … from New Delhi, of all places! We don’t really know how he’d got hold of our name, and cursed ourself for not thinking to enquire. After we’d informed him he was correct in his assumption that he’d got Barry Whittingham on the end of his line, without so much as a by your leave he proceeded to drop the family name. And then, in between all the Barrys, it began to dawn on us that he was asking us to believe he was some kind of stockbroker, and that the instant friendship his insistant use of our first name seemed to imply obliged him to reveal that, if we invested a rather daunting amount in the shares of a certain company, some corporate miracle would take place within the next two months causing their value to increase by at least 50%.
Though we did manage to stay friendlily polite for the next few minutes or so, it was when he said, ‘But you’ve got to act now, Barry!’ that it all started to crumble. But, strangely enough, what irritated us most was not so much the unlikely nature of what he was trying to get us to swallow as this dogged use of our Christian name. And when he added, ‘Barry, grab a pen and jot the name of this company down,’ our annoyance got the better of us, and we replied rather shirtily that we weren’t going to grab anything … for the moment, at least.
‘But, Barry,’ he insisted, ‘this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Barry, this is something you just can’t afford to miss out on!’
At this point we began to get downright hostile, and proceeded to inform him that if he wanted our conversation to remain friendlily polite he would have to take ‘No’ for an answer. And it only took another ‘But, Barry…,’ for us to lose most of our self control, and the little that remained of the politely polite gentleman our Englishman insists that we always try to be only just managed a peremptory ‘Goodbye,’ before slamming the phone down.
On reflection, we would have preferred being addressed by the occasional Mr Whittingham, rather than an overdose of Barry – or even, for that matter, by nothing at all. And between you and us, we’ve got to admit that a nice, deferential ‘Sir’ now and again wouldn’t have gone amiss. We must be a snob at heart.
One might be excused for thinking that in the common situations of everyday life politeness can only go to unite. What is more normal with the two most dissimilar peoples on our planet that it can sometimes be seen to divide? For just as your English attachment to friendly politeness prompts you to lapse into what on the other side of the Channel could be perceived as inappropriate familiarity, French codes of decorous civility can be equated with arrogant aloofness by you English. This was brought home to us on one occasion when we’d just landed back in Blighty. The Englishman in us must have still been dormant.
The train taking us from the airport was almost empty and we had no problem finding a window seat. The next stop, however, was at a large town, and a crowd of people were waiting to board. Pointing to the vacant seat beside us a lady warmly enquired, with an amiable English smile, ‘Is anybody sitting here, please?’
‘No!’ we replied (though it was mostly our Frenchie), with a shake of the head and in what we considered to be a cordial tone.
Now, had this been in France the lady would certainly have gratified us with a polite ‘Merci monsieur’, and then, without further ado, would have proceeded to sit down. Not so with our English one.
‘I’m asking you if this seat is free!’ she repeated with barely-concealed annoyance.
A little surprised, we retorted, ‘Your original question was, ‘Is anybody sitting here?’ The reply was ‘No!’ That means nobody is sitting here!’ And we beckoned her to take the seat.
She sat down stiffly. Despite having brought to her notice the correctness of our grammar, something in her demeanour made it obvious that offence had been given, and a long, heavy silence ensued. Puzzled, we gave the matter some thought. And, as we rolled along, it must have been our Englishman who began to stir; for it gradually dawned on us that, not only had our laconic response to her first question been totally lacking in English-style, friendly warmth, but could even have been mistakenly construed as, ‘No, we don’t want you to sit here!’ In fact, what we should have said was something like, ‘Not at all, go ahead and sit down, love!’ accompanied by the broadest of smiles. But now the harm was done, and all attempts at reconciliation were to no avail (she curtly refused our offer to lift her heavy-looking bag onto the luggage rack above). We finally retreated into resigned perusal of our newspaper.
And this divergence between your English, unceremonious, ‘friendly’ politeness and the more formally-structured codes of French etiquette can be a source of misunderstanding in other situations of everyday life. The other morning, for example, we were doing some errands in the Grande Rue of the town where we live. Arriving at the boulangerie at the same time as an elderly lady, it was certainly our French half who prompted us to push the door open, and with a politely respectful ‘Je vous en prie, madame’, beckon her to step in before us. Now, it’s true that, had she been English the lady would have gratified us with a warm ‘Thank you’ – perhaps followed by ‘love’ or ‘dear’, and certainly accompanied by a friendly smile. The French lady, however, never for one moment let her face slip, and simply returned our formal words of courtesy with an equally decorous ‘Pardon monsieur’ as she stepped past. Observing all this, our Englishman couldn’t help feeling that her response was too coldly aloof, and our Frenchman had some difficulty in convincing him that not the slightest offence was intended. For none of the rules of French politeness obliged her to do more than apologize for any unseemliness involved in stepping so closely past a complete stranger.
What’s more, these differing perceptions of politeness may be the cause of apparent malentendus which can even shake the foundations of the Entente Cordiale. It was certainly a gross misunderstanding of the rules of French diplomatic protocol (or was it yet another perverse attempt on the part of a Francophobic English tabloid press to confirm in the popular mind all the bad it wants to think of the hereditary enemy?) which caused one newspaper to criticize a Président de la République during an official visit to London some time ago. Remonstrations were mainly centred on the coldly arrogant, ‘hostile’ attitude displayed by the French Chief of State in systematically addressing the British Prime Minister as ‘Monsieur le Premier Ministre’, whereas the English Prime Minister, the newspapers went to some pains to underline, was much warmer and ‘friendly’ in that he constantly addressed Monsieur le Président by his Christian name. What the tabloid didn’t seem to be aware of (or deliberately chose to ignore), was that the more formalistic rules of French diplomatic protocol require a person holding public office to be addressed, on official occasions at least, through his or her function rather than in person, i.e. Monsieur le Maire, Monsieur le Commissaire, Madame la Présidente. Not doing so could be construed as a lack of respect towards the person and/or the office he or she holds. In France, therefore, the public use of Christian names between heads of state would be considered inappropriately familiar. Nevertheless, this in no way precludes the use of Christian names, in private, if their degree of personal friendship permits.
The Gallic part of us is inclined to think that the more educated, open-minded and travelled English middle classes tend towards a positive perception of the French. This is far from being the case with the more popular classes (we can’t speak for other Anglo-Saxon nations) whose Francophobic tendencies are often encouraged by a tabloid press which, for nationalistic and commercial reasons (it enjoys a readership of tens of millions), seems to delight in serving up liberal portions of what their readers want to hear.
And what many of their readers want to hear is that the Frogs are an insufferably arrogant lot! Some years ago during a national truckers’ strike in France, a number of strike-busting English drivers who happened to find themselves on French roads at the time, were held captive by their French equivalents. This unleashed so much fury on the part of one tabloid that it hit on the idea of conducting a ‘Frog-Bashing’ campaign. This consisted in inviting readers to send in all the anti-French jokes they knew, and awarding a prize for the one considered to be the most hilarious. The degree of response defied all imagination, producing so many rib-ticklers that the newspaper just didn’t have enough space to publish them all. It goes without saying that a good number of these focused on the supposed arrogance of the French, and for several days we were treated to such side-splitting hilarities as: ‘How do you make money out of a Frog? By buying him at the price he’s worth, and selling him at the price he thinks he’s worth!’
One of the main explanations for what, to our mind, has no more sense to it than labelling the English a supercilious lot, merely because they don’t shake one another by the hand at least twenty times a day, can be found in the misunderstandings which can arise when people view one another through the lense of their own diverging culture. For example, in some cultures giving a hearty belch is a traditional (and, believe it or not, polite) way of letting your host know you’ve really enjoyed the meal. In Western cultures it would be seen as nothing more than a display of vulgar disrespect.
Personally, during the 45 years or so we’ve been living in France we’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For us, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities we’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps we’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), we’ve yet to come across the arrogant French rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when we were having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ (There’s a smell of shit round here !) and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, we think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!
Unlike in the UK where, on walking into a small shop, a general ‘hello, ladies and gentlemen’ would produce strange looks, expat Brits would do well to note that French polite codes require you to extend a ‘bonjour, messieurs dames’ (or simply ‘messieurs dames) to those already contained within. Even though the response can be little more than a muttered ‘bonjour’ (or even nothing at all), stepping over the threshold of your local boucherie or boulangerie with lips tightly closed is considered to be impolite. And what is more logical that an equally well-mannered ‘au revoir, messieurs dames’ is required when you leave? Newly-landed Anglophone expats and tourists will be relieved to know, however, that this type of greeting is only expected in shops whose limited area would make it audible to all but the hardest of hearing, and is not required on entering large supermarkets where a powerful megaphone would be necessary to produce the same results.
Given the doubtful nature of English cooking, the Frenchman in us can certainly understand why you Brits cannot be gulled into taking seriously someone who expresses the wish that you enjoy your meal. He would, nevertheless, have thought that a conception of politeness which encourages you to display, from the very moment you meet, a maximum of congeniality towards your fellow man – even when he’s a total stranger – would, at least, require you to have the decency, on parting, to express the hope that he spends a pleasant day. Toutefois, when you think about it, what could be less astonishing that a people who for centuries were preached to night and day that enjoyment of any kind was a cardinal sin should rarely wish one another a pleasant anything?
Nevertheless, any serious-minded Anglophone expat, keen to embrace French lifestyle and culture to the full, must be aware right from the start that the Gallics are incapable of parting from those they’ve been chatting to without systematically wishing them a good something or other. Such a well-established and accepted part of French polite etiquette is this that not expressing the hope that you have a nice walk, enjoy your game of golf or have a pleasant journey would be perceived, at best, as a glaring omission and, at worst, the height of discourtesy.
The most frequently-encountered of these turns of phrase are focused on parts of the day or week – ‘bonne journée’, ‘bon après-midi’, ‘bonne soirée’, ‘bonne nuit’, ‘bon weekend’, counting among the most common. Others (the untranslatability of which somewhere goes to endorse the fact that they are alien to Anglophone culture) are more specific, and split morning, afternoon and evening into beginnings and ends: ‘bonne fin d’après-midi’ (literally ‘have a good end to your afternoon’), ‘Bon début de soirée’ (‘have a good beginning to your evening’). And ‘bon réveil’ (‘enjoy waking up’) is a favourite with early-morning newsreaders. What’s more, the custom is flexible enough to embrace any activity you’re already, or soon will be engaged in and, if this is of a challenging or irksome nature a ‘bon courage’ is usually forthcoming; so the number of variants is without limitation (I’ve even heard ‘bonne partie de Scrabble’ (‘enjoy your game of Scrabble’). In addition, you can be wished a vague, all-embracing ‘bonne continuation’ (‘continue enjoying whatever you’re doing now’) – even when you’re doing nothing at all!
Though anecdotes abound concerning the Englishman’s legendary ability to preserve his sense of humour and sang-froid in moments of crisis, the Frenchman in us has just pointed out that fewer exist regarding another of his specialities: hypocrisy. You know, we’re sure he’d be ready to bet our bottom euro that there isn’t another country in the world where direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction is perceived as being tantamount to a declaration of war. And it can only be you English who, when you find yourselves in the embarrassing situation of having to correct a mistake, will go to such extraordinarily apologetic lengths to point out that what you are about to say is in no way a criticism, but stems merely from a wish to explain. Though our Froggie would be the first to admit that the rules of politeness oblige us all to conceal our true feelings and opinions so as to minimize the risk of conflict with others, you take this to ridiculous extremes. He really doesn’t know of any other people in the world who, instead of declaring, ‘No, I disagree with you entirely!’ go to such extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point, but, on the other hand, don’t you think …?’ when they are intimately convinced you’re talking unmitigated rubbish. Now, let’s be honest. How can you possibly trust someone who systematically professes to agree with everything you say?
And some years ago during an IRA terrorist bombing campaign in London, we were enjoying a quiet evening drink with an English friend in a pub near Piccadilly Circus, when suddenly in the distance we heard a violent detonation. The window panes rattled slightly, glasses on shelves behind the bar chinked together, and a few particles of dust floated down from the ceiling. To our utter amazement, everybody except us threw themselves to the floor, and remained there for several moments in deathly silence. Finally, on realizing there was no danger, our friend raised himself to his feet, casually dusted his jacket sleeves and trouser legs, looked us knowingly in the eye, and then remarked with a smug-looking smile, ‘Oh! You were so scared you couldn’t move!’
What’s more, in the field of sport our Frenchman is convinced that you English are much less stars of fair play than champions at making people think you are and, if there was a gold medal to be won in the field of perfidious hypocrisy, you would be world-beaters. On this score, the experience our neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had in his youth can be taken as just one example.
In his younger days, Monsieur Martin played rugby for our local fifteen. Now such is the aggressive nature of this sport, ‘a game of thugs played by gentlemen’, that certain situations could provide the opportunity for violent, below-the-belt tactics, worthy of the most unsavoury street-fighter which, admittedly, the referee is not always in a position to witness and punish. The game relies, therefore, on the rules of fair sporting conduct being responsibly applied by all players. In this respect, Monsieur Martin often tells the story of the ‘friendly’ match he once played against a touring English club team.
A match between England and France can never, of course, be amicable in the true sense of the word, and this one was no exception. In an enthusiastically-disputed ruck Monsieur Martin received a kick in the head from an English forward (out of sight, of course, of the referee), vigorous enough for him to be obliged to play the rest of the match with blood streaming from a gash in his forehead (this was before the days of the blood substitute). At the end of the game (narrowly lost by the French), the English consolidated their triumph, as is their custom, by lining up in a guard of honour and ‘sportingly’ shaking hands with their adversaries.
‘Oh dear! Did you bump your head?’ enquired the English forward, seizing Monsieur Martin warmly by the hand.
When it comes to polite etiquette our French and Englishman both agree that certain rules of respect and consideration towards others, especially when strangers or barely known, are vital in reducing the risk of conflict or offence in the requests, agreements, refusals, apologies, greetings, partings and shared activities which are so much a part of our daily lives. Both also acknowledge that good manners consist in maintaining a fine balance between showing you think well of others, and not giving others the impression you think too well of yourself. Is it those Puritan values of modest self-effacement and informal simplicity which have caused your English version of ‘friendly’ politeness to incline less towards showing others (in appearance at least) you think well of yourself, and more towards demonstrating to others you think well of them?
For the Frenchman in us never ceases to be surprised by the monotonous frequency with which you English use those words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (often followed by ‘very much indeed’) and, above all, by the apologetic type of civility you generally adopt towards those who are paid to serve you directly. We mean, who else but you Brits could thank the dustbin man for being considerate enough to empty your wheelie bin, the postman for going so far out of his way to pop your mail through the letterbox, and the bus driver for showing such exquisite courtesy in actually bringing his vehicle to a halt at your stop? And he will never understand why, in a café, you say, ‘Could I possibly have a Cappuccino and a Brownie, please?’ or, ‘I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but could I have the bill, please?’ in such a deferential tone of voice, when it’s the waitress’s job to do exactly this. Or, when the home help arrives in the morning, instead of giving her polite but firm instructions on what you require her to do, you give the house a good clean beforehand, and then apologize for the mess it’s in when she finally turns up!
Another manifestation of your Puritanical English love of modest self-effacement is your deeply-rooted distrust of obtrusive outward show. Take that other time we landed in England late one Friday afternoon and caught a train from the airport station. The next station was located in a large town where the train filled up with people going home from work. Barely had we settled down to a quiet read when our attention was drawn to a dark-blue, pin-stripe-suited gentleman sitting at the other end of the carriage who had just begun talking into his mobile – so loudly, in fact, that it would have taken someone with the hearing capacities of a stone not to have heard in the slightest detail what he was saying.
The gentleman, we were quickly made to understand, occupied what seemed to be a high managerial position in an insurance company, and his discussions were focused on the financial consequences of a fire which, apparently, had ravaged the premises of a large local company the previous day. But as soon as one interminable conversation had ended someone else was contacted, and the same sort of discussion began again. We remember thinking it odd that he should be disclosing to any Tom, Dick and Harry what normally would have called for quiet discretion, when the truth of the matter suddenly dawned: more than a simple discussion on insurance matters, he was staging a one-man show designed to impress upon the captive audience of a commuter train’s second class carriage that they had been granted the privilege of sharing an episode in the life of an all-powerful business mogul.
Now in France it would probably have been politely but firmly brought to his notice that these conversations were becoming intrusive. It could even have been pointed out that, given their confidential nature, they might be more appropriately confined to the privacy of his office. But everybody bore up with the fortitude of a Stoic philosopher resigning himself to unavoidable necessity: not a word of objection was to be heard, and we were subjected to an hour or more of uninterrupted talk (the businessman’s telephonic partners were strangely mute). However, our man, the Anglo in us noted, frequently made the same grammatical errors (he was particularly fond of beginning his sentences by ‘The point being is that …’).
We mustn’t have been the only one to notice this, for a young woman sitting nearby could contain herself no longer, and burst out into a fit of uncontrolled laughter – so contagious that it quickly seized most of the carriage’s occupants. It took only a couple of minutes for our businessman to realize that in the eyes of the audience his performance was more in line with that of a clown: for he promptly lowered his voice to an inaudible whisper and, a few seconds later, sheepishly switched off his mobile before seeking shameful refuge behind the outstretched pages of his Financial Times.
While the French are firmly convinced that making an effort to present a harmonious exterior is a good general indication that everything is in well-oiled working order within, would our own Frenchie be totally wrong in thinking it was again this prolonged exposure to the preachings of Calvin, Luther and Wesley, inter alia which has caused a polished appearance to have very much the same effect on you English as a red light on a car dashboard? But, on reflection, what’s more normal that a nation which was preached to so often, and for so long, that a modicum of pride or application in your appearance, qualities, gifts and achievements was a deadly sin, should have developed a deep suspicion towards anything in a person which remotely smacks of personalized, sophisticated or ostentatious display, and has made you raise ordinariness and modest self-effacement to the status of a national virtue? For you are certainly the only people on our planet to have made a quality of all that is plain: plain manners, plain common sense, plain dress, plain food, plain women … and plain English.
On the last-mentioned subject of language we French generally agree that not only must you take pride in the way you speak, but oral communication is not necessarily hindered when speakers express themselves using accurately-chosen, correctly-pronounced, well-articulated, polysyllabic words, uttered in enough of a standardized accent as not to leave those having the misfortune to originate from other regions in considerable doubt as to what they are attempting to say. On the contrary, you English have a tendency to brand someone who is capable of aligning half a dozen words – one or two of which may not necessarily be part of a soap-opera character’s vocabulary – intelligibly, without hesitation and in anything other than a heavily-accented, monosyllabic mumble, as a pretentious show-off.
Just one example of your English mistrust of those showy enough to try impressing people with words exceeding two syllables in length was provided during our last trip to England when we spent a few days with our sister and her family. As her birthday was approaching we decided to buy her a nice handbag as a present. So, off we took ourself to a leather goods shop. There, the lady assistant (something in her demeanour suggested she was the owner) was extremely patient and helpful, producing several handbags of different designs, colours and shades for our inspection. A dark-tan one caught our eye – a choice which the sales lady immediately endorsed by the comment ‘Yes, I think dark tan is a highly appropriate colour for leather!’ Though we didn’t show the slightest reaction, her own visible embarrassment at having involuntarily let slip what could possibly have been interpreted as a pretentious-sounding word could not have been greater; and apologetic self-correction immediately followed in the form of a more modest ‘Yes, well … err, you see what I mean. I think that’s the nicest shade for leather!’
You know, we can’t help thinking that some of those intercultural misunderstandings that exist between French and English can be caused – partly, at least – by those non-verbal elements which have such an important part to play in our relational communications. For in the face-to-face encounters of daily life, body gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, even silences are frequently used to accompany, reinforce, or even replace the spoken word. And a pointed finger, a nod of the head, a frown, a pout or a grunt can send out a more powerful message than the spoken language in that these can be a more spontaneous, direct manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions which words can frequently hide. And you’ve only got to observe two Gallics engaged in conversation to see that the French have a far more developed non-verbal system of communication than their English neighbours.
In addition, these codes can even take the form of a language of signs, many of which are totally incomprehensible to those raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture. When our Englishman first came to live in France he was frequently puzzled by a relatively common gesture which consisted in using the finger and thumb of one hand to pluck what appeared to be an imaginary hair from the open palm of the other. It had to be explained to him that this was a gesticulatory reference to the expression ‘avoir un poil dans la main’, literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’, meaning ‘to be bone idle’: for someone who is work-shy will never use his hands enough to stop hairs from growing in their palms!
Similarly, we’d bet our bottom euro that the newly-arrived Anglo Saxon would have no idea what is meant when a Frenchman rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers as if using a razor to shave. Well, this simply means that he finds something or someone ‘rasoir’, that’s to say, boring. The origins of the word, apparently, can be traced back to the metaphysical reasoning of the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, Guillaume d’Ockham, whose rule of simplicity maintained that ‘multiples must not be used unless necessary’. In other words, new hypotheses mustn’t be employed when those already stated suffice. The only drawback of this principle, called the ‘rasoir d’Ockham’, is that, once a statement has been shaved of all its unnecessary elements, it becomes boringly abstract.
And some of these body gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal sounds can betray spontaneous feelings which it might be considered impolite to show in less physically demonstrative, more reserved Anglo-Saxon cultures where it is considered more seemly to keep one’s emotions under strict control. Take, for example, the legendary Gallic shrug. Now in our youth the Anglo in us had a typically English love of the game of cricket. One day, during our student year in France, we heard that a cricket match had been organized between some English and Australian students, and that it was to take place on the university playing fields a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of the town. But when we arrived we couldn’t find the playing fields in question. And so, in our best French, we asked a local – an elderly monsieur wearing a shabby-looking béret – if he could tell us where ‘le match de cricket’ was being played. Without uttering a single word, he looked us incredulously in the eye before proceeding to project shoulders upwards and lower lip downwards in the previously mentioned ‘Gallic shrug’. Though our English part found his reaction typically French and, as such, quaintly amusing, the thought did cross our mind that the message he transmitted (which corresponded to little more than ‘How on earth do you expect me to know where such a stupid foreign sport is being played?’) would have been barely acceptable, and could even have given offense in an English culture where a polite, friendly, helpful and even apologetic verbal response would have been the normal rule. Had a similar scenario taken place in an English setting (where a Frenchman had enquired as to the whereabouts of, say, a competition of pétanque), the reply would certainly have been something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea. If I were you I’d ask in the shop over there. They’ll probably know.’
It is yet one more measure of the deep chasm that exists between French and Anglo-Saxon mentalities that a recent proposal to implement in a nearby village an Anglo-Saxon style voisins vigilants scheme whereby residents, in co-operation with the local police, would form a neighbourhood surveillance group, with the aim of combating the increasing number of criminal and anti-social behaviour around them, has met with considerable reticence, if not controversy. Though some recognized that the police and the citoyen must work together in the fight against crime, considerable concern was expressed that a project of this kind might lead some to indulge their unhealthy curiosity in the private lives of their neighbours, while others gave vent to fears that the group could assume some of the ruthless characteristics of the notorious wartime Militia.
In Anglo-Saxon cultures the generally-held view that individual well-being and freedom can only be obtained by co-operating with legitimate authority has led to a more developed willingness to work together in reinforcing the observance of rules and laws. In England and the States, for example, it is common to find voluntary Neighbourhood Watch schemes which involve the ordinary citizen in creating organized, patrolling surveillance groups whose aims, in co-operation with the police and local authorities, are to reduce burglaries, car-crimes, vandalism and general anti-social behaviour, as well as increase security (e.g. better street lighting) within a given residential area. Far from being considered as a limitation of personal liberty, these initiatives are generally perceived as being in the interests of the common good.
And it is perhaps even more significant that in England enough trust is placed in the ordinary citizen’s sense of civic responsibility to invite him to become actively involved in directly ensuring that others respect what is generally considered to be conducive to the well-being of all. An example of this was provided some time ago when a well-known haulage firm hit on the idea of appending to the rear of its trucks a conspicuous sign, along with a phone number, inviting road-users to report those among the company’s drivers they judged to be conducting themselves in a manner dangerous or simply discourteous to others. This initiative was generally perceived as making a positive contribution towards safety and civility on roads – so much so that it considerably reinforced the public image of the haulage company in question. Moreover, during recent city riots in England, popular newspapers made headline appeals to the general public to Shop a Moron – to denounce to the police those they personally recognized from video surveillance footage as committing acts of violence, theft, arson and looting.
In France the not only could solicitations of this kind be considered as Big Brother style encroachments on personal liberty, but dangerous in that they provide too great a temptation for human perversity to divert them to malicious, selfish ends by encouraging people to inform on others for reasons of personal animosity, jealousy or desire for revenge (perhaps the national memory has not forgotten those sombre days of Nazi occupation when denunciation was rife), and accordingly best left to those professionally appointed to carry out the task. For in France, it is not impossible that the English haulage company’s publicity campaign could have been exploited for personal financial gain. This, at least, is what the experience of our businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, would suggest.
Now Monsieur Martin’s firm has a small fleet of delivery vans on the sides of which the company name and telephone number used to be displayed. We say ‘used to be’ because Monsieur Martin has now deleted the phone number. Why? Simply because he was receiving more and more calls from people claiming that one of his vans had bumped into their car, causing considerable damage, before driven away without stopping. In reality, these allegations were simply fraudulent attempts from members of the general public to save their no-claim bonus by attempting to make Monsieur Martin’s firm liable for damages resulting from an accident which the claimant himself was probably responsible for, in totally unconnected circumstances. Seeming proof of this was supplied by the fact that not one single person has yet accepted Monsieur Martin’s systematic invitation to provide him with an official, written claim containing the name and address of the claimant, along with details of the circumstances in which the ‘accident’ occurred!
Some explanation for the strong Gallic tendency to consider authority, even when legally-constituted, as a threat to personal liberty may be sought in the historical evolution of the nation. In England, the erosion of monarchic despotism began in 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta – considered as the embryonic beginning of parliamentary rule – and continued, without major interruption, up to the present day. The French, on the other hand, up to the Revolution of 1789, were bound by an absolute central power, embodied in the King, whose arbitrary right to rule and judge was considered to be divinely invested. And so omnipresent was this sovereignty that it encroached, in one way or another, on most aspects of the ordinary person’s daily life, and could only be opposed by a general withdrawal into a position of mistrustful defense which, over the years, became profoundly rooted in the national character. And though the later egalitarian movements transferred more and more power into the hands of le peuple, they also served to bring more to light this ‘us against them,’ ‘poor against rich’ trait embedded in the nation’s mentality, and which is still reflected in popular attitudes toward anything perceived as embodying some form of dominance. This traditional distrust of authority may be observed in the average Frenchman’s desire to keep to the barest minimum any co-operative contact with those professionally charged with maintaining law and order. One example of this was provided recently by an article in our local newspaper.
