Our Man In Paris: It's all about the cheese

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A grateful transatlantic reader writes: "You limey saddo. Who gives a shit about your dreary little island and what you hypocrites think..." Such is, broadly, the tone of several e-messages that I received from the United States after I defended France's right to have its own opinion on Iraq. There have also been nastier ones and many intelligent ones, on both sides of the argument. However, the nastiest blow of all was landed by the far- right American propagandist who wrote a column that dismissed the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys". When I read that phrase, I knew that the arguments had gone beyond Iraq or Saddam Hussein or oil or terrorism or George Bush's re-election. We had entered a transatlantic clash of civilisations, and I was on the side of the cheese-eaters.

A grateful transatlantic reader writes: "You limey saddo. Who gives a shit about your dreary little island and what you hypocrites think..." Such is, broadly, the tone of several e-messages that I received from the United States after I defended France's right to have its own opinion on Iraq. There have also been nastier ones and many intelligent ones, on both sides of the argument. However, the nastiest blow of all was landed by the far- right American propagandist who wrote a column that dismissed the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys". When I read that phrase, I knew that the arguments had gone beyond Iraq or Saddam Hussein or oil or terrorism or George Bush's re-election. We had entered a transatlantic clash of civilisations, and I was on the side of the cheese-eaters.

There are many similarities between France and the US, which explains why the two countries love to hate each other so much. Both are large, empty countries, founded on abstract principles. Both believe that they have universal lessons to teach the world.

There are also profound differences between the two countries, and those differences are symbolised by cheese. In its (roughly) 800 years of existence as a nation, France has generated 176 different kinds of cheese. (Charles de Gaulle put the figure at 258 and said that it was impossible to govern a country with so many; Gérard Poulard, France's foremost cheese-waiter, says that there are more than 1,000, if you count all the varieties of one-farm goat cheeses.) The US, in its more than 200 years of existence, has developed only 24 kinds of cheese. One of them – the most common – is called "American Cheese".

The website Cheese.com reports: "American Cheese is smooth, with light, yellow or orange color. The cheese is usually cut into square slices and it does not separate when melted. It has a mild taste."

Iraq, as befits a totalitarian country, has only one kind of cheese: meira. Cheese.com says: "Meira is made of sheep's milk. The curds are cut into strips and matured in a sheepskin bag for six up to 12 months." It sounds as if it should be listed among Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The US is a country that believes passionately in freedom, ingenuity and free enterprise. It has produced only two dozen kinds of cheese (some of which are excellent copies of French and British cheeses). However, if you walk into any American supermarket, you will see that the US has produced more than 50 kinds of peanut butter. They all taste the same but they have radically different labels.

France is a country that is overtaxed and over-administered by a suffocating bureaucracy. It has somehow managed to create 176 (or 258 or 1,000) different kinds of cheese, all of which are subtly different from one another. A lait cru (raw milk) camembert, eaten at just the right moment (when there is only a thin layer of dry cheese in the centre) is one of the great achievements of humanity. Ditto roquefort; and St-Nectaire; and cantal; and chaource; and so on and on (and on).

According to the Wall Street Journal book of political and economic orthodoxy, the American Way produces enterprise, variety and choice. The French Way produces stultification. Cheese defies that ideology. No wonder that cheese-eating is a term of insult for American right-wingers.

If we are being offered a choice between a cheese-eating civilisation and a peanut-butter-eating civilisation, I am with the cheese-eaters. Post-September 11, US politics – and even US journalism – seems to be going the way of peanut butter. There is room for endless freedom of choice between labels. The contents of the ideas are not allowed to vary.

America – the real America – is not just a peanut-butter civilisation, though. Figures produced by the US Department of Agriculture point to a subversive, and extremely encouraging, fact. The number of card-carrying cheese-eaters in the US is growing sharply. Americans now consume almost 13kg of cheese per person per year (half as much as the French, but 50 per cent more than the British). French cheese-consumption is growing gently. Unpatriotic American cheese-eating has doubled in the past 25 years.

All aboard the Champs Elysées express

Unreformed trainspotters, like me, have a real treat to look forward to in Paris this summer. The French national railway system, the SNCF, plans to turn part of the world's most beautiful avenue into a marshalling yard.

An exhibition of trains down the ages will be assembled on the Champs Elysées – the leafy, unbuilt-up part, near to the Place de la Concorde – from 17 May to 15 June. High-speed trains will be taken on low-loaders into the heart of the capital. They will stand beside prototypes of even higher-speed trains of the future. Both will share temporary siding space among the trees with steam locomotives and old carriages, drawn from the national railway museum in Mulhouse.

The exhibition – Train Capitale – is described by its organisers as a demonstration that "railways can still be a source of great emotion and national pride".

If cheese-eating is one test of civilisation, another is how a country treats its railways. The US partially fails that test (freight railways thrive; passenger railways struggle). Britain fails the test completely. Not so France.

Could you imagine the Strategic Rail Authority or any of the privatised railways paying to display the dreary generations of modern British trains alongside exhibits from the York railway museum in Hyde Park? Or to turn Park Lane into a railway for a day?

In Paris, they have more imagination. For 24 hours, on 1 June, temporary tracks are to be laid on the Avenue des Champs Elysées itself. A light train will trundle up and down beside the traffic jams offering free rides to tourists and passers-by.

Wanted: cartoon criminals

At the Disney Village, beside Disneyland Paris, late the other night, tourists and theme-park operatives were enjoying a hard-earned drink in Annette's Bar and Diner. When you have spent a long day inside a Goofy suit or being hurled into a virtual cosmos in the Space Mountain or dicing with death in the Snow White ghost train (not recommended for tourists under the age of one), you deserve a moment of late-night relaxation and reflection.

Into the bar burst two men wearing hoods and carrying guns. They demanded the day's takings. The barman told them to go away. They did. Their guns were made of plastic. Obviously, if you work in Disneyland, you know a Mickey Mouse operation when you see one.

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