Although I’m rooted in the English countryside, surrounded by fields of wheat, barley, Red Poll cattle and Shetland sheep, and have mastered the vocabulary of drawing room, boot room, game larder, scullery and Aga almost as fluently as if I were to the Elizabethan manor born, I confess: I love another country. I love France.
Call it a coup de foudre. A postcard of a tablescape with a croissant, petit crème, rough-hewn sugar lumps and a copy of Le Monde can make me swoon. The Yves Saint Laurent jacket bought 30 years ago in the second-hand shop off Sloane Square hasn’t fitted since my ribcage expanded in childbirth, but it still hangs by the door of the cloakroom loo, an objet d’art in Gauloises blue that says to me ‘made in France’.
At the bottom of the farm drive is a cottage. I call it my office, but it’s my French house. It houses all my pre-marital chattels. Two sizes of plates made of a pottery called grès. A large bowl from Vallauris that might have been made by Picasso. A copper kettle from Dehillerin. Espresso cups from La Coupole, purloined by an artist friend. A large wall clock of about 1900 that no longer works, from the marché aux puces. A shelf of creamy white Gallimard editions, CDs of Juliette Greco and Jacques Brel, a drawing of Colette.
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And everything sounds so much better in French. Bonjour sounds friendlier than hello, aujourd’hui more musical than today. Bien sûr is more convincing than of course. Tentative de viol doesn’t sound as horrible as attempted rape. Palais de justice sounds more dignified than Manhattan Criminal Court, and Commissariat sounds more civilised than NYPD Special Victims Unit Headquarters, although Harlem in English is Harlem in French. The French language can be more cumbersome than English. Innocent until proved guilty has a rhythm to it that innocent jusqu’à preuve du contraire lacks. All the same, it’s a profound concept, whose roots go down far beneath the fertile linguistic topsoil that enriches it. It’s also clear that the concept is suffering from a drought of reason.
I’ve no idea if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with his appétit sexuel apparemment gargantuesque, did all of the things the papers say, but as the story unfolded, it brought back memories of a dinner on the Left Bank many years ago with journalists from Le Canard Enchaîné, the Paris paper known for its investigative journalism. They were gossiping about the mistress and daughter of François Mitterand, who was president of France at the time. At first, I thought I’d misunderstood the French, so I asked for clarity. I was shocked, not by the existence of a mistress, but by the complicity of the press who knew all, but refused to trespass on the president’s privacy. The French journalists were bemused at my innocence and prudish incredulity.
What is so shocking about the Strauss-Kahn story is the arrogance. That politicians-French, English, Italian, American- think they can behave like lapins chauds and get away with it. It is an arrogance that requires the collusion of the press, the unwritten agreement that private life and public life are two different worlds. M. Strauss-Kahn may be innocent of the sordid charges, but his reputation as a sexual predator who wasn’t safe in a taxi has come out into the open. No matter what the outcome, women will now think he’s a creep, and men will think he’s a fool.
But the real shame lies with members of the French press, who have embraced for far too long the notion that aggressive sexual behaviour was a form of liberté, a laissez-faire attitude that could have led to Mr Strauss-Kahn becoming Monsieur le Président, landing the French with a Berlusconi of their own. That would have put quite a strain on my own love affair with France.