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January 2019

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning

French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion.

Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Why French food is now at the bottom of the List

IF people consider that you have some kind of expertise about France, then there is a subject that you will never fail to get questioned about. Forget the increasingly chaotic nature of the Fifth Republic or related political, economic or social subjects – what people really want to know is where they can enjoy exquisite Gallic cuisine. I get messages all the time asking me to name the latest ‘in’ restaurant in cities such as Paris or Marseille. Most requests are for a Top Three, while others aspire to details of at least 10, to include a breakdown of best hors d’oeuvres through to what’s new on the cheese course. In recent years, such advice has been harder and harder to deliver. Not because of cynicism or apathy, but because much of the food you come across in France nowadays is ordinary to bad. That sounds like a terrible admission from someone who should display at least a modicum of food patriotism, especially to my home city of Paris, but the situation really is pretty dire. La Liste – a highly respected compilation of 1,000 global restaurants approved by France’s Foreign Ministry and Tourist Board – confirms this. The latest Liste points to a dearth of decent bistros – the kind that used to be available everywhere, including British cities such as London – and even says that what is available in sensibly priced restaurants can be “lamentable”. Yes, the restaurant Guy Savoy, situated on the Left Bank of Paris, is top of La Liste, but that will hardly help it get on one of my lists. Michelin currently puts it in the price range of €234 to €415 for a meal without drinks. Artichoke soup with black truffles may be on the menu, but generally it reads like a glorified list of staples – salmon served with lemons, saddle and rack of lamb, ice cream and biscuits. It would not be too difficult to offer all of this for at least a fifth of the price, while still making a decent profit. Bill inflation is now quite absurd across the whole range of places to eat. Many Paris bistros, even those with nothing like the prestige of Guy Savoy, think nothing of asking €40 plus for a steak, and €25 for a bowl of pasta.

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As in provincial France, you can enjoy a passably satisfying meal, but very little that tastes exceptional. Worse still, the dreaded microwaves whirr and beep away in most kitchens, before pre-assembled dishes are topped with a sprinkling of ageing parsley to dishonestly create the impression of fait maison (home made). There have been attempts to market select restaurants with fait maison labels, but this is hardly encouraging. It simply proves that homemade food is the exception, and not the rule. Institutional reasons are behind many of the problems. Business rates and other high taxes, combined with spiralling employment costs, make it very difficult for restaurateurs to hire proper cooks. The inherent conservatism of the French means they do not experiment with the kind of exotic food you find all over cities such as London nowadays. Arab couscous is one Among those of the most pop- restaurants ular dishes in that are France for hissurviving torical and cultural reasons economically, (mainly to do there is a huge with colonisation and associ- reliance on ated North tourists who African immigrawill only visit tion), but there are very few once. So there offers of any is no emphasis more exciting plats. on building up Among those a loyal local restaurants that clientele who are surviving economically, would expect there is a huge reliance on tour- high standards ists who will only visit once. In this sense, there is no emphasis on building up a loyal local clientele who would expect high standards. Most of the in-and-outers will be foreigners who will be disinclined to complain about establishments they will never go back to. My message to them is the same as it is to those of you who will continue to send me restaurant list requests in 2019: don’t say I didn’t warn you!