During the early hours of the morning, a small firm located to the rear of a block of residential flats in a quiet road just behind the Grande Rue of the town where we reside, was the object of a break-in. After forcing his way into the premises with the obvious intention of appropriating any cash or valuables he might find to hand, our burglar’s eyes lighted on a safe reposing on the floor in a corner of the main office. The safe being designed to oppose maximum resistance to any form of penetration other than that provided by the appropriate key and combination, neither of which our man was, of course, in possession of, he quickly realized that the improvisatory methods being applied to open it were, and would remain fruitless. Being a person of great determination, resourcefulness and optimism (the latter having been reinforced by the ingurgitation of an appreciable amount of alcoholic drink), our man resolved not to let the matter rest there, and began directing his thoughts towards finding a means by which the safe might be conveyed to a location affording the leisure time necessary to gaining access to its contents. On exploring the storeroom, he came across a device fitted with rollers and two hydraulically-operated prongs, designed to lift and transport heavy, palletized objects single-handed. After expending considerable energy manoeuvring the safe onto the forks and jacking it up, he crashed through the door of the delivery bay, wheeled the safe down the adjoining ramp onto the street, and then proceeded to push it in the direction of the van he had parked a short distance away. Despite the resulting night-shattering commotion, not one single person phoned the gendarmerie; and it was only the following morning when staff arrived at work that the burglary was reported. The gendarmes immediately conducted a door-to-door enquiry among nearby residents who supplied a description of our man in such detail (they had obviously been observing events from their windows) that he was promptly identified (it was not his first misdemeanour), and arrested. In contrast, not only do many Anglo-Saxons still consider it an integral part of their civic duty to co-operate with those officially invested with the task of maintaining law and order, but are actively encouraged to do so. An experience we had some time ago when we lived in England provides a perfect illustration of this.
Towards the end of one of those typically English winter days which had never fully rid itself of the previous night and was now slinking shamefully into the next, we drove home, parked the car in the street in front of our flat and went inside. After dinner, we settled down to watch the local T.V. news during which we were informed there had been a series of burglaries and car break-ins in the neighbourhood recently. As we couldn’t quite recall whether we’d locked the car, it must have been our English part who propelled us out to check. Just as we were squeezing the door handle, we casually glanced across at the houses on the other side of the street. Most of them had a light in the window, but the one directly opposite was still plunged in darkness. All at once, a brief flicker of light by the front door caught our eye. At first it crossed our mind that this was just the neighbours arriving home from work, but on looking more closely we could just make out the form of a man hunched over the thin ray of a pencil torch in what seemed to be attentive scrutiny of the lock. An instant later and our rising suspicions were confirmed. As we let go of the car door handle it gave a loud click. The man started, froze for a second and then loped noiselessly off down the side of the house to the back – a path we clearly followed: for, strangely, in his panic he forgot to switch off his torch. Hurrying back inside, it was certainly our Englishman who prompted us to dial 999. Within minutes two brawny officers arrived and carried out a search of the area. Unfortunately, the bird had flown. But once the policemen had left, our French part set us wondering whether we’d done the right thing. ‘Ils ont dû nous prendre pour un fou!’ – ‘They must have thought we were mad!’ we heard ourself saying. But it was our Englishman who had the last word. Two days later we received a letter from the police thanking us for our public-spiritedness, and at the same time stressing that we mustn’t hesitate to contact them if ever we were again witness to similar suspicious acts.
When the annual summer holidays cause France to close down for a month, the holiday reservation site Travelzoo carried out a survey on how their European subscribers viewed French tourists. The 2,398 people who took part were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the behaviour of French tourists who seem well on their way to being considered the worst in Europe. Criticisms only go to endorse the clichés we frequently hear applied to the French.
So, what exactly is it they find so hard to stomach? For one thing all seemed to agree that French tourists are extremely hard to please, and never stop belly-aching. The French have a high expectation level with regard to their holidays, so everything must be just right – to the most minute detail. Apparently, one of the favourite occupations of French tourists who’ve just taken possession of their hotel room is to go round looking for the slightest speck of dust. They’ll even look behind that picture frame above the bed! And if their room doesn’t have a magnificent sea view they won’t hesitate to bounce down to reception and demand that it be changed immediately. What’s more, the present economic crisis has made things even worse. The British tourist, on the other hand, will only complain in the most extreme cases, and as long as there’s plenty of sun and cheap booze available, is perfectly happy.
The French are also considered to be an arrogant lot – mainly because they make absolutely no effort to speak a foreign language when abroad. The Gallics are proud of their country, its culture and language, and are inclined to consider themselves slightly superior to others. Not only do they act as if they were still in France, but they expect to be able to find what they’re in the habit of eating at home. Mind you, to be perfectly fair, we don’t think this is a particularly French trait. At the age of 14 the English boy I then was went on a school trip to the South of France. For him it was a paradise on earth, and the food, though certainly different, was an absolute delight. But many of his fellow pupils didn’t seem to agree: their main gripes were that it didn’t measure up to Scarborough and that there were no fish and chip shops around!
And the French expect to have both quality food and cooking at the lowest possible price together with the high level of service that goes with it. The British tourist on the other hand, as long as he gets a cooked breakfast, is quite happy with a ham sandwich or a mediocre buffet-type meal. But though the French consider holidays to be extremely important, and will only deprive themselves when they have no other choice, they don’t want their holidays to cost them the earth. This explains the growing popularity in France of the all-inclusive type of vacation where you know down to the last euro exactly how much it’s all going to set you back and where you’re certain that, if you don’t want to, you needn’t fork out a cent more.
But what contributes most to this ‘stingy’ image is when it comes to leaving a tip. French tourists will only tip when they’re fully satisfied with the service (which is extremely rare), and even then (as, to be quite honest, we’ve personally often been in a position to note), this is far from being a general rule. One of the main justifications for this is that they’ve never received a tip during their working life, so why give one to others ? On the contrary, Anglo-Saxons are culturally more inclined to leave a tip – even when the quality of the service leaves a lot to be desired.
It’s also understandable that in this country of haute couture and designer fashion clothes the holidaying French tend to pay more attention to what they wear. And even though they tend to dress more casually than before, there are still certain standards which they rarely abandon. The British and Germans, on the other hand, will stroll nonchalantly round holiday resort shops clad in nothing more elaborate than flip-flops and shorts.
Not only do the French want their holidays to bring relaxation and enjoyment, but they also like to come away with the impression that they’ve added something to their personal culture and knowledge. The guided-tour type of holiday, where you visit different places of cultural or historical interest each day is, therefore, far more popular than with holidaymakers from other countries. So frequently can this be observed that in Seville it’s a standing joke that at 4 o’clock on a sweltering summer afternoon only dogs and French tourists are to be seen in the streets. The English and Germans on the other hand are more inclined to spend their days soaking up the sun on a lounger round the swimming pool, or just lazing on the beach with the occasional dip in the sea.
In view of our French side’s legendary fondness for, and solid reputation with the ladies, we can, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking that the guidance of an article devoted to such a delicate and complex subject as that of the fair sex could not be placed in a more loving and expert hand than his. Our decision was, however, not without raising the concern that, given our Englishman’s apparent indifference to most of the manifestations of female charm (is it the dampness of the climate which has extinguished all the fire?), such a disproportionate Gallic influence in this comparative study of the female gender on each side of the Channel might cause it not only to be heavily weighted in favour of our Frenchie’s own female compatriotes, but revelatory of the strong sexist attitudes still firmly anchored in the French male mentality, and consequently – what is infinitely more regrettable – sentence us to the life-long disapprobation of our English lady readers. So, before entering into the meat of the subject we should like to take this opportunity of assuring them that the views conveyed below do not necessarily echo those of our integrated self. And now, over to our Frenchie.
Though I might be accused of simplistic generalization, not to mention Latin sexism, as well as compromising the internationally-acclaimed gallantry of we Frenchmen, the two words which spring to my half of our mind to describe the most striking difference between English and French woman, are those, so similar in spelling, yet so different in meaning, which I have chosen as the heading to this article.
Toutefois, let me make it clear from the very start that it is in no way my intention to imply that the only common denominator between les Anglaises and les Françaises is that, generally speaking, they both have a lower testosterone count than men: for each is aware that the physical attributes of men and women diverge to a not inconsiderable degree; both realize that the reasoning of the two does not always follow a similar course; and each is not without knowing that a normally-constituted member of the one is a source of attraction to the other; and both one and the other agree that Mother Nature has put things together in such a way that any normal attempt to perpetuate the species requires an interactive contribution from each. Here, all agreement ends.
As far as perceptions of the relationship between the two sexes are concerned, my French lady compatriotes tend towards an integral view: for them, a man and a woman have each been allocated a different, complementary role, the two parts of which fit together to form an interdependent, yet cohesive whole. The result is simplicity itself: a man can concentrate on being a man and a woman a woman. In contrast, their English sisters have a more divisive view. They see the human race, not as the addition of two complementary halves coming together to form an intrinsic whole, but as the division of this whole into two unequal parts. Thus, an English woman’s raison d’être is less to remain feminine and complement a man than to redress this gross injustice by perpetual struggle to conquer territory occupied by the male.
Since, then, a French woman perceives herself in terms of her attraction to men her main rivals are … other females. As a result, a French woman asserts herself for men: she cooks for men, she dresses for men and she tries to remain seductively feminine for men. And since she exists for men, she will put up with more from men. By contrast, since the English woman sees herself in terms of her inequality with men her main rivals are … men. And so in her crusade against male domination she has taken up the same arms as men; and I can’t help thinking that somewhere en route she has lost her way: for not only has she sacrificed a part of her femininity on the altar of feminism, but by trying so hard to behave like a man, some strange mimetic phenomenon has made her behave, and even look like a man.
Will it go some way towards placating the understandable indignation my thoughts will certainly have aroused in our English lady readers (who will no doubt interpret the above as a humiliating, misogynistic, Latin macho attack), if I hasten to add that not all feminists are English women, and not all English women are feminists? Some can still be sent into raptures by the renowned French touch. And far be it for me to wish to imply that all English girls have horse-like teeth, a prominent lower jaw, square shoulders, bulging biceps, hairs on their chest, and big feet. Not only can the legendary English rose still be found, but she more than makes up for all the thorns around. Nor is it my intention to suggest that the French woman is no less determined in her fight to obtain equality of rights with men. For the French feminist does exist. The difference resides, above all, in the approach: for the tactics she uses rely much more on discreet, gentle, feminine seduction than aggressive disputation of territory deemed to be unfairly occupied by the male.
It would, however, be wrong to imagine that the considerable care a French woman takes to remain seductively feminine is entirely gratuitous. For in return, the first thing she asks of a man is that he acknowledge her efforts to please by displaying a modicum of gallantry: opening the car door for her, helping her on with her coat, complimenting her on a new dress or hair-do, presenting her with flowers on her birthday, etc. And not only is this male attitude of respectful attentiveness perceived as a tribute to her femininity in particular, but provides a stable and agreeable structure to male and female co-existence in general. In contrast, your English feminist tends to indignantly reject this kind of male courtesy as little more than sexist provocation – a blatant affirmation of female inferiority in that it treats her as an object of male condescension.
The worst insult for a French woman, therefore, is male oafishness … or indifference. The worst affront for an English feminist is not to be treated like a man. And, at the probable risk of offending the English male too, might I not draw the inverse deduction that the less a man is treated like a man, the less he behaves… like a man? For if my English alter is anything to go by, his growing indifference to the charms of the opposite sex is due to the fact that his masculinity has been gradually pecked away. And Madame Cresson seems to think the same.
For when French feminists maintain that true female equality will only have been attained when an incompetent woman has been appointed to a post of high responsibility, we French males cite Madame Cresson as proof that this is already the case. In 1991, Madame Edith Cresson was nominated France’s first woman premier ministre – even though malicious rumour had it that her appointment was due more to the nature of her relations with the Président de la République of the time than any pronounced aptitude for the job. Feminists, on the other hand, maintain that the brevity of her term of office (she resigned after eleven months) was the result of pressure exerted by male sour grapes. Whatever the explanation, she was never very popular and certainly no diplomat. The Japanese, she commented, were like so many ants; and she endeared herself to the Englishman by declaring he was 25% gay, and in some way ‘ estropié’ – incapacitated. Indisputable proof of this was provided, she explained, when, during an official visit to London, she took time off for a stroll – only to note with considerable dismay that ‘les hommes ne vous regardent pas! Ce n’est pas normal!’ – Men don’t look at you! That’s unnatural! Though certainly misplaced, Madame Cresson’s comments do serve to illustrate that even French women ministers are in no way willing to sacrifice their femininity to the demands of government office… nor to be other than mortally offended when it produces such unreserved indifference on the part of those it’s intended for.
In face of all this male frigidity, Madame Cresson’s English female ministerial colleagues seem in many cases to have long abandoned all attempts at seductiveness. But after all, even though your tabloids do take perverse delight in publishing photos of English lady ministers in circumstances where they look embarrassingly bad, who can really blame them for giving up the ghost, and sporting dresses more reminiscent of a jute potato sack, while allowing themselves rotundities normally associated with a pregnant sea-cow? And a stroll down the Grande Rue of any French town only serves to confirm that French female chic is not only present in high government spheres but is very much in evidence at ground level, too.
Vous savez, I can’t help thinking that, though women’s liberation has been to the detriment of English femininity, it is your Puritan heritage which is mainly to blame. For not only did it condemn all indulgence in carnal pleasure, but constant preaching that vanity was a cardinal sin anchored in you the belief that conspicuous attempts from a woman to make herself attractive to men were nothing but manifestations of wayward display. The French woman, on the other hand, having not received the same degree of exposure to the sobering effects of censorious religious doctrine, has never been discouraged from incorporating into her strategy of seduction such daunting weapons as clothes, hair-do, make-up, perfume and jewellery. In addition, she knows all too well that the basis of an enjoyable dish lies in the soundness of the raw material, and that an excess of grisly fat could prove too tough for the male to chew. As a result, a fundamental part of her operational planning is devoted to maintaining a lean power-to-weight ratio, and a permanent offensive is conducted on those strategic fronts of eating and drinking.
It is our Gallic’s unshakeable view that the words ‘eating’ and ‘drinking,’ when applied to the French woman are frequently gross misnomers. For though she is an awesomely efficient cook, capable of creating a mouth-watering meal in record time, life for her tends to be one calorie-controlled diet, and what she herself nibbles or sips would barely fill a sparrow’s crop. And even though he won’t deny that some French women do let themselves go, he’d bet our last euro that if you weighed all those over sixteen on a huge pair of scales, and then divided the total by the number, the resulting average would be significantly lower than that obtained if you performed the same operation on their English sisters.
It would, nevertheless, seem to be far from his intention to imply that the more figure-conscious English woman does not exist. But since, when he walks past a female, the Englishman systematically focuses his eyes on a spot on the ground two yards ahead, evidence that she has gained an excessive number of pounds is rarely seen reflected in his gaze. It usually has a more objective source: the implacable verdict of the bathroom scales, or the resistance of the skirt which slipped on with ease last Easter, but now opposes all her attempts to force it on. In addition, transforming her resolve to reduce calorie intake into concrete daily action frequently requires the promptings supplied by the approach of calendar periods (i.e. Spring or the Summer holidays) revealing her adipose pleats to direct public view. Moreover, her determination is generally cyclic in nature: once Autumn comes and all risk of general exposure is past, she will revert back to type, and the whole process will be reactivated the following Spring.
The Frenchwoman’s neigh-on zero consumption of strong drink, as well as her limited frequentation of establishments in which it is offered for sale (with the exception, that is, of the summer terraces of fashionable cafés in Paris and large provincial towns), is made considerably easier both by alcohol’s reputation as a substantial calorie provider, and the fact that in France whetting one’s whistle is generally considered to be enough of a male preserve as to be out of line with her tactics of seductive, controlled femininity. She maintains, therefore, a relatively distant relationship with intoxicating beverage and usually prefers soft drinks or just plain water. As a result, it’s extremely rare to see her in anything more than the mildest state of tipsiness. The only concession she may sometimes be tempted to make takes the anodyne form of a panaché, a shandy, or a small glass of lager, a pre-prandial glass of white port (in France port is frequently drunk as an aperitif), a Martini or a Kir. Strong drink, such as brandy, whisky or pastis, is almost exclusively reserved for the male. To accompany a meal, she will often drink sparkling mineral water, though she may take a little wine (frequently diluted with still mineral water), but rarely in proportions greater than what can be contained by one single glass, which – amazingly for you English – will be made to last from beginning to end of meal.
Is it, once more, that carefully organized, long-term, puritanical repression of all spontaneous feeling, exacerbated, no doubt, by the restricted number of legal hours allocated to public drinking, which has caused you English to rely on the euphoric effects of inordinate volumes of alcohol, imbibed in the shortest possible time, to extract you from your legendary reserve? Whatever the reasons, you are a nation of compulsive tipplers. For how else can we describe the natives of a country where having a good night out, and being a real man is inextricably linked with the ability to down stupefying volumes of alcoholic drink (usually beer) in not much more time than it takes to say ‘Here’s to your good health!’ And what is more understandable in a nation where the female battle cry is ‘Anything he can do I can do better!’ that women should now be storming the gates of this traditionally male bastion?
And this generalized masculinization of English girls would seem to be substantiated by Jacques, my neighbour Monsieur Martin’s son, who spent last year studying at an English university. Though already enough of the man of the world to be shocked by very little, Jacques confessed to being rather surprised by the behaviour of some English girl students, not only in the desire they unashamedly displayed to have personal confirmation of the French lover’s legendary reputation, but also in their ability to compete with the male in swilling enough alcoholic beverage as to render them incapable, the following morning, of having more than just the haziest of recollections, if any recollections at all, of the previous evening’s events. We’re sure our English alter will agree that this type of anti-social ‘laddish’ conduct which momentarily destroys all inhibitions, and all too often leads to grossly degrading, often violent behaviour is the very antithesis of that refined, composed and alluring mystery with which the French woman still seeks to surround herself.
Though the Frenchwoman is prepared to make a tremendous effort to stay neat and trim by limiting the quantities of solids and liquids she ingests, the additional means provided by physical exercise, especially in public, is resorted to far more infrequently. For, as she well knows, a not negligible part of her seductiveness comes from the mystery surrounding the creation, and exposing to general scrutiny her sweaty, red-faced, panting endeavours to burn off those extra calories is rather like letting dinner guests have a peep into your kitchen: once they’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes, the meal might be viewed with far less relish. As a result, we rarely see the French woman exercising for all to see; and on the few occasions we do walk past her jogging in the local park, though she’s wearing a chic-looking outfit, she often looks embarrassed, even apologetic, as if to say, ‘I know this isn’t very feminine, but don’t be too hard on me! I let myself go enough to drink a full glass of wine at the restaurant last night, and I won’t be able to sleep until I’ve worked off those extra 50 calories!’ So, exercising is normally a private matter, limited to the intimate confines of home, and the nearest she will come to giving this type of weight-reducing effort public exposure is to join a gym class where, along with like-minded women, she can prepare herself in the relative discretion provided by four walls and a roof.
Since an English woman’s physical exertions are less a part of a general campaign to stay trimly attractive for men, and more a means to make her a fitter and more efficient commando in the war against men, she is far less reluctance to expose herself to the risk of unfavourable public judgement. And so, it is without the slightest complex that she will push her sweating, panting body along the roadside, clothed in a faded T shirt and old tracksuit bottom.
There is, of course, a price to be paid for the considerable efforts a French woman makes to present herself in the most flattering light to men. Some measure of the financial sacrifices consented is provided by the fact that she applies in far greater proportions than any other nation’s women the vast array of exorbitantly-priced anti-wrinkle lotions, body-moisturizing creams, rejuvenating soaps, slimming gels she has been persuaded to believe will soften the pernicious effects on her epidermis of the passage of time.
And being the expert cook she is, she knows full well that, once we get down to the meat of the subject, the size of a man’s appetite may be substantially increased when titillated by an amuse-gueule* or two. Is it any great surprise, then, that lingerie is in the front line of her general offensive to arouse the male? For not only does the French woman attach great importance to the design, colour, sexiness and general quality of her underwear, but is willing to pay the price by purchasing it in specialized shops. And though she reserves a more intimate appreciation of these delicate nibbles for her chosen one alone, she is coquettish enough to reveal for male delectation just a hint of forthcoming delights in the shape of a provocative bra-strap, frequently black, revealed by a loosely-fitting pullover which has somehow slipped off her well-moulded shoulder. But don’t be fooled. There’s nothing haphazard about all this. This is a part of her carefully-laid plans to excite desire in the male. In contrast, the English woman tends to adopt a more pragmatic approach. We mean, what’s the point in spending good money on something only her husband or boyfriend will see? As a result, she prefers something less onerous and, above all, functional, with no fancy frills, and tends to rely on Marks and Sparks as her chief provider of smalls.
When it comes to make-up the Frenchwoman considers that seduction is all about enhancing and not concealing what is specific to her. Her speciality, therefore, is the natural look, and she manages to brush on just a light soupçon of sophistication while never painting out her personality. Consequently, we never say to ourselves, ‘Oh, that’s just a bit too much!’ Would we be being both heartless and unfair in suggesting there’s something reminiscent of an African tribal war mask in the way some English women daub on their make-up? But, après tout, isn’t this quite normal? Isn’t her objective to strengthen the fortitude of the wearer while striking terror in the heart of the foe?
Paradoxically, in a country whose designers set world standards in matters of haute couture, it would be wrong to think that the French woman allows herself to become a slave to the dictates of la mode. For it’s that same sense of measured restraint, along with a desire to make the most of herself as a woman, which conditions her overall approach to clothes. And so, generally, she keeps it relatively simple and manages to respect that subtle dividing line between refined sobriety and what can be a too homogenized reflection of pure fashion, or too blatant an exhibition of her physical charms. As a result, she is capable of maintaining an apparently relaxed, refined and natural-looking exterior which is often lacking in her Anglo-Saxon sisters. For so subservient can an American woman be in her reverential acceptance of designer fashion that she may appear as stiff as the window dummy her outfit had been hanging on. And the more pragmatic considerations the English woman shows in choosing her underwear are repeated in what is worn above: for her choice is less dictated by a desire to present her attractions to a largely unappreciative male than its ability to provide her with enough freedom of movement to give him a good belt round the ear should he step out of line. In addition, our Frenchie can only note that those of the younger female generation desirous of coaxing the English male out of his general apathy tend to confuse seductive elegance of dress with aggressively vulgar sexual display – in the most ill-suited circumstances: for the sight of adolescent girls parading their wares on their way to a Friday or Saturday night binge, clad only in mini skirts and plunging tops, is common in English winter city streets where temperatures are low enough to make even a polar bear start looking for a cosy place to spend the coming months.
* Les amuse-gueules – pre-meal nibbles served with l’apéritif. These frequently go beyond modest peanuts or crisps to include tastily refined, dainty little concoctions, served both hot and cold, designed to stimulate the appetite as a prelude to the entrée – the first course ‘entry’ to the meal.
Among the French girls we came to be on intimate terms with, it’s Claudine whom both our French and English sides have the fondest memories of. Now Claudine was not one of those Madame Bovary type women who view men through their romanticized fantasies, and risk being bitterly disappointed – even destroyed – by what they really are. For, towards life in general and men in particular she had a balanced, down-to-earth sort of attitude which, while having something of the worldly about it, never lapsed into the cynical; so her awareness of the foibles of the opposite sex never went further than not allowing her expectations to exceed what could be reasonably hoped for.
But though she never asked too much of a man she did expect him to take the lead. And when in male company she always adopted a discreetly measured role which might have been mistaken for subservience by her Anglo-Saxon sisters. In reality, nothing could have been further from the case: for it was more the result of her conviction that she was different rather than inferior to men; and though she granted a man the privilege of showing the way, she never allowed herself to be overshadowed to the point of becoming his foil. If she disagreed she was not afraid to say so, but she usually did this in a calm, unaggressive sort of way. And since she had never been hardened by the War of the Sexes, she had kept her femininity intact, and beneath a sometimes inexpressive, even aloof-looking public façade, we had on several occasions the opportunity to witness a tender and sensitive heart. The only time we saw her in danger of losing her sangfroid was when a man made the mistake of looking down her cleavage instead of into her eyes. But she was rarely provoked into direct argument on a sexist man’s terms, and usually opted for cold indifference … or haughty scorn. For Claudine always made a point of keeping steady, efficient control, both of herself and the usual day-to-day tasks. For it was always a source of perpetual amazement to the Englishman in us how she could cook, single-handed, and in record time, an impressive four-course dinner for six, wearing a trim cocktail dress (barely protected by a chic little apron), while still managing to find time to serve an apéritif and chat with our guests. Or how she could possibly be content with such sparrow-sized portions, and make half a glass of diluted wine last right through the meal.
While having neither the neck of a swan, the eyes of a doe nor the body of a Venus, Claudine had that instinctive je ne sais quoi French female knack of turning her own specific attributes into something attractive to men. But, unlike the sexually aggressive dress of many young English women, it was always done in a discreet and restrained sort of way – often by using that small, yet alluring detail which was always made to appear balanced and natural: a skirt which was short but not provocatively so; a pullover which was just oversized enough to fall off one shoulder; jeans discreetly revealing her rounded little buttocks; a décolleté V neck low enough to reveal just the hint of a cleavage.
And like all women, Claudine was intimately acquainted with those parts of her anatomy which might possibly be considered as falling short of the feminine ideal; but instead of resorting to concealment, she had enough confidence in her powers to push them to the front: for there was something nonchalantly cheeky about her ability to wear a pullover moulding a pair of pert little breasts which were not without recalling two fried eggs; it was almost as if she wanted to say to the world, ‘I don’t care if I do have tiny tits! Just look at me! I’m all the sexier for it!’ Et après tout, didn’t she have a point? Isn’t seductive attraction somewhere a little flawed? Isn’t a look with a slight cast far more seductive than a gaze from perfectly matching eyes?
But, though Claudine set great store by a so-called ‘natural’ look, in reality, this consisted in concealing under an appearance of spontaneity what she had spent hours thinking out. For she could arrive on a date looking casually attractive and say, ‘I was in such a rush I just threw on whatever I could find.’ We never believed one single word of it: she had probably forgone eating to spend more time in front of her mirror. And when you complimented her on her new pullover (which she always appreciated in an undemonstrative sort of way) before asking her where she’d found it, she’d reply with the most insouciant of airs, ‘Oh, je ne me souviens plus … tu sais, je suis tombée dessus comme ça!’ – ‘Oh, I don’t really remember … you know, I just came across it, like that!’ The truth of the matter was that she’d set off knowing exactly what she was after, and had spent most of the day hunting it down.
But even though Claudine made an effort to display a champagne-like effervescence she could sometimes be an incorrigible moaner and protestor. But, whenever she did give vent to strong disapproval, frequently aligned in terms which would not have disgraced a seasoned trooper, the effect produced was more charmingly daring than vulgar – rather like an English four-letter word pronounced with an upper-class accent. As a result, her femininity rarely suffered. And when we voiced disapprobation of something she had said or done, she would sometimes cock her little bum in our direction, at the same time blowing a raspberry in an expression which – incredible as this may sound – contained far more impish charm than gross vulgarity.
