All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Monday 29 October 2012

ENA Sharples

No, I haven't muddled minuscules and majuscules in a fuddle of Funchal:
I wish to consider two institutions.

The first, Ena Sharples, prominent character in the early days of the soap opera 'Coronation Street'.

The second, ENA, l'Ecole Nationale d'Administration, sausage machine for turning out bureaucrats in the soap opera France.

Ena Sharples was an eldery harridan in a hairnet, whose self proclaimed high moral principles enabled her to terrorise all around her into overlooking her propensity for passing her time in the pub and ruining reputations.
One flick of the basilisk eye was enough to reduce any critic to ashes.

The ENA is another elderly harridan, though without hairnet, whose control of French public life is such that it too, with a flick of a basilisk eye, can light a funeral pyre under its critics.

General de Gaulle founded it in 1945, with the idea of forming people to become bureaucrats on the grounds of give France a dynamic internal direction.
Needless to say, it soon fell under the influence of the very people de Gaulle decried and mistrusted.
The well connected.

The very same who had let France walk into the abyss in 1940.

I have just been re reading a 'L'Etrange Defaite' by Marcel Bloc, radical historian of the Middle  Ages and before, a reserve officer called up in 1939 and member of the real Resistance, shot in the later stages of the war, where he treats of the reasons for the collapse of France in 1940.

He puts it down to people in authority being hidebound, stuck in a career path where their superiors would command their fate for the rest of their working lives, where it was better to do something stupid, but approved, than to do what was needed.
The ultimate horror...using their initiative!

And then serendipity, in 'Le Nouvel Observateur' this weekend is an article by Patrick Fauconnier who compares a book by Olivier Saby on his time at ENA with that of Bloc.

Saby describes the plodding, uninspirational ambience...where no one dare buck the system for fear of bearing the cost all their working life...for the future depends on how you are graded at the end of your studies...
Up at the top and its the Inspection des Finances...finangling between state jobs and top jobs in the private sector, with the little retirement prize of  being named Conservateur des Hypotheques for your area where you get a percentage of the fees paid when property changes hands....something else the 'living the dream' magazines and blogs don't tell you.
At the bottom..and it's off to a sub prefecture in the Deux Sevres...or, if you've really been radical...Bethune in the Nord. Bienvenue chez les Cht'is.

The essential art is to memorise French and European legislation...and don't make waves.
Above all...don't contradict your superior...don't let yourself stand out as an individual...or your career will get nowhere.

Those formed by the ENA are not just civil servants...they can take indefinite leave of absence to go into politics or the private sector, sure of returning to the bosom of the public services when the balloon bursts,  guaranteed by their passage at ENA.

For all the good people formed like this are to France they might as well spend their time sitting in the pub wearing a hairnet, slagging off those who don't conform to their views.

And Francois Hollande, product of ENA and so dim that he never made it to the private sector, President of France, has surrounded himself with his colleagues from his year at ENA...the promotion Voltaire...who must be revolving at Mach 3 at the misuse of his name.

Ena Sharples would have eaten Hollande for breakfast.

Merkel is heating the toaster......


Wednesday 24 October 2012

Everyone has one...

I miss my copy of Le Canard Enchaine  (the duck in chains) every Wednesday.
The editorial buggers are so French that they refuse to have an online edition...probably because they don't have enough women on the staff to make them see sense.

There you would find all the scandals, all the whitewashes, all the things the governing classes did not want you to know....until Hollande took power at which point, so Guy tells me, criticism stopped dead. Even a chained duck of a journalist likes his 30% tax exemption.

I'm ambivalent about cartoons.....loved Steve Bell's earlier stuff, loved Giles completely, and had  odd moments for Posy Simmonds...but those in the Canard Enchaine on Edouard Balladur gave rise to a pleasure in understanding the society in which I was living by reference to them.
Like living anywhere abroad...once you master the small ads and the cartoons you are well on the way to getting to grips with things.

One strip cartoon particuarly intrigued me...Les Nouveaux Beaufs.
So I asked Madeleine what is was all about.
She explained that, to her, 'les Beaufs' was a Parisian phenomenon.....guys  with big moustaches whose lives revolved round beers at the local zinc and holidays at the same campsite in the same mobile home every summer, playing boules with the same holidaying neighbours over copious amounts of pastis.

