He was a specialist in tax avoidance who had lived in Britain, Africa and Washington. He spoke interestingly and pessimistically about the problems of the French economy. Times were hard but would get worse.
Since I had also lived in Washington, I asked whether he had enjoyed being there. "Ah, non, it was much too coloured for me," he said. Seeing my negative facial sign-language, he added: "In any case, it was too coloured for a French person."
The question arises: are the French racist? In the ideological sense of obsession with race and white supremacy, I think not, despite the Front National's rise. In the broader sense of cultural solipsism, even cultural intolerance, there is a case to answer. The French call it nombrilisme - preoccupation with one's own belly-button.
We have come across it ourselves. We have invited school-friends of Charlie's to come to the house, sending formal notes to the parents in the approved manner, and received no reply whatsoever. The parents who do respond have some kind of foreign experience or connection. They tell us the reaction of the other parents is typical. They have rigidly structured lives and an approved pattern of friends. They have no interest in making connections with foreigners.
Here is a seeming paradox. On one hand you have the overpowering self- satisfaction and self-confidence of the French. On the other, you have a nation gripped by a great crisis of confidence. The mood into which France has plunged in the past two years is composed of many things, but underlying it is a fear of the modern world, a fear that the French economy and French culture will be swamped in the techno-global world of the 21st century.
The paradox is no paradox but two sides of the same coin. France is more worried than other nations about loss of identity because it thinks it has more to lose. It will have to speak to foreigners; travel abroad. It fears bad culture drives out good. Put more pejoratively, France is anxious about having to measure its superiority against the rest of the world on a daily basis.
At its extreme, as propagated by the Front, this has become a conspiracy theory. France is the victim of a conspiracy by the forces of Anti-France, comprising the Jewish lobbies, Freemasons, homosexuals, the Trilateral Commission, the European Commission and Jean-Marie Le Pen's new bugbear, the US. They are plotting to abolish culture and identity and replace it with a lowest-common-denominator world culture.
At some rallies, this view is promoted in Orwellian cadences: croques monsieur good, hamburgers bad; Orangina good, Coca-Cola bad; berets good, baseball caps bad.
One should not laugh too loudly. This is a new and effective way of extending the FN's message beyond the purely racial to something more amorphously and powerfully cultural. It plays on legitimate anxieties but is based on a lie. The obsession, and it is not just a FN obsession, with a fragile, and threatened, French cultural purity is a distortion of history and a trap. The kind of stultifying inwardness it implies would be - already is - a bigger threat to French greatness than globalisation or illegal immigration.
France has always been strong enough to absorb influences from the world and be for ever French. France has much to offer the new global world. It will, arguably, also benefit from having its doors and windows opened wider and becoming less nombriliste.
This week I was in Toulon, a Front National-run town which has long had the reputation of being the most intolerant in France.
I was waiting, with some dread, for a Le Pen rally for fanatical frontiste pensioners.
I went to a cafe, which had check-clothed tables spilling into the sunshine. The patron and the one waiter were evidently, but not aggressively, homosexual. Other customers included an Arab family who were on first-name terms with the waiter, two old men from a Marcel Pagnol Provencal novel who kept falling asleep over their lunch, a table of yuppies who chatted among themselves and into their mobile phones, and a group of women in their 30s who joked vulgarly with the waiter and pinched his bottom. The experience, and the food, inoculated me with a sense of well-being before I entered the rally. Despite its cosmopolitan joie de vivre, the cafe was unmistakably and incorruptibly French.Reuse content