Off Piste: Truths, lies and Gallic shrugs

Martin Cohen, a long-term resident of Normandy, presents a gourmet repast of his 11 favourite myths about the French, from barefaced fibs to insouciant self-deception and charming vérité

May 12, 2011

1. The French are great gourmets

Almost by definition ... but it is not true. The French are great snackers. They eat those famous baguettes for lunch - no butter, maybe no filling. They don't cut them into slivers, they just chew bits off while they walk down the street. Of course, they can't live off baguettes alone, and that's where McDonald's comes in. Because, you see, the French adore "McDo", as they call it. Every village has one, liberally surrounded by advertising hoardings. France is the second biggest market for the firm, with its endless supply of vâche grillée in buns with "French fries".

2. The French love coffee

Not so! The French love chocolate. They are a nation of chocoholics. Coffee is just the workaday brew. If you thought maybe the Belgians or the Dutch or the Swiss were the experts on chocolate, think again - it is the French. They know the difference between Costa Rica and Cote d'Ivoire. They know that hot chocolate is made by melting real cocoa in a brass pan over a low heat with - wait for it - raw milk. Raw milk! Unpasteurised stuff, restricted in the UK - too dangerous, of course. We might as well make real chocolate illegal too for all the difference it would make. Because no one in the UK makes real chocolate, not even the sugar factory in Birmingham. But the French do. Lovingly.

3. The French don't drink tea

The French adore tea. They accord it far higher status than coffee. Cafés call themselves salons de thé, and when they want a treat, the French sit over elegant pots of foul-smelling concoctions such as strawberry-flavoured green gunpowder leaves and dream that they are in "England", as they call the whole of the British Isles. Tea is haute couture for the French, whereas coffee is rather Starbucks, downmarket, quotidien. The walls of cafés are piled high with ancient tins containing damp, long-undrinkable brews.

4. The trains are superb

Of course the TGVs are impressive: vast double-decker things whizzing through the French countryside at about 20 times the speed of the British replacement bus service. If you are a Parisian who wants a weekend by the sea - yes. Otherwise, the trains are terrible. Especially if you actually want to do everyday things, such as maybe go to work in the town, or spend an evening out. Because trains in France are few and far between and finish early. Not here the midnight return trip from the cinema, not here even the commuter service home. If I want to visit the major town of my region - Caen - the last train back is at 6.30pm, a good bit before work finishes, and so there are no prospects at all for us countryside folk to taste city life by rail.

5. The French are a literary people

Which brings us to French bookshops. The UK has no bookshops any more, because they were all given the benefit of the free market, which meant they were all bought by one big company, and that company then shut them all down - save a handful of vaguely profitable ones piled high with copies of the Highway Code and Lady Gaga's memoirs, bundled together.

But France is not a free market: it controls such things. Bookshops are socially desirable; therefore the government supports them even if no one wants their products.

Indeed, French books are a pretty sad-looking lot. About 100 years ago, I think, publishers elsewhere realised that books sold better if they had pictures on the dust jackets. But in France, books are sold with covers so dull that they make even Le Monde look interesting. Typically they are based around the notion that the publisher's name is what sells the book, and that in any case, even with state subsidies, the fewer copies printed, the smaller the eventual loss.

But at least the French respect artists, writers and creative types of all hues. Not here the sniffy disdain of the British, who measure everything and everyone in terms of how much money they represent, and who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as the saying goes.

My wife is an artist - no, a real one, I've seen the picture - and she tolerates me because I'm a writer. In the UK, people are suspicious if you say you are a writer. "What do you live off?" they immediately ask, as if worrying for the dole office.

But the French adore their writers; they treat them all as minor celebrities. They expect them to be poor, and make special arrangements in the tax system to help them. Indeed, the French state pays for French authors to have their books translated into foreign languages! Every little town holds regular book fairs to which authors are invited to bring along a pile of their otherwise unsellable wares and chat to a friendly and appreciative mêlée of book lovers.

6. The French are proud of their Revolution

Well, yes, on one level, but on another level, no, they're ashamed. This comes out in many small ways, such as when they apologetically show tourists their churches and say, alas, the original building was pulled down in the Revolution and all the statues were destroyed. But in a deeper way, they're ashamed because really the French are like the British and love royalty. Every newspaper in France covers our royals in loving detail. People talk to you about them at the first opportunity. If only they hadn't killed theirs! But they did. And now all they have is the occupant of the gilded Elysée Palace, President Bling-Bling, to look up to (or down upon). And his First Lady, the underwear model and singer.

7. The French know their undies

Did I say underwear? How British. Of course, it is not underwear but lingerie, which sounds rather better. Lingerie shops are everywhere in France, alongside the McDos. Each village has a small grocer, a bar selling ciggies - and a lingerie shop. How many frilly things can the market support? But that's another thing about France: shops do not seem to need customers.

