It isn’t so much that I love Paris, as that I’m in love with the entire French nation: its people, its physical reality, its history, mores, customs and culture. Moreover, to say I’m in love with France is not for a second to suggest that I have no negative feelings about either it, or its great metropolitan cynosure, Paris, yet these demerits don’t even seem distinctively Gallic to me — and I’ll explain why in the course of what follows, just as I’ll explain how I fell victim to this extraordinary coup de
foudre. Why extraordinary? I suppose because while the rest of Britain has been disentangling itself from Europa’s sensual embrace, I’ve been enfolding myself yet further.
To listen superficially to the rhetoric surrounding Brexit you could be forgiven for imagining that our principal Euro-agonists are the Germans — for was it not the Boche we defeated a 101 years ago, then again, in the rematch 27 years later? And is it not the German economic — and hence political — dominance of Europe we fear to this day? Perhaps, but lurking behind the German bogey person is a far more sinister figure: the arrogant, pretentious, and effete French man, together with his sinister accomplice, the unwashed and sexually promiscuous French woman. As for French children… my dear! Have you seen the ghastly little creatures, in their corduroy knickerbockers and Petit Bateau jerseys? Worse, have you noticed how disgustingly well-behaved they are in public? Unlike our robust and pampered British bullpuppies — I suspect they’re being subjected to some awful abuse, such as discipline.
Anyway, the point is that despite the 200,000-odd Britons who’ve taken up residence in France since we joined the EEC (as was) in 1973, our love for France and all things French seems to have declined in inverse proportion. It wasn’t like that in the Seventies, a decade I kicked off — aged nine! — with falling in lust with its heroines, while watching the BBC’s 13-part adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom; and ended smoking Disque Bleu cigarettes, sporting a beret, and proclaiming — to anyone who’d listen — that I was an existentialist. Back then, to have a pretension to be any of the following — sexy, smart, cultured, well-fed, well-wined,
comme il faut — meant you simply adored France, albeit it was difficult to experience this highly promising land in, as it were, the flesh — rather, we watched Truffaut and Godard’s films, read Françoise Sagan and Albert Camus’s novels, drank red wine, smoked black tobacco, and began — intermittently at first, then with increasing frequency — to pepper our conversation with French words and expressions.
I don’t think we can be censured too much for such stereotypy: tant pis! Together with the coalmen in leather aprons, and the rag and bone man on his cart, I actually remember regular home visits throughout my childhood from a moustachioed man, wearing a blue-and-white hooped shirt, who was mounted on a boneshaker with onions twined round its handlebars, some of which he’d sell to my mother. As for the real thing: my first Channel crossing was on a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe that wasn’t equipped with stabilisers; a briny, vomitous, storm-tossed passage was followed by the wondrousness of a land that smelt different, looked different, and very definitely tasted different. In our globalised era, when you can jet around the world from one cloned city centre to the next, eating the same food and hearing English spoken here, there and any-bloody-where, it’s difficult to apprehend the unique quiddity of a nation: the quality which is ineffably French — or indeed British for that matter.
Nowadays, I’m a commuter to and from our nearest continental neighbour, spending my weekends in Paris. With such frequent visits to the original City of Light, I could be forgiven,
I think, for becoming a little blasé; there’s a temptation to view the Eurostar as simply a rather long tube journey from London’s St Pancras, to a strangely exotic suburb in the far — Croydon far — south of the city. But Paris never fails to enchant me, because I see the city with the eyes of love — a love for it, massively compounded by my love for one of its daughters. Yes, that’s why I’m toujours en Paris, it’s l’amour, bien sur: and through her, I confess, my enduring Francophilia has been transformed into something at once deeper, and more realistic. Perhaps the best way of conveying this to you is to take you with me on a Saturday morning’s promenade around our little quartier of the dixieme arrondissement. My girlfriend’s apartment, typical for central Paris — unless you’re Petit Manu, banged up in the Élysée Palace, or some other grand bourgeois — is a sliver of the Ancien Régime: a suite of tiny rooms partitioned off from the far larger salle of an 18th-century hôtel particulier — those grand Parisian townhouses, built around courtyards, that in the 19th century were effectively camouflaged by the typical five- and six-storey apartment blocks that, in turn, grew up around them.