But 'les nouveaux beaufs'?

Their sons. More money, white collar not blue like their dads, their 'bobonnes' ( female helpmeets)  underclad chicks as opposed to the rolling pin wielding harpies of the previous incarnation but the underlying passions were the, football, booze....and holidays.

I came across them once...not being addicted to campsites...on an Iberia flight from Madrid to Paris. Behind me there was a group of about twenty middle aged men and women, returning from holiday.

First gripe....the 'what to do in an emergency' instructions were broadcast in Spanish....and English.
Uproar... even though a stewardesss then came forward and repeated it all in French. This flight went to Paris, didn't why wasn't there a French broadcast!

Second gripe....not that they had to pay for refreshments, but that the beer they all ordered was....Spanish! This flight went to Paris, didn't where was the French beer for the French clients!

And once the Pyrenees were crossed, what a sigh of relief went up....soon be in Paris where people spoke a proper language and served proper beer.

I saw Madeleine's point...and that of the cartoonist who invented 'les beaufs'...Cabu. He memorialised them as men who never let a thought enter their heads, who swallowed any brand of popularism, who were mindlessly sexist, who thought that their car was their even if you don't have any French you'll see from the clip below that they're not a breed you'd welcome into the family..

I don't for one moment imagine that they are a purely French fact I know they aren't. We all risk having one of them somewhere in the entourage.....because the term 'beauf' comes from 'beau-frere'...the brother in law...and most of us have one of those.

And because 'les beaufs' like to celebrate daft things...I thought I would celebrate them in this my three hundredth post.
Happy beaufday!


Saturday 20 October 2012

Tales from the Alcove

In the Loire Valley you are never far away from the French kings who built and occupied the chateaux we now visit as historic monuments.

Bare as they are after the excesses of the French Revolution and the sale of buildings and contents for paper money it can be hard to envisage the same  buildings in the days of their splendour, but the stories bring them to life.

What more evocative than the fates of the chateaux of Chaumont and Chenonceaux....the one given to a despised wife, Catherine de Medici, by Henri II, the other to his mistress Diane de Poitiers.
Once the king dead and the despised wife Regent of France she obliged the mistress to exchange the properties and made a jewel of the chateau on the banks of the Cher.

Here she introduced the festivities so common in the Italian scene...masques, plays and ballets, her version of the festivities otherwise offered by towns to their overlords...the 'Joyeuse Entree' where fountains ran with wine, learned professors gave speeches in Greek and Latin and pretty girls posed as nymphs while the essential ceremony...that in which the mayor and burgers offered cups of gold coins...clouded its mercenary nature in a veneer of culture.

My first acquaintance with the Renaissance courts of France was via Jean Plaidy.

Mother was fond of historical novels....Georgette Heyer in a friend suggested she try Jean Plaidy...remarking darkly that mother might find them a bit, well, 'you know'.
Try Jean Plaidy she did, and lighted on one of her books about Catherine de Medici. I don't know whether she found it a bit, well, 'you know', but it was certainly lurid even if written so clunkily that it was hard going.
Poison, astrology and intrigue have never sounded so dull.
Still, I remembered this vaguely when making a further acquaintance of the period....and recognised the reference to Catherine de Medici's flying squadron......l'escadron volant......
Her maids of honour, though never was a word so misused.

Nor does the translation do justice to the function of the ladies concerned.
Rather than being the predecessors of those magnificent men in their flying machines, as the image implies, 'volant', flying, is a euphemism for in light of love...of somewhat free morals...having, in that unforgettable French phrase, 'la cuisse legere'.

The death of Henri II left Catherine de Medici Regent of France while her children were young....and her aim was to maintain power in her hands on their behalf, while the aim of the powerful nobles was to seize it for themselves.
After all, she was only a woman...and foreign at that.

So she used the rivalries of the various noble factions to keep them divided rather than united against herself and to this end her maids of honour played their part.
At her command they would make advances to, or accept advances from, the powerful men about the court....and report back to the Queen on the state of the power play.
While in everyday life their morals might be deplored - and were in particular by Protestant ministers (this is the age of John Knox) - she gave them her full support...unless they became which case they exchanged the court for the convent in very quick order.

