Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot

You can hear the emotion in his voice. When Nicolas Hulot, Ministre de la Transition Ecologique et Solidaire, says that he has decided to leave the government, live on French radio station France Inter, his words shake with emotion. The announcement sent shock waves across the country this week.

Nicolas Hulot was a big catch when Macron formed his new government in May 2017. For years, French presidents from Chirac to Hollande had been vying to put his name on their environment portfolio. The fact that the well-known ecologist and TV personality of ‘Ushuaia’ fame finally agreed to join the new ‘En Marche’ government felt like a coup, and an indication that the president’s promise to ‘make our planet great again’ was more than just words.

Alas, the reality of this notoriously difficult portfolio was more than Hulot could bear. He is no career politician and I can only imagine that the daily meetings with dullards diplômés must have grated as the ice caps continued to melt. And the long, hot summer vacation gave him ample time to weigh up his options. Despite what many saw as significant progress over the past year, he could not reconcile himself to playing politics. Dumbing down what he sees as a planetary emergency in order to negotiate with lobby groups, each with its own agenda. Farmers, hunters, energy companies.

While some might see Hulot’s departure as a lack of courage, of abandoning ship in stormy seas, the French on the whole approve. For one simple reason: personal integrity. This unwillingness to sell out or compromise one’s beliefs is a value highly prized in France. Nicolas Hulot will be remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.

When I heard about the surprise announcement on the radio, I couldn’t help but think of Jacques Tati’s classic 1953 film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, aka Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I’ve never watched the entire movie, but this clip will give you its essence.

Are there similarities between Tati’s lovable but clumsy character and Nicolas Hulot? I see a few, from the fact that he has always seemed like a fish out of water amongst the smooth and smiling political elite, that he is rough around the edges and rather gauche at times. And, as I discovered while researching this post, Tati actually took inspiration for his ‘Monsieur Hulot’ from Hulot’s paternal grandfather, an architect who lived in the same apartment building as the filmmaker.

The word play is fairly obvious. As the French word for holiday is ‘vacances’ and the singular version of the word ‘vacance’ means a ‘vacancy’, the media have also played with this syncronicity of life imitating art.

https://www.letemps.ch/opinions/vacance-monsieur-hulot-agite-medias-etrangers

https://www.contrepoints.org/2018/08/28/323640-vacance-monsieur-hulot

So what do you think of Mr. Hulot’s post-holiday decision? Kudos or cowardice?

La diplomatie

France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.

I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).

“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.

“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”

“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”

Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.

Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.

I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.

I didn’t get what was so funny.

Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.

This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.

I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:

Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”

Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”

Trump: “Fake news!”

Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”

Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”

Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”

Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”

Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”

Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”

Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”

Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.

Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.

Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French.  He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.

What do you think?

C’est du pipeau

Macron

Lies, baloney, bullshit. The French expression ‘C’est du pipeau’ describes the music of a pan pipe and the fake news that some would have us believe.

The rumours that Emmanuel Macron was gay began to circulate earlier this year, just as his presidential campaign was taking off. It was first whispered into my ear by my coiffeur, a normally reliable source of gossip. Marc fancies himself a hairdresser of the Warren Beatty school in the movie Shampoo, so presumably not batting for the other team.

I was shocked. Not that Macron might be France’s first gay president but rather that he was hiding his orientation behind a so-called ‘sham’ marriage.

The media picked up on the rumour that Macron was in a relationship with head of Radio France, Mathieu Gallet. It was continually denied but kept coming back, the way such things do. Presumably the source was political and designed to ‘déstabiliser’ the candidate.

The real-life stories of Emmanuel and Brigitte’s love affair, with their 24-year age gap, seemingly put to rest the gay pipeau. (Read this excellent piece in the New Yorker.)

Politicians are seductive, and Macron is certainly that. The fact that he is young, attractive and speaks fluent English doesn’t hurt. He is also the first French president to have figured out how to manage the media. Or at least keep them on a short leash.

Now Macron’s latest image abroad is that of le séducteur. His ‘saucy Gallic charm’ is immortalized by Tracey Ullman’s Merkel (not the funniest clip in the series but a propos…)

What’s the best ‘pipeau’ you’ve heard lately?

Clin d’oeil

‘Faire un clin d’oeil’ – literally to wink, figuratively to give a nod – is to reference another author or artist in a way that pays tribute to his or her work. It is not to copy their work, word for word, which is what Marine Le Pen did this week in a speech she ‘borrowed’ from François Fillon.

I was lucky enough to attend a course on screenwriting in London a couple of years ago, taught by the eminent storyteller and script doctor John Truby. In his seminar, during which I learned more about story than I had imagined possible, Truby talked about plagiarism in the film industry and joked, “Or if you’re French, you call it ‘homage’.”

