Our man in Paris: The French way of friendship

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After five years in France, we have started to make French friends. That may sound slow, but the status of "friend" is something that is never awarded lightly in France. One of my wife's new friends is a doctor. Margaret consulted her about a minor problem and found herself being screamed at when she announced that she had paid the receptionist in advance. "You are a friend. You don't pay," she was told, as if she had committed a serious faux pas. She was instructed to claim her money back as she left. A further consultation was arranged with her friend's husband, also a doctor. Once again, there was no question of paying.

When I lived in France 20 years ago, I had the same experience. Surface friendliness is not valued by the French; friendship is hugely important. When you make a French friend, you enter a circle of friends. You join a club, with privileges but also commitments and responsibilities. If you make social arrangements outside the group, you're treated as if you are a traitor.

Sophie, another French friend of Margaret's, almost spits when reminded of Barbara, an American woman whom she befriended a few years ago. Their children were also friends. Since Barbara returned to the States, there has been not a letter, not a phone-call, not a postcard, not an e-mail. "In France, we do not behave like that," Sophie says. "Friendship is important."

If you meet a couple at a Parisian dinner party and decide to invite them to your home, you must also invite the people who introduced you. If you fail to do so, you are assumed to be trying to steal their friends. By inviting both couples, you are offering to connect their circle with yours.

This is part of what makes this country so impenetrable to outsiders. France operates through overlapping networks of friends, or cronies, or clients, who have known each other for years and take their relationships seriously. In Britain and the US, everyone is pally with everyone else. Friends, though they exist, are not so vital.

To fail to make lasting friends can be dangerous in France. Jacques Chirac is famously a man with a large number of friends, many of whom have just been appointed by him to the new French government. This is part of the secret of his survival. Of Lionel Jospin, it was always said that he had few friends in politics. That may be part of the explanation of his failure.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes to friendship vary enormously on either side of the Atlantic, however. Before I set out for the US in 1988, I consulted a senior America-hand and former editor of The Spectator. He summarised the difference thus: "In America, even your enemies sneakingly want you to succeed. In Britain, even your best friends secretly hope that you will fail."

The Republic's Royal socialist

She is hardly known outside the country, but the most popular left-wing politician in France is now Ségolène Royal, 48, former environment minister and junior education minister. The protégée of the former EC president, Jacques Delors, Ségolène has been a not-quite-risen star in the Socialist party for the past 10 years. In 1992, she became the first French cabinet minister to have a baby while in office.

Following the political demise of Lionel Jospin, she tops the polls of left-wing politicians whom the French people would like to see playing a big role in the years ahead. According to one poll, Ségolène – tall, dark, handsome, tough and eloquent in simple, emotive language that people understand – is the second most popular politician in France, after Jacques Chirac.

What does François Hollande, 47, the new leader of the Socialists, the man likely to be prime minister if the left wins the parliamentary election next month, think of all this? He only has to ask over breakfast. He and Ségolène have lived together – not married, by her choice – for 20 years. They have four children, two boys, two girls, from 10 to 18.

The couple met at the finishing school for the French political and administrative élite, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), where they were pupils from 1980-82. The ENA has such a bad reputation in France as a source of pointy-headed arrogance that the idea of an ENA power-romance is quite sweet.

As a politician, Ségolène originally sprinted ahead of François. He has never been a minister; she has had three different portfolios in 10 years. François was sometimes mocked as "Monsieur Royal". Under the Jospin government, when François became first secretary of the Socialists, Ségolène's career slowed down.

If François does become PM next month, what job will he give to his political rival and the mother of his children?

Where have all the Jean-Maries gone?

Double-barrelled French first names have been much in the news. There has been Jean-Marie (Le Pen), Jean-Pierre (Raffarin, the new prime minister) and Pierre-Yves, of Millennium Dome fame. It struck me, however, that such names were now rare among my children's French friends. I checked and discovered that, in truth, this is another French particularity, like yellow headlights, that is on the way out.

Anglo-Saxon names such as Gary, Kevin, David, William have been gaining in popularity since the early Nineties and are now being joined by pan-European names such as Lucas, Hugo, Théo.

For girls, the favourites are a mixture of foreign and traditional, Léa, Camille, Manon and Emma.

The prénom composé is a relatively recent tradition. It rose to popularity in the 1930s, peaked in the mid-1950s and then rapidly fell away. The range of first names allowed in France used be restricted by law: anything exotic was refused by the town-hall registrar. The double-barrel name was devised to create some originality, within the rules.

The law was applied more flexibly from the 1950s, as names from American movies became popular, and was abolished in 1993. According to Prenoms.com, 83,644 French babies were baptised Jean-Marie in the 20th century, almost all in 1930-55. Since Le Pen's prominence in the 1980s, there have been virtually none.

The hyphen is not dead, however. Country & western-style names, such as Mary-Lou, are on the rise in France. Whatever next? A captain of the French football team in the 2032 World Cup called Gary-Kevin Leblanc?