John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

To find the path of true friendship, follow the yellow brick road. Or was that red and blue?
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The Independent Online

There was a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman...

There was a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman...

For a day - a marvellous day - we walked through the Lubéron hills of Provence, passing farmhouses the colour of old cheese, clumps of wild rosemary and thyme, and ancient villages clinging precariously to sheer hill-sides.

The American, Mark, and the Frenchman, Hervé, were on a week's walking tour, plotting a route from restaurant to restaurant, and guest house to guest house, using one of France's least discussed cultural treasures, its dense tangle of public footpaths.

I had, jealously, heard Mark and Hervé - fiftysomething fathers like me - planning their tour as we stood outside our daughters' Paris school. Since I was going to the deep south to attend a wine producers' riot, they let me join them for a day.

Mark is a doctor from Maryland, taking a break in Paris with his wife and daughter. Hervé is a globe-trotting businessman in the specialist paper industry.

They are teasingly quarrelsome friends. "It's like having a child," Mark said. "I'm his mother. I just left him alone for a minute to go into a store in a village and he wandered off. I didn't see him for an hour."

"Yes," said Hervé, "And do you know what I found him doing? He was sitting outside a café, in the most beautiful village in France, drinking a Coca-Cola."

Mark and Hervé's five-day tour of the Lubéron (Peter Mayle country) was based on the methods advocated by a wonderful book, France on Foot, written by an American chef, Bruce LeFavour (Attis Press, $24.95).

The book does not lay down bossy itineraries;it tells you how to create your own. Since France's network of footpaths is so immense, LeFavour argues, anyone able to hold a map the right way up, while reading a selection of restaurant and guest-house guides, can plan their own tent-free route. Join up the dots between one excellent meal and comfortable bed and the next.

France has 112,000 miles of footpaths. This is the official figure. There are far more. There are 38,000 miles of Sentiers de Grande Randonné or long-distance footpaths. There are 25,000 miles of regional paths - Grandes Randonées du pays. There are, officially, 49,000 miles, but in fact probably more like 100,000 miles of local paths or Petites Randonées. The tracks are - in theory - marked by blazes of paint on trees or rocks, with elaborate runes to indicate turns or dead-ends. The long-distance paths are marked in red and white; the regional paths in red and yellow; and the local paths in yellow, orange or blue.

This is the theory. In reality, there are stretches where every tree tells you how to behave and then, abruptly, nothing: no runes, no rules, no signs, no clues. In other words, French footpaths are a microcosm of France.

Accidental tourists

We got mildly lost a couple of times, but we rapidly stumbled onto another path. Hervé accused us of chattering too much and not paying attention to the signs or the beauties (stunning, admittedly) of the Lubéron. We were discussing, for instance, Anglo-Saxon and French attitudes to friendship.

"In America," Mark said, "a friend is someone you've met."

"In France," Hervé said, "you are only allowed five friends but they are your friends for life."

Only if a friend dies, I suggested, does a Frenchman have a vacancy for another one. "Exactly," said Hervé. Whoops, missed the path again.

We were also listening to Mark's gruesome tales of his time as a senior doctor in Maryland's principal trauma unit.

"You would think," Hervé said, "that walking with a doctor would give you a sense of security. No. You have to listen to Mark's stories of the most terrible things that can happen to the human body."

"Motor cycle and scooter accidents were the worst," Mark continued. "I once had to treat this teenage girl who was riding behind her boyfriend when they left the road at 80mph, entered a field and hit a tree stump. She shot 70 feet through the air and broke her hip. "I asked her how it felt to fly through the air like that. She replied: 'Actually, it was kind of neat'."

Walking with Mark and Hervé was also kind of neat. I left them quarrelling happily over who had the hotel key and who had the right to the room with a shower.

Demonstration art

And so to my riot, which had been billed for weeks in advance.

On one side of a bridge over a canal in the centre of the pleasant town of Narbonne stood the CRS riot police. On the other side rampaged 50 or 60 young wine-producers - the storm troops of a 10,000-strong demonstration which had just ended.

The wine growers assailed the CRS with cobble-stones, Molotov cocktails and burning wheelie bins. The CRS occasionally retaliated with tear gas. Every so often, the policemen broke into a strangely effeminate cry - something like "oooh-oooh-ooh" - to mock the efforts of the rioters. In quietish moments, the CRS took photographs of one another in their battle-gear. A crowd of spectators assembled.

Thirty or 40 years ago, the CRS would have charged and bashed the demonstrators, and the spectators, over the head. No longer. Riots have become a kind of street theatre. The CRS represent The State. It is their job to have things thrown at them. By the number and nature of objects thrown, The State can judge how seriously it needs to take the protests of wine growers/farmers/students etc.

The next performance of CRS versus wine producers will be in Nîmes on 25 May.