8. The French are great gardeners

Not far from where I live in France is the 18th-century Chateau de Sassy with its formal gardens, second only to Versailles, celebrating what the French want, which is the total domination of Man over Nature. There are only three colours in a French garden: the light green of the buis, or little bushes; the dark green of some big bushes, trained into strict geometric shapes; and the pink of the gravel (they call it, charmingly, a sprinkle of "sable rose").

From the grand terrace overlooking the grounds (a drop of about 30m), the gardens appear as a collection of swirls and whorls, with triangular hedges dotted about. Most curiously, the effect is of a plastic model. If the British try to make plastic flowers look like real ones, the French, conversely, like to make real plants look like plastic.

Anyway, the Château de Sassy's garden is impressive, and a tribute to whoever asked the famous gardener Achille Duchêne to convert the old potager (vegetable patch) into something more "formal", or useless. Vegetable gardens are, however, full of life. Gardens à la française always look like well-managed cemeteries. Indeed, those ornamental little bushes are also known as "cemetery bushes", on account of their use to surround burial plots, while the big bushes are made of yew, traditionally the main tree in Christian graveyards as its long roots were supposed to keep the spirits from rising up out of the earth. But as ever, there is a positive. The gardens are open free to the public to inspect, a relic of that Revolution.

9. The French are still close to the land

There is a large and very beautiful forest near where I live. Brown tourist signs point towards "the Great Oak". It's also on the itinerary for walks in the region. I went there once to see it. Indeed, in a small clearing, protected by a picket fence, is the oak, along with an explanatory panel. The oak, it says, is over one metre in diameter and hundreds of years old.

Now, some British tree-huggers would say that this Great Oak is not actually so remarkable. Indeed, it is what some would call Very Ordinary. In Blighty, there are many trees that have greater claim to a picket fence and brown tourist signs. But this is France, and here such a tree is unusual simply because it has not been chopped down and made into firewood.

Here, nature is combustible, for stoves, fireplaces and indeed, increasingly, for power stations. All around are drab, treeless gardens piled high with dead wood, waiting to be burned during the long, cold winters. Coal? They won't touch the stuff. Foreign. But wood, yes, especially if it is in a public area, such as a nature reserve, and free. Like the peasant commoners of a bygone age, the woods are alive here - not with birdsong but with chainsaws and trucks, collecting, chopping and piling up wood.

10. The French are great town planners

The French have a tremendous sense of style, and nowhere does this show itself to more effect than in their grand architectural projects. Up the road from me is an old cathedral town called Sees, not unlike Beverley in Yorkshire; both are old towns with a medieval skyline of tightly packed terraced houses under the watchful eye of an enormous cathedral. I remember Beverley in the 1980s when the grandest shop in the market square had an earth floor and sold straw. Now, of course, progress has arrived, the central square is a car park and that shop has become an estate agent. But in Sees, the remaking of the town was directed by architects and involved large amounts of sandstone paving, specially designed lamps and cunning illuminations of the cathedral.

Yet if the French are good at grand projects, which they are, they disregard the everyday things that also make towns either beautiful or ugly. In Beverley, the listing of every house that is architecturally or historically interesting - a herringbone brick formation here, a carved window there - has helped preserve homes and streetscapes. It is the ordinary little houses of England that make up our heritage, not the great chateaux beloved of the French.

All over France, the same bold hand that redesigns town centres has "modernised" the countryside. In villages one by one, the field by the church where once a donkey and two chickens lived has become a set of grim little bungalows, painted salmon pink with plastic windows, and indeed plastic sheets in place of grass. This year the French are building one-third of a million of these bungalows. One-third of a million in one year! Meanwhile, their older housing stock, herringbone bricks, interesting carved windows and all, disappears. Like the donkeys.

11. The French love freedom

I suppose every country says this about itself. But the French are in fact a very feudal people who accept the most outrageous constraints. In the UK, at least, you do not find yourself stopped regularly by the police, or have your papers demanded and searched, or receive a fine for not carrying a red triangle in your car in case of breakdown or some such offence against the state.

Despite their love of liberté, the French accept regulation that would not do discredit to one of their former colonies. In the UK there was much soul-searching about whether to extend detention without trial for "terrorists", and the 28-day limit imposed in 2006 was rolled back to 14 days in 2011. But in France you can be incarcerated without trial for four years. One very respectable academic, physicist Adlène Hicheur, has been in "provisional detention" in a Paris cell since his arrest in October 2009 for making suspicious comments on the internet.

But everyone is the enemy to the French police. They are not actually police, but a unit of the army, and they have the legal right, like James Bond, to shoot you dead. The French accept this, but then they also accept the right of chasseurs to walk around the countryside shooting people, too.

If in the UK you came across a man in the town centre holding a rifle, bedecked with bullets and wearing khaki, you might think it suspicious. But not in France. Such people are considered to be part of "the patrimony", part of traditional French life.

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