A world where Wayne's not welcome

PARIS DAYS; British football fans' invasion will fall foul of French reserve
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The Independent Online
Jean Tiberi, the mayor of Paris, has lost contact with reality.

He has, admittedly, been under pressure recently (complex problems of a legal-financial nature; some of his own supporters want to dump him). But such mundane facts cannot explain his memory failure on the nature of Paris and Parisians.

The French capital faces an embarrassing shortage of beds next June when the soccer World Cup is expected to add 300,000 fans to the normal June tide of 1,100,000 tourists. Mr Tiberi believes he has come up with a solution. Tens of thousands of ordinary Parisians, he says, should offer foreign visitors "l'hebergement a l'anglo-saxonne" (lodging in the Anglo-Saxon manner).

This does not, unfortunately, mean Parisians should dress up in horned helmets and construct huts out of mud and sticks. It means they should offer bed and breakfast in the British style. It means they should give up the spare rooms in their apartments to tourists and football fans in return for a modest payment.

Picture the scene: Gary and Wayne from Manchester, their faces fetchingly painted in the cross of Saint George, are discussing Eric Cantona's contribution to Western philosophy over the breakfast table with monsieur et madame in their elegant apartment in the 16th arrondissement.

Jean de Preaumont, President of the Paris tourist office, dismissed the idea with contempt. Bed and breakfast will not work in France, he said, because "it is not in the French tradition". In other words, French people do not like having outsiders in their homes, even other French people; certainly not foreigners; let alone foreign football fans.

In the almost six months I have been living in France, I have not once been invited into a French home either in my professional or private capacity. The nearest I have come is to drink large amounts of Coca-Cola in the garden of the home of a charming farmer and regional councillor in Nievre in Burgundy. We would have gone indoors but the evening was so beautiful that we preferred to sit outside.

The children have been luckier. They are starting to be invited to play, and have lunch, with friends from school. Charlie, who has a remarkably socially inquisitive (that is, nosy) nature for a boy of seven, reports that Parisian homes are "weird", divided between grand reception rooms (from which he tends to be banned), and shabby and functional family rooms. I take his word for it.

Here, then, is one of the many French paradoxes. The French are a very social people but not a convivial people. In Britain or the United States you can make a friend in a minute; but making a lasting friend is rare. In France (based on my experiences the last time I lived here), making casual French friends is impossible, a contradiction in terms. You can make friends, but you must become part of a recognised, almost possessive, social group, with rights and obligations.

The same thing, to a degree, happens with one's most casual acquaintances in France. If I miss for more than a couple of days going to the patisserie where I buy my lunchtime panini and pain au raisin, the woman behind the counter accuses me of being "unfaithful". If I fail to collect the morning newspapers from the kiosk on the corner the owner becomes agitated. I have to soothe his hurt face the next day. If I miss two days he becomes suicidal. He has now given me his mobile phone number so that I can call him from wherever I happen to be in France, and inform him that I will not be buying his newspapers.

At the cafe beside his kiosk, where I read the papers, I have become a confidante of the once-forbidding patronne. If I fail to finish my coffee, she admonishes me like a wayward son. I would not, however, dare to ask her name.

Familiarity is all to the French. If you are a complete stranger you are nothing. There is no sense of obligation to you; no reason to waste a perfectly good smile. If you become a familiar face, even a foreign familiar face, you become part of the comforting, and established pattern of things. Small wonder that political reform is so difficult in this country.

This weekend is the start of the school holidays. Millions of French holidaymakers will be setting off for their favourite holiday destination: France. Only 12 per cent of French holidaymakers go abroad, compared with 40 per cent of Britons and 60 per cent of Germans. In a sense, this is understandable. France is the most popular holiday destination in the world (60 million visitors a year). Why should it not also be popular with the French? Only one possible reason, it seems.

I asked the woman in the patisserie where she was going on her holidays. She said she was going to the Cote d'Azure, as she did every year. Wonderful, I said. Panini sales must be booming. "I hate it," she said. "Too many foreigners" (forgetting presumably that she was talking to one). Ah, but you do not mind foreigners coming into the shop, I said. "Yes, that's business, but you don't want also to spend your holi- days with them," she replied.

Presumably, she will not be opening a bed and breakfast next June.