A new book on the French titled They Eat Horses Don’t They? caught my eye for two reasons. First, the book takes a hard and critical look at French society in much the same way I do in my own book, Home Again in Paris. Second, the book is the latest, and much welcomed, example of a new trend among Anglo-Saxon authors who are challenging the romantic “joie de vivre” myths about France. The author, Pui Marie Eatwell, has a curious surname for an English writer taking on the myth of French cuisine – but it would seem it’s her real name. She is a trained barrister, married to a lawyer, mother to three children, and has been living in France for several years. This is her first book. In that respect, Eatwell falls into a well-worn category of Anglo expat

  This summer marks the 10th anniversary of an event the French would rather forget, but are condemned to remember: the deadly heat wave of 2003. Some 15,000 people, most of them elderly, perished in the sweltering heat due to neglect by families and a dysfunctional French health system. In my book Home Again in Paris I briefly assess the tragedy of 2003 and the reasons for it — a timely issue as France enters another “canicule” heat wave this week. The book extract is below. Holidays are a sort of national religion in the Fifth Republic. The French enjoy a staggering number of days off for various fetes and vacations. Most years, the French get eleven bank holidays – or jours fériés – most of them marking Catholic rites (Pâques, Ascension, Pentecôte, Assomption). That number is actually deceptive because

Bastille Day is upon us again. I can already hear French fighter jets thundering overhead doing their practices rounds for the big day when they roar over the crowds amassed along the Champs-Elysées, leaving a thrilling super-sonic trail of red-white-and-blue smoke. Every July 14th evening, thousands converge on my neighbourhood in the 7th arrondissement for the annual fireworks lighting up the Eiffel Tower.  The French are profoundly attached to their fête nationale. Their annual republican spectacle cements solidarity and emboldens deeply felt convictions about the grandeur of France. Never mind that the Bastille prison was nearly empty when it was stormed on July 14, 1789.  I must confess that the July 14th celebration is yet another French ritual that I fail to comprehend. I don’t mind the fireworks, even though the feux d’artifice explosions on the Champ de Mars transform my quiet

For the millions of tourists who visit the Eiffel Tower every year, the monument is a symbol for Paris itself. I have been looking up at the tower for so long now that I almost regard it as a familiar friend. And yet every time I glance up, I see something different. When I was a student in Paris the Eiffel Tower was of little interest to me. I suppose I regarded it snobbishly as a tourist trap, a place to be avoided, like the Champs-Elysées which one learned quickly was disdained by Parisians and was an absolute no-go zone. Even years later when we were on a family holiday in Paris and Rebecca suggested we take David to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I groaned at the prospect. I was wrong. The Eiffel Tower may be the most

After more than twenty-five years there are few things about life in Paris that surprise me. Except one. I still am totally astounded by the fact there are no stop signs in the city. That’s right, no stop signs in Paris. One day I asked a policeman just to check. He confirmed the fact. There is not a single stop sign in the capital of France. Paris is a city of crazy drivers – and no stop signs. I’ve actually heard that there may be one stop sign somewhere in a discreet corner of the posh 16th arrondissement. If this rumour is true, I may make a special pilgrimage to the location in tribute to the unique sign of pragmatism in a city otherwise governed by the perilous rules of moral chaos. Every intersection in Paris is a mad free-for-all

American women in Paris sometimes confide to me that they won’t go outside even to buy a baguette without putting on make-up. Encountering so many stunning Parisian women in the streets is so dispiriting, they feel obliged to make at least some effort to compete. British women are similarly meant to feel naturally inferior to their Gallic rivals. That’s implied in the familiar question: “What is the difference between a French and British woman?” The answer: “Ten kilos”. The femme française as style icon has a long history, going back to Catherine de Medici, an Italian married off to the French king, who in the 16th century introduced high heels to fashionable Parisian society. The myth of French feminine perfection persists today. Parisian women, it is true, are always well turned out, impeccably dressed, and astonishingly thin. Even middle-aged Parisians,

Paris is famous for its cemeteries – Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, Passy – where many of France’s greatest artists, composers, writers and political figures are buried. Some famous foreigners, such as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, died in Paris and today their admirers flock to their gravesites. Lesser known, Paris has boasted a world-renowned pet cemetery for more than a century. The Cimetière des Chiens, which first opened in 1899, is located on the banks of the Seine just down river from the spot where Seurat painted his famous pointilliste tableau of corseted women, top-hatted men, dogs and monkeys relaxing on a Sunday afternoon at the edge of the Seine on the Grande Jatte island. The cemetery was founded by French feminist Marguerite Durand, who got her start as an ingénue actress at the Comédie Française before shifting her ambitions towards

According to historical accounts, bichons were for centuries among the favoured lapdogs of the French nobility. They reached the height of popularity under King Henri III, the last of the Valois monarchs before the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty in the late 16th century. Henri III’s alleged homosexuality has been the subject of much debate among historians. We do know, however, that his favoured male companions were known as “mignons” and that his over-indulged bichons were always be-ribboned.  The verb bichonner in French – for pamper – must surely come down to us from the eccentric court of Henri III. After the French Revolution ended the Bourbon dynasty with the sharp blade of the guillotine, the bichons pampered by France’s aristocracy fell on hard times. Many were released into the streets of Paris and became common dogs trained to do

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  Napoleon famously remarked that England is a “nation of shopkeepers”. It was, of course, not meant as a compliment. After nearly three decades in the Fifth Republic, I have formulated a rejoinder to that Napoleonic put-down: France is a “nation of shoplifters”. By shoplifters I don’t mean the French are compulsive kleptomaniacs who pilfer and thieve in their local shops. I mean that in France there is general acceptance of rule-breaking – from petty incivilities to calculated crimes – that is perpetrated cynically, guiltlessly, and frequently with impunity. I like to say that the French have good manners and bad behaviour. Crime prevention in France can best be summed up as “penny wise, pound foolish”. There are thousands of micro rules to interdict just about every impulse in French society, but the most shocking crimes like bank heists and

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    I was struck, and puzzled, by a recent article in the New York Times that announced, “finally, Paris has a coffee scene”. It was the word “finally” that caught my attention. Why “finally”? Paris, after all, is a city whose café culture is legendary. For generations, dreamy youth the world over have been making pilgrimages to the City of Light where — like the hero of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” — they pass languid afternoons on café terraces in search of a romantic connection with Paris’ mythic past.   I once was one of those fresh-faced youths. When I first moved here as a student in the 1980s, most mornings I could be found at the Café de la Mairie in Place Saint-Sulpice gulping down my café crème while hunched over Le Monde or one of the London papers. I don’t