If imitation is the finest form of flattery, Fillon must be feeling pretty chuffed right now. Or not, considering who it is coming from. If any doubt persisted over Le Pen’s ability to lead this country, it was vanquished during last night’s final debate between the two presidential candidates.

Almost everything she had to say was an outright, bullish attack on her opponent, and half of that she got wrong, mixing up examples and accusing Emmanuel Macron of being responsible for things that had happened before he took office. I found it interesting to note that she had a pile of folders and notes on the desk in front of her; he was paper free. Emmanuel knew his figures, Marine clearly did not.

I wasn’t going to talk about politics again this week, but merde!…there is just so much material.

We are off to England for a week of holidays on Sunday, but just to reassure you, it will not be before voting as soon as the polls open here in France. London is full of French expats, so we’re hoping to find a place to watch the election results in the evening. Any ideas?

After that, I’ll shut up about politics. I promise. And unlike certain politicians, I will keep my word. At least for a couple of weeks.

Le suffrage

La suffrage

I voted in the first round of the French presidential elections last Sunday. It occurred to me that the experience of voting in France is quite uniquely French. There is a strong sense of tradition, a lot of rules, and a bit of what the French call ‘folklorique’ at the polling station. Outlandish, bizarre…all very typical of what you find in a country village.

It begins months ahead of the election, when you get your voter’s card. To do this, you have to make sure you’re registered at city hall, which involves going over to your Mairie with the usual paper proofs – justificatif de domicile in the form of a utility or tax bill, official identity card or passport.

When election day rolls around, you must show up at the local polling station, voter’s card in hand, along with an official form of ID. Elections are always held on a Sunday in France, not for any religious reason but because it’s a day when (almost) no one has to work, giving everyone an equal chance to vote.

As you enter the correct polling office, you first go to the person who has the list, make sure you are on it, and prove who you are by showing your ID. Then comes the fun part.

Laid along a table are various piles of ballots. In Sunday’s vote, there were 11 candidates to choose from. You are not supposed to let anyone know who you are voting for, so you must make a show of taking a selection of ballots. I pretended to hesitate, then selected some of the more far-fetched ones – the anti-capitalist Philippe Poutou, and the candidate from deepest rural France, Jean Lasalle – along with that of my preferred candidate.

Then you enter the ‘isoloir’, a curtained off area where you go to presumably ponder your choice before slipping the ballot of your preferred candidate into the envelope. It is a bit of a farce – why must it be so secretive? Surely they can see which ballots are left behind and roughly calculate who is winning? To be sure that I respected the procedure, I stuffed the extra ballots in my pocket.

You exit the curtained booth and cross over to the person who is the guardian of the ‘urne’, in this case not a container for funerary ashes (although it is the same word) but the official plexiglass ballot box in which the votes are captured. There is a little slot on top of the box which the person in charge opens as you slip your envelope in. He then cries out ‘A voté!’ for all to hear and witness that you have performed your civic duty.

Bristling with pride, I head for the door.

“Madame!” comes an urgent cry.

Oops — almost forgot. Now you must see a different person with a different list and sign by your name (which they call ‘émarger’) to prove that you have voted.

The best part about voting is watching the other voters come and go. An elderly couple formally attired in their Sunday best. A red-faced paysan, who may have come straight from milking the cows. Vaguely recognizable village notables, who stand around looking important. Harried-looking parents, who rush in and tell their children to wait quietly by the door.

I was surprised to learn that women only got the right to vote in France in 1944. That’s way after their British and Canadian counterparts in 1918 and the American suffragettes in 1920.

The word ‘suffrage’ comes from Latin and is also used in English, although we tend to associate it with the historical aspect of women’s suffrage. I know nothing of etymology but don’t you find it odd that suffering and voting should have the same root?

If the extreme right Front National should somehow manage to win the second round of the presidential election on May 7th, the words will be forever linked, at least in my mind. Fortunately, that is highly unlikely. But then again, who would have though that British people would vote for Brexit? Or Americans for Trump?

This is my third time voting for president in France, which means I’ve had my voter’s card for over ten years. The first time was in 2007, when I voted for Sarkozy. Yep. Back then he was an upstart who appealed to my desire to shake things up a little. Unfortunately he quickly lost popularity after marrying Carla Bruni and becoming known as the president of bling-bling.

This time my vote is for fresh ideas, for Europe, and the future. And, obviously, against the extreme right.

And, by the way, for the candidate who speaks the best English.

Do you make a point of voting? What’s the experience like for you?