I have terrible news for Parisian Anglophiles and British expatriates in Paris. The British sausage and the pork pie are not, after all, returning to the French capital. Ten years after its hurried, Dunkirk-like departure from the continent, Marks & Spencer plans to open a new store in Paris. The location is perfect. M&S will take over a 1,000sq m store on the Champs-Elysées, just a few yards from the office that I share with the BBC (or, as I try to tell visitors, the BBC shares with me).
Hooray, we thought, as did hundreds of others. No more mercy dashes to Ashford or Maidstone. No more cross-Channel forays to fill up the car boot with chicken tikka massala, iced buns, Percy Pigs, Wensleydale cheese and Sainsbury's red label tea. It may seem strange that, in the capital of foodie France, British expats should crave British nosh. Are we not surrounded by some of finest delicacies, markets and restaurants in the world? Yes, but childhood tastes and habits die hard.
The craven departure of M&S in December 2001 left a gaping hole in the market. The Paris branch of WH Smith, just off the Place de la Concorde, has provided some food relief for ex-pats in recent years. Smiths cleared some of its shelves and replaced the books with Crunchies and Quaker Oats, cream crackers and Marmite (regarded by any French person who has tried it as a weapon of mass destruction).
But WH Smith, since it remains stubbornly a bookshop, was not able to offer anything perishable. No sausages. No pork pies. No cheese. Great, therefore, was the rejoicing among Britons in Paris, and many Anglophile or discerning French people, when they heard that M&S was planning its own Operation Overlord, a D-Day-style reversal of its retreat from the continent. It took the Allies only four years to return; it has taken M&S a decade. No matter.
Officially, the company refuses to confirm it will be invading France later this year. "We know we are very popular with French people. But we cannot confirm the speculation," a spokesman said. I am, however, reliably informed that M&S has signed a lease to take over the Esprit shop on the northern (posher) side of the Champs-Elysées from September.
I am, however, also reliably informed that it has no plans to sell the British sausage on the most beautiful avenue in the world. The new store will be restricted to the "higher ranges" of M&S clothing and underwear. This must be the most dunderheaded marketing decision since Decca turned down The Beatles.
A British Parisienne of long standing, to whom I delicately broke the news, said: "Hooray. No British woman can survive without M&S knickers. On the other hand, boo. It means I can no longer wear M&S clothes, bought in Britain, which Parisian women assume to be very expensive because they have never seen them before."
"But that's OK, I suppose," she added. "What is unforgivable, and inexplicable, is the decision not to sell food. The old M&S shops in Paris survived on knickers and ready meals, cheddar and pork pies. It wasn't just expats who bought that stuff. The French loved it too."
She is quite right. When M&S retreated from Paris in 2001, a "book of condolences" was opened by the angry staff. It was signed by thousands of French people as well as British expats. Six months before they closed, the two Paris city centre shops were besieged by French customers laying in stocks of baked beans, tea, soup, cakes and apple pies.
The "no-food-we're British" decision is not the first example of deep cultural misunderstandings by M&S in its dealings with France. When the old stores, on the Boulevard Haussmann opposite Galeries Lafayette and at Châtelet, opened in the 1970s, M&S refused at first to supply translations of its labels.
London headquarters changed its mind when it was pointed out that Parisians were buying packets of dried flowers and using them – with disappointing results – as herbal teas. The first translations, supplied from London, also caused problems. M&S branded marmalade was declared to be sans préservatifs, in other words, "without condoms".
Ultimately, however, the old M&S stores – there were 18 across France – became great cross-Channel ambassadors for the British way of life. Even Princess Grace of Monaco used to shop at the flagship Boulevard Haussmann store when she was in Paris. She was reported as saying that she went there to buy stock for her charity jumble sales. Not everyone believed that.
Marc Bolland, the new boss of M&S, should reconsider urgently. The new store must sell representative examples of British haute cuisine (suggested list on application to the email below). If vulgar commercial considerations alone are insufficient to change his mind, he should reflect on his company's responsibility for Britain's image and prestige in France. Just after the M&S retreat was announced in April 2001, a friend overheard the following conversation between two Parisian mums in a playground
Maman Numéro Un: "Isn't it terrible about Marks & Spencer? Last Christmas, I bought these bizarre things there... You pull them at either end, they explode and everyone has a present to put by their plate."
Maman Numéro Deux (amazed): "Only the English could think of something like that."