During our first years of residence in France we kept body and two souls together by gainful employment with a language school, inculcating the language of Shakespeare, in predominantly commercial form, into French business people – often at their place of work. In one company, the number of staff wishing to improve their English language skills was such that two separate groups were formed, each requiring a different teacher: ourself and … Nancy.
Now Nancy was a robust, blondish, blue-eyed Amercan girl whose attributes were not without potential. But those solid feminine arguments we were fleetingly allowed to glimpse were all but neutralized by tightly pinned-back hair, a succession of dowdy, sack-like sweaters, well-below-the-knee skirts, loose-fitting trousers or jeans, and flat-heeled shoes, combined with an almost total lack of make-up. And mentally she wore blue stockings. Had she been deeply disappointed by a past love affair? Did she feel more attracted to those of her own sex? Was this apparent indifference to men simply due to a highly-developed sense of professional conscientiousness which had decreed that French male students’ attention should in no way run the risk of being distracted from the learning process by anything more than an imaginary assessment of her physical charms. Whatever the case, we couldn’t help feeling that in Nancy there lurked something of the Amazon which, without causing her to cut off right breast, was present enough to leave us in no doubt that the slightest attempt to intrude upon her private territory (a veritable no-man’s land) would be repulsed with considerable physical and mental distress.
Now the company where we were to teach was located some distance from our language school and, as Nancy didn’t have a car, it was arranged that we should drive there together in our Mini. To this effect, we picked her up every Tuesday morning in front of the block of flats where she lived. How can we forget that first time we collected her? Our Frenchman was at the wheel (on French roads the Englishman in us tends to gravitate to the left) and, as we approached, we saw her waiting, a tape recorder reposing on the pavement by her side. Now, in those days tape recorders were heavy, cumbersome things so, after pulling up, our Frenchie jumped us out of the car, greeted her with a cheery ‘Hello!’ and seized hold of its handle with the intention of depositing it in the boot.
‘No, leave it where it is! I can do that myself!’ she snapped with such an intimidating glare of the eye that we could only lower our gaze. And that said it all: if you and me are going to get on over the next few months, let’s get it straight right from the start. You wouldn’t have offered to do that for a man, so don’t come that one with me! Never forget that even if I am a woman I’m just as capable as you, so the sooner you drop that sexist, Latin male seducer nonsense, the better it’ll be for both of us – especially you!
Despite this chilly beginning, we did warm to each other over the following weeks. But never did we dare for one instant to waver from behaving towards her in exactly the same way as we would have done with a man: for there was always something in her demeanour which left us in no doubt as to the consequences of not doing so. As a result, our relationship remained well within those limits of friendly, co-operative civility which our shared professional duties imposed. And then came the summer holidays.
By way of celebrating the end of the English course, our students invited Nancy and ourself to dine with them in a reputed gastronomic restaurant. The evening arrived and, as usual, we drove along to pick her up. There stood Nancy on the same pavement in front of the same block of flats. Was it the make-up? Was it her hair which had been more attractively arranged? Was it her skirt was just an inch or two higher. Or was it simply because the tape recorder was no longer there? Though we couldn’t quite put our finger on it, a certain je ne sais quoi gave the Frenchman in us the barely resistible desire to jump out, and run round to open the passenger door. We resisted his impulse.
It goes without saying that we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The food was delicious, and both Nancy and ourself did more than justice to the first-rate wine. But finally came the moment for us to say ‘Au revoir’, and after much cheek-kissing and handshaking we parted. We could already hear our Englishman yawning somewhere within and it was certainly our Frenchman who took the wheel to drive Nancy back home for the very last time. Pulling up outside her flat, we wished each other a pleasant holiday and were just on the point of bidding her a friendly goodbye when …
Perhaps it was our immoderate consumption of the excellent wine which caused the events which followed to remain hazy in our mind. In what was no doubt a praiseworthy attempt to leave Nancy with a taste of what French gallantry was all about, the Latin within prompted us to lean over her to open the passenger door. And as we did so, like some hapless fly we suddenly found ourself clasped in a paralyzing embrace, our head drawn helplessly towards voraciously parted lips … and all resistance began slowly to ebb away…
Propriety forbids us from relating the events which then ensued. Suffice it to say that a firm ‘Let’s go inside!’ was whispered in our ear, a resolute hand led us from the car, a determined arm marched us up the stairs, and the evening was brought to consummation in the depths of Nancy’s lair.
D oes our Frenchman have a point when he suggests that much of the explanation for what he considers to be the development of high testosterone levels in English women can be found in that period of history which saw the founding of an empire of never-setting sun? For what other conclusion can we draw regarding an era where, as boys and girls approached an age when Mother Nature does her best to bring them together, you English were doing your utmost to keep them apart? For while in French schools study programmes consisting of music, singing, dancing, painting and literature were aimed at turning girls into young ladies whose accomplishments would exert a bewitching influence on men, on your side of the Channel a cocktail of uniformed regimentation, rigid Puritan morality along with the suppression of deep emotion in adversity and a dose of competitive sport* was doing all it could to encourage women to behave like men.
Nevertheless, it must not be thought that English men escaped the general tendency of that period to discourage all outward manifestation of strong feeling in misfortune. The expression ‘to keep a stiff upper lip’, broadly meaning the same as ‘to be a good sport’, is applicable solely to the male – the only difference being that the stronger sex was not obliged to look pleased about it. But though an English gentleman’s schooling was focused on the inculcation of values which would later enable him to lose a woman with the same apparent equanimity as he would accept defeat in a rugger match, it was acknowledged that a male could enjoy pre- or even extra-conjugal relations with the opposite sex, as long as it was discreet, and with a member of the lower orders. However, the rules of Victorian morality dictated that this could never be the case with a respectable woman. If this did happen to come to light she was lost for life. And even within the bonds of holy wedlock a woman wasn’t really supposed to let herself go: for the only decent posture a lady could adopt in fulfilment of her conjugal duty was not without recalling those recumbent female statues exposed (often by their husband’s side) to posterity’s gaze in the churches and cathedrals of the land – frigidly prostrate on back, legs slightly apart, hands clasped piously over breast, and eyes cast beatifically on High. What is less surprising, then, that after decades of being forced to behave like a man outside the bedroom, and being repressed as a woman within, in her fight for equality she should have resorted to such unladylike methods of civil disobedience as chaining herself to railings, throwing stones through windows, and sitting on policemen? And nearer our present day, what is more understandable that she should flout her sexual emancipation and equality by claiming the right to wear, as she pleases, either a mini-skirt or jeans with a zip fly?
* It is interesting to note that our Frenchman’s views on the important part played by competitive physical effort in the education of English girls of good family would appear to be reinforced by the common expression, ‘She’s a good sport’. Our French readers will be interested to learn that the phrase, used to describe boldness, and especially good humour in face of defeat or ridicule, is usually applied to women, and certainly originated from this era. It’s certainly not without significance that the nearest French equivalent, ‘C’est une brave fille’, makes no allusion to the world of sport.
It must not, however, be thought that there has never been an active feminist movement in France; and though French feminists never favoured the same virile tactics as their English sisters-in-arms, history shows they were just as aware that women constitute a category representing a good half of humanity which has always been, and still is, inequitably treated by essentially male-defined values and male-controlled institutions from a social, political, cultural, professional, family, and sexual point of view. But whereas the feminist cause in England was able to progress over the centuries with relatively little interruption, the legacy of the French Revolution created great social and political instability throughout most of the nineteenth century, during which the alternation of liberal and repressive régimes considerably hindered, and sometimes completely halted the progress of enlightened feminist views. It was only during its last two decades that more stable, liberal governments enabled the feminist front to emerge from these stop-and-go-cycles. And, as all English feminists know, the Suffragette movement, combined with a national recognition of the important role women had played in the effort of war, resulted in those over 30 being granted the right to vote in 1918 – though it took another ten years to abolish the age qualification, and place the two sexes on an equal electoral footing. This was not the case in France (even though French women also made a considerable contribution to the French war effort) where women only obtained the vote in 1944, and were still so subjugated by a society made by men for men that, as recently as 1965, they still did not have the legal right to open a bank account without their husband’s or father’s consent.
International Women’s Day (8th March) not only commemorates the historical struggle of women throughout the world to obtain the same rights and opportunities as men but, by providing an opportunity to reflect on the present state of female equality, to identity the more important areas of discrimination still remaining to be combated in the years to come. Though in France the day was made official in 1982, it is perhaps a measure of the strong sexist attitudes still firmly anchored in the French male mentality that some public figures (especially in the masculine-dominated world of politics) still feel free enough to make pronouncements guaranteed to turn all self-respecting feminists purple in the face. Here are some examples. The comments that follow are from our Englishman:
‘But who’ll look after the children?’
That was the question a former Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, asked (perhaps he’s changed his tune since) on being informed that Ségolène Royal, the present socialist President’s ex-live-in partner, (they had four children together) was a candidate in the Presidential Election of 2008. How dare she postulate for the position of Head of State? We all know politics is a man’s world, and that a woman’s real place is at home with the kids. Strangely enough, it was the Socialist party, of which Monsieur Fabius is a prominent member, which over the last decade or two has made great efforts to promote female parity in politics. Or was his question simply motivated by sour grapes at not having himself been chosen as the Socialist presidential candidate?
‘I’ve tried to promote women as much as I can, even though our briefs can be very technical.’
Stéphane Le Foll, Agriculture Minister in the same government repeating the widely-held French male view that anything technical is sure to get a woman’s knickers in a twist. Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before. Women drivers never know whether the engine’s at the front or back.
‘I’m said to be a misogynist. But aren’t all men? I’m talking about those who aren’t gay.’
David Douillet, former Olympic Heavyweight Judo champion, and former right-wing Minister of Sport saying that real he-men like himself prefer other he-men. And where do women fit into all this? Is he implying that these creatures are just there simply to satisfy men’s physical needs, and it’s only queers who think otherwise?
‘To our women, our horses … and all those who mount them!’
Apparently, this was the favourite toast of Jacques Chirac (former Président de la République and renowned woman-chaser) at, admittedly, non-official dinners. Even though this coupling of horses and women in the same breath could raise a few male guffaws, it does nothing to enhance the image of the gallant French male.
‘Perhaps she wore that dress so we wouldn’t listen to what she had to say.’
Patrick Balkany, a right-wing député talking about Cécile Duflot, Socialist Ministre de l’Egalité des Territoires et du Logement in the National Assembly. Monsieur Balkany seems to be expressing the view that a woman’s seductive self-presentation is intentionally aimed at luring male attention away from the vacuity of her brain, and that it’s against the nature of things for seductiveness and intelligence to come wrapped up together in the same feminine package. After all, isn’t a woman’s energy better spent making herself a worthy decorative complement to men?
‘I pay my players more than my mistresses. At least my mistresses give my cock a good time!’
The President of Montpellier football club, Louis Nicollin, informing us in his own inimitable way that his team of lady friends give him far more value for money than his football squad.
‘She’s become f…able again’.
Yes, he actually said this, believe it or not … and in public at that! Jean-Marie Bigard, a French humorist, actor and film director getting straight to the point about Christine Bravo, writer and T.V. personality, whose physical seductiveness seems to have considerably increased in his eyes as a result of a strict diet. He does, however, have the merit of stating out loud what a lot of French males probably thought, and he did add later that it was just his way of being nice. All right, even if he’s no diplomat, he’s got a good heart. But we can’t help thinking that, once again, this sort of unabashed rawness tarnishes that legendary image of the refined, respectfully attentive French lover.
‘Nobody got killed.’
Jack Lang, former Socialist Minister of Culture, informing us he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about on learning that his Socialist mate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the International Monetary Fund, and probable future presidential candidate had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room. After all, she was only a chambermaid, not even American, and black into the bargain. Who said that the droit de cuissage (the lord’s first night sexual rights) was dead?
‘What colour panties are you wearing this morning?’
The question an elderly French député asked his young lady assistant when she arrived at work. We’re not informed what her reaction was.
‘If I’d been twenty years younger I’d soon have had you pregnant.’
One of the more printable declarations from another (ageing) député. We don’t know whether he got the slap he deserved.
I n the 1945 French elections, such was the post-war belief in promises of a brave new world (as well as a growing realization of the monstrous human sacrifice the Soviet Union had been obliged to consent during the conflict) that the communists obtained more than 26% of votes, and more than 150 communist députés were elected to the Assemblée Nationale. In the resulting provisional Government of Liberation which he formed, General de Gaulle, in the interests of national unity, was obliged to nominate five communist ministers – one of whom was Maurice Thorez. Maurice Thorez (1900-1964) was a mainly self-educated miner, a life-long militant and devoted Stalinist who rose through the ranks of the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) to become General Secretary from 1930 to his death. In 1945, he was placed in charge of la Fonction Publique, the public service, his reform of which, he claimed, ‘liberated’ the state worker from the previous ‘autocratic’ system instituted by Napoléon. The results of these reforms are still very much in evidence in the French Public Service of today. Here are some of the (far leftist) thoughts our Frenchman has requested us to communicate on the subject:
In their constant endeavour to serve the public good and to point the way towards a future workers’ paradise for all, it is hardly surprising that those employed in the public service should be the victims of unfounded criticism, emanating from the reactionary bourgeois capitalist class, and based on the fearful realization that they are succeeding in their lofty task of creating a classless society of equals, united in warm comradeship. Some extreme right wingers even go so far as to make the scandalous claim that the first people they serve are, in fact, themselves. It is, therefore, reassuring to know that public service employees are protected by law against all forms of libellous attack or insult, such as allegations of irresponsibility, dishonesty, personal appropriation of public service property, disobedience, negligence, incompetence, laziness, carelessness, lack of initiative or merit, unpunctuality, absenteeism, indifference or impoliteness towards the public they serve. After all, what is more normal that scandalous attacks of this nature should be subject to legal action? It goes without saying that malicious accusations of this type in no way constitute a threat to job security or promotion within the service. However, it is essential that our camarades realize they labour as part of a team, and that any attitude or behaviour deemed to be of an individualistic nature (i.e. excessive zeal at work or misplaced personal ambition), aimed at currying the favour of the departmental head, will be considered dangerous to collective cohesion and, as such, discouraged.
It will also put minds at rest to know that, as representatives of the supreme authority incarnated in the French State, our public service comrades are legally considered to be pure and, in this capacity above all forms of mistake. As a result, they can in no way be held responsible for the correctness of any information or the availability of any documents they may be called upon to supply.* I mean, how can you possibly be held liable for omissions you can never make? It can, therefore, only be others who make them. In this respect, it will set minds at ease to learn that the full weight of the law is on the side of public service staff in making private enterprise, and the general public fully responsible, not only for the mistakes or defaults only they can make, but in bringing them to our comrade’s notice, and being both answerable and punishable for them. Consequently, if a member of the public, or an employee of the private sector should have the insolence to accuse a state worker of any failure or omission, he will be put firmly back in his place; and should he still insist, all measures will be taken to make him understand once and for all that, since all authority is on the side of our brothers, the sooner he realizes that a state worker is never in the wrong, and he is never in the right, the better it will be for all concerned.
* An experience our Englishman had would seem to corroborate this (our Frenchie maintains that he doesn’t remember). While filling out our annual tax declaration last year, we realized we needed a special form on which to declare a specific source of income. Now, our English alter might have been forgiven for thinking that the solution simply lay in obtaining one from the local Hôtel des Impôts, the Inland Revenue Office, in the town where we live. So, along he took us. At reception, a rather severe-looking lady was absorbed in scrutiny of her computer screen. After a series of sonorous coughs had finally induced her to transfer her attention from it to us, we politely explained the reason for our visit. Great was our Englishman’s astonishment on being informed that, since only one remained in her possession, it would be preferable if we applied to the Inland Revenue Office of a neighbouring town, some 30 kilometres away. Our Anglo-Saxon readers will certainly understand why, at this point, he got shirty enough to inform her that, even if this solution might be convenient for her, it certainly didn’t suit us. Her brow knitted into a deep frown. And our following enquiry as to whether she would be receiving replenishments in the near future produced a curt, ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur!’ In exasperation, we finally suggested it was perhaps the responsibility of the Inland Revenue Office to supply the taxpayer with one.
‘Ah non, monsieur,’ she replied with a triumphant smirk, ‘it’s not our responsibility to supply you with one, it’s your responsibility to obtain one!’
At this point our Frenchman intimated that a mutually acceptable compromise might be found in her supplying us with a photocopy of the form. This only prompted her to express serious doubts about the legitimacy of such a procedure. And it was only after much cajoling that she reluctantly agreed. Before doing so, however, she went to considerable pains to make it clear she could in no way be held liable for any future prejudice this ‘private arrangement’ might cause us.
Monsieur Martin, our company-owning neighbour, has two sons, Pierre and Jacques. Pierre is the elder and will be handed the reins of the family business on his father’s retirement in a few years’ time. Jacques, on the other hand, has set off on a different route – one which will lead him to a career in the Tax Division of the Fonction Publique, the public service. Having past his concours, his entrance exam, with flying colours, he has just started working in the Tax Office of a town some distance away from home. The following is our translation of a letter he recently wrote to his parents and brother:
Dear Papa, Maman and Pierre,
Sorry it’s been such a long time since I last wrote but I haven’t had a minute to myself since I started work here. I’m glad to say things have settled down now. I’ve got a couple of hours to kill before lunch, so I thought I’d get down to writing you a nice long letter to let you know what I’ve been up to.
Most of my time has been taken up flat hunting. The bedsit I had was a bit cramped so I decided to look for something bigger. I took a break from work each morning to go and buy a local newspaper. Then, over a cup of coffee (there’s a nice café with a big terrace just opposite the tax office where we all go and sit out when the weather’s nice), I drew a circle round the flat-to-let ads which seemed promising and went to view in the afternoon. I originally intended to do this on Saturday but my colleagues told me it would be more convenient to do it during the week. Things would be much quieter as everybody was at work. I wanted to ask my boss if this would be all right, but they said it really wasn’t necessary as long as I didn’t broadcast it. I don’t remember papa’s workers being able to do this sort of thing.
You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve managed to find a nice studio flat. It’s much more modern and spacious, the rent isn’t too high and it’s only five minutes’ walk from work – so if I get up at nine I can be here for half past. I’m moving in tomorrow. Once again, I thought about doing this on Saturday, but my colleagues told me we’re officially allowed time off for this sort of thing with no loss of pay. And you know what? I don’t even need to rent a van for the removal as I can borrow the office one free of charge. Maman, you’ll be pleased to know I’m eating well, and not staying up too late (except on Saturday evenings). I’ll be holding a flat-warming party once I get bedded in. Thanks very much for the pullover you knitted for my birthday. I really like the colour and it certainly looks snug and warm. I don’t think I’ll be wearing it in the office this winter, though. Jean-Pierre (he’s a colleague just a bit older than me) told me the men like working in their shirt sleeves, so the heating’s always turned up to the maximum. It’s a bit odd, but even though we’re still in summer, for some reason or other it’s on full blast, and all the windows have got to be left wide open – otherwise it’d be too sweltering to work.
My job is going fine and I’m getting more used to things now. I’m writing this letter on one of the office computers. It’s a bit on the slow side and has certainly seen better days. Claude said I could use his while he slipped out to buy a card and some flowers for his wife’s birthday tomorrow. Claude’s job is to check taxpayers’ declaration forms to make sure there’s no cheating going on. He’s not a bad sort of chap, really. He’s also our union representative. Claude says he and the union don’t really agree with all this modernization. It means fewer jobs for comrades. He tells me that if we hadn’t had all these computers we’d have been able to employ at least a dozen people more.
Working here is very different from your company, papa. Things are much more free and easy, and nobody ever seems to be in a hurry. Apparently, fifteen people work here but up to now I’ve only met eight. Mind you, it’s just as well really as there only seems to be enough work for four or five. When I first started my job on Monday morning more than a fortnight ago now, Monsieur Lebrun (he’s our boss) called me into his office for a word or two. Monsieur Lebrun is a friendly sort of chap, once you get to know him. He must be about 55. Unfortunately, he retires this year. He told me he’s really looking forward to getting out of it. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I didn’t think it would be right to ask him. Apparently, he’ll draw a good pension and he’s still young enough to do a lot of travelling. He even told me that, since he’s a qualified accountant, he might do a bit of undeclared work on the side.
Monsieur Lebrun informed me I have six weeks’ annual leave plus bank holidays. He then gave me a wink and said I could add on at least another six (weeks not days), as you can always take time off for some reason or other without your salary being docked. So, I mustn’t think twice about taking a day off if I feel a bit under the weather. We in the Public Service are lucky enough to qualify for sickness benefit immediately – unlike the Private Sector where the first three days of absence are not refunded. Yesterday, Jean-Pierre told me he hadn’t taken any of the 30 days annual paid sick leave he’s entitled to yet.
In addition, Monsieur Lebrun gave me one or two tips. He explained that between him and me, if I wanted to get on in the Tax Division it was better to keep a low profile. ‘Above all,’ he said, ‘don’t try to be a smart Alec and disturb the peace and quiet!’ I asked him what he meant by this, and he replied that I should never try to make a name for myself by being overzealous or taking initiatives, and even less by criticizing others. He then went on to add that this didn’t mean I shouldn’t work, but it was important to work normally – or rather to make people think I was working normally. So, even though I would never be too hard pushed, it was important not to give the impression I wasn’t working. And if ever I did get a bit bored twiddling my thumbs, and decided to read Paris Match or whatever to pass on the time, which he quite understood, it would be better to be discreet and hide it, for example, inside a file. Whenever I went out of the office, I should always try to look busy and carry some documents under my arm. Papa will know what I mean.
Since this is my first year, he told me it’s vital to give a good general impression as this will follow me throughout my working career – regardless of whether I’m good at my job or work hard. Then, once I get through this year, my job will be guaranteed and salary increases automatic for the rest of my working life – so I can relax and do more or less what I want (within reason, of course), without being bothered too much by anybody. It’s a bit confusing really but he told me I’d soon get the hang of things.
We have a flexi-time system in operation here. This means we can start work any time between eight and half past nine, and leave between four and half past five. Officially, we do a seven hour day, but Monsieur Lebrun told me he’s not a stickler about this, and that a maximum of three hours was a good average. What really matters is that the work gets done. He even told me that, since we only have to clock in or out when we arrive or leave work in the morning or afternoon, nothing stops me from slipping out during working hours if I haven’t got much on. The thing is not to make it too obvious. But he did say it’s important to come back to the office and clock out at the official time rather than go directly home. I don’t think your workers can do this, can they, papa?
He also told me that in winter when it’s not fit to go out and there’s not too much work on, Odile (she’s the longest-serving employee) gives knitting lessons in the main office for anyone who’s interested. I really laughed at that one, but he assured me it was true. Apparently, they’re very popular – even with the men! Odile works at reception. She’s got a good heart, though she does go on a bit sometimes. This morning, for example, she’s been on about a woman who came in wanting some information on tax relief. Odile told her to wait a minute while she finished her game of patience on the computer, and apparently the woman got a bit shirty. ‘Can you imagine the cheek?’ moaned Odile. ‘I mean who does she think we are? Our job is to collect taxes, not to explain how to pay less!’
Monsieur Lebrun also said he was supposed to give me a mark at the end of my year, but he told me not to worry as he systematically gave 19 out of 20 to all his staff. Apparently, when he was first promoted Chief Tax Inspector he once gave somebody a bad mark. This created quite a rumpus with the unions, and caused him more problems than the employee. Since then, he’d learned his lesson, and in any case Regional Office, who don’t know anybody here, always have the final word.
While we were chatting, I couldn’t help noticing hundreds of letters and envelopes piled up everywhere in his office – on the floor, on chairs and even on his desk. He saw me looking, and told me they had to be sent out by the end of the week. He also added that if I didn’t mind a little job, I could give him a hand folding and slipping them into the envelopes, sticking on address labels, and putting them through the franking machine. When he first came, he’d once asked his staff to help him, but they’d told him they weren’t paid to do that kind of menial work, and if it was all that important he could do it himself. So now, usually it’s his wife (she’s a retired schoolteacher) who helps him to do this on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Someone had even been rude enough to tell him to go and get stuffed! Can you imagine it? I don’t remember your workers being like this, papa. I asked him who the boss was, then, and he said it certainly wasn’t him. He personally didn’t hire staff, he couldn’t give them a proper mark, and he certainly couldn’t sack them – so what weight did he have? The only authority he had, he told me with a broad smile, was that conferred by his great age!
So, as you can understand, I haven’t really been overworked up to now. Last Monday afternoon Odile (she’s going to teach us to sew this winter) gave me some filing to do. She said it would take me three or four days, but I’d finished by 10 o’clock the next day. I thought she’d be pleased but, in fact, she was a bit cross. She told me if I carried on like this they’d have nothing left to give me. Is it the same in your firm, papa? Anyway, she said that since there was only an hour and a half to go before lunch, it wasn’t worth starting another job and suggested I go and do a couple of Sudokus. She also gave me one or two tips on how to fill in time. For example, we have two coffee machines, and you can always help a few minutes pass on by going to the one farthest away from the office you’re working in. And if you happen to meet a colleague or two at the coffee machine, or on the way (which you always do), there were so many things to chat about: yesterday evening’s T.V. programmes, sport, current affairs, what we’d done last weekend, what we were going to do next weekend, etc., etc. And the same goes for when you arrive at work in the morning and afternoon. It all goes to make a nice, friendly working atmosphere!
I must be going now. By the way, I’ve got a couple of weeks’ holiday at Christmas. I’ll be spending Christmas Day and the following two or three days at home with you, of course, and then for the New Year I’ve arranged to go skiing in the Alps with Jean-Pierre. He told me we’ve got a really nice holiday centre in one resort with full board at amazingly low rates. Skis and even skiing lessons are provided free, and we get a good reduction on the lifts. Hope you’re all keeping well and that papa is taking things a bit easier. You know life isn’t meant for working all hours.
Your loving son,
The nature of the following pages on the subject of the public service will leave no doubt in our readers’ mind as to that half of our Frenglish self it emanates from.
Unlike the private sector, where the dehumanizing forces of unremitting competition, insatiable financial gain, endemic conflict, permanent job insecurity, and humiliating worker oppression – for the sole benefit of rapacious company bosses and shareholders – make life a veritable hell on earth, the French public service is totally committed to creating, and constantly improving those conditions enabling workers to while away their time in a climate of harmony, comradeship, equality, freedom, and mutual respect, from the day they join to that on which they take their amply-merited repose. And what can be more vital to creating these conditions than the peace of mind provided by total job security for each? For though private ownership can only be a source of inequality, division and exploitation, this is certainly not the case in the public service where employees may relax safe in the knowledge that all are in inalienable possession of their job for the duration of their career. Only in the most exceptional of circumstances, therefore, will dismissal be tolerated.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the public service and its staff are committed to each other for life. For the more adventurous spirits, understandably discontent with their pitiful salary (which every effort is being made to improve), are free to leave the public service at any time in order to occupy a better-paid post, or even create their own company in the private sector. Since employment is guaranteed for life, employees will be comforted to know that this option involves absolutely no risk on their part. For when they become disillusioned (as they inevitably will) with the harsh injustices of the capitalist world outside, and decide to resume their career of peace and tranquility, they will be re-integrated at the same salary level as the one they would have enjoyed had they remained. In addition, during their absence they may opt to continue contributing to the matchless public sector pension scheme which will enable them to take their well-earned retirement at an age, and with the financial means allowing them to take full advantage of their remaining years.
