`To his dog, every man is Napoleon'

Quel chien! The Parisian canine fetish is like no other. Barnaby Conrad III chronicles an obsession
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The Independent Culture
plus je vois l'homme, plus j'aime mon chien. Any Paris visitor who has witnessed the occasionally brusque manner of its citizens might embrace Pascal's acerbic remark. Certainly one is struck by the Parisians' penchant to treat their dogs more kindly than their fellow citizens.

The canine population of France is almost 10 million - one dog for every five citizens - with Paris accounting for 200,000 dogs... Rich and poor, old and young, the Parisians are so deeply linked to their dogs that were their pets suddenly to disappear, Paris itself would be changed.

They're everywhere. Get into a Parisian taxi and your driver's co-pilot may turn out to be a drooling German shepherd. About one in seven cab drivers in the "City of Light" ride with their dogs - partly for company, partly for protection. When a driver with a Doberman advised me not to make any sudden movements while paying the fare, I knew it unnecessary to enquire la Inspector Clouseau: "Dez your diggy bite?" For the most part the diggies don't bite, but the official French government estimate is half a million injuries from dog bites every year.

Nevertheless, well-mannered dogs appear in hotel elevators, law offices, beauty parlours, flower shops, and on the Metro, where they ride gratuitement. One finds them sitting patiently under the tables of cafs, and dogs dine regularly at Maxim's. The better restaurants prefer to serve clients with well-behaved dogs rather than with restless children. Some still list a canine meal at the bottom of the menu: Repas de Chien: Viande garnie cinq Francs, Service non compris.

The few places that restrict canines are museums, shops that sell food (according to a law that is rarely enforced), certain children's playgrounds (enforced mainly by nannies, not gendarmes), and Pre LaChaise Cemetery, which has a large feral cat population and enough bones to drive a dog mad with desire. A mutt once got loose in the graveyard, dug up a human femur, and eluded the authorities during an hour-long chase that went from Edith Piaf's monument to the tomb of rock star Jim Morrison, back to Marcel Proust's slab, and finally out through the main gates. Quel chien!

Aldous Huxley meant it universally when he said, "To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs", but it does seem to apply specifically to the French. For the lonely, dogs are substitutes for children, spouses, and even lovers...

The Parisian dog fetish has its disadvantages, particularly for pedestrians who must weave their way along the narrow trottoirs (sidewalks) scattered with crottes (crap). Some people have renamed the sidewalks crottoirs. One day I was walking in the Rue Dauphine when I came upon a woman ministering to what looked like a badly taxidermed marmot on a leash. The over-fed mongrel had assumed a quivering stance directly in my path. "Madame," I asked, "why are you doing this where everyone walks?" She glared at me with indignation and snapped, "I pay my taxes, and besides, I'm in a hurry!" A completely Parisian response...

Rather than attack the canine offenders head on, the French inventively work around the problem: special sanitation employees dressed in green jumpsuits cruise the streets on motorcycles equipped with storage tanks and suction devices. Although Paris hasn't yet established a dog museum, there is a dog cemetery. La Cimetire des Chiens is located at Asnires, outside Paris on the Ile des Ravageurs. Founded in 1899, the necropolis by the Seine holds the pets of the famous, such as of Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac; of the 19th-century painter Carolus Duran; of Cleo de Mrode, mistress of the King of Belgium; and of dramatist Sacha Guitry. Here one finds tombstones honouring such loyal pooches as: "Drag; 1941-53, Faithful Companion of Tragic Hours, Precious Friend in Exile, H. M. Queen Elizabeth, Princess of Romania." Epitaphs echo Pascal's quip, such as: "One would have thought he was human, but he was faithful!" And the touching, "Deceived by the world, never by my dog."

Photographer Elliot Erwitt, well known for his humorous books on dogs, commented: "Dogs are much more formal in Europe. In France, for example, the dogs are more intellectual than in America. They know they're part of the social fabric. You can see it in their expressions. They are also very territorial, in a specifically bourgeois way. They are confident that it is their butcher shop, or caf, or country estate, and ever will be..."

Since the 17th century the French have been addressing the adored pooch as Toutou, an onomatopoeic nickname supposed to suggest a dog's bark... Napoleon was fond of his poodle, Moustache, which accompanied him to the battles of Marengo and Austerlitz. He wasn't so fond of Josephine's pug, which occasionally went for the emperor's ankle. The Htel des Invalides displays, along with the emperor's tomb, the dog who was his companion during the exile on Elba - stuffed for posterity.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, when Napoleon III was held captive in Kassel, Germany, his wife's dog, Linda, reportedly delivered messages from the empress. Linda's heroism notwithstanding, during the Siege of Paris, some Parisians were reduced to eating dog meat, which was sold at 2.5 francs a kilo. Novelist Emile Zola owned a black Pomeranian named Sir Hector Pinpin, which was said to have died of grief when its master fled to England in 1898 after being accused of libel for reporting the Dreyfus case. The dog was "simply incapable of living away from his master", said Zola's sister.

The poodle is the dog most often associated with France... It reached its peak of popularity during the Victorian era. One reason was that its long bushy fur could be cut and stylised to suit changing fashions, and during the 1860s, poodles were sometimes dyed red, blue, or purple...

Today France's Socit Central Canine registers 150,000 purebred puppies each year in the Livres des Origines Franaises (LOF)... After the German shepherd, the most popular breeds are the Yorkshire terrier, the labrador retriever (favoured by President Mitterrand, former leader Giscard d'Estaing, and designer Hubert de Givenchy), the Siberian husky, and the dachshund, while the French poodle ranks only ninth. The most fashionable dogs now are the West Highland terrier and the Cavalier King Charles.

Great photographers have long been fascinated by the Parisian passion for dogs... Big hounds, high-strung purebreds, and jaunty mongrels are framed by Jacques Henri Lartique in parks, Marc Riboud in the circus, Elliot Erwitt in cars, Robert Doisneau in cafs, and Henri Cartier-Bresson on barges. Even as automobiles replace carriages and miniskirts overtake corsets, the timeless images of dog and master resonate with comedy, sadness, and joie de vivre. And in every picture there is the unspoken possibility of a past or future life in Paris.

Taken from `Les Chiens de Paris' by Barnaby Conrad III, published 27 March by Thames and Hudson (£9.95)

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