With wood-panelled walls, ornate plaster mouldings, and undulating parquet floors, my girlfriend’s home is a sort of elegant time capsule, from which we emerge into a hip little area, typified increasingly by boutiques selling nothing but the perfect white shirt, or the CBD oil with which to treat your anxiety about not having the perfect white shirt. We usually stop first at Le Furet-Tanrade, a little chocolatier on Rue des Méssageries, where we buy our bonbons. In Paris, there’s a handmade chocolate shop on every street — they are, effectively, what corner sweet shops are in our benighted land. But then, if you want a simple measure of how much more sophisticated the Gallic palate is, simply suck on this: their equivalent of Greggs is… Paul.
Often, we’ll go straight on from Le FuretTanrade to the Palais-Royal — not to buy anything, although its arcades are lined with boutiques, art studios and antique shops — simply because this elegant establishment is a sort of bricks-and-mortar magnet, attracting all serious
flâneurs down through the ages. Travelling from one of the elegant 19th-century arcades — effectively proto-shopping malls — to the next: it’s a perfect introduction to that quintessential Parisian activity, the dérive, or aimless drift through the delights of the city. According to Eugène Briffault, writing in 1846, as soon as they entered Paris after victory at Waterloo, the allied officers, “asked for… the Palais-Royal! A Russian officer entered the building on horseback. What was the first thing… that they wanted? To sit down in one of the restaurants, whose glorious names had reached even their ears.” Sometimes we do indeed eat at one of the restaurants here — although they’re a great deal more chichi than the 1800s, when the Palais also doubled up as casino and a plein air brothel.
Shopping and eating are always the very essence of urbanity, and it was by seamlessly integrating the two, á pied, that Paris became — in Walter Benjamin’s ringing phrase — the “capital of the 19th century”. But is it still the capital of the 21st, or merely a simulacrum of itself? My feeling is it’s a case of both/and, rather than either/or: we like to have afternoon tea at Angelina, an Art Nouveau-cum-rococo jewel box of a restaurant, just opposite the Tuileries. Here, my girlfriend tucks into her favourite dessert, an île flottante: meringue, poached in crème Anglaise and topped with caramel sauce. Wow! Fattening or what? And after that, we may indeed totter happily through the scintillating heart of the city, across the Pont Neuf, and up to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, where in the tiled and brassy confines of the Brasserie Lipp, she’ll wolf down their speciality, the Andouillette AAAAA grillée, a grotesquely pale and incomparably fatty sausage. Needless to
say, withal, my amoureuse remains as svelte as the feminine silhouette on the old Gitanes packet.
I could go on — and in trotting out the clichés at least some calories can be shed. Nevertheless, the astonishment Paris can provoke remains recognisably the same emotion that spurred those British, Russian (and indeed Prussian) cavalrymen on: the centre ville is indeed gilded, with gold leaf applied to the tips of railings, the statues and even the detailing of some public buildings, such that Haussmann’s grands boulevards appear radiations of munificent power as much as electric light; no wonder the gilets jaunes aimed straight for the epicentre of this, the most metro of metropolises, and tried to lay waste to the Arc de Triomphe and the Place d’Etoile.
There are things to be said contra the French but franchement, not credibly by the British. More than ever, the traditional British Francophobia that’s revived in the past decade or so, seems to me to be what Freud termed “a narcissism of small differences”. Consider how it is that both nationalities accuse the other of the same failings: arrogance, hypocrisy, pretentiousness, effeteness, post-imperial hubris, institutional racism, venality, suspect sexuality, mimsy taste in cashmere jumpers, layered hair etc, etc. Not, of course, that there’s any such thing really as a “national character” — if, by that, you mean certain psychological peculiarities shared by all citizens — only people who get up in the morning, and decide to play at being British that day. Or French for that matter.
The philosopher John Gray once remarked that, “in the city, the individual can feel himself to be but a shadow, cast by the buildings.” And it’s this sense of exiguousness that grips me more than any other as I promenade along the Passage des Panoramas, breasting the ghostly essences of long-gone flâneurs coming in the opposite direction: the blue-grey smoke of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Proust and Joyce, Breton and Aragon, mingles with my own. The sheer density of old and older buildings in the area of Paris contained by the Périphérique makes the merest stroll out to the Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancourt, or down to the Jardins du Luxembourg, a kind of time-travelling. And if a boy from the London suburbs, who, in an important sense, has never really left the Seventies, can be forgiven his failings (arrogance, hypocrisy, pretentiousness, effeteness, post-imperial hubris, institutional racism, venality, suspect sexuality, mimsy taste in cashmere jumpers, layered hair etc, etc), then let me make this claim: if walking the streets of Paris I feel myself to be such a shadow, then yes, fleetingly, I also feel myself to be une ombre Française.