Every Frenchman loves a strip show

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An exhibition in Paris is pulling in the crowds. It's dedicated to a man hailed as "another Charlie Chaplin, or Jacques Tati", one of the "giants of humour of the 20th century". His name is André Franquin. Mean nothing? What about his most famous creations - Gaston Lagaffe, Marsupilami - do they still mean nothing to you?

An exhibition in Paris is pulling in the crowds. It's dedicated to a man hailed as "another Charlie Chaplin, or Jacques Tati", one of the "giants of humour of the 20th century". His name is André Franquin. Mean nothing? What about his most famous creations - Gaston Lagaffe, Marsupilami - do they still mean nothing to you?

There is no reason why they should. Franquin, who died in 1997, was a giant but - like many giants in his field - he never discovered a way to stride across the Channel.

André Franquin is one of the dominant figures of something claimed in France as the "ninth art": the cartoon strip or comic book. And, like most famous French people, he was Belgian.

The success of the exhibition dedicated to him, at the Paris science and industry museum in the 19th arrondissement, points to a continuing love affair in the French-speaking world with stories told by cartoons and bubbles. This is an infatuation shared by the Japanese and the Koreans and, to a lesser degree, the Americans. Give or take Desperate Dan and Battle Comics No 543 ("Take that one for Chalky, you Hun!"), it is an art form that has largely passed Britain by.

The international festival of bande dessinée (comic strips) attracted larger than ever crowds of " bédéphiles" to Angoulème in south-west France last month. ( Bande dessinée is known as " BD" for short, pronounced "bay-day"). The number of BD titles published in France in 2004 - 3,020 - set a new record. Sales of comic books are running at over 32,000,000 a year, in other words, one book sold to every second person in France. After dipping in the mid-1990s, interest in BD among the young has been refuelled by an invasion of Japanese comics (Mangas) and their Korean imitators (Manwhas).

The most popular, contemporary, Francophone exponent of the ninth art is a young Swiss man called "Zep". Sales of his latest album about Titeuf, a 10-year-old, girl-crazy underachiever, are expected to top 2,000,000, which is roughly 10 times as many as a bestselling novel in France.

Bandes Dessinées are even the subject of French and Belgian academic studies, like novels and films. Some deserve it, such as the recent autobiographical works of Marjane Satrapi. Her Persepolis I and Persepolis II are subtle novels told in pictures and still movies composed of apparently childlike cartoons. They tell the story of a young woman growing up in post-ayatollah Iran and in exile in Europe.

Other classic BDs leave me cold. My nearly 15-year-old son, in an academically pushy Parisian school, has just been given a new classic French text to read: La Frontière de la Vie (The Frontier of Life) by the Belgian Roger Leloup. This work, published in 1977, is part of a popular series of comic strips about Yoko Tsumo, a female Japanese amateur detective and electronics expert. By studying this book, Charles and his class are learning, with great enthusiasm, about the history, narration techniques and visual grammar of BDs. He describes the book itself as "rubbish".

He is right. I read it (in 35 minutes). Classic or not, the plot and characterisation are below what would be passable in the most crass film or thriller novel. André Franquin, the subject of the retrospective exhibition, is in a different league. He was born in 1924 in Etterbeek, the district of Brussels that also produced, among others, my mother and Hergé, the father of Tintin. Franquin's best-loved creation, Gaston Lagaffe, is an antidote to Hergé's workaholic, robotic boy-reporter. Lagaffe is also a journalist but a good-hearted, lazy, incompetent idealist, a dotty inventor and animal-lover, a Good Soldier Schweik of the reporters' room. He is identifiable at every newspaper and recognisable in every journalist (OK, in some of us). He, rather than the priggish Tintin, deserves to be celebrated beyond the borders of francophone BD-dom.

Which is stranger? The French infatuation with cartoon strips or our relative immunity to them? It's all in the cultural genes, it seems. An exhibition of medieval and Renaissance French cathedral tapestries has just opened in Caen. They tell biblical stories and some have speech bubbles emerging from characters' mouths. So, there you have it. The French have been forever drawing bubbles.

Diplomacy goes out the window

The French diplomatic service is to vacate the Quai d'Orsay, its ornate and legendary building beside the Seine. The diplomats' new home is the subject of an undiplomatic quarrel between Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Paris mayor Betrand Delanoë.

Raffarin wants to shift the foreign ministry by 2010 into a new building on the site of the ageing Saint-Vincent-de-Paul maternity hospital in the 14th arrondissement, behind Montparnasse. The Quai d'Orsay, home of French diplomacy since 1855, has become too cramped. Only the gilded public rooms fronting the river will be retained for receptions. Mayor Delanoë protests that he needs the Saint-Vincent site for a hospital for the handicapped. He suggests that a fine new foreign ministry could be built on a railway goods yard in the gritty, unloved northern fringes of the 18th arrondissement, close to the largest Paris flea-market. French diplomats are, for some reason, reluctant to be shunted into a siding, far from official and tourist Paris.

Who is more powerful, the French PM or the mayor of Paris? The question may be decided in court.

Designs for winning

Organisers of the Paris 2012 Olympics bid have ordered matching outfits from Givenchy before an International Olympic Committee delegation tours the French capital next month. Women will wear trench coats and black and white trouser suits. Men will wear suits, with a lining wittily displaying the map of Paris.

London for the 2012 Olympics? No chance, unless Alexander McQueen, ex-Givenchy, can be persuaded to knock up gear for Seb Coe & co...

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