E

mmanuel Macron must find it incomprehensible. A few weeks ago, as this column observed, he considered himself the next emperor of Europe, awaiting Angela Merkel’s withdrawal from the Ger­ man chancellorship before ascending his apparently inevitable throne. Now he is humbled, humiliated, forced into a craven surrender to a traditional French mob chucking cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. Le Figaro, during the mid-December EU summit, put it appropriately: ‘Macron affaibli sur la scène euro­péenne’, splashed on its front page across a pho­ tograph of the president, his gaze fixed to the ground ahead of him, walking into the meeting alone and manifestly without his usual swagger. That he had to apologise for that swagger – his arrogance, which seemed to mark him out as a self-conscious Brahmin or elitist – as part of his appeasement of the gilets jaunes was but a part of his selfabase­ment before a group who chose civil disobedience rather than consti­ tutional methods to show their dis­ satisfaction with the Macron régime. How did they hobble him so quick­ ly? Perhaps the first reason lay in a central paradox of French life: that for a country which, since 1789, has prided itself on equality, it has through its system of grandes écoles created a ruling elite of which M. Macron is a poor advertisement. It is an elite that betrays little con­ nection with the average French man or woman, and the gulf between the two was responsible for M. Macron’s inability to damp down the feelings of the protesters. He simply did not know where to start and was being bombarded on a number of fronts. That was a further problem. The gilets jaunes were a barely coherent force: they had no leader, or any unanimously-agreed manifesto of objections to the Macron programme. Once M. Macron settled what had appeared to be the main problem – the rise in taxation of diesel and petrol that especially disadvantaged those living in the French countryside – others, such as purchasing power and the size of disposable income – came out of the metaphorical trees and started to attack him. The president went on television to offer his list of bribes and induce­ ments to his disaffected people, including a rise in the minimum wage, but seemed to have had the stuffing knocked out of him aware his forthrightness in the past had done him no favours, M. Macron now seemed positively sheepish. Having been perceived as aggressive, he was now perceived as weak. The British statesman R. A. Butler, one of the cleverest men to have held office in the United Kingdom in the last century and, largely for that reason, twice cheated of the job of prime minister, called politics “the art of the possible”. M. Macron would have done well to bear that in mind,

Macron’s error was trying to do the impossible. Politics is the art of the possible

because if you design policies to assist a minority at the expense of the many you are asking for trouble. His fuel tax increases aimed to com­ bat global warming, something dear to the hearts of metropolitan liberals in Paris as in smart cities the world over. If it occurred to M. Macron the required sacrifice might not play so well in the Dordogne, the Auvergne or the economically-deprived villages of Hauts-de-France, he did not allow it to affect his policy. By trying to do what was impossible, he has badly weakened himself. He has more than three years of his mandate left; he also has pitifully weak organised political opposition, another, and under-appreciated, rea­ son for the rise of the gilets jaunes, who were merely doing what a seri­ ous Opposition ought to do. Also, France is rich enough, in global terms, to rub along issuing the odd bribe and inducement to calm down the people without causing immedi­ ate economic collapse. But M. Macron does not have a coherent party of his own; La République en Marche, the vehicle that got him to the Élysée Palace in 2019, started to decompose almost as soon as its job

His main hope must be that the gilets jaunes form a party and stand in the European elections in the spring and take votes from his rivals

was done. M. Macron was elected because he was not Marine Le Pen; he will need a more compelling argu­ ment if he is to have a second term. What seemed his main intention when assuming power – to restruc­ ture the French economy – was right. France is an uncompetitive nation that, and as a result (and because of being trapped in a currency union that overvalues its currency, a project M. Macron actively supports) has depressingly high unemployment and too many on low earnings. Despite one or two victories against them – notably against the rail work­ ers earlier this year – it remains a country in which syndicalists wield disproportionate power. Despite, also, M. Macron having begun to address the problem of the Code du travail, the massive rulebook by which relations between employers and their staff are regulated, France remains a profoundly over-regulated economy. After his surrender to the gilets jaunes – a surrender made all the more embarrassing after the mas­ sive displays of force, with hundreds of arrests, that preceded it – it defies belief that the president can achieve the sort of widespread reforms that France so badly needs. He should have engaged the public – and not just his fellow elitists – in a proper conversation about how he needed their co-operation to change France in a way that equipped it to deal with the modern world. His main hope must be that the gilets jaunes form a party and stand in the European elections in the spring, and take votes from his rivals – though they might just take votes from LREM, itself a protest move­ ment. As it is, France remains trapped in the mindset of the Fourth Republic, the consensual ideas advanced after 1946 to unite a France riven by the occupation. France must, it seems, await yet another president to lead this change of mind and to take the country into the 21st century.

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The Connexion 195 - January 2019  

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The Connexion 195 - January 2019  

France's English-Language Newspaper