Adieu, la France

News that Gallic garlic sales are falling will horrify Francophiles. And it's not just the food that is under threat - many of the characteristics that make Frenchness so distinctive are also disappearing. John Lichfield reports from Paris
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The Independent Online

Do you remember when to step ashore at Calais was to enter a rich and strange, parallel universe? To cross that magical ribbon of water was once to say au revoir to warm beer, flat caps, fish and chips and red telephone boxes. It was to say bonjour to yellow headlights, berets and garlic, to pungent, mis-shapen cigarettes, to large, round glasses of red wine, to the smell of warm baguettes and to throatily evocative pop songs on the radio with "r" sounds that extended over several bars.

Few British people step ashore at Calais these days. They drive straight from the ferry or tunnel terminal to the Tesco store to load up on cheap Pampers and Australian white wine (wine as uniform and reliable as Pampers). If they do wander into the town, they find that the young burghers of Calais are wearing baseball caps, smoking Marlboros, drinking beer or alco-pops and listening to rap music, in English or French or Franglais. Their mamans et papas drive cars with white headlights, listen nostalgically to the Beatles, shop in supermarkets as big as football stadiums and eat a sandwich for lunch. Maybe.

Is France disappearing? The question is provoked by the disturbing news that garlic sales are falling across the Channel. Not falling dramatically but quand-même. If the French are no longer eating garlic - or smoking Gauloises - are they still French? Of course the question could be turned against the British or almost any other nation. Fish and chips and warm beer and flat caps have given way to baseball caps, kebabs and lager. Where are all the red telephone boxes of yesteryear? (Actually they seem mostly to be in France, where they are prized as great objets d'art and decorate gardens and seafront promenades).

The point, however, is that France, above all nations, is not supposed to allow itself to disappear. Britain may be proud of being a nation open to all the winds and viruses of globalism, with a Chinese-owned fag-end of a car industry and British movies that are made in Hollywood.

Not France. France is supposed to be the country which says non. France is supposed to refuse all cultural imperialism, except its own. France is supposed to be the country of the "exception française": the refusal to be swamped by "mondialisation", Hollywood, la malbouffe [fast food], Japanese cars, Chinese bras or the English language.

France is supposed to be the country of Astérix, the small village which refuses to bow to the invader; the country of José Bové, the man who bulldozed a McDonald's to preserve his right to wear a droopy moustache and make stinky (but wonderful) cheeses.

All this huffing and puffing seems to have depressingly little effect. If you cast your eye over a range of cultural battlefields, France seems to have suffered nothing but Waterloos in recent years. There is not an Austerlitz in sight.

French exceptionalism in the matter of clothes appears to be dead. A couple of years ago, I rode in the lead car of the Tour de France cavalcade for more than 150 miles across Normandy and Brittany. In the crowds lining the route, we saw a million baseball caps but not one beret.

Eating habits seem to have changed radically. The sandwich bar appears to rule in most large towns. In Paris, you now see - just as in London - young people scurrying back to their desks with a sandwich and a plastic container of soup.

The Gallic tradition of popular music - the Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel tradition - still exists but as a minority interest, like medieval plainsong. The majority of young French people listen to Anglo-Saxon styles of music, from soft rock to rap.

All is not lost. French bread is fighting back against the supermarket imitations. You can still see peopled queuing for freshly baked bread (and what bread!) in almost all French villages and towns on a Sunday morning. The French film industry - with over 500 movies a year - is, with government help, the only full-range movie industry in Europe, producing everything from comedies to thrillers. Much of the output is tosh but at least it is French tosh, not standard Hollywood tosh.

France still has a car industry, with two thriving companies, one of which owns a Japanese car company. We, the British, have no idea what the successors to classic British cars of the 1950s and 1960s might have looked like. The French still have a style of their own which - in the Espace, the Scénic, the Twingo etc - have helped set the fashion for the world (even if they now have to have white headlights by EU law).

It is certainly not true that French cuisine is dead, either. In the restaurants available, in almost every town, in the middle-price range, France still out-eats every other country in the world. Try dining out, at random, in Chalon-sur-Saône, Laramie and Aylesbury.

All the same, for lovers of France and Frenchness - even those who believe that in some respects, France should be more open to the world - much has been lost to the march of worldism in the past 20 years. Here are reports from some of the battlefields.

France under threat


The French garlic growers' association issued a cry of alarm last week. Not only were the French eating less garlic, they were turning more and more to imported Chinese garlic. Each French person - man, woman and child - now eats 800g of garlic a year, compared to 900g 10 years ago. And although the drop is not catastrophic, the French growers are feeling the hot breath of global competition. The change appears to be linked to a trend away from home-cooking to ready-made dishes and the growing liking of young French people for blander foods. On the other hand, garlic is now recognised as healthy for everyone but vampires and lovers.

