Coffee and sympathy, s'il vous plait

Troubled Parisians are airing their angst at Cafe Psycho. Ian Phillips takes some therapy with his quiche

There Was a time when people would only talk about their psychological problems in the privacy of an analyst's office. Then came Oprah and Kilroy, where intimate details were poured out to the millions. Now, Parisians are taking it a step further, talking about their egos, ids and oedipal complexes in group sessions in one of the French capital's cafes.

The "Cafe-Psycho" ("psycho" is the French abbreviation for "psychology") is the brainchild of Maud Lehanne, a 51-year-old psychologist. She started the weekly sessions two months ago. Now, every Thursday night, the Salon Victor Hugo on the Place des Vosges is packed with the complicated, confused and simply curious.

The meetings are open and while there are no couches to lie on, there are plenty of spaces on the banquettes, where people tuck into salads while airing their hang-ups, failed loves or difficult family lives. Lehanne was inspired by Paris' popular "cafes-philo", where would-be intellectuals meet to wrangle with questions such as, "Why something rather than nothing?" She says, "I saw that people would evoke their problems in the meetings, but wouldn't have the chance to talk about them except on an abstract level."

Regular attenders certainly seem content. "People can talk about themselves without embarrassment here. They are not worried about being judged," says gospel-singer, Kamel. The majority, however, simply come to listen. "I'm interested in hearing about other people's experiences and the similarities with my own life," says pensioner Fanny Molho.

Subjects tackled so far include loneliness, silence, aggressiveness and the inability to say no. During the meeting I attended, Lehanne asked everyone to close their eyes and think of a figure who was important to them at the age of 12. One woman said it was an English teacher, another a nun. A man talked about his dreadful stepfather, who had a large pot- belly. "One of the repercussions is that I now watch my waistline," he added in all seriousness.

Lehanne is as interested in why people say things as in what they say and sees her role as a "catalyst". "I think that the two hours spent every week can open doors for people," she insists. "They can trigger things off in people's minds and result in big changes."

One regular, Claudine, agrees. "Maud says really important little phrases that allow you to think things over. The meetings have certainly helped me a lot."

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