John Lichfield On Monday
THE COMMUNE is buzzing like never before. The roads have cars (something seldom seen here in the plural). There are trucks pulling horse- boxes. There are tractors and trailers, laden with purposeful lumps of wood. Unexpected people are wearing unexpected clothes.

Our next-door neighbour, a sour man who is the deputy mayor of the commune (one small village and four hamlets), is wearing a straw cowboy hat and a smile. Andre, the elderly farmer down the road, has replaced his usual manure-coloured, woollen hat with a blue baseball cap: he looks instantly as if he could be farming 10,000 acres in Kansas instead of 120 acres in Normandy.

It is the day of the fete du village: an annual festival of pony-jumping and sausage-grilling and an opportunity for everyone to clear the rubbish out of their attics and replace it with the rubbish from other people's attics.

The fete takes place in the field beside the village hall, surrounded by freshlymown fields and the wooded slopes of the Normandy hills. The precise name for the village hall is Salle polyvalente, which means many- sided room or room-with-many-uses, sounding both poetic and bureaucratic at the same time. There are 20 stalls in the sunshine, arranged in surreal still-lives of glittering and garish obsolescence. One stall displays two Barbie dolls (half-undressed), a pair of Wellingtons, a rusted type- writer, Johnny Hallyday's greatest hits (volume eight), two tubs of fibre- protection agent, a collection of miniature brandy and Calvados bottles (empty), a broken accordion and an axe-head without a handle. The French gave us the word fete and the phrase bric-a-brac.

Another stall's principal offerings are dog-eared Jean Plaidy novels and a roll of barbed wire. The two women in charge come from Southampton. They have a house in a neighbouring village.

A poster advertises animals for sale. "Un doberman (pur race). Hamsters (20 francs). Chatons a debattre (kittens by negotiation)". Very convenient: you presumably buy the hamsters and the kittens to feed the doberman on the way home.

I studied the crowds at the fete carefully. (The word "crowds" is relative, but the commune does have something to celebrate this year. The 1999 census showed that the population has risen in the last nine years, from 300 to 319.) I studied the festival-goers to test a theory that I have.

There is an exhibition in Caen, 20 miles to the north, which has irritated the French-hating section of the British press. The exhibition makes the perfectly reasonable point that the culture of England, and Britain as a whole, has been shaped partly by Normans. The English like to think of themselves as Anglo-Saxons, the exhibition says, and the Normans of 1066 as alien invaders. In truth, 933 years on, we are as much Norman as we are Anglo-Saxon.

Anyone who has visited Normandy will have been struck by the "Englishness" of the countryside, the churches, the villages. I think the resemblances go further. My study of the crowd confirmed my view that Normans, en masse, although friendly and charming, are not an especially handsome people. They are rather un-French. They are, in point of fact, rather English- looking.

My eye was distracted by the mounted head of a goat. Judging by its running nose and clouded eyes, it died of pneumonia. The man running the stall, who had a beard rather like the goat's, insisted that he killed the beast himself. It was a wild mountain goat from the Mont Blanc massif, he said. Mine for only 400 francs (pounds 40).

"I was obliged to kill it ," he said sadly. Why? Did it attack him with murderous intent? Did it eat his home-grown lettuces? "No," he said, "It was butted in the arse [tape dans le cul] by another goat and crippled. I was obliged to kill it out of compassion."

That explained the surprised expression on the creature's face.

It came down to a choice between buying the goat or an old, two-seater school desk for pounds 10, which would be ideal for my two young daughters to sit side-by-side and steal each other's felt-tips. I was greatly tempted by the goat (what a story to be able to tell) but, in the end, logic triumphed over romance and I bought the desk.

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LAST WEEKEND, I did something stupid: something I have never done before. I lost my car key. Worse, it was not my car - it was a hired car. The key fell through a hole in my trouser pockets as I wandered around the Saturday morning market in the small Norman town of Aulnay-sur-Odon. (A tragic little town in its own way: it was reduced to rubble 55 years ago this week when the British and Canadian armies broke out from the D-Day bridgehead).

I searched the market six times. No key. I went to see the local gendarmerie, confident that someone must have handed it in. No key.

I telephoned Europcar in Caen. What happens in cases like this, I asked. Nothing can be done, they said, rather rudely. There was only one other key for the car and that was in Paris, 200 miles away. Since it was a "smart" security key, which also blocked the ignition unless its locking button was pressed, there was no way the car could be moved until the duplicate arrived. How long would that take? Three days.

As the gendarme in charge of the local station pointed out, you would be better advised to crash your Europcar than to lose its key. At least then, they would send out a rescue service. He took pity on me and drove me the six miles home in his blue gendarmerie car. When I told the story to Michel, my 50-something next-door neighbour, the only part that really interested him was the fact that the gendarme had driven me home.

"But gendarmes never do that kind of thing. Never," he said.

The gendarmerie act as the rural police force all over France. But they are not police. They are soldiers, who report to the Ministry of Defence. They are certainly not friendly, village bobbies. They are posted far away from their home areas and often act arrogantly, peremptorily, like a kind of occupying army.

The next day Michel drove me back to Aulnay to have another look for the key. Most of all, he wanted to meet that bizarre creature, a friendly gendarme. We called at the station. The gendarme commiserated with me again and then shook both of our hands.

"Never," said Michel, as we got back into his car, "Never before has a gendarme shaken my hand."

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ELSEWHERE IN France yesterday, a bicycle race ended. The crowds gathered, as usual, along the Champs Elysees, despite the fact that this has been the most disastrous Tour de France for French riders for 73 years. Not a single stage victory was won by a Frenchman; there was only one French rider in the first 10.

The Tour de France is a national festival in a way which is difficult to compare with other sporting occasions. A stage of the Tour is like a garden party 160 miles long and 10 yards wide. Like no other sporting event, the Tour de France goes to the people. It comes, literally, down their way, as if a set of Wimbledon, or five minutes of the FA Cup Final, was to be played on the village field.

The crowds, however, have been down this year and the enthusiasm muted. Why? Because an American (Lance Armstrong) has dominated the race? Because no French rider has performed well?

No. The French have not won their own Tour for 14 years. They have become used to celebrating foreign champions. They very generously lauded an Italian winner last year, a German the year before, a Dane the year before that.

All these three, however, have since been implicated in the taking of illegal, performance-boosting drugs. This year was to have been the "clean" Tour, with tough new rules about who could ride and tough new tests on the riders. Since January, any French professional cyclist riding for a French team has been subjected to continuous medical monitoring, which make it very difficult to cheat. Such severe controls did not apply to other riders.

The only French rider to get among the leaders, Richard Virenque, rides for an Italian team and evaded these tests. The conclusion drawn by the French press and the French public, is that this was a two-speed race. There were the French riders, gasping to finish the Tour without pharmaceutical help. And there were the rest.

There is no evidence that Armstrong and the other leading riders have been taking dope. They have passed all the tests during the Tour. Armstrong's achievement - recovering from death-threatening cancer two years ago to win the world's toughest endurance event - is extraordinary. He strenuously denies taking any illegal substances.

The fact is, the Tour was won at roughly the same speed - an average 25mph for 2,400 miles - as in the previous six years when it is known that drugs were widely used. If the leading riders can go this fast without taking dope, why did they menace their own health by doping themselves in the past?

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