Outlook: expect a comeback


The burnt-rubber smell of the Gauloise, and its flighty sister, the Gitane, used to be part of the French experience. In combination with cheap perfume, and sweat, they formed the characteristic smell of the Paris Métro. Alas, no more. Gauloises and Gitanes production finally moved from Lille to Spain last month, after a rapid fall in consumption of "dark" cigarettes in France in recent years. Of the 55 billion fags consumed by French people last year, only just over one in 10 were Gauloises or Gitanes. As recently as the 1970s, dark fags had half of the market. Consumption fell by 28 per cent in 2004 alone. Younger French people now smoke only American-style blonde tobacco. The Gauloise survives to poison only the middle-aged and the elderly.

Outlook: the cultural ash-tray


Cheese is the symbol of Frenchness. No other nation has so many (700- plus at least). But the genuine, traditional, French cheese - made from the untreated, unpasteurised milk of the cow, goat or sheep - now commands only 5 per cent of the market in France. To the purists, a pasteurised French cheese is a fake. However, EU and national regulations and the power of the French dairy giants are squeezing the "real" cheeses into a smaller and smaller market share. Worse still, some of the more local and obscure French cheeses are beginning to disappear. Fifty are believed to have been lost in the past 30 years. There are still 700 left, however. Some people count more than 1,000.

Outlook: slow erosion of a magnificent heritage


It has always been traditional for Anglo-Saxons to mock French intellectuals, with their half-smoked Gauloises and half-baked ideas. The centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre's birth this year was a reminder that, as an international force, French intellectuals have ceased to exist. J-P Sartre himself, left, though popular among radical US academics, is neglected or patronised in France. The dominant climate of thought is left wing, anti-globalist and anti-American. As a result, right-wing or neocon thinking dominates the global brain market. It would be nice to have a new Jean-Paul. Please.

Outlook: dim


One of the most dependable, pre-Channel Tunnel French traditions was to arrive by ferry at Calais to find that the French railways were en grève. The tradition persists. Almost four million working days were lost to strikes in the French public sector last year with the railways, the SNCF, the largest single contributor. However, it is less commonly reported that strikes in the French private sector have become relatively rare. There were just over 200,000 days lost to private-sector strikes last year, less than half the average figure in the 1990s.

Outlook: a continuing tale of two Frances


The death of the baguette, predicted a decade ago, has been much exaggerated. Traditional bakers have made a strong comeback in France in the last decade. Partly, this is thanks to a government campaign which has encouraged - and regulated - the return of the baguette de tradition, a crustier and tastier form of the long, white bread stick, which had begun to dominate the market from the 1950s. Baguettes of all kinds still make up 80 per cent of the bread market in France. Despite the inconvenience, French people are turning away from the appalling bread sold in supermarkets and queueing once again outside their local artisan bakeries.

Outlook: hot and crusty

Un ballon de rouge

Much has been said about the loss of French wine markets abroad. Just as worrying to French growers - especially at the lower end of the price scale - has been the collapse of the domestic market for the ballon de rouge - the generic glass of wine which used to be downed in millions in French bars. Young people have switched to beer and alco-pops. Older people can no longer - quite rightly - rely on the non-application of French drink-driving laws. French people now drink 58 litres of wine per head per year, compared with more than 100 litres in the 1960s. By 2008, it is now predicted, France will be overtaken by Italy as the largest wine-consuming nation per head in the world.

Outlook: more grapes of wrath

Chanson Française

Some people dispute whether there ever was a separate French genre of pop music. Musically, there is nothing very original about Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel; they were distinguished by the power of their performance and their lyrics.

Now even Johnny Hallyday is sixty-something and the younger French performers are neither particularly good or not particularly French. The poetic-popular French tradition is dead or dying.

Outlook: silence

Frogs' legs

Cuisses de grenouilles used to be a standard on French menus, but are now extremely rare and expensive. The main reason is a shortage of frogs, and therefore legs, thanks to over-hunting, drainage of marshland and excessive agricultural use of pesticides.

Over 80 per cent of the grenouilles eaten in France now come from Eastern Europe and Asia. French gourmets insist the taste is not the same.

Outlook: grim, especially for the grenouilles


The classic image of a Frenchman is a shifty-looking chap with a beret on his head (as in the British sitcom 'Allo 'Allo). French newspaper cartoonists similarly still assume that an Englishman is a shifty-looking chap with a bowler on his head and a brolly in his hand. In truth, even in rural France, for anyone under the age of 80, the beret is no longer a form of working-class dress. It survives among left-wing poseurs and artists (mostly foreign) in Paris and other large cities and is constantly trying to make a comeback as female fashion accessory, usually in bizarre colours, such as pink.

Outlook: already dead