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Ritual maunder


Unseasonal winds gusted all along the Promenade des Anglais this morning as I trotted along to the Cours Saleya – the oldest square in Nice. The citizens I passed en route had their heads down, shivering. Hm. Perhaps some of them were tired after yesterday’s national day of strikes? Here in Nice, the turnout wasn’t great. But still, there was a turnout – the usual Cote d’Azur offering of sauntering protesters, all yelling their heads off (the normal nicois fortissimo) and eyeing each other up suavely (also normal). All of it normal street behaviour here, in fact. You might even wonder why they bother – were it not for the fact that ritually-expressed communal disapproval is part of the French way of life. And it can – and sometimes does – result in much-needed change.
Nonetheless, the demos – les manifs – provided material for the wags, as do all matters public in France. Comparing the police estimate of marcher numbers with those of the organisers has almost become a national game, so wide is the differential. And, as always, the city of Marseille came up with the biggest and best – a difference of 110 percent, no less! La police marseillaise contend sniffily that there were only 33,000 marchers; the organising unions, taking up the challenge, counter this fiercely – and con brio – with a grand total of 340,000.
Whatever the numbers involved; the overall feeling out there seems pretty pessimistic. The President – ‘Sarko’ – is

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy

showing little sign of undue concern, however. Business as usual, one might say. And yesterday, indeed, he was happily going about the business of what he does best – being blatantly, brutally rude. This time it was Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, who was subjected to Sarko’s schoolboyish taunts along the lines of ‘friendship – er, not, harhar, harharhar’. Harhar?The occasion was a solemn award ceremony for the redoubtable Bernadette, Madame Chirac, a politician in her own, very formidable right. And acknowledged as such with as much grace as he is capable of mustering (which is not, in fact, very much) by France’s President.

A – clearly – inexperienced young television reporter had the temerity to approach Madame Chirac afterwards and ask how she felt about the insult to her husband. (My guess is some cruel colleagues put him up to it, the swine.)


Bernadette Chirac (all pix Commons Wikimedia)

Madame Chirac – a battleaxe’s battleaxe – withered the importunate youth with her best basilisk glare – and her best beats Margaret Thatcher’s hands-down. “Guess,” hissed Madame Chirac like a furious cat poised to attack, as the lad blenched and shrank away.

Still, elected on a reform mandate as he was, the President appears to have an impressive command of all his dossiers. Submitting himself to prolonged questioning on French TV by a panel of top journalists a few weeks ago, his performance was fluent and convincing. When asked by financial journo, Guy Lagache, if he was planning to lower VAT – along the UK model – the President denied having such plans, observing that Gordon Brown’s initiative on this front hadn’t produced the desired results. That’s all he said. The following day, however, the UK media and certain members of the British government were apparently up in arms at Sarko’s ‘insult’. Having witnessed the comments in question, it was no such thing – merely a detached remark about an economic measure that had proved ineffective.
When Sarko wants to insult someone, believe me, he goes ahead and does it. He leaves no room for doubt. None at all.
He maintains everything’s under control, as far as possible, while leaving the dirty job of telling the truth to his unfortunate deputy, Prime Minister Francois Fillon. And Francois Fillon’s eyebrows, which have a life – even, who knows, a political life – of their own. They are certainly monumental in their size and scope, and posses a resolute

Francois Fillon (and The Eyebrows)

Francois Fillon (and The Eyebrows)

immovability. Every time he appears on telly, I watch him carefully in the hope that these hirsute edifices might … move.

Imagine, if you will, my delighted anticipation when I saw him interviewed on the box a few weeks ago about the recession and its likely effects on France. Surely this could not leave the Fillon eyebrows unmoved?
I reget to report that it did. But I am very pleased to relate the unusually refreshing news that his response to a question about the likely length and depth of la crise was to look the questioner in the eye – Fillon phizz and eyebrows united in their resolution – and steadily, quietly answer: “I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
Good grief! Can you imagine the sort of answer this question would have garnered from one of the UK’s shameful – and apparently shameless – shower of blue-sky-thinking, added-value ongoing situationists? No, neither can I – I, too, because I’d rather not even contemplate the sort of meaningless manure to flow from the governmental gob. Any amount of verbiage – anything, in fact, but the truth. Bald, candid and as blunt as Madame Chirac – the truth: none of us knows!
Shockhorror: a straight answer to a straight question, no less. What a contrast to the way such things are regulated on the other side of la manche.
No wonder the French regard Albion as perfide
And so to market, to the stall that – if you look carefully – you will just glimpse in the background on the lhs of the first pic. Run by a family consisting of husband, wife and three daughters – two married; one with a boyfriend who’s a flic (copper). Greetings all round – “how are you?” “I’m fine, thanks,” I said. “You would be,” said the matriarch, smiling “being used to this cold weather! Us, we’re all cold!” They all shivered theatrically, beaming cheerfully.
Their stall is a work of art, a masterpiece of merchandising. It’s as well to stand back and look before approaching. Then you go on to the real treat of selecting just the right bulb of fennel; amount of mesclun, and the most richly glowing ruby-red pepper – all grown hereabouts. And those delicious, waxy little potatoes. In no time, the plastic basket is full. Then I sense a presence – aha! Eldest daughter, a rosy, kindly girl, is standing behind me. “Give me that, Mrs” says she, removing the bulging basket from my arthritic grasp, “take another one, this one’s getting heavy.” I thank her profusely. Never mind that this happens – give or take a daughter, father or mother, the cast changes but not this action – every time I shop there; the gesture must be duly recognised and rewarded with praise. Rightly so.
There follows the final accounting, with the produce carefully stowed in a bag in order of delicacy – tids at the bottom, toms on top. And, finally, the farewell ceremony – a reasonably lengthy business (there are five of them, after all), and the day is thus mise en valeur, allotted worth and significance.
Who says ritual is ’empty’ – meaning meaningless? A fie upon them – whoever and wherever they may be! Perhaps Madame Chirac could be persuaded to go and sort them out?
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