Our Man In Paris: A little politics with your café au lait?

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The Independent Online

The scene is a modern, youthful French café near Les Halles, in the centre of Paris. You can tell that the café is youthful and modern. Old-fashioned French cafés are dazzlingly illuminated, like film sets, and the barman often looks as if his father was a bulldog. This one is gloomy. There is no pinball machine. The barman looks like a film director. No one is drinking very much.

The scene is a modern, youthful French café near Les Halles, in the centre of Paris. You can tell that the café is youthful and modern. Old-fashioned French cafés are dazzlingly illuminated, like film sets, and the barman often looks as if his father was a bulldog. This one is gloomy. There is no pinball machine. The barman looks like a film director. No one is drinking very much.

A youthful, modern and intelligent-looking - terrifyingly intelligent - crowd assembles. They are not here by accident. They have come to listen and to question. One Wednesday each month, the café turns into a "political café". Anyone can wander in off the street. There is no entrance fee. A speaker is invited to talk on some pressing question of the moment.

As I survey the scale, and evident seriousness, of the crowd, I have a rising sense of panic. Tonight's speaker is - gulp - me. I have to speak in my far-from-fluent French for 20 minutes, sans hésitation ni déviation, remembering to roll my rs and distinguish my masculine nouns from my feminine ones.

The subject is Britain, France and Europe. Why are the British such poor Europeans? Why do the British and French not like each other? Why did The Sun represent Jacques Chirac as a worm on its front page?

I had accepted the invitation in a thoughtless moment, expecting to speak in a back room to a handful of earnest students. I was not expecting to have to speak into a microphone, in the café itself, to a room full of fiercely pro-European, young French civil servants, academics and executives.

The event was, as I told them, proof of the unbridgeable cultural chasm between Britain and France. Was it possible to imagine 60 young Londoners gathering in a pub - or even a wine bar - to hear a French journalist talk about the future of Europe? No, it was not. The British have pub quizzes, and the French have political cafés.

Recent subjects at other political cafés in Paris include, "What is secularity [laïcité]?", and "European economic policy in the face of the crisis of social-liberalism". The group that invited me sticks to European themes. Most of the participants were French, but there were also Germans, Italians and a Greek.

The political café is a spin-off from the philosophical café, or café philo, a French invention of the early 1990s, which has since become popular all over the world. A crowd gathers over a few drinks - or in France, probably one drink - and discusses a subject such as, "How far is too far?".

A couple of years ago, I spent an evening in a café near the Bastille, at a variant of the café philo called a "psychological café". Participants were encouraged to describe problems in their personal life, and invite comments from an intellectual agony-aunt. France also has cafés scientifiques (gatherings at which the scientifically minded can discuss advances in human knowledge), and cafés artistiques (ditto, for developments in literature and the arts).

Does this all amount to a rekindling of the café society for which Paris was famous from the mid-19th century, and then again from the 1930s to the 1950s?

Yes, but in a strangely formal way. Those old café societies were informal gatherings of like-minded intellectuals, or just friends, for whom the café became a second home. No one convened a meeting at Les Deux Magots in St-Germain in the early 1950s and announced that Jean-Paul Sartre would talk for 20 minutes on existentialism and ophthalmological developments in the treatment of the squint. No one convened a café littéraire in the mid-19th century to allow the poet Gérard de Nerval to explain why he chose to promenade around Paris accompanied by a lobster on the end of a blue ribbon.

The phenomenon of the café politique and café philosophique shows how admirably interested young French people are in politics and abstract thought. It also shows how unclubbable, or unpubbable, some (not all) young French people can be. They need a formal occasion to bring them together.

I enjoyed the evening all the same. Despite many déviations and some hésitations, I managed to stumble through. For a small fee, I am available to talk about French politics in the saloon bar of the Coach and Horses any time you like.

The Year of the Monkey in the city of rats

On Saturday week, a Chinese New Year parade, with a vast dragon, 800 musicians and dancers, and at least 6,000 extras, will pass down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. It will be the first time that the great avenue has seen such a spectacle. The city of Beijing is sending over four immense floats, almost 50ft long and 20ft high, in order to celebrate in appropriate style the arrival of the Year of the Monkey. When night falls, the Eiffel Tower will turn (briefly) red.

The parade is one of a series of events to have been organised to celebrate Chinese culture in Paris in 2004 - supported both by the large ethnic Chinese community in the capital and the People's Republic. The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is making a state visit and will address the national assembly on 27 January (annoying some deputies who say that only democratic foreign leaders should have that privilege).

It is perhaps surprising that Mr Hu should risk making such a visit. Only four years ago, when Beijing and Paris were in competition for the 2008 Olympics, an official Chinese newspaper reported that the French capital was teeming with prostitutes, terrorists and rats.

Flights of fancy

Who said that the French education system discourages creativity? Consider some of the wonderfully imaginative answers given by 17- and 18-year-olds taking last year's baccalauréat (the equivalent to A-Levels): "The sinking of the Titanic proves that icebergs are aggressive." And: "Galileo was condemned to death because he was the first person to make the world turn around." And even: "Archimedes was the first person to prove that a bathtub can float."

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