But though the public service prides itself on being an understanding and caring employer, steadfast in its defense of total job security, it is not unaware of the foibles of human nature. In this respect, staff members may rest assured that the greatest compassion will always be shown towards the limitations and imperfections inevitably coming to light during their working career (for example, an over-optimistic view of the travelling and dining expenses they are entitled to), and can relax in the knowledge that these will be treated with the utmost sympathy. However, in extreme cases, and as a final resort, it must be understood that, with their own welfare in mind, those who experience significant problems of adaptation, whatever form this may take, may be considered for transfer to other locations within the country. And what would be more unjust that the mental and material prejudice occasioned by these moves did not find adequate compensation in the form of appropriate removal allowances, salary increases or, in many cases, promotion?
Since each employee in the public sector enjoys total possession of his job for life what, then, is more normal that salaries should follow this same principle of strict equality for all? In contrast to the private sector where the constant struggle for profit encourages a climate of rivalry, humiliation, division, insecurity, even hatred among fellow workers by rewarding personal ambition, misplaced individual prowess and effort, the systemization of which can only lead to inequity and discrimination, the public service, in pursuance of its policy of equality and justice for all, is firmly attached to the strictly objective criterion of seniority. State workers, therefore, may rest assured that salary increases are independent of those divisive, capitalistic notions of competence, initiative and personal endeavour, and follow a fixed, pre-defined scale, applicable to all. How reassuring (and convenient) it is to know exactly what your salary level will be at any future given time! How bonding it is to note that your camarades will be earning no more than you! How comforting it is to understand that you will never be subject to infernal cadences transforming you into little more than a mass-production machine! How heartening it is to realize your specific temperament and personal dignity will always be taken into account! And how pleasant it is to see you have an employer who fully understands you are not responsible for what you are, and that it would be unjust, therefore, to penalize those whose more easy-going disposition makes it more difficult to maintain the same work rate as their more fortunately-endowed comrades.
Nevertheless, as all responsible people know, rights must always be accompanied by duties. Employees should, therefore, never lose sight of the fact that in the public service the work rate necessary to accomplish a task must, in certain circumstances, decrease to accommodate the surplus time allotted to it. With this in mind, staff members are expected to make the necessary effort to understand that it serves no purpose at all to risk ruffling the general ambiance of peace and serenity by humiliating and dividing colleagues through ostentatious displays of over-zealousness and individual prowess. And in the same spirit of equality for all, any exceptional salary increase negotiated by employees’ union representatives for one specific category of staff will be applied proportionally to all members of that same category. Thus, a 1% rise in the salary of primary schoolteachers will automatically generate the same percentage increase in the salary of, for example, school surface technicians.
Regrettably, at the time of writing, basic salaries paid in the public service are, on average, only 10% higher than those earned in the private sector by people with similar skills and seniority. Consequently, significant progress still remains to be made in this area. This disparity has, however, been slightly attenuated by a wide range of bonuses, benefits, tax reductions and allowances of all types. Detractors maintain that the total is around 1,300. Though, obviously, these numbers are grossly exaggerated, discretion is preferable in this respect as the figures could add weight to the argument that, all things considered, public service staff are not all that badly remunerated. This could be prejudicial to their legitimate claims during future salary negotiations.
It is a measure of the confidence which the French State has placed in their sense of responsibility towards the nation that public service workers have been given considerable latitude to make their own decisions, and in some cases the bonuses mentioned above have been granted to them by themselves. Employees are thus assured of qualifying for more than one. In the Railway Division, for example, a train driver may expect to receive an end-of-year bonus, a holiday bonus, an annual operating bonus, and a mileage and displacement bonus counting among the most common. It is encouraging to note that a further allowance has recently been negotiated to compensate drivers for the driving bonus which their summer holidays prevent them from earning. Although these different bonuses and allowances increase salaries by 8%, this must not be considered as definitive and public service policy is and always will be, to strive, by permanent improvement, towards the ideal of more and more pay for less and less work.
Those wishing to apply for a post will be pleased to learn that the French public service is an equal opportunity employer, and firmly opposed to discrimination in any form. Access to employment is through competitive examination and based on merit alone, regardless of race, religious conviction, political opinion, sex, sexual tendency, social condition or physical capacity. It should, however, be understood that those interested in joining public service ranks must be of French nationality and, since pride is taken in the relaxed, family working environment, preference will be given to those candidates whose relatives are already to be found there.
Those contemplating a career with the public service need have no cause to worry about the possible extension of working hours caused by the introduction of the 35 hour week*, which, though representing undeniable progress in the private sector, would have occasioned substantial regression in that of the public service. Though a minimum of two full hours of work per day is strongly recommended, the public service’s policy is far from rigid, and is based primarily on staff’s sense of personal responsibility. In practice, what really matters is the successful accomplishment of work at hand. Breaks may, therefore, be taken at employees’ discretion for such soothing pursuits as chatting with colleagues, perusing the newspaper, drinking coffee, playing computer games or doing a Sudoku, surfing on Internet, or any other analogous activity vital to their well-being – the relaxing nature of which will make them even more efficient in their dealings with the general public.
In order to allow them the necessary time to recover, both physically and mentally, from their arduous task, and with the constant aim of serving the public even better, the public service has been allowed the liberty of granting itself special dispensations from the normal rules governing periods which may be taken off work. Accordingly, in addition to five weeks’ annual paid holiday (not counting statutory public ones), employees may feel free to take advantage of the opportunities made available for them to enjoy a total of around 180 days of annual paid leave, allocated notably for the following reasons: jury duty, voluntary fire-training courses or participation in fire-fighting activities, military instruction, exercise of public electoral functions, maternity and paternity leave, arrival of an adopted child, sickness of children, medical appointments, marriage, serious illness or decease of husband, wife, live-in partner, mother-in-law or children, pilgrimage to graves of soldiers killed on the field of honour, attendance at religious ceremonies, blood donations, beginning of the new school year, study for examinations, commemorations of the abolition of slavery (overseas territories only), removals resulting from job relocation, sporting activities, supervisory work at holiday centres, or training courses organized by the Ministry’s social services, to name but a few. It must be understood, however, that leave of this type is subject to permission being granted by departmental heads. Nevertheless, in line with a policy of maximum staff emancipation and equality for all, the authority exercised by the latter exists more in theory than practice, and employees may rest assured that requests motivated by any of the above-mentioned reasons will be treated with the greatest sympathy.
Potential candidates for employment with the public service will be delighted to learn that it is a constant preoccupation to provide conditions whereby optimal health – both physical and mental – may be obtained, and maintained so that staff may continue accomplishing their duty as devoted servants of the public. Consequently, in the event of temporary indisposition (chill, cold, tummy upset, headache, stress, bad night’s sleep, Monday morning feeling, private family reasons, etc.), staff may feel free to absent themselves from work. While they will not, of course, receive their normal salary, this will involve no financial penalty in so much as they will receive state sickness benefit from the very first day. The previous right-wing Government made the heartless decision not to pay this first day of absence through sickness – the pretext being that the measure would go towards limiting the so-called disparities with the private sector where, apparently, workers only receive state sickness benefit from the third day of absence onwards. But what was even more scandalous was the claim that this would reduce what they called ‘the rampant absenteeism which characterizes the public sector’. They even went so far as to state that in certain areas this ruling had reduced the numbers of those off sick for one day by at least 40%, and that substantial savings of public money had thereby resulted. This only goes to prove that if you torture figures long enough you can get them to admit what you want. Fortunately, the present Socialist government (though not quite as left wing as many workers would like) saw sense, and decided that the previous measure was not only unjust and ineffective, but downright humiliating, and immediately abolished it.
Though the aim of the public service is to develop a system based solely on personal responsibility, where staff are free to come and go at hours they themselves deem fit, state workers are at present required to register their time of arrival at and departure from work, both in the mornings and afternoons. Naturally, no disciplinary action will be taken against those who, having terminated their work, spend the rest of their day in pursuit of a hobby, sporting or practical activity (e.g. tennis, golf, skiing, mushrooming, shopping, gardening, home renovation, etc.). However, for administrative reasons, staff are required to clock in punctually each day and, should they have reason to absent themselves during working hours, to return to their work place to clock out at the official departure time.
Public service utility vehicles are available gratuitously for personal use (i.e. removals or transportation of cumbersome objects), but it is the responsibility of all to ensure that this, as well as the private appropriation of miscellaneous office material (i.e. paper, paperclips, pens, staplers, etc.) remains within reasonable proportions.
In unswerving pursuit of this noble aim to create a workers’ paradise on earth, every effort is made to establish and preserve a co-operative and fraternal working environment, and to grant staff the greatest possible freedom of action. Though employees do have a duty to obey their hierarchical superior, no obligation is placed on them to accede to orders that are manifestly illegal, liable to disturb public order, or of a generally unreasonable nature. In addition, staff must always feel free to refuse to do work of a repetitive or humiliating nature, and a departmental head may be requested (politely) to do work of this nature himself. Employees need have no fear of disapprobation, recrimination or sanctions on the part of hierarchical superiors. If a departmental head should attempt any form of evaluation, staff may take the liberty of suggesting (politely) that he should first address his own personal and professional shortcomings through the remedial process of self-criticism.
As a reward for their tireless efforts in the sole interests of the public good, and as the worthy precursors of a better life for all, it is only fitting that public service employees should enjoy a number of fringe benefits. Those contemplating a career in the Railway Division will be transported with delight to learn that all employees are granted unlimited, totally free rail travel in France and most other European countries. One reservation which must be made, however, is that, for the moment at least, employees’ wives or husbands, live-in partners and children benefit from a niggardly 18 free journeys per year. This is an injustice every opportunity is taken to rail at. However, permanent discussion is engaged with the management on these points, and it is to be hoped that in the very near future things will start moving along the right track. In the meantime, some small consolation may be found in the fact that, beyond this number, it is required that only a quarter of the fare be paid (plus seat reservation). It is equally regrettable that employees’ children should not be permitted to enjoy these advantages beyond their eighteenth year, from which age only their parents may continue to benefit from totally gratuitous rail travel.
In order to assist the Electricity Division workers in making ends meet, some 95% of their domestic electricity consumption is supplied free of charge – though it comes as a shock to learn that the reminder is at their expense. This, however, is something that public service unions are currently working on. Needless to say, they are confident that a few lightning protest strikes will generate more and more support and that their state employer will finally see the light.
It is also part of the public service’s general social policy to place at staff’s disposal the leisure and holiday facilities so vital in helping them recover from the mental and physical strains of their daily toil, and so essential to their personal equilibrium and welfare, as well as that of their family. To this effect, the Railway Division’s Welfare Committee, with kind contributions from the taxpayer, has been able to acquire over past years a number of holiday centres, villages, houses, flats and camping sites in the Alps, Brittany, and on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, which employees and their families may avail themselves of in the very best conditions of comfort and price. By way of comparison, these facilities make it possible for a public service worker with a family of two children to spend a fortnight’s holiday on the coast in summer, or the ski slopes in winter, with no comfort spared, at a total price some five times less than what it would cost a comparable family in the private sector. This difference could represent as much as two month’s salary – a consideration which should go some small way towards placating understandable exasperation at the inequitable level of basic pay between the public and private sectors.
And what is more natural that those who benefit directly from Electricity Division’s services should be required to make a financial contribution to its Welfare Committee in the form of a 1% levy on each household electricity bill? Fortunately, the £200,000,000 per annum thereby raised is placed in the capable hands of an anti-capitalist, fraternally-united union which invests an average of around £1,600 per year on the social well-being of each worker. The silence of contempt can be the only reply to those libellous accusations emanating from the reactionary forces of the nation which claim that a considerable proportion of this amount finds its way into the coffers of political parties and unions of extreme left-wing persuasion, as well as the pockets of their leaders.
It is the steadfast goal of the public service not only to transform the workplace into a haven of peace and tranquility, and encourage worker fulfillment in every aspect of their social life, but also to provide those who have reached the end of their careers with the means to enjoy the full fruits of their labour. What, then, is more understandable that workers should qualify for a pension allowing them to enjoy some of the things they have always dreamed of? Why should it always be the same profiteering capitalist pigs who get all the pleasure in life? Is it not perfectly legitimate that retirement should be at an age when the ordinary worker is able-bodied and minded enough to take full advantage of this newly-acquired leisure time? And what is more normal that those in the filthy rich private sector should be invited to contribute? Capitalist detractors maintain it is scandalous that public service staff should enjoy a pension calculated on a more advantageous basis than that of the private sector, and that the taxpayer should play a major part in subsidizing it. But after all, is it not justice that the former should be the first to reap some small reward for it’s pioneering efforts to create a world of equality for all?
Generally speaking, Railway Division workers qualify for a full retirement pension at the age of 55. However, train drivers who have reached the terminus of their working lives, prematurely aged by years of enforced overtime, unsociable hours and the obligation to sleep frequently away from home, are entitled to take their well-earned rest at an average age of 50. Once more the silence of contempt can be the only reply to those retrograde comments emanating from those jealous elements in the private sector who maintain that retirement at this age goes back to the days of the steam engine, when stoking and driving a train was a physically awesome task, and that it is no longer adapted to this present age of diesel or electric-powered locomotion. Moreover, as the amount of the retirement pension corresponds to 75% of the final salary earned, and in order to ensure the highest possible sum, the brilliant idea has been hit upon to hold certain well-paid jobs vacant so that employees can be awarded promotion during the last six months of their career. Those same jealous elements in private industry never stop complaining that those in the public service are more equal than others, since the rules for calculating their pensions are different, and result in a smaller amount for them. Eh bien, why don’t they take the lead and go on strike instead of always leaving it to state workers?
Anglo-Saxon brothers will be pleased to learn that the French public service workers’ interests are defended by their militant union brothers. And though substantial progress has already been made, they are even more determined to continue the struggle against those reactionary forces of bourgeois capitalism whose immense fortunes, it must never be forgotten, were made in an all-too-recent past by the pitiless oppression of fellow human beings: child labour, endless working hours, few or no holidays, miserable pay, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, and a total absence of medical and social protection, or retirement pensions.
To this end, a significant say has been acquired in all aspects of corporate organization: staff supervision, departmental administration, career development and promotion, staff recruitment and transfer, disciplinary action, etc. It goes without saying that employees may at all times count on their union to defend them against unfounded management accusations of gross incompetence or professional misconduct, and to protect them from scandalous government proposals, systematically designed to destroy both the advantages they have so valiantly fought to obtain, and the fraternal adhesion that exists within their ranks. Suffice it to say that the parity of decision they share with management enables them to obstruct any measure detrimental to staff interests, or generally tending to show that they are not infinitely more qualified to run operations.
It is also interesting to note that unions do all in their power to encourage those employees tempted by a more politically-oriented career to help their brothers-in-arms in their noble aim to light the fire of revolution, and build a workers’ paradise from the ashes of an unjust régime. In the Education Division, for example, teachers may be co-opted by their union – that is to say they can cease all teaching activity in order to devote themselves to union activities on a full-time basis. These comrades will, of course, still have the same state employer who will continue paying them the same salary, and granting them the same benefits and increments they would have enjoyed had they pursued their original teaching careers. How else could they find time to organize union actions in defense of the interests of the pupils and students they so selflessly serve? Once more the silence of scorn will be used to reply to those cynics who maintain that the only interests they defend are their own. Union representatives may even be allocated an office, with a secretary, on the premises of the employer and, of course, at the latter’s entire expense. It goes without saying that those who take this option are legally protected from any type of dismissal or retribution on the part of their employer. Officially, some 20,000 comrades are engaged in work of this kind, but it is reassuring to note that the real figure is certainly higher.
Those who criticize the syndicats for systematically withdrawing their labour three or four times a year fail to understand that this is the only means of giving the government and its capitalist lackeys a salutary warning of the chaos which would result, should they threaten the quality of that selfless service they extend to the public by attacking those richly-deserved benefits so courageously obtained, or by refusing their all-too-justified claims for improved working conditions and pay. But, as they well know, the unions constitute a structured counter-power with the organization and weapons to bring governments down. And it must never be forgotten that it is the unions who control the country’s key facilities (postal services, education, inland revenue, railways, the underground, public bus transport, ports, civil air traffic control, petrol refineries), and that they are determined to obtain satisfaction by means of go-slows, strikes, protest marches, sit-ins, factory blockades, holding the boss prisoner and other more strong-armed tactics, when deemed necessary, to further their cause. In addition, they have in their midst those who, in order to build an egalitarian paradise on earth, are ready to wage all-out guerrilla war. But it is common knowledge that politicians have all too many human flaws and that after a token resistance they are sure to capitulate; for though they claim to serve their country their real priority is their own ambition, and nationally-paralyzing actions undermine their popularity, thereby compromising their political future. Even though union action involves considerable cost to the nation the strikers never lose out! For when the government finally gives in to their demands, as it always does, they only resume work when compensation has been agreed for the days they were on strike.
While it would be untrue to say that strikes do not cause a certain amount of inconvenience, frustration and loss of earnings to the general public, such is the support for the unions’ cause that those who have been waiting for hours on a station platform rarely show any aggressive reaction, and await the inevitable government capitulation with stoicism. Unions are, nevertheless, acutely aware that disruptive action must never exceed those boundaries where public support changes into hostility. In this respect, whenever possible, specific actions are organized to boost their public image. A short while ago, for example, the Electricity Division decided to implement a series of power cuts in protest against a government plan to privatize the industry, which could only have reduced, in the name of base capitalistic profit, the quality of the service they so devotedly extend to the public. Fully conscious of the general inconvenience the cuts would cause, they came up with the noble idea of organizing a national ‘Robin Hood’ campaign: this consisted in reconnecting those poor, oppressed households, victims of a rapacious, profit-oriented society, whose electricity supply had been previously cut off as a result of unpaid bills. And you’ve got to hand it to them. Not only did they succeed in preserving their public image but they did it with other people’s money!
* In August 2000, the Socialist government reduced the official working week from 39 to 35 hours in both the public and private sectors with the aim of creating more employment. As one government minister remarked at the time: ‘This measure is going to be difficult to apply in the public sector, and we must proceed progressively – 30 hours to begin with, then 31 and after 32 …’
The French Primary School curriculum spares no child the task of reading and committing to memory at least one of what is as inseparably French as a smelly, runny Camembert and a crisply-baked baguette: the fables of Jean de la Fontaine.
Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was born into an upper middle class family living in Château-Thierry, a small town located in the Marne valley some 80 kilometres north east of Paris, and now part of the capital’s outer urban sprawl. His father was Maître des Eaux et des Fôrets – a civil servant responsible for managing the King’s forests, rivers and lakes of the region. At that time, this type of office was either handed down from father to son, or actually bought in return for an annual salary, along with a considerable number of fringe benefits. It’s not clear whether La Fontaine himself was given the office by his father, or whether it was purchased from someone else. Whatever the case, it was something of a sinecure, and didn’t in the least prevent our poet from spending most of his life frequenting literary and aristocratic circles in Paris.
After going to school in his home town, La Fontaine entered the Oratory in Paris at the age of 20, only to leave a year later, more attracted by the free-thinking and often dissolute company of poets and playwrights than the austere doctrines of Saint Augustine. Little is known of his teens and twenties other than that he studied law in Paris and qualified as a lawyer at the age of 28. Two years earlier his father had found a spouse for him in the person of Marie Héricart, a budding beauty aged … 14, by whom he had a son, Charles, born in 1653.
La Fontaine was a bad husband and an even worse father. He neglected his wife (on his own admission, an intelligent, pleasant and cultured woman), and rarely saw his son who was brought up solely by his mother. As a result of the regular, prolonged absences of her husband, Marie appears to have found consolation in the arms of another. One anecdote illustrates both the amiability of our poet and his indifference towards his spouse. A Dragoon Captain was in the habit of paying regular visits to Madame de La Fontaine. Though La Fontaine himself did not seem to be aware of anything untoward, his wife’s infidelity was not only brought to his notice, but he was made to understand that the rules of honour required him to take her lover to task for his impertinence. So, rising at dawn one morning, he called on the Captain, told him to get dressed, buckle on his sword and follow him. When they reached a meadow (the traditional venue for duels) just outside town, he announced to the astonished officer, ‘I’m obliged to fight you! I’ve been told there’s nothing else to be done!’ Briefly explaining the reasons, and without giving his opponent time to reply, our poet drew his sword. The Dragoon Captain, who had no alternative but to defend himself, drew his own and immediately knocked La Fontaine’s weapon out of his hand. After declaring how ridiculous their behaviour was, the Captain then announced that, since he had been woken so early, he would never again set foot in his rival’s house. ‘On the contrary,’ La Fontaine vehemently declared, ‘I’ve done what was expected of me. Now I’d like you to be an even more regular visitor than before. If not, I’ll fight you again.’ They parted the best of friends.
Another story relates that on one occasion his literary friends in Paris persuaded him to attempt a reconciliation with his wife. With this in view, he set off home to Château-Thierry. After knocking on the door, he was informed by a servant that Madame de La Fontaine was absent, having ‘gone out to prayers.’ On hearing this, he called to see a friend who invited him to stay for dinner and after to sleep the night. Next morning, he went straight back to Paris. When asked whether his visit had been successful, he replied, ‘Oh, I didn’t see my wife, she was out at prayers.’
On another occasion some years later, at a literary gathering in Paris, he got chatting to a young man whom he found both witty and intelligent. When, afterwards, he was informed it was, in fact, his own son, Charles, La Fontaine is said to have exclaimed, ‘Oh really! I thought I’d seen him somewhere before!’
One of La Fontaine’s greatest literary ambitions was to become a member of the prestigious Académie, his election to which would be greatly facilitated by a recommendation from the King. Thinking it might help his cause if he could present his verses to Louis XIV in person, he got one of his illustrious protectors to obtain an audience for him. Once in royal presence, he began searching through his pockets – only to realize he’d forgotten to bring his poems with him! ‘Oh, another time, another time, Monsieur de La Fontaine,’ replied the Sun King with remarkable indulgence.
In marked contrast to many of his fables which extoll the virtues of down-to-earth common sense, Jean de La Fontaine comes through as a head-in-the air, live-for-the-moment, ingenuous and negligent dreamer, totally oblivious to the financial realities of life. He was even obliged to sell his office in 1672 to pay off some of his substantial debts. However, his depleted financial circumstances were never a matter of life or death, and throughout his life he seems to have enjoyed the favours of Providence (perhaps his naivety and, above all, his artistic genius were appreciated by all), and always landed squarely on his feet. For he could always rely on the patronage and generosity of wealthy, influential, aristocratic protectors (especially when they were women), to whom he wisely dedicated his works and who, during his periods of impecuniousness, provided him with accommodation – which, in his childlike guilelessness, he seems to have considered to be in the natural order of things. Another anecdote tells that one day he was walking in the street after being turned out of his lodgings – presumably for not paying the rent – when he met a wealthy, aristocratic couple of his acquaintance. On being informed of what had happened, they immediately invited him to come and stay with them. ‘Oh, I was just going!’ La Fontaine replied.
An obvious contradiction exists, then, between the elegant, subtly humorous verses of Les Fables, the themes of which draw their substance from a realistic appraisal of human nature, and the seemingly indolent, scatter-brained, happy-go-lucky character of the poet himself. It is also not immediately understandable why some of the most sociable and intelligent men and women of the time could have actively sought the company of someone who could give an impression of dullness, even stupidity – though it is said that when the conversation got animated he livened up too. He also appears to have been indifferent to social niceties. Another anecdote tells of one occasion when he was invited to dine at the home of a wealthy financier, no doubt flattered to have an author of such distinction and fame as a guest. Apparently, La Fontaine relished the meal and had little to say while eating. Rising from table after dessert, he got ready to leave. On being asked to stay a while longer he replied, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve got a meeting at the Académie. I must go.’
‘But the meeting won’t start for some time yet,’ his host replied.
‘Yes, I know,’ retorted la Fontaine, ‘but I’ll go the longest way round!’ And he promptly left.
His collections of more than 240 fables (many of which were inspired by those of Aesop), written between 1668 and 1694, most of which stage anthropomorphic characters, and contain a self-avowed moral aim (many of which have become household proverbs), are universally considered to occupy a deserved place among the masterpieces of French literature. One of the best-known of La Fontaine’s Fables, The Cicada and the Ant, praises those traditional, common-sense virtues of hard work and saving for a rainy day. Here is our English translation:
The Cicada having sung his song
All summer long
Found himself without a crumb
When the North Wind did come,
Not one small morsel could he find
Of fly or worm of any kind.
Starving, he went to see his ant neighbour
To tell him he was at death’s door
And begging him for a grain or two
So he might survive all winter through
Until the coming of the spring.
‘By August I’ll pay back everything,’
Said he, ‘interest and principal, both,
Upon my insect oath.’
Now the ant may have a fault or two
But lend is what he will not do.
‘What did you do last summer?’
Asked he of this would-be borrower.
‘Why, night and day, you surely won’t mind,
I sang to comers of all kind.’
‘You sang? I’m glad you had that chance:
Well now you can run off and dance!’
‘Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes’
‘I use animals to teach men’, La Fontaine declared when speaking of his Fables. And looking around us we can’t help but see that the proverbs and sayings of La Fontaine are just as relevant to our times as they were more than 300 years ago. Here are just a few of his best-known quotations:
Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, Les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir (Les Animaux Malades de la Peste).
‘Depending on whether you are mighty or in lack the court will judge you white or black’.
Justice always favours the rich and powerful, never the poor and defenseless.
Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (le Chartier Embourbé).
‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’.
Being self-reliant is far more desirable and effective than depending on others.
Tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute (Le Corbeau et le Renard).
‘A flatterer lives at the expense of he who listens to him’.
Flatterers depend on people being vain enough to believe what they say. If everybody ignored them they’d lose all reason to exist.
Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre (L’Ours et les deux Compagnons).
‘Never sell the bearskin before you’ve brought the bear down’. The French version of ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.’ In modern French this has been modified to Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué (Never sell the bearskin before you’ve killed the bear).
Don’t anticipate reward or success. Such is the unpredictability of life that things may not turn out as positively as you had hoped.
On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi (le Lion et le Rat).
‘We often need someone smaller than ourselves’.
Don’t scorn those who seem to be of no importance. They could be of precious assistance one day.
