Paris Stories

John Lichfield on the secret of the French waiter's rudeness ... and the smart shops that want to hire a graffiti artist
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The Independent Online

There is a small, faintly disreputable bar near the Arc de Triomphe. I only go in when Champions' League football is on the telly, on a cable channel that we do not have at home.

Every time, though, the same customers are sitting in the same places, eating their evening meal (usually steak and haricot beans). There is a tall man in his 60s with a face like a slug and a Bobby Charlton hairstyle; a tiny, vulgar, pretty blonde in her 80s; a cheerful, very thin woman in her 30s; a hulking, late-middle-aged Chinese man with a ponytail; a beer-swilling Moroccan woman in her 40s with naughty eyes; and a man in a leather jacket and long, greying hair, who looks like a New Wave film star down on his luck.

The bar is the local for singles and lonelyhearts who work as concierges or live in attic bedsits, the former servants' quarters of the expensive apartment blocks all around. They sit together, call each other by their first names, walk into the kitchen cubicle to order food and make raucous comments. Over all this presides Alain, the owner, who is probably half-French, half-North African, a dapper, handsome man in his 40s who never smiles. He is proprietor, barman, waiter and chef.

Last week, Alain flew into a rage when 15 strangers came in together and sat down, expecting to be served. They were French but provincial, entirely respectable, aged from 20 to 60. You might have thought Alain would be glad of the extra custom. No. He ignored them for half an hour.

One, a charming young woman, was sent to the bar to ask, politely, if they could order drinks. Alain told her – insultingly using the familiar "tu" – to leave him alone. Even the regulars thought this a bit much. The Moroccan woman, drunk, interceded. The strangers agreed to her suggestion to send a note to the bar, with their drinks order neatly listed. Alain, mumbling to himself, slammed the drinks on to trays and the Moroccan woman shakily served them.

The moral is that in the real France, it does not matter who or what you are, as long as you are a regular. Clientelism is all. If someone is rude to you in a French bar, it is not because you are British but because you are a stranger.

This – not just the supposed French obsession with state control – helps to explain the difficulties that France has with the notion of open markets and free competition. It also explains the general tolerance (now breaking down) of the kind of aggravated clientelism, verging on corruption, which President Jacques Chirac is accused of fostering as mayor of Paris for 18 years.

By the by, four weeks from the French presidential eliction, I heard no one in the bar mention Chirac, Lionel Jospin or any other French politician.

 

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Police are looking for a tagueur, or graffiti artist, who has painted a sprightly yellow cat with an inane smile all over Paris. Luxury-goods shops are also seeking M Chat (Mr Cat), as the artist calls himself: they want him to design them a logo, as another trendy tagger did last year.

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