Paris-based Stephen Clarke gives his humorous take on daily life in the capital
Our Paris-based columnist ruminates on the French relationship with sports.
It was even more interesting than usual being an Englishman in Paris during the World Cup. I’m talking about football, of course, or as the Americans seem to call it, “sacker”. Leaving aside England’s performances, watching and listening to my fellow Parisians during the tournament was very instructive, and confirmed a lot of my old impressions about them – on subjects much vaster and deeper than sport.
Like many events in French life, the World Cup began with outpourings of negativism. First of all, at my local café, there were choruses of “who wants to watch a bunch of millionaires chasing a ball full of hot air?”
These coffee-bar critics seemed to be forgetting the fact that a large proportion of France’s cultural reputation is founded on bunches of millionaires being directed by other millionaires to pretend to be poor and/ or unhappy in front of a camera, before they go to a millionaires’ resort to pick up their awards.
Most French people are theoretical socialists, meaning that they criticise overt wealth, and if necessary deny their own, as long as it is convenient. So, young footballers are decried for being openly bling-bling, and in Paris fancy cars get scratched if their drivers foolishly park in the street, while actors and singers will be adored as long as they muss their hair up enough for interviews. Meanwhile millionaires ride around trendy Parisian neighbourhoods on ancient bicycles, wearing tattered clothes, trying their best to look like impoverished painters on the way to borrow some canvas.
At the start of the World Cup, the other mantra at the café was: “We’re no good, we’ll never get anywhere near the final.” Though these predictions of doom were sometimes tempered with touches of false modesty: “We’re too artistic to beat seriously organised teams.”
This too is typically French. It makes me think of the complaints I have often heard from Parisian journalists and politicians about America globalising the world with its music,
films, hamburgers and takeaway coffee bars. These were at their loudest in the early 2000s while French companies were buying up almost all of Britain’s electricity, gas, water and transport infrastructure, as well as large slices of the whole world’s telephone and banking networks. “We’re useless entrepreneurs,” they kept telling me, as I bumped into French-owned supermarkets, bus shelters and public toilets everywhere from San Francisco to Sydney.
This negativism also reminded me of one of the best things about living in France. I can’t count the times I’ve walked up to a counter, and been told my request is totally impossible, before eventually coming away with a dream solution.
The best example of this was a few years ago when I had to rush back to Paris from deepest Brittany for an urgent meeting. I had to change at a station called Saint-brieuc. Arriving there, I saw that I could make a connection an hour before the train I was booked on to. I went to the ticket office, explained my plight and was informed that my cheap ticket did not allow me to switch trains. Sorry, but “non”.
“I don’t mind paying extra,” I said. “I really need to get back as soon as possible.”
The woman behind the counter clicked at her computer and asked me for my credit card. She printed out a new ticket and informed me that she’d refunded me €10 because this earlier train was off-peak. “Bon voyage, Monsieur.” I thanked her profusely and ran to catch my connection. All of which goes to show that, as France’s football team proved this summer, the most outright French negativism can be turned into outrageous positivism at the drop of a hat – or the bounce of a football.
Millionaires ride around trendy Parisian neighbourhoods on ancient bicycles, wearing tattered clothes
Stephen Clarke’s latest books are Elizabeth II, Queen of Laughs (Kindle only) and The French Revolution & What Went Wrong.