Rien n’est si dangereux qu’un ignorant ami; mieux vaudrait un sage ennemi (l’Ours et l’Amateur des Jardins).
‘Nothing is more dangerous than an ignorant friend; it’s better to have a wise enemy’.
A deviation on the theme ‘to kill by kindness’.
A foolish friend who tries to be too caring or helpful can end up doing more harm than a more sensible enemy could ever do.
Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point (le Lièvre et la Tortue).
‘Running serves no purpose, you have to set off at the right moment.’
We must have the wisdom and foresight to choose the most propitious circumstances to do something in. If we rush into things without thinking we could end up the loser – even though the odds appear initially to be in our favour.
Toute puissance est faible à moins que d’être unie (Le Vieillard et ses Enfants).
‘All power is weak unless united’.
There’s strength in numbers. As isolated individuals we are vulnerable, but together we are strong.
L’avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner (La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or).
‘By wanting to win all, avarice loses all’.
Be reasonable in all your aspirations. If you’re too greedy you could lose everything.
La méfiance est mère de la sûreté (le Chat et un vieux Rat).
‘Wariness is the mother of safety’.
It’s better to be safe than sorry. Before embarking on a new enterprise make sure you weigh up all the risks.
Being the inextricable mix of French and Englishman that we are it’s perhaps understandable that La Fontaine’s anthropomorphic characters should have led us to imagine what might have been the thoughts of our idealistic, leftist Froggie and dyed-in-the-wool, right-wing English Bulldog, had each been dissociated long enough to give full, independent expression to their political views. Here’s what we fancy our Frenchie would have to say:
Camarades! Vous savez, you have to be an ultra-liberal Englishman to refuse to see that a classless society of true equals can only be born when the working masses of our planet unite to throw off those chains by which their money-grubbing, bourgeois oppressors have shackled them for so long. And I’m well placed to see that it’s in the financial interests of the cynical, self-seeking capitalists of our world to spread the lie that total equality is an impossible dream. For their systematic condemnation of the social, political and economic system inspired by those immense benefactors of humanity, Marx and Engel is based not on what true communism really is, but a pernicious manipulation of what the bourgeois pigs of our world want people to think it is.
For one thing they would like to have us believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified the total failure of communism as a whole. Eh bien, the simple reply is that the Soviet Union was more a state which claimed to be communist rather than actually being one. En tout cas, as our original thinkers went to great pains to emphasize, communism, as a social and economic system, can never be bounded by the frontiers of just a few countries, and to be really effective must exist on that same global scale as capitalism does at present. And as for those scandalous accusations regarding our beloved Uncle Joe, things have been grossly exaggerated. Though I cannot deny he did send a few bourgeois parasites away to cool off and learn what a good day’s work was all about, he must be judged by his intentions: for he always had the good of his people, indeed mankind, at heart. And après tout you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, n’est-ce pas?
But looking at things objectively, is capitalism above all reproach? Can we, in all honesty, say that a system based on private ownership is an example to follow when it produces cars for millions of people all over the world, while depriving countless more of clean drinking water and condemning them to live (and die) on a starvation diet? Can we have faith in a doctrine of free enterprise whose insatiable greed pillaged the New World, massacred entire Indian populations and reduced millions of innocents to a life of slavery? Is it possible to trust a system of laissez-faire which, under the hypocritical pretext of introducing civilization, democracy and Christianity to primitive nations, brought rapacious colonization aimed, in reality, at exploiting their natural resources to the sole benefit of their perpetrators? And what can we say about the imperialist oppressors who waged merciless war against those downtrodden colonies whose only crime was the desire to free themselves from their intolerable yoke? What words can we use to describe that pernicious capitalist propaganda which accused the Soviet Union of communist expansionism when the only thing we sought was to assist these hapless nations in regaining their identity and pride? I mean, can we really envisage a future of peace for our children under a shameful system which, twice during the last century, threw humanity into horrendous strife, and which carries within it the germs of future war? Can we honestly conclude that the future of Mankind lies in an order which enabled immense fortunes to be built on crippling workdays of 14 hours or more, on the hellish toil in factories and mines of children barely out of the cradle, and on the blighted lives of countless millions of exploited women and men?
And have things now really changed for the better? Your Anglo-Saxon-inspired, ultra-liberal capitalism with its dehumanizing, never-ending quest for profit to the sole advantage of shareholders and a minority ruling class is still the dominant economic, social, and political system in our world today. The bourgeois exploiters of our planet are still just as contemptuous of the rights and dignity of those who, by the sweat of their brow, slave to produce their wealth. What else but the word slavery can we use to describe the fate of the ordinary working man? How else can we qualify the daily working conditions of those countless millions, condemned to sweat away their lives for a pittance, squeezed dry by a merciless, money-grubbing boss, sucked into the infernal spiral of increased production rates (often in health or even life-threatening conditions), mentally tortured by the ever-present risk of losing their job in a dehumanizing order which reigns, not by fraternity, but by division among men?
And even when that longed-for-moment comes to take a well-earned rest, is it not the profiteering bourgeois pig who continues to live off the fat of the land, while those whose strength he has so mercilessly sapped must be content with a mere scattering of crumbs to eke out the remainder of their days? Non! A society based on the shameful exploitation of Man by Man must never be allowed to be! Our future must fly on the wings of Hope – that workers will rise up as one, united in the conviction that we can create a brave new world where relations between men are based, not on conflict, servitude, exploitation and inequity, but Egalité, Fraternité, Liberté, and Justice for all.
And here’s what we imagine our Bulldog’s reaction would have been:
You know what? Our Frog calls me a cynical, bourgeois capitalist Englishman. Well, do you know what I think he is? I think he’s a dangerous dreamer … or just plain bonkers! I mean, does he seriously believe a classless society of perfect equals united in brotherly love can ever exist outside cloud-cuckoo land? Isn’t he living in a Utopian world of self-delusion?
You know, one thing he doesn’t seem to realize is that inequality is an indisputable fact of life. Isn’t nature unequal? I mean, some people are born intelligent and sound in body and mind while others are born stupid and handicapped. And then there’s the problem of family and social background. Why, only the other day I was reading a newspaper article about deprived kids. In it one mother (if you can call her that) was quoted as saying: ‘Well, he doesn’t speak to me, so I don’t speak to him!’ She was talking about her six-year-old son! So what chance does he have in life? And can we do all that much to change mentalities like this?
But don’t get me wrong. I do believe we must work hard at giving all our youngsters the same chance. But after, shouldn’t they be left free to make their own way in life? If someone’s ambitious and willing to work hard why shouldn’t he be allowed to get on in life? As long as this doesn’t stop others from doing the same what’s wrong with that? In our Frogs’s perfect society of so-called equals those who are competent, work hard and want to better themselves will be treated exactly the same as those who are content to sit on their bums, twiddling their thumbs all day. And if you’re all paid the same with automatic promotion, regardless of how hard you work, or how competent you are, what incentive is there to get ahead? He never stops moaning about the injustice of capitalistic exploitation but isn’t this even more unjust?
What’s more, isn’t our Frenchie’s dream of a fraternal, classless society of equals asking a bit too much of human nature? Let’s face it, whether he likes it or not, most people are for themselves and their own. He can call this cynical if he likes. I call it being realistic. Society is simply a reflection of what we really are and what we’ll always be. There’ll always be class differences, and competition for the best places will always exist. But isn’t this desirable? Doesn’t healthy competition bring out the best in people? Doesn’t it help to make us more efficient?
All right. I agree that capitalism is not the ideal, and I’ve got to admit that in the past it was responsible for much heartless exploitation and even worse. But what’s wrong with people getting rich when they’ve worked their guts out for it? Does a better system exist? It’s certainly not communism. If capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth, communism is the equal distribution of poverty and misery. I mean, we’ve only got to look at communist countries, past and present. He says that the ex-Soviet Union can’t be taken as an example of what true communism is. I say that the ex-Soviet Union is a good example of what communism can only be. Doesn’t he find it a bit strange that so many people have tried to escape – and even got themselves shot for doing it – from countries he calls a paradise on earth? I’ve never seen so many wanting to flee from his nasty capitalist societies. And why do people try to escape in droves? Because they’re living in a prison, that’s why! They can’t go where they want, they can’t say what they want, they can’t read what they want, they can’t write what they want, they can’t vote for who they want, they can’t organize a get-together when they want, they can’t join the party or union they want, they can’t buy what they want because it’s not on sale, and even if it was they’d either be too skint to afford it, or they’d have to queue for hours to get it. And then you’ve got the secret police everywhere, putting the wind up everybody and generally making sure the poor buggers do what they’re told, and carting them off to the goulag without a fair trial if they don’t. And what takes the biscuit is that all this time their party leaders are living the high life. Is this what you call a paradise of freedom, equality and universal fraternity? I call it hell on earth, that’s what I call it! As for his beloved Uncle Joseph who had the good of humanity at heart, I’ve never heard anything more preposterous in my life. Along with Hitler he’s probably the biggest criminal this world has ever known.
I don’t want to live in a country where a dictatorial centralized State pokes its nose into what’s none of its business, where tens of thousands of often ridiculous laws tell you in the slightest detail what you can and can’t do, where you’re taxed to the hilt, and where you’re administered by I don’t know how many unproductive, privileged state workers who’ve got the authority but not the responsibility that should go with it, and who are paid to sit on their backsides all day with automatic salary rises, regardless of whether they’re competent or not, and who can retire on a good pension (subsidized by the private sector into the bargain) at the age of 55 or even younger. Do you call that liberty, equality and fraternity? No! I want to live in a country which gives you enough freedom to be skipper of your own ship and fully in charge of where you’re heading. I want to live in a land where you’ve got a minimum of state workers, where laws are few and simple, and focused on giving a go-ahead chap enough freedom to make a success of his life, where private ownership and enterprise, taking a risk or two, a spirit of free competition and plenty of bloody hard graft are actively encouraged and made really worthwhile.
Apart from the restaurant which performs a similar function throughout the world (though the French gastronomic version enjoys a unique and deserved international reputation for excellence), France has a plethora of eating and drinking establishments whose various names could create confusion in the mind of the foreign tourist or recently arrived expat as to the purpose they serve and the differences between them – even though distinctions of this kind are becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases the names now used mean more or less the same thing. The following are the more typically French ones :
Le Café. The best-known of French drinking (and eating) establishments is, of course, the café. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village café, usually owned and run by a local who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. But they all provide a place where shoppers, strollers and tourists can have a bite to eat and slake their thirst, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. What’s more, a small-town or village café is an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. And it’s rare to come across a French café which doesn’t have some kind of terrace where you can relax and simply watch the world go by. The larger ones are capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside.
Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night and serve a wide range of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and hot drinks. And you can always get something to eat at any time of the day. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns and villages this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some even serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached.
Sometimes a café is a bar-tabac : the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagent’s shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy, apart from newspapers and magazines, sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds – and sometimes even bread. Many are licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are usually licensed by the PMU (le Pari Mutuel Urbain), a state-controlled betting organization mainly centred on horse-racing.
Le Bistro (sometimes spelled ‘bistrot’). Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistro is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting and available at most times of the day.
Le Bar. In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or even on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually has a terrace of some description – even when it’s located inside. And you can usually get some kind of snack there, frequently in the form of standardized fast food. In this case it can be called a snack-bar or simply un snack. In large towns especially they frequently serve take-away food.
A bar can even have a small restaurant attached to it, in which case it goes under the name of ‘bar-restaurant’.
La Brasserie. Larger than a bistro and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though they serve all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, Sauerkraut, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries, especially in Paris, can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking is not normally required.
L’Estaminet. An estaminet is a small, rustic, working-class establishment, halfway between a bar and a restaurant, serving mainly locally brewed beer and where you can eat simple, but copious regional specialities. They’re to be found in Belgium and Northern France and were originally places where men of the same working corps – miners, textile workers, metal workers, sailors (and even smugglers) would go to have a drink, a smoke, play billiards and skittles as well as hold meetings to discuss matters of professional concern. It’s said that trade unionism and the right to strike were born in the estaminet.
Le Bouchon. A small, cosily informal restaurant specific to Lyon and the surrounding region (though you can find the odd one in other large towns), serving regional specialities. On the menu you’ll usually find quenelles de brochet (a kind of pike dumpling served with a sauce) and, above all, pork and tripe specialities such as boudin (black pudding), different types of saucisson (a pork-based salami) pigs’ trotters and les andouillettes (a tripe sausage). Traditionally the food is washed down with the local Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône wines which can be purchased by the glass.
Le Salon de Thé. Often known under the English name ‘Tea Room’ the salon de thé is an ideal place for the shopper to rest her weary legs (they’re mainly frequented by women) over a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate or, if she prefers, a cold soft drink (a tea room is not licensed to sell alcohol). It’s also a golden opportunity to sample some of the cakes and sweets from the huge range of delightful French confectionary. The salon de thé can be an establishment in its own right, especially in large towns, but can also consist of just a few tables and chairs in the corner of the larger confectioner’s shops.
It has always been an enigma to the Frenchman in us that you English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of your cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; and our English half is no less mystified that the French, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread, and a bowl of watery coffee by which to start the day. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the Gallics do not appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists perhaps no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to take it – even at the weekend.
But what our Englishman finds far more regrettable than the insipid, insufficient nature of the French breakfast is the manner in which it is frequently ingested: for a widespread Gallic practice (as rampant as queue-jumping, street demonstrations, strikes and le Système D) consists in plunging bread or croissant into a breakfast bowl of coffee (or hot chocolate) until the former has imbibed as much of the latter as the laws of physics will allow. The unspeakably-soggy mass thereby produced is then popped into mouth, munched with relish before finally being allowed to slide down throat.
Does the practice (hereinafter referred to as ‘le French Dunk’) have its origins in some ancient Gallic ritual which required food to be dipped into a recipient containing the still warm blood of a vanquished foe? Is it now considered to be a pre-masticatory phase essential to a digestive system not yet in full working order at this early time of day? Or does it simply provide a means of adding a modicum of taste to a meal more suited to a prison punishment diet? Whatever the case may be, the habit is endemic enough to constitute an infallible sign of French presence in the breakfast room of any foreign holiday hotel.
Beyond the doubtful gustatory merits of le French Dunk, and the nauseous spectacle it presents, what shocks the Englishman in us even more is that this use of bread to perform a function normally conferred on a sponge represents a gross breach of table etiquette: for an elementary rule of good table manners states that solids and liquids may only come together after being despatched separately down throat.
Our Englishman might have been prepared to grant some attenuating circumstances, had le Dunk been restricted to breakfast alone – which, considering the early hour this usually takes place, would have enabled it to go unnoticed by those non-dunkers still under the influence of their recent dormant state. Regrettably, the same technique is unashamedly presented to fully-awakened public gaze during meals consumed at other times of day, particularly (though not limited to) their final stages, when most solid matter has been transferred from plate to stomach, and little else remains but the sauce. In this respect, moreover, such is the assiduity with which bread is used to wipe the plate that subsequent washing is rendered entirely superfluous.
Nevertheless, the rules of French table etiquette – though making no mention of breakfast-time dunking – do, in fact, condemn the main-meal habit of using bread digitally to mop up sauce. It would, however, appear to be tolerated when bread is impaled on fork. It goes without saying that even our Frenchman has rarely witnessed this pronged derivative in operation, and personal experience would lead us to believe that, like most rules in France, it tends to be ignored. It might also be thought that in this land of rampant individualism, strikes and general protestation the nation would have counted an equal number of anti-dunkers. In reality, this is not at all the case. For on this point, at least, the country is resolutely united. Indeed, so much a part of the national heritage is the custom that, not only has the verb saucer been derived to describe it, but it is systematically inculcated in progeny barely weaned from their mothers’ milk.
Though our Englishman remains stubbornly hostile to le Dunk, the Frenchman in us recommends that a far more tolerant stand be taken. For who can say whether even the most well-mannered of English diners would not succumb to the temptation to dunk were he presented with that rich variety of deliciously-fresh, good-quality, easily-prepared, natural and inexpensive sauces which la cuisine française has elaborated to accompany food? And would it not be something akin to profanation that they should suffer the same cruel fate as their crude, often bottled English and American counterparts whose un-mopped remains are so frequently laid to rest down the kitchen-sink plughole?
It is a matter of the deepest sadness to the Englishman in us that vulgar mint and horseradish sauce, not forgetting copious quantities of runny gravy, are more or less the only traditional English options open to a cook wishing to complement the flavour of meat and vegetables, and render them succulently moist. And surely the grounds for our Bulldog’s denigration of le French Dunk are considerably weakened by the more than dubious nature of these native English sauces which, let’s be honest, present little inducement to being mopped up. After all, does the thought of bringing bread into absorbable contact with such a cold, unappealing mixture as vinegar, chopped mint and sugar present a prospect any normal eater could find appetizing? And can dunking such a dubiously-coloured liquid as gravy (so watery that most of it would probably run down your chin) be seriously envisaged?
Nevertheless, the more resolutely anglophile of our French readers, still interested in preparing these typically English sauces, will be pleased to learn that their questionable nature may be somewhat compensated for by a certain simplicity of preparation. As indicated above, mint sauce, an essential accompaniment to roast lamb, is made from just a few spoonfuls of chopped, fresh mint, a dash of vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sugar. Horseradish sauce, traditionally eaten with roast beef, boasts a tangy, mustard-like flavour, and is composed of nothing more complex than vinegar, sour cream, and the grated roots of the plant whose name it bears. And gravy, in its basic form, is simply the juices which run naturally from meat during cooking. These may be further coloured, flavoured and thickened by adding gravy salt (a simple mix of salt and caramel) or gravy browning (gravy salt dissolved in water), and more consistency can be obtained by using an agent such as corn flour. Strangely, the dispensing recipient goes under the name of ‘gravy boat.’ Is it the nautical appellation, along with the hull-like shape which prompts this nation of sea-farers to douse their food with such floodwater quantities of liquid that dinner plates are not without resembling Brighton beach at high tide? But what is even more regrettable is the fact that, though successful preparation of any of these sauces would not tax the culinary skills of an averagely-intelligent eight year-old, few English household cooks are now willing to consent the effort: for concentrated cubes and powders, to which hot water is simply added, are now commonly used to make gravy; and ready-prepared bottled mint and horse-radish sauce, where the only inconvenience is the exertion involved in unscrewing the cap, are usually preferred to home-made versions made from fresh ingredients.
Whether it is the effect or the cause, an industry has now developed which has made ready-prepared, artificially-coloured and preserved, standardized bottled-sauce concoctions an inseparable part of Anglo-Saxon eating culture. Indisputable proof of this is provided by the shelves of English supermarkets which display an awesome variety of pre-made condiments: sauces, pickles, creams and dressings of every description, the vast proportion of which are totally unknown in France. Many of these condiments, or their ingredients at least, saw light of day in the distant colonies of an Empire bathed in a never-setting sun, and began life in Blighty as an attempt to sweeten the pill at a time when English cooking was an unimaginative, insipid ‘boiled beef and carrots’ affair, and swallowing it was simply something to be got through in order to survive. But, like Dutch elm disease, the bottled-condiment blight, has now gained such an invasive hold that nothing can prevent it from spreading rampantly on; and far too often – unlike home-made, naturally-constituted, often regionally-inspired French sauces, considered to be an intrinsic, complement to a specific dish (and as such containing the same ingredients) – these industrially-produced seasonings represent a standardized, interchangeable accompaniment to almost any dish.
Hélas, the Gallic in us has to admit that even traditional French sauces are now being threatened by the ubiquitous spread of this type of convenience food: for determined efforts are now having to made to persuade the French housewife not to succumb to the spurious charms of Anglo-Saxon style, ready-prepared cubed, powdered and bottled pretenders. Needless to say, our Frenchman has every confidence that his compatriotes will resist this mass culinary invasion with the same heroic fortitude as that shown by Joan of Arc and her followers in raising the siege of Orléans, and booting those damned English invaders out of France for good and for all.
The Frenchie in us has never quite been able to comprehend why the thought of eating the legs of such an inoffensive little creature as a frog should inspire such unmitigated horror in the majority of you English; nor, given the fact that the legs of this same amphibian are enjoyed by other nations of our planet, why only Gallics are considered so intimately associated with it that the name should have come to be so cruelly synonymous (the French attempt at vengeance with ‘les rosbifs’ is mild by comparison) with them. Our Anglo, on the other hand, has always been at a loss to understand how the rear members of so viscous, unsightly a creature as a frog could have come to be considered such a refined delicacy of French cuisine. And he will never be able to overcome that feeling of sickening disgust nor the lifelong trauma occasioned by that experience we had some years ago.
It all began with an innocent-sounding invitation. At that time, we were living in a small, remote village located in the depths of the Haute-Saône, a rural département in Eastern France, renowned for its numerous lakes and meres. One spring morning, a friend casually informed us that he was going frog hunting at a nearby mere which his father owned. Would we like to go along with him? Thinking this would be a fascinating experience for the Englishman in us, we accepted without the slightest hesitation.
It was all great fun to begin with. So teeming with grenouilles was the stretch of water that we filled a sack with a hundred or so in next to no time. The sack was dumped in the car boot, brought back to our friend’s home and deposited on the kitchen table. The unspeakable horror of what followed – made even worse by the guilty realization of his own contribution to it – will haunt the English part of us for the rest of our days. The struggling frogs were dragged out, one by one, carefully positioned on a wooden board, and all connection with life severed by a single deft blow from a small-sized meat-cleaver – no doubt designed for this specific purpose – the razor-sharp blade of which sliced heads from bodies with the same mechanical precision as that which dispatched Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, and so many more to premature demise. And even more ghastly was the spectacle which ensued. The headless bodies then underwent the process of déculottage – an operation which consisted in stripping them of their skin in much the same way as you peel off a pair of tight-fitting jeans – before they were gutted, and amputated of their still-twitching hind legs.
Though the consumption of frogs’ legs is a well-established, organized and widespread enough tradition to justify it being termed an institution, the French are not daily consumers (in spite of what some English people might think), and eating them is considered a special treat, usually taking place in a restaurant and limited to the early days of Spring. And it is not, in fact, the legs, but their fleshy upper part, les cuisses, the thighs, which are consumed, though it’s not unknown for some to extract additional pleasure by sucking and munching the bones. In the past, frogs were collected in millions – in daytime by means of a red rag (for some inexplicable reason frogs are fatally drawn to red), and at night they were mesmerized by the light of a torch. In view of the rapidly declining numbers, however, it has now been made illegal to harvest them commercially, and frogs may only be taken for personal consumption. So, most frogs’ legs eaten in the Hexagon today were attached to the bodies of foreign-spawned aquatics flown in live.
It goes without saying, however, that a certain amount of poaching still goes on. An indication of how seriously this is taken was provided by an article which appeared recently in our local newspaper. Two men, a father and his son, it related, had been caught red-handed collecting a total of 417 frogs encaged in 11 lobster-type pots, surreptitiously deposited in a neighbour’s mere. Not only did these considerable numbers suggest that their antics had a commercial outlet (the wholesale price of a kilo is around 30 euros), but the offences took place during the reproduction period at the beginning of March when frogs are especially easy to capture. Apparently, this was not their first attempt, and it was estimated they had poached at least 1,000 batrachians annually over a number of years. Though the accused pleaded that the frogs were solely for personal consumption, the magistrate thought otherwise: for the father was fined 2,000 euros (he didn’t bother to turn up in court), while the son was made to fork out 1,000.
Restaurant owners usually obtain their provisions at the airport, take the frogs back home, where they are kept alive in special tanks before enduring, on, of course, a far greater scale (as many as 4,000 tons are consumed each year), a fate very similar to the one we have described above. As far as the eating is concerned, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss is about: the taste is a relatively bland cross between chicken and fish, and one of the native russet species (rana temporaria) is said to have a noticeable hazelnut flavour. Though sophisticated gourmet variations do exist, normal cooking is extremely straightforward, and when fried in butter with a sprinkling of parsley, together with a few crushed cloves of garlic, they go down a treat. Not only does French table etiquette permit the use of fingers when eating, but they are expected to be licked in audible appreciation. Usually frogs’ legs are consumed in dozens and, incredible as it may sound to some, many restaurants now follow the Anglo-Saxon all-you-can-eat fashion by offering, for an all-inclusive price, as many as can be got down.
It might be imagined that the prospect of consuming a creature even more viscously repugnant than the frog might have inspired similar feelings of horrific revulsion in the English-colonized part of our Frenglish stomach. Is it because it has long been used to accommodating its sea-bound cousins? Or is it simply due to the fact that this gastropod is called upon to suffer inertly? Whatever the explanation may be, we can tolerate, even relish a dozen escargots, without the Englishman in us manifesting even the semblance of a qualm. We must, however, admit that his appreciation of the dish is perhaps due more to the assertive flavour procured by the butter, parsley and garlic sauce the snails are usually cooked in; for the flesh itself is characterized by a limpish, rubber-like texture, and a taste which bears more comparison with chewing gum that has been conscientiously masticated for at least an hour.
Though horrified by the method used to cut the frog down to frying-pan proportions, our Englishman closes his eye to the even more hideous fate reserved for the snail: for, in order to eliminate any toxic vegetation it may have swallowed, our gastropod is first subjected to a three or four-week fast; and the little life then remaining is extinguished by plunging the poor creature into a pan of boiling water. Moreover, if quantities only are to be gone by, the French would be nicknamed ‘Snailies’ rather than ‘Froggies’. For two in every three of the snails swallowed on our planet (a total of around 700 million per year) find their way into a Gallic stomach. Usually the larger-sized Escargot de Bourgogne (helix pomatia) is favoured, and though, understandably, native numbers are steadily declining, snail-gathering (early wet summer mornings produce the best results) is still legally permitted for private consumption, and even sale.
Disappointingly, as with frogs’ legs, most of the snails consumed today are of foreign importation, and usually come in deep-frozen, or canned form. Ready-prepared snails, ensconced in their shells, and topped with a butter, garlic and parsley sauce, are widely available in French supermarket freezers, and need only be popped into a hot oven, or simply micro-waved. Sauce-bound snails can also be found nestling in flaky-pastry, vol-au-vent type cases. Though these are usually eaten as a starter, they may be served up as an amuse-gueule – a tasty ‘gob-amuser’ to be enjoyed with a pre-meal drink. As is the case with frogs’ legs, the self-respecting French snail-eater reckons in nothing less than dozens, and the delicacy is, therefore, usually eaten from the shell on a dedicated plate with twelve hollows. Finger-assisted consumption being messy, a pair of snail tongs is provided for holding (and not crushing) the shells, along with a specific slim-line extraction fork (at home a pin could be used). It goes without saying that, not only is systematic dunking of the accompanying sauce allowed, but is generally considered to be an indispensable way of enjoying the whole.
Yet one more example of those countless, irreconcilable differences separating English and French is provided by their diametrically-opposed attitudes to port. For the French le porto is usually consumed as just one more apéritif. It tends to be drunk chilled in its lighter, white variations and, along with other fortified wines, is more a preference of the female sex. The English, on the other hand, prefer their port velvet red, served at room temperature, and in full-bodied, vintage form – while drinking it is traditionally an almost exclusively male, after-dinner practice.
