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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
house + home
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Life and Style
Bats detect and react to wind speed and direction through sensors on their wings
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living