John Lichfield: All hail the Percy Pig revolution


A Marksist revolution is brewing in the expat British community in Paris. Brewing is the right word. The inalienable right to true British tea-bags, not the feeble French kind, is one of the demands of the revolutionaries.

I wrote last month that Marks & Spencer was returning to the French capital in September after 10 years. I also wrote that M&S intended to sell only “higher ranges” of clothes at its new location on the Champs Elysées.

Cue, high dudgeon and deep despair among Britons in Paris. Surely some space could be found among the 1,000 square metres at 100, Avenue des Champs Elysées for tea, sausages and bacon, chicken tikka massala, iced buns, Percy Pigs and Wensleydale cheese (to name only my favourites)?

A long-time British resident in Paris, Pamela Lake (a Parisienne since 1963), has launched a campaign to persuade M&S to change its mind. With the support of the British Community Committee, representing 75 British organisations in France, she has sent a circular to expats asking them to bombard the M&S chairman, Robert Swannell, with emails.

Nor is is this merely a British revolution. The Commonwealth Women’s Association in France – not an organisation to be trifled with – has supplied Ms Lake with its membership list. Judging by the e-correspondence which has already been forwarded to me, Mr Swannell’s inbox is going to be red-hot.

Patricia Hawkes, who runs a company in Paris selling French châteaux, is even threatening to organise a boycott. The chosen location on the most beautiful avenue in the world is, she believes, a mistake. “It is considered vulgar by the French,” she writes “to buy clothes on the Champs Elysées”. Her email to Mr Swannell goes on: “We are kind of delighted that M&S are coming back to Paris. But I wish to warn you … that no one wants to go there just for the clothes and other home products. We will go there ONLY if there is the fabled FOOD department as well – No food, NO GO.”

It may seem strange that Britons living in France, amid the splendid cornucopia of French food shops and restaurants, should hunger and thirst after British cuisine. Alison Harris, a Parisian resident for 10 years, points out that there are “certain products that the French still do not make quite like the English”.“The tea bags always have string and bags attached to them, ie they are one cup only – not for the British pot. The sausages are full of lumpy bits of fat. The cheddar is too expensive, as are ‘real’ baked beans, as opposed to the French version, which taste revolting. The bacon is always very thin and streaky and the bread, even brown bread, has too much sugar in it.”

There is, I understand, a legal problem with the shop chosen by M&S. It is an excellent corner site, next to the legendary Queen night club. The previous tenants (who lasted for only two years) were the German clothes chain, Esprit. I am reliably informed that the Esprit lease, taken over by M and S, stipulates that the shop must be used for “retail sales”. The French definition of retail sales excludes most kinds of food and certainly fresh food.

The owner of the building, a large Italian insurance company, is unwilling to change the lease. This cannot, however, be an insuperable problem. There is no reason in wider French law, or Parisian by-law, why the terms should not be re-negotiated.

The “Mr Britain” in France – apart from HM ambassador of course – is Christopher Chantrey, the chairman of the British Community Committee. He says that the success of Ms Lake’s campaign suggests that M&S has its market research awry. “At the very least, they should consider opening a second, small shop for food only. The one at St Pancras station is always heaving with people about to catch the Eurostar to Paris.”

The last word goes to the courageous Ms Lake, who is a retired OECD official and “unpublished novelist”. “Food was the big success story in the old Boulevard Haussmann store and not just among Anglo-Saxon shoppers,” she says. “The French loved it too although they were not impressed by the clothes.”

Quite right. Common sense, and Percy Pigs, must prevail.

Impeccable upbringings, in which Disney played a part

Ten years ago, I took my son and two of his 11-year-old French friends to Disneyland Paris. They had a wonderful time, although one of the French boys, very tall and confident, turned out to be scared of roller coasters.

He and I spent most of the day on the rides for toddlers, which suited me fine. I found Disneyland to be a curious place, something like a cross between California and East Germany.

The other day I passed two trendy-looking, longish-haired, young Frenchmen in the street. One of them turned around and called out to me. It turned out to be Alexandre and Arthur, the two boys from Disneyland. We had a long and friendly chat. They were charming, intelligent, articulate, considerate: everything young French, early 21st-century men – like young British men – are supposed not to be.

There are many reasons to worry about the world and to worry about France. I came away from our short chat deeply encouraged. For the first time in my life, I felt grateful for the existence of Disneyland.

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