Historically, port-drinking in England goes back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when conflict with the hereditary enemy obliged the English to turn to their Portuguese allies to provision them in wine. The long sea journey to England proving detrimental to quality, the wine began to be ‘fortified’ – stabilized by the addition of distilled grape alcohol which stopped the fermentation process, thereby retaining a high sugar content while increasing alcoholic strength.
Port is generally regarded by the English as providing the ideal complement, both in texture and flavour, not only to indigenous cheeses such as Stilton, Cheddar or Gloucester, but also as a dessert wine to accompany, in particular, full-flavoured, fruit–based sweets as well as nuts. It must be savoured in slow, contemplative sips, and is reputed both for the warm, calming effects it has on imbibers, and the philosophical orientations it is apt to impart. Perhaps it was this latter propensity which, in higher social circles, went towards creating that after-dinner custom which required ladies to retire to the drawing room for tea and gossip, leaving the men to discuss politics and life’s vicissitudes over a cigar, and a glass or two of mellow vintage port.
And what is more natural with these lovers of ritualized tradition that port-drinking should have generated a number of odd ceremonial procedures? For serving and passing the port are subject to rules of etiquette as minutely detailed as those set out in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ Book of Regulations. At formal dinners, a custom, apparently originating in the British Navy, requires the wine to be passed from port to port (the port side of a ship is the left-hand side): the host first serves the person seated on his right before passing the bottle clockwise to his neighbour on the left; the latter then proceeds to serve the passer on his right, and then hands it on to the next person on his left who does the same. In this way the bottle is sent round the table until it comes full circle back to the host. If a person should, for some reason, fail to pass the bottle on (another rule states that it must never be allowed to touch the table on the way round), it is considered discourteous to bring this to his attention directly (we are, of course, among gentlemen). The only acceptable procedure consists in asking him the question: ‘Don’t you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ This is intended more as a reminder than a reproach. If, however, the miscreant is unacquainted enough with port etiquette to answer in the negative, the correct response is: ‘He’s an awfully nice fellow … but he never remembers to pass the port!’*
And what more can you expect from a nation of incorrigible boozers that another long-established tradition requires that a bottle in the process of being drunk should never be re-corked? The injunction ‘No heel-taps!’ requires that the last drops of the bottle be drunk off so that another may be swiftly opened. At formal military dinners, moreover, no other wine but port is considered noble enough to be raised in toast to the King or Queen.
* Legend has it that the ecclesiastic in question was the long-lived Henry Bathurst (1744-1837), Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, who in his later years was in the understandable habit of nodding off over his port, thus failing to pass it on. So seriously was the problem taken that elaborate lengths were gone to in order to find a remedy. A solution was finally provided by the Hoggett Decanter, the rounded base of which made it impossible to stand, thereby making sure it inscribed a full aerial circle before landing back on a special stand (itself called the Hoggett) positioned in front of the host.
In a land internationally reputed for both the quality and uniqueness of its traditional food and wine, it’s hardly surprising that the French state should have gone to considerable pains to guarantee that the words printed on the bottle, box or package accurately describe the products contained within by instigating a system of norms, labels and ‘appellations’ which require a producer to respect a certain number of rules and criteria in order to have the right to use a given name. And when it comes to traditional food what could be considered more typically French than such a distinctly flavoured, world-renowned cheese as Camembert?
Now, as all gourmets certainly know, Camembert is a soft cheese with a slightly salted, flowered crust, made using raw, unpasteurized milk drawn exclusively from the udder of a Normandy breed of cow grazing in Normandy pastures, and which has been moulded by the traditional ‘à la loupe’ (using a ladle) method, with a minimum fat content of 45%, and a maturing process lasting at least 21 days in one of the five Normandy départements. These same gourmets might also be aware that the cheese owes its name to the small village of Camembert near Vimoutiers in the region of Argentan in Normandy where it was first produced around the time of the1789 Revolution, and that the beginning of its national and international reputation can be traced back to 1863 when the Päris-Granville railway line was inaugurated, and the Emperor Napoléon III tried it (and found it very much to his taste) during a halt at a station along this line.
As a result we might be excused for thinking that the box labelled ‘Camembert de Normandie’ lying on our local supermarket’s cheese shelf contains a real Camembert – that’s to say one which has been made and matured in strict accordance with the description provided above. Well, we’re sorry to have to inform you that you’d be horribly wrong! For the label ‘Camembert from Normandy’ simply means what it says: that it’s been produced in the geographical region of Normandy with a minimum fat content of 45%– and nothing more! Not only can the milk be either raw or pasteurized, but it can be drawn from the udder of a non-Norman cow which has been grazing in non-Norman pastures in the Jura, in Lorraine, in the Haute-Saône, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the production and ripening process, well, there are simply no requirements at all! Mind you, it’s still reassuring to know that today’s biggest French producer of Camembert cheese is located in the Normandy département of the Orne. What’s less reassuring, however, are the methods of production which have got nothing to do with the original process.
The milk (which, we repeat, can come from anywhere) is first heated to 72° for 20 seconds in order to kill all the pathogenic micro-organisms, and especially the active bacterial flora. This results in what is called a ‘lait mort’ – a dead milk, to which a modicum of life (and taste) is restored by the addition of laboratory-cultivated ‘aromatic’ ferments (yeast, bacteria fungi). The milk is then curdled by injecting an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves, after which everything is immersed in a solution of brine, and finally sprayed with mould! Even though a Camembert produced in this way offers all necessary hygiene guarantees (at least, let’s hope this is the case), can it be guaranteed that the average consumer is fully aware that when he buys a box labelled ‘Camembert fabriqué en Normandie’ he’s buying a cheese which has been made in such a radically different way to that which he’s being led to believe, and that if he wants to have the guarantee he’s buying the real McCoy, the label on the cheese box should read ‘Camembert AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé) de Normandie?’ We’re not so sure. And it’s perhaps significant that the production of real Camembert represents just 4.2% of the total quantity of French-produced Camembert.
When you eat in a restaurant in the U.K. or the U.S. you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a bag or box so you can take that nice piece of steak you couldn’t quite finish home for Rover, or even for yourself. In France, however, the doggy bag is still not quite the done thing – so much so that if you asked for one in a restaurant you might come in for some strange looks from the person serving you, and a good deal of mockery (behind your back) from other diners. But, as a result of the present European year of fight against waste, all this could be about to change.
For while most French still tend to make fun of the doggy bag, in a world where resources are increasingly limited some restaurants, companies and internet sites are now doing their best to promote this Anglo-Saxon invention as a means of combating waste. And in France where, according to a study conducted in 2011, each person throws away on average 21% of food bought (that’s 90 kg of food per year), 8% of which hasn’t even been removed from its packaging, this kind of waste is coming in for more and more criticism. And it’s the restaurants which seem to be taking the lead. According to a recent survey which questioned 2,700 restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region restaurant owners’ greatest fear is that their customers will become ill after eating left-overs which have not been kept in the best of conditions at home. In this respect, however, they can rest assured as, legally speaking, restaurants can no longer be held responsible for a dish which was started in their restaurant and then taken away in a doggy bag. A total of 31% of the establishments questioned already offer or are thinking of offering a box or bag which customers can use to take uneaten food home. And 86% of them feel that, since the customer has paid for the entire meal, he’s entitled to take the left-overs away. It’s also a good preparation for 2016 when restaurants will be legally obliged to limit organic waste.
What’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the bag or box more attractive. This is certainly the case with the Trop bon pour gaspiller (Too Good to Waste) project launched by Laurent and Rabaïa Calvayrac. ‘We’ve lived in North America where the practice is very common,’ says Rabaïa. ‘When we came back to France we decided to try to make it more popular by improving the quality of the box. We think this is very important.’ As a result they’ve produced a luxury doggy bag – a rigid, recyclable, bio-degradable box suitable for both microwave and normal ovens (up to 180°C), and made in France. The problem is that, in spite of its qualities, only small quantities (5,000) will be produced to begin with. And the cost price will be around 1€, a bit too expensive to hope for massive success, even though those restaurants who have shown interest say they’re willing to make an effort as far as the price is concerned. In addition, Rest-o-Resto, a Grenoble-based company, is compiling an online directory of restaurants which offer a doggy bag or box. At present it has 130 addresses from 11 towns. And the numbers are expanding. ‘The reactions we get vary from one restaurant to another,’ admits Alexandre Teodosio. ‘Some owners are very enthusiastic, while for others it’s unthinkable that a meal should end up in a bag or box.’ The company is in the process of developing a box which will be less upmarket than the Trop bon pour gaspiller one. France’s Belgian neighbours, on the other hand, have adopted a different approach to making the doggy bag more acceptable. This involves finding not only a suitable French name but – since most left-overs are taken home for human consumption – one less associated with a canine. It doesn’t seem to be an easy task, however, as their site has just launched a Facebook consultation page inviting people to come up with their suggestions. Among these can be found Restopack, Restrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés = left-overs too good to be thrown away), or even Gaspipa.
It is yet one more indication of the importance the French attach to eating that in France, whenever you converse with a friend or even a stranger just before a mealtime (and frequently well before), you will be systematically gratified with a ‘Bon appétit’ on parting. And is the absence of any really satisfactory English equivalent (on the rare occasions you do wish one another an enjoyable meal the French expression is frequently used) somewhere an echo of the fact that English cooking – though not entirely bereft of merit – has still not managed to rid itself of a disastrous international image which tends to associate it with insipidness, stodginess, and lack of imagination? Or is it yet one more result of the Puritan factor which required that ingesting a meal be considered (in much the same way as sex) a duty rather than a pleasure, to be got through in less time than it takes to run a four-minute mile? For while the French have always considered eating as one of the great delights of our existence, enjoyment of which is to be prolonged and shared, we can’t help thinking that, for many English, it’s still a desperate race against the clock. For unlike the French, who welcome a reasonable interval between courses for digestion, relaxation and conversation, the only thing you English can find to do when you have an empty plate of front of you is to cast incriminating looks at your watch.
Take that occasion during our last summer holidays in England. We were eating in a restaurant with some French friends when, as we were perusing the menu, our attention was drawn by an irate-sounding voice coming from the table behind. Turning round, we observed a man seated opposite a lady we presumed to be his wife, vigorously pointing out to a sheepish-looking waiter that five minutes had now elapsed since he’d placed his order, and that if the starters failed to arrive within the next 60 seconds they’d have no hesitation in walking out. And in some busy restaurants it’s also not unknown for there to be two sittings of approximately one hour each. And, incredible as it sounded to our Frenchman at the time we were once firmly enjoined to finish off our pudding right away, forego the cheese course and vacate our table, as the second sitting was about to begin.
What’s more, not only do you English expect to be served at a speed enabling you to polish off a meal in not much more time than it takes to run a four-minute mile, but your perception of eating and drinking is solidly founded on a notion of hearty abundance. Now, last year our businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, received a visit from an English customer. As this was our Englishman’s first trip to France, Monsieur Martin decided to take him to the best restaurant in our small town which, though not quite up to the same Michelin standards as the most prestigious in France, is no less worthy of being considered fittingly representative of the nation’s refined, tastefully-presented, gastronomical cooking. The following day we invited them both over for four o’clock tea, during which we had the opportunity of taking the Englishman to one side, and discreetly enquiring whether he’d enjoyed his meal.
‘Oh yes,’ he confided, ‘it was very tasty and nicely presented and all that, but to be quite honest, I could have eaten it all over again!’
One thing which can be said in his favour, however, was that he did appreciate the wine – unlike a previous American customer, Monsieur Martin relates, who, in accompaniment to a similar gourmet meal, preferred a bottle of Coca-Cola to the delights of a 1976 first-growth Claret!
So, not only are small English portions equivalent to large French ones but, while an Englishman will gleefully ingurgitate on Friday and Saturday evenings three, four or even more pints of beer with consummate ease, we have yet to come across a Frenchman with a stomach capacity capable of accommodating more than one (though, apparently, in Northern and Eastern France they try their best!). And it is certainly no coincidence that, in England (and, above all, the U.S.A.), the value-for-money ‘all-you-can-eat’, buffet-type restaurants, where you can stuff yourself with enough calories to see you through the week, are far more common than in France.
In all fairness, however, when it comes to the pleasures of the table the French can also be given to excess. Despite the fact that eating habits have changed considerably since the fifties, the festive family meal in celebration of a Communion or Christmas Day, though less and less tolerated by youth, may still represent a marathon-like challenge to the digestive capacities of even the most solidly-constituted stomach. And it’s yet another paradox that a people who don’t have the patience to linger more than two minutes at a red light are quite happy to sit down to a six-or-more-course lunch at one o’clock – only to stagger away at seven!
The deep Anglo-French discord as to the propriety of using bread to clean dinner plate in much the same way as a mop is applied to kitchen floor may also be explained by the contrasting nature of, and the differing roles assigned to this mutually staple food. For the baguette is totally fatless with a light, crispy crust surrounding a soft, airy crumb, and just a soupçon of floury taste, while the presence of milk and eggs in the traditional tin-baked English loaf produces a thicker, more flaccid crust, a heavier, more densely-structured crumb; and the use of stronger Canadian flour imparts a more pronounced flavour. But, above all, depending on which side of the Channel you’re on, bread has a totally different part to play. In England, eating it with a meal is – like inviting a plain-looking girl to dance – considered to be more of a filler-in when nothing more tempting is at hand. Admittedly, its relative absence at English mealtimes can also be explained by the fact that, traditionally, the main dish is copiously provided with vegetables (usually three or even more); and it is perhaps significant that the only occasions when bread is called upon to play a more than minor mealtime role is when served pre-buttered (in England bread and butter are as inseparable as tea and milk), in compensatory accompaniment to a meal of reduced vegetable content such as the national dish of fish and chips. In France, on the other hand, so essential a part of eating is ordinary, unbuttered bread that the lack of anything less than a full basket of sliced baguette on the restaurant table (as well as its systematic replenishment during the meal) would be as shamefully incomplete as going on a tour of Paris and being deprived of the Tour Eiffel.
What’s more, French and English attitudes towards the crust could not be more diametrically opposed. While the former are convinced that both crumb and crust play an inseparable part in producing a deliciously complementary soft and crunchy whole, the wilting, unappetizing crust of tin-baked English bread makes it not much more tempting to eat than bacon rind. We still remember the dubious incitements (‘It’ll make your hair curl!’ was her favourite) resorted to by our Grandma to persuade the young English boy we then were to eat the ‘heel’ of her otherwise delicious home-baked bread. And the cucumber and potted-meat sandwiches traditionally served with four o’clock tea in English cafés and restaurants are only considered refined enough for human consumption when the bread has been relieved of its vulgar crust.
Is it the same coarse, flabbily-uninviting nature of the crust, along with the intrusive floury taste of the crumb, which causes bread to be conspicuous by its absence at the cheese course in England? For the only real occasion when the two come anywhere near to harmonious union is when brought together in a Ploughman’s Lunch*. As a substitute for bread, the English systematically resort to a wide variety of crisp, lightly-flavoured (frequently with cheese itself) cracker-type biscuits to bring out the taste of their after-meal cheese. And what is more normal in a country where plain, unadorned bread is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows that these receive a liberal coating of butter? In France, on the contrary, the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain, unbuttered bread. How could it be otherwise when marriage between the two provides such an ideally complementary match? For the delicately–flavoured, crispy charm of the baguette remains discreet enough to bring out all that is best in the cheese, while retaining enough of its own character as never to be submerged by even the most commanding cheesy presence. Hélas, the subtle delights of French bread are of an all too fleeting nature, and freeze into ice-like hardness in half the time it takes for mortar to set.
It must, nevertheless, not be imagined that the consumption of sliced bread with butter is totally unheard of France. But the former usually comes in the shape of breakfast-time rusks. Our Anglo-Saxon readers might think that the light and crispy nature of rusks – obtained by reducing the residual moisture of the bread from which they are made – runs counter to the very notion of dunking. After all, what is the point in buying something for its airy, crunchy nature only to reduce it, at the first opportunity, to a ponderous, soggy mass? This would be to forget that in this land of paradox, where each day brings fresh proof that you know absolutely nothing about it at all, the opposite is the case: for these enhanced liquid-absorbing properties are exploited even more glutinously than with ordinary, untoasted bread.
* Our French readers may be interested to learn that a Ploughman’s Lunch is a popular lunchtime pub snack consisting of a thick slice of English cheese (usually Cheddar or Stilton), served with pickles, and a hunk of usually non-tin-baked, crusty, ‘country-style’ bread, spread with lashings of butter, and washed down with a pint of English ale. Though the name conjures up idyllic images of a timeless, pastoral England of the kind immortalized by the paintings of Constable, reality would appear to be more prosaic: the snack originated in the early sixties as a marketing ploy which took considerable liberties with the past in order to accommodate present commercial requirements to promote the sale of English cheeses and beers in pubs.
The French working man’s usual choice of pre-meal tipple is pastis, a refreshing, aniseed-based spirit which is drunk ‘on the rocks’ and served with a carafe of chilled water. On the contrary, in England it’s more a ladies’ drink (what can you expect from a people who think that driving on the left is right) and, horror upon horrors, frequently sipped in undiluted, un-iced form after a meal!
The Scotch whisky pundit will be delighted to learn that even though this water of life (the name is derived from the Gaellic ‘uisce beathe’) is generally considered by the French to be a more sophisticated sort of drink, it is rising in popularity as an apéritif among the male middle classes. He will be less pleased to hear that whisky’s wide, subtle diversity of taste, aroma and origin remains relatively unappreciated in this land of the wine connaisseur. For not only do the French have difficulty in comprehending that venerable single malts are specific to a region which, like those producing first-growth Clarets and Burgundies, may be easily identified by the specialist, but these are frequently placed in the same plebeian company as the blended varieties. And purists will be further mortified to learn that Frenchmen are in the deplorable habit of systematically imbibing their whisky with ice and liberal helpings of often carbonated water. Even more kilt-twisting will be got into on the other side of the border when it is learned that many a Frenchman who would consider it an unpardonable sacrilege to add lemonade to his glass of first-growth Mouton-Rothschild would have no qualms about drowning a tumbler of 20 year-old pure malt with equal proportions of Coca-Cola. In addition, little distinction is made between whisky of Scottish origin, and its Irish or trans-Atlantic whiskey cousins, not to mention other more dubiously-sourced variants.
Though the more uncompromising whisky drinker would maintain that the only liquid which can conceivably be added to whisky is more whisky, our English part is sure most connaisseurs would be ready to concede that the addition of not more than a fifth of water (soft, still spring water, ideally the same as that used in the distilling process) enhances the distinctive flavour and aroma. It goes without saying that tap water usually contains too much chlorine and should in all circumstances be avoided. And just as the harsh taste of inferior red wine may be attenuated by serving it over-chilled, adding ice to whisky may produce a more refreshing kind of drink, but will dull the taste and freeze the nose. The addition of carbonated water will also be detrimental to flavour. As for adding mixers like Ginger Ale or Coca-Cola – well, what can he say? Though he would admit that this type of treatment is an understandable way of enhancing characterless spirits like vodka or even gin, surely it is no less of a crime than treason to inflict it on a drink of such sovereign refinement of flavour, texture and aroma as single malt whisky?
Our Englishman is also very much tempted to lend credibility to the notion that whisky, when taken in moderate proportions, has a generally underestimated propensity to prolong our sojourn on this planet. It is interesting to note that our grandfather (who departed this world at the ripe age of 94), was in the habit of adding a wee dram of blended to his first cup of breakfast tea. Moreover, he was adamant in his belief that a glass or two, to which a few drops drop of hot water were added, constituted a far more effective measure than vaccination against winter flu. And so firm was his conviction in the medicinal virtues of the treatment that in his later years it extended into the night: for after Grandma’s death, he could never be made to deny categorically that he slept with a bottle beneath his bed.
It goes without saying that, in a land of generalized binge drinking and rampant feminism, more and more English females are acquiring the taste, not so much in appreciation of any gustatory or olfactory qualities (the fair sex prefers to imbibe it with a mixer or as a cocktail base), but for the proof it supplies that anything he can do she can do better.
The savoury dishes normally associated with traditional English cooking are characterized by a total lack of pretension and infantile simplicity of preparation and, as our Englishman himself would admit, distinguish themselves more by their strangely esoteric names than any claim to subtlety of taste. The limited space available to us here does not allow mention to extend beyond the following, generally considered to be the most common:
Bubble and Squeak: In the past this was a standard Monday lunchtime fry-up of vegetable and meat left-overs from the Sunday roast. Preparation and cooking present no great challenge, being well within the reach of a moderately-sharp five-year-old. Instead of being tipped into the wheelie bin, ingredients are chopped up and dumped into a frying pan. Mashed potato is then added as a binder, and the resulting agglomeration fried and turned until golden brown. The name itself, apparently, is an onomatopoeic echo of the sounds emitted during the frying process.
Yorkshire Pudding: Contrary to what most French people think, a pudding is not necessarily a hot dessert. Traditionally, Yorkshire Pudding is eaten either with the main Sunday lunch of roast beef and vegetables, or on its own as a starter. Made simply from a mixture of plain flour, milk and eggs, preparation is well within the competence of anyone capable of producing a tolerable cup of instant coffee, though it is vital to use lard as a cooking medium, and the oven must be really hot before baking. The dish can include onions, and is served with plain gravy or onion gravy sauce.
Bangers and Mash: This quintessentially English dish consists of sausages served with mashed potatoes. Preparation is elementary enough to be well within the capabilities of anybody able to crack an egg five times out of ten without breaking the yolk. Our French readers will be interested to note that ‘banger’ is a familiar word for a sausage, and constitutes an onomatopoeic reference to the fact that, unless thoroughly pricked before frying, their high water content makes them liable to explode with a deafening bang.
Toad-in-the-Hole: A sausage covered in a thick, Yorkshire Pudding-type batter, and then baked in the oven. Given that the sausage is usually bought ready-made, this is yet another dish which would not tax the culinary skills of anyone capable of making a decent cup of tea (though, apparently, the next-in-line to the British throne can’t). And what about the strange-sounding name?’ One explanation has it that the end of the sausage emerging from its batter coating is not without resembling a toad sticking its head out of a hole. Well…err with a bit of imagination, why not?
* * *
While not rivalling the elaborateness and diversity of their French equivalents, what is more normal in a nation of sweet-toothed, cream faces that English cakes, buns and especially hot puddings have considerably less to apologize for than their savoury companions? The following rank among the more common:
Custard: A thick, smooth mixture of gently-cooked egg yolks, sugar, milk or cream, frequently flavoured with vanilla, and usually served as a hot accompaniment to fruit pies and tarts, or in firmer, cold form as one of the layers of another typically English sweet treat – trifle (see below). A measure of the excellence of this relatively easy-to-make sauce, and a tribute to the country it originated from, are to be found in the fact that it was long ago adopted by the French under the name of la crème anglaise. Unfortunately, unlike in France where it is still systematically hand-made, English custard is nowadays, more often than not, purchased in convenience, yellow-powder form to which milk is simply added, prior to gentle heating.
Spotted Dick: An intriguingly-named, steamed, sweet suet pudding containing currants, and usually served with custard or treacle sauce. Why ‘spotted?’ Presumably, because the dark-coloured currants are plainly visible from the outside. And what about ‘Dick?’ Despite the comparison the more indelicate among my Anglophone readers will now in all probability be making, the likeliest explanation is that, since this pudding is prepared by rolling the suet mixture into a cylindrical shape, the name is derived from its resemblance to a ‘sausage’ dog. This would seemingly be reinforced by the fact that another name for the pudding is ‘Spotted Dog’, and that ‘Dick’, like ‘Fido’, was formerly a common canine name.
Rice Pudding: It was the Asian human and resulting culinary invasion of the fifties and sixties which brought rice to the notice of the English as a vegetable ingredient of the main dish. Though they will now cheerfully consume vast quantities of it with their Chop Suey or Biryani, rice, unlike in France, has never been an accepted part of typical English main-course cooking, and traditionally has always been consumed in sweet, pudding form. Cooked slowly in the oven with liberal helpings of milk, cream and sugar, it is often served with a dollop or two of jam, or reinforced by even more fresh cream.
Jelly: A gelatine-based, fruit-flavoured dessert. Jelly’s wobbly configuration and impressive fluorescent colours are a source of open-mouthed incredulity for French visitors to England, but make it a firm favourite among English children who enjoy it at party time with ice-cream. Usually purchased in cubes to which hot water is simply added, the resulting mixture is then allowed to cool and set. Jelly also provides the penultimate layer for ‘trifle’ – a typically English cold, festive sweet made up of thicknesses of sponge cake, custard, fruit, and lavishly topped with whipped cream.
Fruitcake: A slowly steamed and/or baked, dark, rich festive cake of currants, raisins, candied peel, glacé cherries and almonds, to which is frequently added, though hardly in inebriating proportions, a flavouring dose of brandy or dark rum. Not only have the French paid the English the compliment of appropriating the cake for themselves (though usually in less rich form), but they have been honest enough to acknowledge its origins by retaining the English name (le cake is a reference to this English fruit variety in particular, and not to cake in general). Traditionally, English fruitcake is generously coated in marzipan and icing for birthdays, and is presented in an elaborate, architectural, multi-tiered form for weddings. And an English Christmas would not be the same without it.
Traditional fruitcake is an unforgettable part of our own childhood Christmases which were always spent at Grandma and Granddad’s. Grandma, a reputed specialist in the matter, used to bake her Christmas cakes (there were always two) in the middle of September – an annual event which prompted enough excited anticipation of distant Christmas wonders as to disperse some of the downheartedness occasioned by lingering memories of long summer holidays, and the sobering realities of a newly-begun school year. They were then left to mature (like vintage wine they improved with keeping), and become deliciously moist in the temperate darkness of the cellar. But though crammed with a mouthwatering profusion of ingredients, care had to be taken with the eating. For another of our great delights were the coins they contained. At that time, small silver three-penny bits, though increasingly rare, were still everyday currency, and occasionally given in change by shops. Throughout the year, Grandma would assiduously collect a dozen or so which she carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper, and deposited in the cake mix. And then, a few days before the long-awaited event, the two cakes were brought up into light of day.
The first one always received preferential festive treatment in the form of the traditional luscious marzipan and crunchy icing-sugar coating, while the other was more modestly crowned with just a ring of glazed cherries and whole almonds. As everybody was glutted by prodigious lunchtime helpings of turkey and Christmas Pudding, the cake was first brought out to round off a late Christmas Day tea of boiled ham, cucumber and tinned salmon sandwiches (without, of course, the crusts), and was never known to survive much beyond Boxing Day. The humbler twin then took over, and provided a sweet and fruity welcome for any visitor who might pop in for afternoon tea and a chat during the few days remaining before the New Year.
