Vive la France is not a trade fair, it's a way of life

IS FRANCE still top nation? A survey in a New York newspaper a couple of years ago asked its readers to nominate the most civilised nation in terms of richness of culture, quality of life, history, geography and general overall ambience. France won, followed not very closely by Britain, with Italy coming in third. Civilisation, in this instance at least, was limited to Europe.

What fired most of those Americans to vote for France was its wine, its cuisine, its cathedrals and, above all, Paris, symbol of all things chic, stylish and desirable. Speaking for myself, the Is would have had it - Ireland, Italy and India, in no particular order - because all three countries have impressive top-nation qualities. Indian mythology is arguably richer than Greek; Italian food is the most varied and the most delicious to be had; while Ireland has Yeats and Connemara and, above all, the Irish.

If quality of life means where you would get the most value from an hour chatting to the locals over a pint, Ireland would win hands down. The French would come nowhere - they never chat to foreigners, especially Americans.

Musing inconsequentially thus, I sat last Tuesday morning in a chic, stylish and eminently desirable drawing-room, one of many, in the French Ambassador's residence overlooking Kensington Gardens in London, waiting to be told by His Excellence why the French tourist board is hosting a three-day event called, daringly, "Vive la France", next January. I would have called it a straightforward trade fair, but M Bernard, the Ambassador, and all the other speakers after him - including Michael Heseltine, who revealed for the first time, he claimed, that he had a French grandmother - quickly disabused me of this entirely erroneous, not to say unglamorous, notion.

"Vive la France" was to be a celebration, a festival, a tribute to the French way of life for the benefit of all those British folk who appreciate what the French are so good at - food, wine, fashion, farmhouse holidays, blockading Channel ports, etc. We were shown a video from which, to the lilting accompaniment of "La Vie en Rose", we learnt that the promotion - sorry, celebration - was aimed at high spenders aged between 25 and 54 and that sponsors interested in taking stands or staging events should ring the following numbers. "We are bringing the soul of France to the heart of London," said the last speaker, his voice breaking with emotion.

Afterwards, I made a beeline for a serious-looking, elegantly dressed young man who might easily have been curator of the Quai d'Orsay museum (someone said he was there). He turned out, in fact, to run a removals company that ships furniture to the Dordogne for English people who've bought second homes in France. When we ran out of things to say about moving small upright pianos and large Chesterfield sofas, he introduced me to an estate agent, a travel agent and a girl who works for Eurostar, who said no one called them trade fairs any more. Nowadays they are designed to be like sophisticated theme parks, which are there to compete with conventional tourist attractions.

"Not the Natural History Museum again, please Mum," cry your treasures. "It's so boring. Can't we go to the Scandinavian Fish and Knitwear exhibition at Olympia instead?" So off we go, and return four hours later laden with brochures for mail-order gravadlax and oiled wool and maybe a sample of rollmops in brine.

Now I come to think of it, I was once invited to a glittering evening at the Icelandic Embassy for just such a purpose. We ate herring served in 50 different ways, served by beautiful ice maidens modelling 50 varieties of Aran jersey. Everyone smelt like sea lions.

"Trade fair", I admit, has an unpleasant commercial ring to it, but calling what is basically a shopping arcade a celebration, is going a bit far. The estate agent said, somewhat defensively, that shopping in France was an altogether different experience anyway. He's right there. Buy a perfectly ordinary apple pie in a boulangerie and they'll wrap it up for you like a wedding present.

It was at a trade fair that my ex-mother-in-law found one of my more memorable birthday presents. She is an enthusiastic fair-goer and inveterate bargain-hunter. On that occasion she combined both. At the Greetings Card, Novelties and Small Gifts exhibition, her eagle eye spotted a paperweight in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, reduced from pounds 5 to pounds 1 because it had only three legs. It was not a celebration of the French way of life, but all the same I liked it. It was different. Vive la difference! "Vive la France"!