Monday, 12 November 2007

Sunday shopping

I have no idea who said one should not talk about politics or religion at the dinner table to avoid disagreements, but they were certainly not French. During the French friends' visit to London we seemed to do little else but talk about politics and it struck me that this is a very big difference between us and them. For while I have difficulty remembering the last time my friends and I had a political debate over dinner, I have difficulty remembering an occasion in France when we did not. It is not as if the French I know are more intelligent or educated than my friends in the UK. In fact, if I was counting university degrees, I think the opposite would be true. The truth is they are more interested and engaged in politics than we are. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it does not make for relaxing meals.

Dinner table debates in France can be pretty ferocious affairs involving a lot of noise; shouting, thumping (the table), sometimes stomping off then marching back again and even the occasional insult. But it never gets really personal and it rarely ends in a fatal fall out. I spent a week with a group of French friends just after 55% of France had voted 'non' in a referendum on the European Constitution. Couples, split by the vote, argued so passionately, angrily and bitterly I left expecting divorce papers to be served. That was two years ago. The couples concerned are as deeply divided, politically, as they ever were and still capable of screaming at each other over the referendum, but they are all still together.

There was plenty of material for a verbal Waterloo in London. The visiting French have never made any secret of their distaste for what they call "Anglo-Saxon liberalism", meaning the free-market, nor of their even greater dislike of America. This is something of a leitmotif in France; unfortunately, more often than not it is based on dubious and trite stereotyping by otherwise clever people. (The same people who enjoy American literature, American films, and just occasionally, though they would never admit it, American fast food). Healthy criticism of America is one thing, but in France anti-Americanism has become a kind of received wisdom. Mostly it is a bit silly, but sometimes it is more dangerously perverse as when, just after the US-British invasion of Iraq, one third of French people polled by a newspaper said they wanted Saddam Hussein to win the war "from the bottom of their hearts". Boy did the Frenchman get it in the neck for that one.

In any case, a dislike of the free-market did not stop our visitors spending most of Sunday buying bras and smoking jackets in Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. At dinner, having packed away their purchases, they were very keen to know whether the shop staff were paid a higher hourly rate for working Sundays and if they did so voluntarily. "I asked one shop assistant, but she didn't seem to understand me," said one guest. "I expect she understood you very well, but I also expect she wanted to keep her job," I replied.

Later, when recounting this to my mother who hates talking about politics because "you always argue with everything I say", I suggested this was an example of the French social conscience. "No, having spent half the day shopping I'd say it was evidence of hypocrisy," she concluded.

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