One of the most regrettable consequences of the modest stature of native English cooking is that it has never managed to occupy a prominent enough place in the national identity to be able to afford much more than token resistance to foreign invasion. By a strange twist of fate – from a food point of view at least – the colonizer has been irremediably colonized: for not only do rice and curry now occupy vast areas of English culinary territory, but even the national dish has not been spared, and the traditional chippie will now almost systematically offer curry sauce as an accompaniment to fish and chips.
Hardly surprising is it, then, that the subsequent onslaughts of the trans-Atlantic fast-food industry have met with even less opposition than their Asian competitors, and that the hamburger, hot dog, and American-style pizza are now just as rampantly established on the English eating scene, too. And it is both a paradox, and a measure of the relentless efficiency of the American marketing machine that a country like France, so proud of, and so globally acknowledged for the quality, refinement and diversity of its national and regional cuisine, should now find its culinary heritage sufficiently endangered as to have judged it of vital necessity to erect strategic lines of defense against the regimented assaults of what is scornfully called ‘la malbouffe’. Literally meaning bad grub (i.e. junk food), the term is commonly applied by the French to the cheap, standardized, often addictive food, low in essential nutrients, and high in calorific animal fats, sugar or salt, served up in American-style, fast-food restaurants in the shape of hamburgers, hot-dogs, chips etc., and which, when eaten on a regular basis and in excessive quantities, are the cause of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression… and, paradoxically, even malnutrition.
Concerned, above all, by the vulnerability of children to fast-food marketing ploys specifically targeting this section of the population, official campaigns, frequently endorsed by well-known chefs, have been organized in schools to educate the young to the virtues of slow-food in matters of taste and health. There are even those who consider the best form of defense is attack. For unlike the English who gave in without so much as a whimper (but, after all, did they have all that much to defend?), the French are fortunate enough to have José Bové on their side.
Our Anglophone readers may be interested to learn that José Bové, a former sheep farmer and Roquefort cheese producer, is the founder of the Confédération Paysanne, an agricultural union aimed at defending the interests of the small French farmer and, by extension, addressing general health and environmental issues raised by the multi-national, profit-oriented food industry. Now a European deputy, he is still an active militant in the alter-mondialist or alternative-world movement, dedicated to fighting uncontrolled economic globalization – by very nature detrimental to environmental and climatic conservation, health, economic justice, social protection and human rights – as well as defending indigenous eating cultures. Though some criticize José Bové’s occasional strong-arm methods, his vigorous commitment to the cause is beyond reproach. Famous for his acts of civil disobedience, his name is inextricably associated with virulent hostility to ‘la malbouffe.’ Not only has he played an active, much publicized role in the destruction of transgenic crops but he achieved notoriety, if not celebrity, when, along with other members of the Confédération Paysanne, he took part in the wilful destruction (he preferred to call it ‘dismantling’) of a McDonald’s franchise, for which he was sentenced to imprisonment. This was both in protest at American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese, as well as a means to increase public awareness regarding the use of hormone-treated beef in the manufacture of the hamburgers served in McDonald fast-food restaurants – perceived as the symbol of standardized, trans-Atlantic, health-damaging, profit-oriented, world-invasive ‘malbouffe’ and, as such, the avowed enemy of native French, quality, culinary and alimentary tradition.
And as our Frenchman is quick to point out, the ravages of ‘la malbouffe’ are particularly evident in you English. For, in addition to your propensity to ingurgitate giant portions of the wrong type of savoury food (not to mention stupendous volumes of calorific alcohol), you’re a nation of sweet faces: for while the vast majority of French would prefer the taste of strawberries served simply in their own juice, you English would be horribly disappointed if they were not liberally sprinkled with sugar, and buried beneath lashings of double cream. One result of all this is that whenever we stroll down the High Street of any English town, our Frenchman can’t help comparing many of the profiles presented to his gaze with a Christmas-fattened porker. Even though we can supply no statistical proof as to the increase in the sales of oversized men’s trousers, it is some measure of the bovine amplitude now being attained by many English boobs in comparison to their Gallic equivalents that the widely-sold cup size 60DD bra is some considerable distance off the existing French conversion scale.
It is yet one more indication of the stubborn misapprehensions which exist between the two nations both on the subject of food and drink that, in regard to the latter, a not negligible percentage of the French population is intimately convinced that the English enjoy their beer at a temperature not far below that to be found inside a pot of freshly-brewed tea. One explanation, perhaps, resides in the fact that many Gallics (except in the north and north-eastern beer-drinking regions of the Hexagon) consider beer – which they usually imbibe in light, lager form – as little more than a way of quenching a hot summer thirst. Consequently, anything above 7° is considered to be unacceptably warm. It is, therefore, a source of utter astonishment to the Frenchie in us that a country whose summers are rarely warm enough to create a thirst which a single cup of tea would not satisfy produces so many men (and more and more women) addicted to quaffing stupendous volumes of beer. This would, however, be to ignore the fact that England boasts a rich diversity of traditional, regional draught ales which are enjoyed more for their taste than their thirst-quenching qualities at almost any time of the day. And since chilling is a great inhibitor of taste, the full flavour of traditional English ale, both draught and bottled, is only released when served at a temperature of around 12°.
On the whole, it would be safe to say that alcoholic beverage, especially in its stronger forms, is mostly imbibed by men in France. For, as part of her calorie-controlled intake, the French female tends to maintain a relatively distant relationship with intoxicating liquids, and usually prefers soft drinks or just plain water, either sparkling or still. As a result, it is extremely rare to see her in anything more than the mildest state of tipsiness. The only concession she may sometimes be tempted to make takes the anodyne form of un panache, (a shandy), a small glass of lager, a pre-prandial glass of white port (in France port, and rarely sherry, is drunk as an aperitif), a Martini or a Kir (black-current juice laced with white wine or, in its royal form, champagne). Brandy, spirits or that typically French apéritif, pastis are usually not for her. But when she’s caught a cold or has a sore throat, she might not disdain the reputedly soothing, but medically unrecognized virtues of un grog – a glass of rum diluted with hot water to which a lump or two of sugar is added. To accompany a meal, she will often drink sparkling mineral water, though she may take a little wine (frequently diluted with still mineral water), but rarely in proportions greater than those provided by one single half glass, which – amazingly for you English – will be made to last from beginning to end of meal.
What is more natural in a country famed for the quality of its cooking that the ingurgitation of alcoholic drink as a preliminary stimulus to prandial bliss is enough of a well-established, and accepted part of drinking culture as to merit the word institution being applied to it? For such is the case with the apéritif. And the same can be said – though to a lesser extent – of the digestif. For, whereas the first reputedly whets our appetite for food, the second is supposed to be of precious assistance in digesting it. However, unlike in England where the most favoured after-dinner drink for men is port, French stomachs tend to favour cognac, or a fruit-based liqueur.
A particularly vicious variety of the latter goes under the name of la goutte, a fruit brandy based on cherry, plum, pear, apples or even gentian roots, and distilled by un bouilleur de cru – a private person who has been granted the legal right (previously passed down from father to son) to produce his own brandy under certain conditions. The fact that the alcoholic content of la goutte can be far higher than that of equivalent fruit-based liqueurs on public sale was first brought home to us shortly after our arrival in France many years ago when we were invited to Sunday lunch by a family who resided in the small village where we lived. After a copious meal we were asked if we’d like to sample the local digestif. There was nothing better, we were assured, to help digest a copious meal. A carafe of colourless, innocuous-looking liquid was then produced, our glass was filled, and we were invited to dispatch its contents cul sec – i.e. bottoms up. The comparison which immediately sprang to mind was that of molten lava oozing down our throat.
Though wine in France may be taken as an apéritif, particularly in dry white form, it is generally viewed as an indispensable complement to eating. What is less surprising that a nation of compulsive boozers like you English (especially the women among you) should have taken it out of the dining room and into the lounge? For you have invented the concept of ‘sofa wine’ – a so-called aid to relaxation while reading, watching T.V. or when entertaining friends. But isn’t this really a convenient pretext for having a good tipple at any time of the day?
Some interesting statistics emerged from a recent survey conducted by the DGCIS (Direction générale en charge des questions de compétitivité), and the Banque de France which revealed that a total of 84.7 million foreign tourists visited France in 2013 (an increase of 2% compared to 2012), thus confirming the Hexagon’s position as the world’s most popular holiday destination – well ahead of the U.S.A. and Spain. As might be expected from a close neighbour, the highest number of visitors came from just the other side of the Rhine. In 2013 German tourists alone represented 15%, or a total of 13 million. Next came the British, some 12.6 million of whom headed for French holiday bliss – an increase of 3.4% over the previous year. And even if there were fewer Belgians, Luxembourgeois, Italians and Spanish than in 2012, the number of tourists from Ireland, Portugal and Greece exceeded levels before the economic crisis. France was also an increasingly popular holiday destination for tourists from Poland (+18%), and the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Denmark and Sweden (+13.5%).
The largest number of non-European visitors were from North America with a 5.8% increase in 2013 compared to a drop of 7.8% in 2012. The highest number of Asian visitors came from China with 1.7 million tourists in 2013 – an increase of 23.4%. Moreover, these latter figures are in constant progression as the number of Chinese visitors doubled between 2009 and 2013. On the other hand, the number of Japanese tourists dropped by 6.7% in 2013 compared to the year before, mainly due, it seems, to an unfavourable yen/euro exchange rate. Statistics also show a tendency for tourists to stay longer.
The length of stay increased from an average of 6.9 nights in 2012 to 7.7 in 2013 – a rise of 2.5%. However, the number of nights spent in paying accommodation (hotels, rented accommodation, camping sites, bed and breakfasts, gîtes ) increased less than the number of nights spent in non-paying accommodation (at friends’, or as part of accommodation sharing schemes), 3.2% as opposed to 4.6%, and paying accommodation represented 67.1% of the total number of nights spent in France in 2013 compared with 68% in 2012, and 69.6% in 2007.
Another recently published survey, conducted this time by the INSEE (the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), reveals that the 83 million tourists who holidayed in France in 2012 spent a total of 145 billion euros, two thirds of which came from French tourists, and the rest from foreigners. Most of this money was spent on transport, accommodation and eating in restaurants or snack bars. However, this expenditure was not evenly distributed from a geographical point of view as half was spent in only three regions: the Ile-de-France (Paris and surrounds), the Rhône-Alpes and the South-East (Provence and the Côte d’Azur ). This was mainly due to the rich geographical, cultural and historical diversity of these regions as well as the amusement park of the first, combined with the ease of access afforded by airports and motorways. ‘Tourism is the largest industry on our planet, representing 12% of the world’s GNP and more than 200 million jobs,’ Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister stressed at a recent meeting. He also pointed out that by 2030 the world international tourist sector will have doubled in size. His aim, he added, was to make France the holiday destination of more than 100 million foreign tourists in the coming years. Some of the main measures taken to achieve this include extending Sunday shop and store opening hours in tourist areas, increasing the number and quality of hotels and camping sites, renovating the Gare du Nord in Paris to bring it up to par with London’s Saint-Pancras, improving transport facilities between Paris and Roissy Airport, making it easier for non-EU citizens to obtain short-stay visas, and creating special police brigades in Paris to ensure tourist security. Monsieur Fabius has also announced his intention to create a Conseil de la Promotion du Tourisme which will work with both the public and private sectors to produce a tourist plan for 2020. The council will meet annually.
An article we read recently in the weekend T.V. supplement of a daily regional newspaper reveals some of the reasons so many of the 83 million annual foreign tourists fall head over heels in love with France. But when we fall in love we tend to be on a cloud. Our Englishman’s italicized comments are intended to bring things down to earth.
French Parks. Aynur, 48, a nurse from Turkey.
I’ve noticed that French towns have well-maintained parks with statues and fountains. They’re so clean that you can sit on the grass – so convenient for people who don’t have a garden.
Watch out all the same, Aynur. Generally speaking, the French are an undisciplined lot, and tend to let their dogs do it anywhere … so I’d advise you to look carefully before placing your bottom on that beautiful, clean grass.
French Calm. Maika, 27, a sales assistant and Rachel, 27, a web editor from Spain.
We find the French aren’t as noisy as the Spanish. It’s very pleasant when you’re sitting in a café or restaurant. At home people talk much more loudly – especially in the evening over an apéritif. Sometimes you can’t even hear yourself speak.
In my own experience, when it comes to hearing ’em well before you see ’em, there’s nothing much in it between the French and Spanish. Personally, when it comes to loudmouths, I find Italians are the worst of the lot.
French Cheeses. Urszula, 25, a museum curator from Poland.
How lucky you are to have such a great choice. At home there are only a few cheeses, and they’re all a bit bland. The family I was an au pair girl with in Lyon introduced me to goat’s cheese, Comté and Roquefort Blue. Yum! Yum! I also like your ritual of all dining together. At home people eat alone in their little corner.
Yes, Urszula, I would agree with you about French cheeses. But the downside is that, as General de Gaulle found out to his cost, how do you govern a country which has two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese? And I didn’t realize you Poles were such an unsociable lot.
Provence. Paolo, 55, a department head, and Stefanie, 53, a housewife from Italy.
We were enchanted by this region. The villages are charming and the countryside is unbelievable. And the lavender fields are just magic. France is really a very romantic country – even more than Italy!
Yes, yes, Paolo and Stefanie. You make it sound like two teenagers falling in love for the very first time. But aren’t you both old enough to know that once you’ve lived together for a while the charm can begin to wear a bit thin?
French Bookshops. Kuang, 22, a student from China.
I’m really impressed by the number of small bookshops in France. There’s a lot of choice at all prices. I really love books on art, illustrated by numerous photos. My suitcase is already full of them.
Hurry up, Kuang, because all those bookshops are fast disappearing. More and more French people are buying their books on Internet. Apparently, they’re much cheaper.
French Confectionary. Katherine, 19, a student from the U.S.A.
I simply worship French cakes and sweets, especially eclairs and macaroons – they’re so delicious. What I find astonishing is that they’re so refined and light without being too sweet. It makes a change from cheese cakes.
Go easy on that sugar and cream all the same, Katherine. We don’t want you getting as grossly overweight as most of your compatriots.
French People. All, 39, a doctor from Australia.
Some friends told me the French never stop moaning. Personally, I find it’s the opposite. We’ve visited several towns in France, and each time people offered to help us when they saw we were a bit lost. And the shopkeepers are really so pleasant with foreign tourists.
Perhaps you’ve been lucky so far, mate. As a general rule, the French are not always noted for being over-helpful to bewildered foreigners, or being convinced believers in the principle that ‘the customer is always right’. And they do love protesting. Look at all those strikes and street demonstrations.
French Weather. Nigel-Mohammed, 41, a Managing Director from Trinidad and Tobago.
Here the sky changes from one day to the next. You also have as many hot days as cold with rain and wind. It’s so varied! At home we have a tropical climate with a temperature of 30° C all the year round. Mind you, the tourists love it.
Come off it, Nige! If you’d had to endure the kind of summer we’ve just had you’d be glad to get back to that horribly monotonous 30° C temperature you get all the year round back home!
French Bread. James, 29, a school manager from England.
What a delicious smell you get when you walk past a bread shop! It really makes you want to step inside and buy everything. The person who invented the baguette was a genius: it’s delicious – even though there’s nothing inside. The bread you get in England has no taste to it.
It’s true the baguette has a light and airy crumb, but you seem to be saying that the ‘nothing inside’ tastes delicious. Or is it just the crust you like? And James, is all English bread as tasteless as you’re trying to make out? Small bakers do exist. Why not try a nice, crusty, home-baked country loaf?
Old French Buildings. Amelia, 36, an interior designer from Singapore.
At home the buildings are mostly modern skyscrapers which have far less charm. As a foreign tourist I have the impression you’re travelling back in time, and each town has its own particular style. The other thing I love is blanquette de veau.
Hey Amelia, you might not know it, but not all the French are still living in the Middle Ages. They do have modern skyscrapers, too! I agree with you about the blanquette de veau, though – provided the calf hasn’t received too many growth hormone injections. Believe it or not, a friend of ours once bought a joint of veal from his local supermarket, only to find a syringe embedded in it! Mind you, they did refund him.
According to an article which recently appeared in the Economics Supplement of the Figaro newspaper Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists have voted Paris their favourite shopping town. Moreover, 28% of them come to Paris just for the shopping. A solid argument in favour of Sunday opening for shops and stores which, at the moment, is the subject of considerable controversy in France. A recently published study by Advice Consultants, Abington, shows that luxury boutiques are the capital’s trump card when it comes to persuading foreign visitors to part with their money. Figures also reveal that for more than 75% of tourists Paris is by far the most attractive place to do your shopping – well ahead of its eternal rivals, London (11.7%) and Milan (5%). The survey which focuses on Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists (three nationalities representing the biggest potential for development) shows that an almost unanimous 93% of Brazilians place Paris at the top of their place to shop list, while 71.5% of Chinese and 58.9% of Russians do the same.
The same survey notes that out of an average of ten days spent in Paris these same shoppers devote two whole days just to shopping – 28% of them admitting that shopping is the main aim of their visit. And their budgets are high – which is just as well since their favourite shopping places are the Champs-Elysées, the Boulevard Haussmann, the Place Vendôme and the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, all of which are famous for their high concentration of de luxe boutiques and the astronomical prices they charge for their wares. According to the survey, 75% of the Brazilians taking part planned to spend between 3,000 and 10,000 euros, including meals and accommodation, while 8.5% said they would probably be spending even more. The budgets of most Chinese were more modest – between 500 and 3,000 euros for 57% of them. Nevertheless, 10% of them said they were ready to spend more than 10,000 euros. As for the Russians, more than 60% planned to lighten their wallets by sums ranging from 1,500 to 10,000 euros. Lumped together, these tourists would, therefore be spending on average the ‘modest’ sum of 4,980 euros in their favourite shopping town.
As far as the things they intended to buy are concerned, 51% of tourists plumped for clothes, 40% for souvenirs and 38% for cosmetics. The three top designer names quoted were Louis Vuitton (27%), Chanel (14%) and Dior (12%). The survey did show, however, that these tourists didn’t in any way exclude a visit to more affordable shops like Sephora, Zara or even H&M. And proof that some tourists are quite prepared to leave their purchases to the very last minute is supplied by the fact that 44% of those questioned admitted that they planned to do some last minute shopping at airport duty-free shops while waiting to catch a plane back home. Airport terminal shops could rely on foreign visitors spending an average of 645 euros, the Chinese and Russians spending their money mainly on perfumes and cosmetics, while most Brazilians favoured top of the range wines, cheeses and gastronomical goodies like goose-liver pâté and truffled sausages.
It was at the age of eleven that the little English boy we then were began to learn French at secondary school; and with it came the first quivers of that irrepressible draw towards a language and country which has now been our home for 45 years. I’d previously felt a vague mixture of excitement and curiosity at the thought of discovering the language of a country which I already perceived as being radically unlike my own (I was quite ready to believe that the French ate enormous quantities of snails and frogs’ legs for breakfast). But like all irresistible attractions, my fascination does not lend itself to much rational explanation. Looking back, we think that a good part of the charm lay somewhere in the fact that these French lessons provided the young boy with a dimension which provided his imagination with no limits. For the main reason he detested chemistry was that it left absolutely no room for fancy, being restricted to the actual demonstration and subsequent write-up of a succession of pre-established reactions.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that his French dream wasn’t tempered by reality. For reality took the inescapable form of a dry, stern, elderly French master who seemed not only to make a point of never speaking to his class in French, but succeeded in mystifying (and boring) his pupils for the first two or three weeks by attempting to drill into them (without the slightest explanation as to what it was all about) the phonetics of the language: the spoken language was broken down into its individual sounds, to each of which was attributed an odd-looking symbol (so strange, in fact, that we remember him seriously asking himself whether, by some mysterious process, learning French first involved mastering the letters of the ancient Greek alphabet). And for the next two weeks or so lessons consisted in Mr Pollock (for that was our French master’s name) suspending a phonetic chart on a hook above the blackboard, and then pointing to each symbol with a rather vicious-looking cane – the intimidating appearance of which was enough to persuade the class to chant in perfect unison the corresponding sounds, after which individual boys were randomly summoned to stand up and repeat the same.
And so it was with immense relief on the part of all that suddenly, for no apparent reason, the body of phonetics was buried – never again to be exhumed – and a new life was infused into French lessons by the distribution of what was undoubtedly the standard textbook of the day. And here again, from a strictly pedagogical point of view at least, nothing really encouraged an eleven-year-old to take more than a forced interest in the language. For the method consisted in presenting a living tongue in much the same way as one long-since deceased: each chapter contained a lesson on one aspect of the then barely penetrable mysteries of elementary French grammar, exemplified by a short, simple, normally-written text in French. Chapter 1, for example, began with a basic presentation of the subject pronouns je, tu, il, elle, nous, vous, ils and elles, the following one placed the corresponding affirmative forms of the verb être next to each: je suis, tu es, il est, … after which pupils were treated to the even more mysterious intricacies of the interrogative and, above all, the negative form (having to place a ne before the verb and a pas after it in order to say something as simple as ‘not’ left him in a state of wondrous perplexity). The only concession ever made to the fact that they were learning a language which could be conveyed by mouth as well as pen took place during the first part of the lesson when their teacher, using very much the same method as the one he employed to inculcate the phonetic sounds, invited his class to chant in chorus, and then individually, the conjugation of the various forms – the only difference of note being that, instead of simply pointing his cane at phonetic symbols on a chart, he waved it imperiously in front of them with much the same jerky precision as a choir master imparts to his bâton. The rest of the lesson was devoted to doing the written textbook exercises on the grammatical point in question (including English sentences for translation into French), one of which was usually given to do at home.
But it was the ‘learning’ homework they feared the most. This consisted in committing to memory the conjugations of some of the more malicious ‘irregular’ verbs (how the verb ‘aller’ could become je vais, tu vais, etc. defeated all his logic). Yet the most harrowing part was still to come. For the following lesson always began with a control test – designed to root out the less rigorous among them – which consisted in writing out what they had been summoned to learn at home. They then swapped copies with their neighbour for marking. And even though a relatively generous tolerance of five mistakes was granted, anything above was the object of merciless sanction: the offender was sternly commanded to step out to the front of the class, hold out a trembling hand – to which was applied as many vigorous strokes of the cane as the mistakes he had made beyond the permitted five.
But paradoxically enough, it was the very outdated nature of their textbook which came to his rescue. For these books were antiquated enough for each chapter to be illustrated by a black and white drawing of what he later came to realize was a bygone rural age: hens scratching on a huge farmyard manure heap; a smock-clad peasant guiding his ox-drawn plough; his sabot-shoed wife peeling potatoes on her chair by the farmhouse door; a donkey-mounted peasant girl taking her fruit and vegetables to market – the effect of which was to associate the French way of life in his childish mind with some long-past, Constable-like, country idyll. And the charm of these bucolic scenes was also heightened by the contrast they afforded with the rain-drenched, depressingly-polluted industrial environment he lived in at the time, and from which he had already resolved to do all in his power to escape.
But it was the annual school trip which prepared the ground for his budding attraction to flower into a lifelong love affair. At the school our English boy attended in the north of England pupils were fortunate enough to have a German master who would organize a school trip abroad during the Summer holidays of each year. One year it was to Germany, the following to Switzerland, and at the end of his first school year two whole weeks were to be spent in the South of France.
As luck would have it (the egocentricity of childhood made him sometimes view things in a heartless sort of way), his grandmother on Dad’s side had departed this earth that same year and had left his sister and himself the grand sum of £20 each in her will. Having confided in Mum that he would really love to go on the school trip, she gave him to understand that, even though he could count on her wholehearted support, he’d personally have to ask Dad for his authorization. ‘It might help,’ she added, ‘if you suggested that your part of Grandma Whittingham’s legacy could be used to finance it’. We’ll never know whether Mum had had a quiet word with him beforehand but, contrary to his worst forebodings, paternal consent was immediately forthcoming, and was even accompanied by a spontaneous, ‘That’s a good idea. It’ll broaden your horizons, my lad!’ This endorsement gratified him immensely: not only did it exceed his wildest dreams but caused him to perceive Dad in a far more liberal light. From then on, each evening before going to sleep, he would get out his Christmas diary and, after crossing off that day, proceed to count down those separating him from their departure date. And after what seemed an eternity it finally arrived. Early one bright August morning Dad, accompanied by Mum, drove an elated little boy to the station to join the group of 60 or so pupils and accompanying teachers who were to be his companions, guides and protectors for the two weeks to come.
After chugging their way down to Kings Cross (these were the days of the steam locomotive), they crossed London to Victoria before taking the train to Dover. Here they caught the ferry to Calais, and after a train to Paris where, late that evening at the Gare de Lyon they caught that legendary night express, le Mistral, which was to carry them through the hours of darkness to their destination on the Côte d’Azur.
Not even a mostly sleepless night spent trying to find a comfortable position on a French second class railway carriage bench, along with seven other restless little boys, could subdue the excitement which began to swell in him as dawn broke, and he caught occasional glimpses of the indigo sea they were now running parallel to. And this was nothing in comparison with the heady elation he felt at the sights, sounds and smells that greeted them when the train pulled into the station in Nice. As he got off and walked out of the station with the others, he was overcome by a feeling he’d never in his life experienced before: an exhilarating sensation of walking on air – as if 425 miles of steam-driven locomotion had had very much the same effect as 236,857 miles of rocket-propelled flight, and that he had now landed on a planet where ripe apples floated far more gently to the ground.
It will certainly come as no surprise to the more realistically minded among our readers that, though our little English boy’s French holiday was the source of unimagined delight, it also brought the more sobering realization that even the most fragrant of rose gardens can hide a snake in the grass.
It all began when, on the day preceding their departure back home, his thoughts turned to buying a gift for his parents which might also serve as a souvenir for him. Now as far as spending money was concerned, boys had the same fixed amount which was included in the total cost of the holiday. Its distribution was meticulously organized. Each morning at nine o’clock those in pecuniary need were called upon to form a neatly-aligned queue leading up to a table with a cash box and a ledger and behind which their maths master, Mr Mitchel, or rather ‘Big Jim’, was seated. But while it was perfectly normal for a mathematician to have been entrusted with the management of boys’ spending money, his nickname was something of a misnomer. For we were recently looking at some old school photos on which he appeared, and were struck by his modest size. Perhaps it was his commanding class manner and the awe it inspired in his pupils which gave him such a disproportionate stature in their eyes.
For obvious reasons, the most they could draw out at any one time was limited to 500 francs, and while this didn’t represent a huge sum (these were the days of the ancien franc) he’d calculated that it was more than enough to buy an acceptable souvenir. So after noting the transaction in his ledger, Big Jim extracted a crisp, new 500 franc note (perhaps he had no smaller ones left) from his cash box, before handing it over with an accompanying, ‘Mind you don’t lose it, my lad!’ And then, in the company of a couple of friends, off he trotted into town.