And as it was easier to keep the nobles under supervision at court rather than at liberty on their own estates, it was necessary to offer entertainment of a more public kind....where, again, the maids of honour would feature in the danses and ballets which kept the mind of the courtiers fixed on learning their steps under the tuition of Italian dancing masters, distracting them from the steps to the overthrow of the royal power.

Was she successful? Given that this is the period of the St. Bartholomew massacre, the age of the Wars of Religion, you might say not.
But she did succeed in maintaining royal power though her eldest son Francois II, husband of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, died young, his younger brother Charles IX reigned only a few years and neither he nor his younger brother Henri III, produced heirs, the kingdom going to Henry of Navarre, that most pragmatic religionist.
Had her daughter in law used her example she might not have ended on the block at  Fotheringhay.

A woman who did follow her example was Francoise Giroud, editress of her lover's newspaper l'Express in the 1950s and 60s.
Despite her revulsion at the way in which she had been used by men when making her way in the film industry of the 1930s, she saw nothing wrong in developing her own escadron volant...women journalists whom she would form as to dress and manners to interview the powerful men of the day.
Just as Catherine de Medici needed to know who was plotting what to ensure her family's survival in power, Giroud needed to have scoops for her newspaper......and to have the drop on these powerful men by means of another French phrase...'les secrets d'alcove'....pillow talk.

None of which prevented her lover...who had refused to leave his wife for her....finally marrying her secretary when Giroud proved incapable of having children.
Clear case of the wrong alcove.

There are faint echoes of the escadron volant to this day....
Valerie  Trierweiler, companion of Francois (Moije) Hollande and political journalist, is taking legal action - again - after it was reported that she had had a relationship with a senior right wing married French politician at the same time as having a relationship with Hollande - who was at that time living with Segolene Royal - while she herself, Mme. Trierweiler was still living with M. Trierweiler.

Now, while this may be normal behaviour in the brothel atmosphere of Parisian society and thus counting as her private life, which should be left undisturbed by publicity, it might be the reporters concerned maintain....that the nexus of journalists and politicians should be which case publication is justified.

I would just note that when she was employed at Paris Match her boss gave the  rules of the publishing house as follows..
Get me results...I don't care by what means, but get me results...'

Sounds like Catherine de Medici to me..


Sunday 14 October 2012

A Blast from the Past

An extract from a letter.....

1774 August 24

Louis XVI, King of France ,

Having just left Your Majesty's room, still full of the anxiety produced by the immensity of the burden you place upon me, overcome by the touching kindness with which you have deigned to encourage me, I hasten to convey to you my respectful gratitude and the absolute devotion of my whole life.

Your Majesty has been good enough to authorize me to put in writing the promise you have made to uphold me in the execution of those plans for economy that are at all times, and to-day more than ever, of an absolute necessity . ...
At this moment, Sire, I confine myself to recalling to you these three phrases: No bankruptcy; No increase of imposition; No borrowing.

No bankruptcy either avowed or disguised by arbitrary reduction (of interest on public stock).
No increase of impositions; the reason for this lies in the plight of your subjects, and still more in Your Majesty's heart.
No borrowing; because every loan always diminishes the unanticipated revenue and necessitates, in the long run, either bankruptcy or an increase in taxes.

There is only one way of fulfilling these three aims: that of reducing expenditure below receipts, with a view to the redemption of long-standing debts. Failing this, the first gunshot will drive the State to bankruptcy.
It will be asked, “On what can we retrench?” and all officials, speaking for their own departments, will maintain that every particular item of expenditure is indispensable. They will be able to put forward very good reasons; but since the impossible cannot be achieved, all these must yield to the absolute necessity of economy.

Your Majesty is aware that one of the greatest obstacles to economy is the multiplicity of demands by which you are constantly besieged, and which have unfortunately been sanctioned too indulgently by your predecessors.

It is necessary, Sire, to arm yourself against your kindness by a greater kind-heartedness, by considering whence comes this money which you are able to distribute to your courtiers, and by comparing the wretchedness of those from whom it is extracted (sometimes by the most rigorous methods) with the condition of those people who have the greatest call upon your liberality.

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

But Louis XVI failed to give his minister his support....the courtiers attacked him for cutting the sinecures available to them, the financiers were against him for his support of free trade, the trade guilds were against him  for his policy of allowing people to pursue whatever trade they wished without short, vested interests achieved the downfall of Turgot within two years.

