Wednesday 04 October 1995
On Monday, news of the detonation of the second French nuclear test explosion - five times more powerful than last month's - led the bulletin, followed by the verdict in the trial of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Centre in New York, and an earthquake in western Turkey. The first mention of British news - the start of the Labour Party conference - came well below the Portuguese elections in order of significance.
In the bars and cafes of this south-easternmost corner of the Dordogne they are far less excited about the second nuclear test than the fact that Eric Cantona's reappearance on the pitch after his nine-month ban was reputedly greeted with the singing of the "Marseillaise". When President Chirac appeared on French television to debate the nuclear issue, he said only: "There is no changing my mind." Secretly, many French admire this return to old-style Gaullist obstinacy. They cite the regal manner of Margaret Thatcher in the mid-Eighties, with whom they already compare their new president. His view, they say, is: "I'm the President; I don't have to justify myself."
Down here in the south-west, under the stippled blue skies of a languid and beautiful autumn, it is quite hard to get the decontractes locals to talk politics at all. Two things that do get them going, however, are corruption in politics and the policy knows as "l'exclusion".
Corruption is endemic. The meadow behind my house is owned by a local peasant farmer; the meadow in front belongs to me. Both, like the house itself, command a wonderful view across more than 20 miles of soft green valley, overlooking a single mellow stone farm on the opposite hillside. When I explain around here, optimistically, that the rear meadow is designated as agricultural land and I am thus protected from the building of any other house, the local response is a hand cupped significantly behind the back ... meaning that with a backhander slipped to the right people, the rules will count for nothing. When it comes to great cities such as Nice or Grenoble the bribes are said to run into millions of francs. Is this true, or just the age-old peasant suspicion of authority?
"L'exclusion" refers to recent decisions in some cities to crack down on people with Aids, tramps and chronic alcoholics. The mayor of Paris has made it illegal to be drunk on the streets. It may be a cheap bid for political popularity but you hear many people say they are wholly in favour of the policy. That France has moved and continues to move to the right is beyond doubt.
There is a third great issue, come to think of it: terrorism. The current wave of attacks by a group that is the more sinister for being nameless - the bombing of the Place de l'Etoile, the Paris metro and the TGV - has left France in the grip of an invisible and all-pervasive fear such as has not been seen on the British mainland since the mid-Seventies. French police have carte blanche to take any necessary measures against terrorism. Since the bombing of the Jewish school in Lyons, schools throughout France are guarded by the police and parking in front of them is prohibited. This applies even in my peaceful village of Grolejac, whose infants' school has a barrier erected outside it.
Our local equivalent of Time Out is a newspaper called L'Essor Sarladais, or "Going out in Sarlat". It has always been my ambition to appear in its pages, and I have just managed it - twice. First by befriending an abandoned black kitten whom we felt obliged to advertise in the paper's Lost and Found section (the column knows as "Nos joies, nos peines"). Happily no one has rung up to claim her, so we waste hours watching her prance after butterflies and chase lizards. The French are notoriously unkind to cats and indeed regard most animals as useless unless they work or can be eaten. Our kitten, as though mindful of this, caught a mouse within hours of her arrival and we now have a mouse-free house and an almost lizard-free garden. Rest assured, we have found a good home for her when we leave.
The second burst of media attention came about because my third novel, the first to have been translated into French, was published here three weeks ago. I approached the office of L'Essor Sarladais with a copy. The editor (its only member of staff) proved extremely tractable, reproducing the lengthy jacket blurb in its entirety the following week. Now at last local people believe my claim to be une ecrivaine - although I doubt whether in England the launderette owner would have asked for a copy, tried to pay me nearly pounds 20 for it, kissed me on both cheeks when I pressed it on her as a gift, and finally insisted that I should in return accept this week's washing free of charge.
It signals a great step towards acceptance when a French person greets you with a handshake, and yet another step when the handshake becomes a kiss. We have patronised the Cafe Divan in Gourdon - the little town due south of us, just over the departmental border into the Lot - for more than a decade. This year for the first time its elderly waiter, his splendid handlebar moustache curled and twisted upwards at each end and dyed an improbable black, greeted my partner with a handshake. This is the cafe in which, according to Selina Hastings's biography, the redoubtable Nancy Cunard - eccentric socialite and patron of the arts, in particular black writers and poets of the Thirties and Forties - spent the last months of her life before dying, alone and abandoned, in a hospital outside Paris. The cafe still has more than a touch of the raffish. A notice in the entrance proclaims: "Cafe fumeurs. Non-fumeurs acceptes."
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