A French affair

Here in France Christmas Day was a French affair. Like many of the natives, we ate out. Our fabulous Déjeuner de Noël at Langousto was as follows:

Cocktail Maison
(Amaretto, Champagne, Beaume de Venise)

Gâteau de Foies Blonds de Volaille à la Crème de Cèpes
(Pour la Mise en Bouche)

Le Foie Gras de Canard aux Truffes du Haut-Var

Rosace de Coquilles Saint-Jacques au Beurre d’Oursins

Croustillant de Loup à la Décoction de Cardamome Verte

Pigeonneau en Croûte Farcie de Trompettes des Bois

Moelleux au Chocolat Servi Tiède et Glace Vanille
Sorbet Mandarine Caramélisé dans une Emincée de Pommes

Petits Fours et Chocolats

The French theme continued once we returned home, thanks strangely to the English television networks (relayed to the south of France by satellite). First BBC 2 broadcast this year’s animated French hit Belleville Rendez-vous and Channel 4 joined in later with the popular movie from 2001 Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (aka Amélie).

Grand-mère comforts her long-suffering hound in Belleville Rendez-vous.

Grand-mère comforts her long-suffering hound in Belleville Rendez-vous.

We’d seen Belleville Rendez-vous in London last October, but for some reason its commentary on Anglo-French relations seemed more obvious this time. It tells the story of a French Tour de France champion who is kidnapped by the mafia, smuggled into the US and forced to cycle in secret for the benefit of the mob’s illegal gambling business. In typical French style, his grand-mère comes to the rescue. The title comes from a song made popular by a trio of swinging sisters, contemporaries of grand-mère with a penchant for grenouille, who live in New York City and help to save the day. So the criminal activity is all based in the US, where the heroines live on an exclusive diet of frogs. Make of that what you will.

Amélie film poster

Amélie film poster.

Helping the blind and infirm cross the road must be something of a French cliché because such a scene appears in both Belleville Rendez-vous and Amélie. In Belleville Rendez-vous an American boy-scout attempts to help grand-mère cross the road, but she wants none of it and discourages him by repeatedly beating him with her cane. In the eponymous Amélie, our frenetic heroine doesn’t just help an old man across the street, she takes him halfway across Paris unnecessarily. Could these scenes be metaphors for the perils of unwanted assistance from well-meaning strangers?

All we can say with certainty is that these days eccentric women seem to get what they want — at least they do in French films.

Meanwhile an article in this month’s Prospect magazine attempts to deconstruct another cultural difference between the anglo-saxon and French worlds. In French favours author Tim King wonders about the roots of French corruption:

Corruption exists in all countries, rich and poor. Does it have distinctive roots in France? According to the writer Edmonde Charles Roux, “the Mediterranean people have a conception of honesty which is peculiar to them.” In the case of France there are two aspects of all this which seem to be fundamentally different from life in Britain.

The first is the attitude to money. The British have a fairly clear view (which has been called Protestant) that money is a tool. There is nothing wrong with it in itself, but there is good money, earned by hard work, and bad money gained through greed or dishonesty. At the root of the French attitude is the Catholic view that money is tainted by sin. Yet money is necessary and since corruption is only an abuse of something already sinful, it doesn’t matter too much.

That historical, Catholic view, is overlaid by the Republican rejection of all things Catholic (partly because the Catholic church itself was seen as corrupt). According to Republican logic, the term “morality” smacks of the church, so calling a politician immoral is off limits because it mixes state with church, which is forbidden by law. Republicanism has also led to a conviction that the state will foot the bill – for anything. The result in France is a confused way of thinking about money, marked by suspicion and reticence when talking about it.

The second basic difference concerns the French attitude towards politicians. In France, politics is about strength and l’art de paraître. The French don’t condemn their leaders’ immoral actions if they are for the common good. At one of his trials former minister Bernard Tapie admitted he had committed perjury. “But I lied in good faith,” he added. “Better the dishonest minister than the stupid one,” says barrister Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, who is defending François Mitterrand’s son in an arms trafficking case. The French do not share the notion that a politician should, personally, set a good example.

So avoid following French politicians, but attend to determined French women whenever possible. That seems to be the message from two different perspectives on French culture this month.