The situation in France is as parlous now as it was in the time of Turgot....and vested interests are equally strong

Louis XVI lasted another nineteen years before going to the guillotine.....Francois Hollande will be lucky if he lasts out the five years of his mandate, but whoever replaces him will be another tool of vested interests...not another Turgot.

The French Revolution arose in great part  from the calling of a national assembly....which was enabled to voice the concerns and demands of the population.
These days there is a national assembly which claims the legitimacy to do the same....while it plays the part of the courtiers and guilds of the age of Louis XVI.

How long will our 'Ancien Regime' last?
Whence will the new legitimacy arise?
And what bloody form will it take?



Wednesday 10 October 2012

The Great British Bake Off

I'm not good at baking.......though if I'd watched The Great British Bake Off at a formative age I reckon I'd be considerably better as the two judges specialise in informing and helping - a welcome change from most 'reality' shows.
It is a wholesome programme - with the possible exception of Brendan oiling his forearms - and one that gives me a great deal of pleasure even if to this day I can't see how you are supposed to get a hot water crust case off a wooden dolly after putting it in the fridge.
I use a big jam jar and fill the case while it is still a little warm. It needs sharp work with the greaseproof and string, but it works for me.

It came as no surprise to learn that the BBC have been selling the programme round the's a winning formula, combining home baking and professional standards in a friendly atmosphere and deserves to do well, but today I read in the papers that the formula has been sold to a French TV chain who plan, of course, to alter it for their home market.

Meddling buggers.

No tent with rain lashing down outside....but an orangerie.
No flatbreads, or wellingtons, or pork pies...but patisserie.
Only patisserie.
Meringues...and, inevitably, macarons.

When groups of friends from the U.K. visited us in France the women could be seen loading up with gold ribboned boxes of things featuring chocolate ganache, fruits and creme patissiere, which the men would inevitably devour before condemning them as fartarse fancies, two mouthfuls of nothing with a whopping price tag.

So they won't be watching, then.

I don't think I will be either despite the best efforts of a Paris based Irish cookery book writer called Trish Deseine who informs us that French amateurs will probably come in to the show with a better base of skills.
'There is a level of understanding and complexity that you don't have with British home cooking.'
She doesn't mean to be detrimental, you understand,
'but it is because of the relative maturity of the food culture in both countries.'

She also believes that French home cooks are better than their British  equivalents.

While I imagine that she has mastered the culinary arts, it is clear that she has also mastered that art essential to success in France...what Private Eye used to refer to as the ancient art of Arslikhan.

The decision to concentrate on patisserie is, to me, yet another example of the Paris/Provinces split....the antithesis of The Great British Bake Off where traditional baked goods are not despised but

I lived outside Paris...well outside....and ladies in the provinces bought their patisserie from the shop....but made their traditional dishes at home.

A tarte aux a shortbread with a layer of prune puree in the middle.

A galette paysanne, where a yeast dough enriched with sugar, rum and creme fraiche is rolled and turned like puff pastry, emerging golden from the oven to be eaten with  fruit compote.

A brioche vendeenne, a plaited enriched yeast dough flavoured with rum or orange flower water and light as a feather.

A tourteau fromage, a base of shortcrust pastry filled with  a mixture of fromage blanc and eggs...cooked until the dome is black.

And not just sweet things, either....

A gateau de Paques, veal and ham pie but with a mix of pork, rabbit and pigs liver surrounding the boiled eggs.

A tarte au Maroilles, think quiche, but using the high smelling cheese from Maroilles in the north of  France mixed with beer and creme fraiche.

A flamiche aux poireaux, quiche again but filled with leeks.

And anyone who has eaten potato pie from the Berry region will know how the housewives could make a belly filler into a sheer delight.

Anyone who lives or has a holiday house in France will have their local favourites and wouldn't it be much more interesting to see regional baking specialities being showcased than to assist at the birth of yet another macaron?

I suggest that the best way to counter the claims of Trish Deseine would be for the British contestants to produce a Bombe Alaska in the shape of Joan of Arc.....and flambe it.

On your marks... get set... bake!

Baked alaska joan of arc flambeed.