Friday, October 13, 2006

Vive le quotidien, et la France!

In the wake of the publication of a survey that claims that one in five Britons wish they were French, the reaction towards the current writer, as an avowed francophile, has been predictable. 'So what do you think about then?' has been the refrain from, er, nobody so far, but I'll pre-empt them and tell the fuckers what I do think.

If the Cortinas' great record 99% Is Shit applies to most things, France could probably rate at 85%. High, high score, my friends. It is still a great country, and it can still teach us more than we can teach it.

I love France. I absolutely adore it. I want it to have my babies. Once a Germanophile, I've converted. My first four months in the Université Francois Rabelais's Cité Internationale hostel for students was a nightmare of tinned spag bol and penury; but apart from the fact that the penury, rather than the place, was the problem (all that cheese! all those train journeys to all those places! all that wine! all that foie gras!), I then took a look around me at - and ladies, please forgive me - how stratospherically beautiful and civilised the girls were. Beethoven and Van Halen in the same CD rack? Corneille on the bookshelf? It was epiphanic - how could there be so many of them? How could there be so many girls dressed so beautifully, and comporting themselves so demurely? And how could so many of them be bright and independent and strong-willed as well, for fuck's sake? In other words, I was in totty heaven.

Things are changing fast - check out a nana's blog and despair at the creeping anglophonicism - but they are still extraordinary creatures. A half-French female friend of mine once remarked on how French sisters can - expenditure permitting - conbine the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous looks and mode (only the Latin races can truly bring off classique)with career ambitions and sexual libertinism. They have to, if they are to survive what is still a patriarchy.

To attribute my francophilia to sexual fetishism is as wide of the mark as the obviously made-up reasons cited in that made-up survey, media phenomena like 'Thierry Henry' and 'Audrey Tautou' do not tempt sane people into entering into the hell of the French property market (we've been here before - j'accuse, Peter Mayle). But I can see the microcosmal thinking there; most Frenchwomen, for me, quite apart from issues of 'difference', embody an eminently civilised mode de vie, in which relaxed sensuality to a lesser or greater degree is regarded not as a luxury but a duty; where being clever, or admiring Eric Rohmer's films or knowledge of Proust are largely regarded as turn-ons. Yes, yes, I know, try telling that to anyone from St Denis, but you get my point.

This writer adores the run-down little textile town of Armentières in the Nord; now not much more than a satellite of Lille, it hosted the famous Mademoiselle of bawdy-Great-War-song infamy. And no, I don't know whether they still cut up their skirts for souvenirs, but it's not been for want of research. It's poor; many of the inhabitants are rough. The town is surrounded by France's dirty little secret, the usual scatterings of big sheds and US-style drive-ins and hypers. But it has two of the greatest patisseries in the whole of the Nord, within 200 metres of one another. It has a spectacularly bizarre neo-Gothic Flemish belfry by Cordonnier, a masterpiece of malignity over 70 metres high. Its pubs are lazy, friendly, indulgent. Thousands turn out for the regular carnival every September, in which biscuits are thrown to the crowds from the belfry windows (don't ask). There's social abrasion, it's true, but yobbery in the town centre at midnight is almost non-existent. Shop window displays indicate anything but hardship. It is clean. It's almost too painful to even write the cliché joie de vivre, but, attenuated as it is by Armentières' humbling economic decline, this still evidently exists. There is no sense of a hairy-arsed loudmouth or bunch of neo-Prod stuffedshirts frowning at you or your habits. There is a strong sense of community, of political engagement, of barricading. You have to ask where the ready meals are even in such down-at-heel chainstores as Shopi and Match. People, even the poor and urban, can sometimes even bring you bottles of their mate's eau-de-vie to thank you for attending their meal.

It is not the idyll of holidays that is valuable, it is the blunting of life's hard edges by courtesy, style, indulgence and efficiency that one finds even in a dun, beaten-down little market town near the Channel. Not one good thing about Armentières could one ever find in Merthyr Tydfil or Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Oh, enough.

In other words, the France I love is equally the France of Henry, Tautou and Pagnol, but it is also the Verlaine France of wet, black brick and sodden skies and rowdy political debates in smoky estaminets, and nobody is likely to book a fortnight there, but it is recognisably, inimitably, France - not the crepes-and-berets France, but the real France where even in adversity, real quality of pleasure - and a premium on enjoyment of this crappy life - is more cheap and plentiful than our Reformed little islet. And I love it, love it, love it. A bas la morosité! Vous etes francais!

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