On gazing into the window of the first souvenir shop they came to his eyes lighted on what struck him as being a rather original-looking fish on a stand. It seemed to have been carved out of a small horn; but what attracted him most was its relatively modest price of less than 180 francs. So leaving his friends outside on the pavement he crept in. We use the word ‘crept’ because, even though he’d been in France for almost two weeks, this was the first opportunity he’d had to speak French with a native, and he was daunted by the prospect. Mustering all his courage, he muttered something resembling the word ‘poisson’, while pointing a finger in the direction of the fish. The shopkeeper must have understood as he took it out of the window, wrapped it in tissue paper and placed it on the counter in front of him. Our little boy handed over the 500 franc note and the shopkeeper gave him back his change … for 200 francs!
It must have been the innocence of childhood which made him think it was a genuine error and, as far as his one year of school French would allow, he did his best to point out the mistake. In retrospect, we think the shopkeeper couldn’t have been without knowing a little English but it suited his purpose to address his young customer in French. To his utter stupefaction he declared with an emphatic shake of head: ‘Ah, non! Tu m’as donné un billet de deux cents francs!’ – Oh no! You gave me a 200 franc note! Then, turning his back, he began arranging some articles on the shelves behind the counter – as if to confirm that for him the matter was now irrevocably closed, and that the only thing left for the English boy to do was to vacate his shop. Though he was incapable of replying, the anger which welled up inside made him determined to stand his ground.
There then happened something which has since led us to believe that certain innocents have guardian spirits hovering above them, ready to come to their assistance in moments of dire need. And his guardian spirits were képi-topped and clad in dark blue uniforms! For at that very instant two patrolling gendarmes strolled past the shop. Without hesitation he pointed to them, and then, surprising himself, made a resolute step towards the door. It was with a show of extreme reluctance on the shopkeeper’s part that he slowly reached inside his till and handed our English boy his due.
This brief encounter with a snake in the grass was, of course, not without causing some disillusion as it brought that little boy we once were to realize that terrestrial paradises could reserve painful surprises. But in many ways it was like a lover’s first quarrel: it didn’t destroy their relationship but simply eased it on to a less illusory basis. So, rather than bringing any profound disenchantment, he was able to integrate the experience into a positive, wider process of development which allowed him to temper his romanticized perceptions by the beginnings of an awareness of the reality of others together with that of himself. It was as if his rose-tinted spectacles had been lifted up from nose and ears, and he was now seeing things in their more natural light. It was a step – perhaps the first – towards maturity.
And we’re very much tempted to think that maturity is – in part, at least – an acceptance of the fact that illusion and reality are an inextricable part of our human condition, and that it’s vital to find some kind of balanced compromise between the two. For illusion – that representation of things that are not, and can never be – is present in us all, and can even help to build a better world. But if it blinds us too much to what really is – both in ourselves and others – it can be a source of harm, even destruction. And, as he came to discover in his later readings, literature is not without examples of this. From Flaubert’s masterly portrayal of Madame Bovary, a woman who viewed herself and the world as her romantic fantasies wished them to be, and who was annihilated by what they were, to Stevenson’s classic of fantastic literature The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which the morally idealistic Dr Jekyll was destroyed by the illusion that the Good and Evil in himself and others could be cleaved into separate existence:
‘If each (Good and Evil) could be but housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil’.
And too late comes the realization that, in reality:
‘It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together – that in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins should be constantly struggling.’
Man is, and always will be an inseparable, antithetical amalgam of Good and Evil, and any attempt to build a world based on Pure Good is illusory and will ultimately lead to disaster. Perhaps the only thing we can aspire to is to work on this impure clay with the aim of producing an equilibrium which prevents illusion from destroying reality, and reality from shattering illusion. But here we’re waxing too philosophical …
It’s certainly this belief in the need to find an equilibrated middle course between dreams and reality that attracts us to the adage ‘If you can’t get what you like, you must like what you can get’. This, at least, was what reality obliged our young English pupil to come to terms with back at school. For during his French lessons he could never quite escape the feeling that it was impossible to address the object of his affections directly. It was as if some sort of chaperone stood permanently between them. And this chaperone was male, and took the three-times-weekly form of that same dry, stern Mr Pollock who had introduced him to the language at the age of eleven, and whose approach to teaching a living language was still much the same as if it had been long since dead. So, not only did lessons consist exclusively in translating from English into French (and occasionally vice versa), but the texts they were called upon to render were frequently drawn from the realms of 19th century literature; as a result, he couldn’t help having serious doubts as to whether the ability to translate into French sentences such as, ‘He strolled nonchalantly down the narrow, cobbled street sporting a scarlet riding coat and fleece-lined boots and jauntily waving a silver-knobbed walking stick’ could possibly increase his ability to communicate on matters of present day concern. And we don’t remember the teacher uttering a word of French beyond the context of the translations, or ‘set’ examination books his pupils were plowing through. For even in the Sixth Form their ‘A’ level studies of those classical and modern authors – Racine, Molière, Lamartine, Stendhal, Saint-Exupéry, Camus – considered to have penned some of Marianne’s finest literary offerings, consisted in their grinding, page-by-page rendition into English. And this almost daily treachery, we must shamefully confess, caused the young student we then were to be unfaithful too: for he ended up committing the ultimate betrayal by purchasing a paperback English translation of Balzac’s Le Père Goriot.
We frequently hear of the benefits of learning and speaking a foreign language – especially when it comes to broadening the mind and creating more understanding between nations of diverging cultures. But we don’t hear much about the dangers. If our own experience is anything to go by learning French involves feeling your way along with the same caution as that you would need in traversing a field packed with landmines : for even the wrong intonation imparted to a commonly-used word can be the cause of considerable misunderstanding.
This was brought home to our young Englishman during a second school trip to France three years after the first. He was strolling along a pavement in Paris in the company of a couple of friends when a car pulled up at the roadside a few yards ahead of them. Then, just as they were walking past, the passenger door was thrown open and a lady (she mustn’t have seen them) began to get out – thereby obliging them to stop and walk round her. Though they were in no way responsible for the slight inconvenience this caused, he was determined to take advantage of the situation to speak a bit of French. So, he politely said ‘pardon’ with the aim of excusing them. To both his dismay and incomprehension her husband (who was getting out on the driver’s side) replied, ‘Et pardon à vous, aussi!’ in a distinctly annoyed tone of voice. It was only after giving the matter some thought that our young man realized where he’d gone wrong. The husband’s wrath had been caused by the fact that he’d given his ‘pardon’ much the same intonation as when you say ‘sorry’ in English. And this had prompted the husband to understand that he was not apologizing for himself and his friends, but giving his wife a lesson in good manners by inferring that she should have been the one to say ‘pardon’.
On another occasion a few years later he was hitch-hiking in France with a non-French-speaking English pal. It was only after they’d been standing at the roadside for at least two hours that a car finally pulled up. The driver was going to their very destination and he invited them to get in. ‘Merci,’ our young man replied, turning round to pick up his rucksack. To their amazement the driver immediately revved up and sped away. He could only conclude that for some reason the Frenchman had had second thoughts. It was only later he remembered that the word ‘merci’, when uttered with a descending intonation, can mean ‘No thank you!’ The driver had thought he’d refused his offer of a lift! It was a mistake he’d never make again!
Another problem which can arise is the inability to identify the specific register to which a word or expression belongs. Is it slang, vulgar, polite and acceptable to all? In what kind of situation can it be applied? And when it came to learning French the English part of us was no exception. One of his main goals during the exchange year he spent teaching English in a lycée was to improve his everyday spoken French. But while his level was good enough to allow him to participate in conversations of quite an advanced nature, his French was sadly lacking in idiomatic speech. So, determined to fill what he considered to be a deplorable gap, he resorted to recording all the colloquialisms he heard in a dedicated notebook, and then take advantage of the slightest opportunity to use them in everyday situations. He’d soon gathered an impressive selection of slang expressions : se jeter un godet derrière la cravate (to knock back a jar or two), faire du lèche-vitrine (to do some window shopping) along with such sexist remarks as elle a du monde au balcon (she’s got a nice pair of knockers), to name jut a few. And the philosophy teacher even taught him one or two chansons paillardes (rugby songs). On one or two occasions, however, he was made to realize that his policy of opportunistic application was not without risk.
One morning, while sitting in the staff room, he eavesdropped on a conversation between a German teacher friend and le proviseur, the headmaster, with whom the former seemed to be on familiar terms. He didn’t really understand everything they were talking about, but at one stage his friend exploded with a ‘Mais tu te fous de ma gueule, non?’ Thinking this meant something like ‘You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?’ he jotted the expression down. Now that evening he’d been invited to dinner by an English teacher colleague – a rather prim and proper middle-aged lady with whom he always took pains to be extremely polite. During the meal he had the distinct impression that her husband (he seemed to delight in showing off his wit) was making gentle fun of his accent. Considering this to be the ideal moment to use his recently-acquired expression, he burst out in a tone of mock annoyance, ‘Mais vous vous foutez de ma gueule, non?’ Though they did their best not to show it and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough, a slight sagging of both their mouths made him realize he’d somewhere infringed the rules of verbal propriety. So, the following day, he related the incident to his German teacher friend. With considerable amusement he explained that what he’d said was more vulgar than colloquial as it was nearer in meaning to ‘You’re taking the piss!’ than ‘You’re pulling my leg!’
During this first exchange year he lived in an old, dilapidated little farmhouse located in an isolated village some 30 minutes’ drive from the lycée where he taught. One of its outside walls had been sprayed with machine gun fire during the liberation of the village by the Americans in 1944, and a small attic window still had three or four bullet holes in it. During his early staff room conversations with other teachers the subject of the old farmhouse frequently came up. On occasions like this he would enthusiastically describe the farmhouse in as much detail as his French would allow, dwelling in particular on the fact that the wall and attic window were riddled with ‘trous de balle’ – this being his translation of ‘bullet holes’. However, he had been aware of a number of uneasy looks. But it was only when one of the teachers took him quietly to one side that he understood why. In French slang, it was explained, ‘trou de balle’ is a vulgar allusion to the anal orifice. So in future it would be far better to say ‘impacts de balle!’
At an age when our Frenglish self is being more and more frequently reminded that our memory isn’t half as good as it was (it’s not that we don’t remember, it just takes us as long as half an hour to recollect some things – especially names – which used to trip instantaneously off our tongue), and when we sometimes have the disconcerting impression that our brains are well on the way to assuming the size and appearance of two shrivelled peas, we were considerably reassured by an article we read recently in the Health Supplement of the Figaro newspaper. The article in question concludes that, according to a number of studies, having bilingual brains (i.e. speaking two or more languages) can delay by as many as five years the onset of those different types of senile dementia – in particular Alzheimer’s Disease – which, at the age we’ve now reached, are beginning to fill us with dread.
One of these studies, conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University in Scotland, and published in the American medical magazine Annals of Neurology, claims that having bilingual brains helps you to perform better, regardless of whether the foreign language skill was acquired during childhood or after the age of 18. This more or less lets us in as our English half started learning French at secondary school at the age of eleven. What’s more, being multilingual, or even modesty bilingual, has the advantage of giving your brain a dimension which will protect you at all stages of life, says Dr Bernard Croisile, head of the Neuro-Psychology Department at the University Hospital of Lyon. And, according to his study, this has got nothing to do with your sex, your IQ, your educational level, or even your life style.
Research participants were brought up in an English language environment and took a first intelligence test in 1947 at the age of eleven. A comparable intelligence and reading test taken 60 years later, shortly after their 70th birthday, showed that the cognitive performance of the 260 bilingual or multilingual people taking part was better than that of a similar group whose members could only speak one language. This is due to the fact that speaking two languages or more involves the use of several cognitive functions, says researcher Thomas Hak, a specialist in intellectual decline at the University of Edinburgh. So, most of those things which tend to poison an expat Brit’s linguistic life in France – trying not to make your pronunciation of ‘tu’ sound too much like ‘tout’, deciding whether the word ‘silence’ is ‘le’ or ‘la’, racking your brains wondering whether you should be using a subjunctive or not, or worrying yourself to death that ‘Bonjour madame’ would have been far politer than just a breezy ‘Bonjour’ are – like downing all those spoonfuls of stomach-turning cod liver oil when you were a kid – actually good for you. And even if the mechanism is not yet fully known, the same advantages apply to all stages of life. For as early as 2009 research in Italy based on seven-month-old babies – an age when they can’t yet speak, but are capable of recognizing the language(s) they’ve been hearing since birth – had already shown that having bilingual brains develops certain functions, notably the ability to concentrate and adapt to new rules.
We must admit, however, that at the end of the article we were a bit disappointed to learn that speaking a foreign language can’t be considered in itself as a cognitive cure-all. It’s just one of the factors which can slow down the ageing of the brain and delay that time when you won’t always be able to remember your spouse’s, or even your own name. As Dr Croisile confirms, ‘When practiced at all stages of life, rich and varied intellectual activities, whatever form these may take, are all-important factors when it comes to protecting our brain as we advance in age.’ So we’ll just have to keep on writing our blogs, make an effort to finish those brain-racking French crosswords, and try to delay any numerical decline by doing the odd diabolical Sudoku.
Our Englishman frequently recalls the words of his old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who used to say that his ability to speak a foreign language fluently had enabled him to lead two separate lives. In our own case, we would go even further and say that 45 years of uninterrupted expat living has transformed us into a Frenglishman – that’s to say two different people in one: for we don’t perceive the French version of ourself as being quite the same as the English one. And though we don’t consider ourself to be suffering from a Multiple Personality Disorder, it has made us reflect on some of the reasons going to explain why the long-standing expat we are doesn’t have the same perception of ourself in France as we do in England.
Perhaps the main explanation can be found in the fact that the initial challenge our Englishman set himself on coming to France was to immerse himself so totally in the everyday life, culture and language of the country as to become as much of a native as he possibly could. One of the things this meant was having the least possible contact with his countrymen. But don’t get us wrong. This in no way stemmed from a desire to deny his Englishness, which we’ve always been proud. It was more his perfectionist together with what might be called a sense of adventure which filled the young Englishman we then were with an irresistible urge to give himself another dimension by becoming part of a life style perceived as being excitingly different to the one he’d experienced up until then, and for which he’d felt a constant attraction from the age of eleven when he began learning the language at school. In addition, the year he spent at a French university as part of his studies in French Language and Literature had left him with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons his initial aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen far short of original expectations, and had left him with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. As a result, he had promised myself that if ever a second chance were to come his way he would do all in his power to succeed. Fortunately, this second chance did present itself when his application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in France was accepted.
On reflection, however, perhaps the word ‘adventure’ is not entirely appropriate. It has connotations of courage and audacity which we can now sincerely say, without false modesty, were not applicable in his case. For we’ve always considered that courage should have a sustained, consistent form, and involve fighting against the permanent temptation to yield to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term, physical challenge of climbing a snow-topped peak or hacking a path through a steamy jungle. And since his freely-consented choice to go and live in a foreign country was the result of a desire so overwhelmingly invasive that he couldn’t resist, real courage for him would have meant making the constant effort to endure what he could barely tolerate – the conventional, routine English schoolteacher’s life he was leading and which he would probably continue leading, in one way or another, for the rest of his working days.
The concept you have of your inner self is, of course, determined to a great extent by the environment in which you evolve, and your perception of the image others have of you. In this latter respect, language – that verbal garment we don in our self presentation to others – plays, we think, the most important part. For nothing says more about you than the way you speak. And though our young Englishman did set himself the perfectionist’s goal of speaking the language like a Frenchman, with hindsight, in spite of his best efforts to reach it, this was unattainable. For though we’re frequently told we could almost (it’s the little words that hurt the most) be taken for a native speaker, we’re convinced that, with the possible exception of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual environment from your very earliest years. Since our English part began learning French at the relatively advanced age of eleven and, in addition, was the victim of old-school, translation methods more adapted to the teaching of a dead language than a living one, we’ve never been able to rid ourself of an accent which, though we’re told is ever so slight, is enough to make us frustratingly aware that we never have, and certainly never will completely fulfill the initial aim. For, despite the fact that it doesn’t readily betray our English origins, our Frenglish accent frequently prompts strangers to enquire politely whether we’re Swiss (we live near the Swiss border) or even Belgian. And only the other day someone asked us if we were French Canadian! What’s more, in our experience, once you’ve been tagged as a non-native (even though being a Frenglishman in France has always been to our advantage), you’re never really allowed to forget it. For people love to have confirmation of the stereotyped image they have of the foreigner – so much so that, as we’ve had occasion to observe, the temptation is great for some expat Brits to act the part of the clown – even to the point of speaking French with a deliberate English accent !
Moreover, we can’t help thinking that, when conversation goes beyond the banalities of everyday life, what is expressed by us in French could be better said in English, and we’ve finally had to resign ourself to the fact that the former is a language that has been gradually acquired. For speaking French requires a greater effort of concentration and attention, not only in regard to what you yourself are attempting to convey, but to what your conversational partners are saying. And in discussions of a more cerebral nature thoughts get cluttered with questions like, ‘Is what I’m going to say grammatically correct?’ ‘Was that the right word I used?’ ‘Is this noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce that word correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand everything he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of the native speaker regarding the quality of your own linguistic efforts. Not only does this make you more hesitant but it serves as a lesson in modesty. On the contrary, when we’re speaking English the Englishman in us is able to judge the quality of his language. This frees us of all those niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much more closely together so that we can talk and at the same time think ahead about what we want to say. As a result, we’re far more confident in our approach to others. So, speaking only an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating, and going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a week – gives our English half the refreshing opportunity not only of seeing his family (he’s long since lost all contact with his former English friends) but of re-visiting those places which serve as a nostalgic reminder of his long-lost roots. And one thing which is perhaps somewhere a reflection of the two persons that now dwell in us is that when we watch a France-England rugby match in France we’re for the English, but when we’re in England we’re wholeheartedly behind the French!
It goes without saying that language problems can arise in a union between a native person and an expat when the latter has only basic skills in the language of the country. For not only does a limited command of the spoken language make it difficult for both to communicate their thoughts and feelings to the other but it is impossible for the expat to have more than just the vaguest idea of what a conversation between his native partner and a third native person is all about. As a result, his limited command of the language brings, at worst, total exclusion, at best, the possibility to pop in only the occasional word or two.
And even when you have an excellent command of the language and you’d always thought that your social skills were reasonably well honed, intercultural language problems can arise when you live in a small town where your partner was born and bred, where everybody (except you) knows everybody, and where the subject of conversation is frequently shared between your partner and friend to the exclusion of yourself. And in such circumstances even the most trivial of encounters can sometimes be the cause of not negligible strain.
The other day, for example, we were walking with our live-in partner along the High Street of the town of some 10,000 inhabitants where we live when we happened to meet a friend she hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing since the days they were at school together. After the usual exchange of greetings and enquiries about each other’s health their conversation turned towards a mutual friend who, we gathered, had married some while ago and left this town of their birth.
‘Au fait, ça fait des lustres que je n’ai pas de nouvelles de Jeannine. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est devenue? enquired Renée.
‘Ah, tu sais, d’après ce que j’ai entendu elle vient de divorcer. C’est bien dommage. Ils ont deux enfants qui sont absolument adorables.’
Now we’ve never had the pleasure of meeting either Jeannine, her ex-husband or their two adorable children, so we can be forgiven for taking only a minor interest in their recent divorce. But after ten minutes or so during which we were obliged to endure a situation where we felt as much interest was being shown in us as in the wastepaper bin we were standing by (even though our partner had previously introduced us, and made the occasional half-hearted attempt to include us in the conversation), what started as nothing more than a vague disinterest began to swell up into a feeling of frustration, even annoyance at what we perceived as being unpardonable rudeness on the part of her old school friend whose only concession to our presence had been a distant ‘Bonjour monsieur.’
Now don’t get us wrong. We’re far from considering ourself to be at the hub of a universe around which others should gravitate in beatific awe. We do, however, believe in the elementary politeness which consists in acknowledging the presence of others from time to time. On the other hand, we did realize that our parner was enjoying her chat. But when the subject of Jeannine and her marital woes was exhausted and they started to reminisce about their former teachers and other classmates we began to give serious thought to finding the best way of abridging their chat. Should we drop some kind of private hint to our partner that we’d prefer her to end the conversation there and then? Should we make it perfectly obvious to both that their conversation was getting to be a bit of a drag? Or would the situation justify us simply walking away in a huff?
Fortunately, reason got the better of us and we finally decided to opt for a middle course by politely announcing that we’d leave them to talk about old times together while we had a beer in the nearby bistrot. Fortunately the hint was taken, the conversation was brought to an end, cheeks were kissed and we parted the best of friends.
The recently-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find the following tips and observations food for thought when addressing some of those problems which intercultural relationships with the French can bring. They’re based on our own experiences during more than 40 years of co-habitation with the same French partner.
1. As far as marriage is concerned the basic principles which govern intercultural relationships are not very different from those which go to make a happy and successful union between a couple of the same nationality living in their home country. It’s just that the sources of possible disputes are greater, can run more deeply and have, therefore, a higher risk of leading to argument, recurrent conflict and, in extreme cases, final separation. Religious, social, political and cultural variations can raise their potentially divisive heads, codes of behaviour can be at variance, as we have already seen, language can be a formidable barrier, and even relatively trivial matters like eating habits or food preferences can pose problems. And if you have children, your views could diverge on how to bring them up. All the more reason why a big effort must be made to be open-minded, tolerant, patient, understanding and willing to seek a compromise, while not neglecting those values of mutual respect, honesty and sincerity which are essential to all healthy relationships. It also helps to have a sense of humour.
2. Even though hitching up with one of the natives is not necessarily a bed of roses, it’s the quickest and most effective way of integrating a foreign country as it will give you instant access to your partner’s friends and relations.
3. Though you might be convinced that love conquers all, be aware of the sobering thought that the friends, and especially the relatives of your beloved can make or break an intercultural relationship. For reasons we won’t go into here, your French girl/boy friend’s maman and/or papa might be hostile towards you as a foreigner. At heart they might prefer their daughter/son to settle down with a native. She/he could be influenced by them.
4. Communication is an essential, though difficult aspect of every relationship whether cross cultural or not. Depending on your level as a non-native speaker, language can be an even greater barrier as it can prevent you from expressing in any great detail or with the required nuances what you really think or feel, or understanding what your partner thinks or feels. Our only advice here is patience, patience, patience. Be aware, however, that even though patience is generally considered to be a virtue, it’s one which some French people are lacking in.
5. Being obliged to evolve in a foreign language can also be a source of tension from a social point of view. For, as we have already observed, though you were an accomplished socializer back home where you could express yourself in your mother tongue, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of having to play second, or even third fiddle when confronted with the same situations in a foreign language. And even if your French is well up to par the fact that the subject of conversation could be something or someone you yourself have never known could seriously reduce the extent to which you can participate in it. So when your partner is a native speaker, at some time or other, as an expat Anglophone you’re going to have to cope with the disagreeable feeling of being left out, or even ignored in the conversation your beloved is having with friends and relatives. This can be a source of exasperation and could put a strain on relations. It’s something you should talk about together.
6. People love to have the confirmation of the stereotyped images perpetuated about the natives of other nations and may be perplexed, or even disappointed when these are not much in evidence in a foreigner. The French are no exception. So if you’re English (or even Welsh, Scottish or Irish, for that matter, as the French tend to consider English to be synonymous with British) they’ll probably find it hilarious if you turn up at your local golf club wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella. You may also be required to be reserved, gentlemanly and phlegmatic. And they’ll certainly be shocked if you say you prefer pastis to whisky. You might also be required to have a detailed knowledge of the royal family together with a strongly aspirated English accent when you speak French. Some English expats have even been noted to make a determined effort to conform to these stereotypes as a means of gaining some kind of distinction (on the whole we’ve found the French have a positive view of what smacks of English). Personally, we’ve always frowned upon this type of social clowning and have always endeavoured to be ourself. It’s up to you to decide.
7. You’ll also have to decide, of course, which language you’re going to use between you at home. This will depend very much on circumstances, your motivation and degree of fluency. In our own case French was a natural choice since the English part of us was a French schoolmaster in England and already spoke the language well on arriving in France. Not only did it correspond to our own desire to embrace the country, its language and culture to the full, but it suited our French partner who had neither the need nor the desire to speak or write English beyond the commercial requirements imposed by her job. If your French partner’s English is better than your French you might be tempted to speak English at home. This is the easy way out. If speaking French all the time would be too wearing for you both, why not schedule regular French-speaking sessions as part of your domestic routine? And if you have children, be aware that bringing them up in a bi-lingual context is an excellent way of giving them a head start in life. Discuss this between you, decide on certain rules, and stick to them.
8. Though it’s not really the subject of this article, when the person you’re sharing your life with is of the same nationality as yourself, living in a foreign culture and maintaining happy relations within a marital or live-in partnership can still be a challenging prospect. After all, it’s not because you’re really enjoying renovating that old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that she necessarily feels the same. I mean, that cock which insists on crowing at the crack of dawn each day could be getting on her nerves, she could be fed up with not being able to find an interesting job, and missing friends and family back home much more than you think. Make sure your channels of communication are wide open.
9. In France great progress has been made over the last three decades in the name of male and female equality, and now most Frenchmen don’t consider it beneath them to help with the dusting or change baby’s nappy. Remember, however, that you’re living in a culture which only gave women the vote in 1945, and which as late as 1963 didn’t allow a female to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. Just be aware that the gallant Frenchie you’re so madly in love with may reveal he has a more traditional perception of gender roles once you bed down together.
10. A common Anglo Saxon misconception about the French male is that he’s always on the look-out for extra-marital gratification. While this was a little true in the past, especially among the bourgeoisie, where it was relatively common for the master of the household to seduce their naive, country-raised maid who feared that not letting him have his way would mean her losing her job, this would not be tolerated by women today.
After graduating with a bachelor degree in French Language and Literature Barry stepped innocently into the world of work as a commercial supervisor for a large brewery. But quickly realizing that a career in beer wasn’t quite his cup of tea he went back to university to train as a language teacher. After teaching French in a secondary school he successfully applied to spend a year as an English teacher in a lycée as part of an official exchange scheme. It proved such a fascinating experience that he decided to make France his permanent home. And he’s never looked back. Barry has now retired from the English teaching and translation business he set up more than 40 years ago and shares his time between golf, gardening, foreign travel, 19th century French, English and American fiction … and, of course, creative writing. He lives with his French partner, Renée, in the mountains of the Jura region of Eastern France.
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Barry is also the fiction author of Barfield School, Book 1 in the CALL OF FRANCE trilogy. For more details you can visit his website :
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Dreaming of moving to France ? Planning to spend a holiday there ? Are you a newly-landed expat ? Or would you simply love to know more about French history, customs and lifestyle? Barry’s Frenglish Folies contains more than 100 serious, humorous and seriously humorous articles on the English but, especially, the French. They’re based on the observations, experiences (and mistakes) of the split-identity and sometimes deranged ‘Frenglishman’ that, after more than 45 years of cohabitation, the author has now become.