PARIS DAYS: The riotous truth about les enfants terribles

In an ill-considered fit of civic and paternal conscience, I volunteered to be a helper at the school fete. I thought running the bouncy castle (a "structure gonflable", not a chateau ) bouncy) would be a peaceful way to spend a couple of hours. Mistake. I found myself in charge of a 20ft giraffe. Worse, I found myself in charge of rivers of French schoolchildren hurling themselves at one another as only off-duty French children can.

It is a myth that French children are well-behaved; or half a myth. French children are docile, even regimented, in the presence of teachers or fierce adult relations. Once released into the community, they resemble tigers escaped from the circus.

Fortunately, I was not alone. My co-helper, a short and timid-looking mother in her thirties, strolled up after 10 minutes. By that time, a score of children had invaded the giraffe, without paying, still wearing the costumes from the shows they had just presented, and still wearing their muddy shoes. Charlie Chaplins: dalmatians; Red Indians; hippies; zorros; toy soldiers: they ignored all requests and threats in my fiercest French. "Are you English?" responded pityingly, between huge bounces, one sweet-looking, eight-year-old Spice Girl. She made it sound like an incurable social handicap.

Madame sorted out this mess in a couple of minutes of controlled screaming: the invaders were ousted; crash barriers erected; and an informal guichet, or ticket window created. As soon as a guichet was in place, the children calmed down. They knew what was expected of them in the French book of manners: to wait, in a noisy, jostling crowd.

I was relegated to be in charge of the shoes and other personal effects: bonbons, jumpers, hats, footballs, prizes won at other stalls. Mostly thanks to Madame, we got through our allotted two hours without major incident, only one football lost, a few sweets mysteriously eaten and two children severely stunned in a head-on, mid-air collision.

In the United States, I would certainly have been sued. In Britain, the parents might have threatened to beat me up. In France, the injured children barely cried. The owner of the stolen football looked at me with contempt and went away to try to win another one.

It was my first experience of a French school fete. In broad outline, it obeyed the rules of school fetes everywhere: it was amiably chaotic and it rained. The outstanding cultural difference was the food and the drink. No cucumber sandwiches and stale tea: instead, champagne, fresh baguette sandwiches and exquisite home-made patisseries.

Each class presented a show, taken from a film musical. There was no fuss about quotas to protect French culture. The themes chosen were overwhelmingly imported: Singing in the Rain, Hair, West Side Story, Grease, 101 Dalmatians, Bridge over the River Kwai.

There were no sensitivities about gender role models either. Charlie's class of seven year olds were dressed as unisex hippies for Hair. Clare, three, sang in the rain, with real rain. But most of the other classes had the boys in macho attire, with guns or knives or swords, and the girls in slinky and sexy outfits. A class of four-year-old girls dressed as dalmatian puppies had been trained to waggle their bottoms at the audience. The parents thought that this was charming.

In this respect, France is either behind the prudish, global times; or incurably and unself-consciously French. Most likely the latter.

The holding of the fete means that the end of the school year is approaching. Reminders have been issued that the teachers expect parting presents, and not a geranium in a pot or a bottle of cheap wine. Fine. No doubt they deserve them, judging from my experience with the inflatable giraffe. I have learned my lesson. Next year I shall volunteer to run the cake stall.

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