Philip Hensher: The joke's on you, Jacques

So many of the things French people are proudest of turn out to be fairly insubstantial
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Like many cherished national jokes, the French one about English food looks set to run on in perpetuity. Perhaps M. Chirac's point was correct 40 years ago, when tinned fruit juice was a regular feature on the hors d'oeuvre list of the nation's restaurants, and even the now sainted Elizabeth David was capable of suggesting that a cook unable to source ricotta could substitute Primula.

But frankly, it now bears as much relation to reality as the French belief that we all wear bowler hats, or ours that the French hang onions from the handlebars of their bicycles. His remarks about English food are absurdly out of date. On the other hand, his apparently complete ignorance of the way English innovations revolutionised agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries is actually deplorable.

It must be pretty tough being Chirac, however. For a start, you have to go on subscribing to some fairly peculiar items of faith. It must be odd to be convinced that French women are the most elegantly dressed in the world when your own wife's wardrobe looks like Mrs Slocombe's from Are You Being Served?

It really is astonishing that so many of the things French people are proudest of in their own nation turn out, on examination, to be fairly insubstantial. Many of them believe that their cultural life is second to none. But who was the last world-class French painter? Is there a really good French composer living apart from Boulez? And most of that celebrated new architecture - the Louvre pyramid, the Pompidou Centre, the new museum in Nîmes - turns out to be the work of foreign architects.

Really, is the food actually all that good? I would agree that to see the pinnacle of French cuisine, you still have to go to one of the great Parisian restaurants. But French cooking as a whole has hardly moved on in 50 years, if not more; at the ordinary middle-class restaurant, the food may be okay, but it can easily be dull and conventional. If English restaurants have given up on prawn cocktail, I don't see why restaurants in France are still clinging on to plates of "carottes rapées" and hardboiled eggs in mayonnaise. You eat much better in Brussels.

Well, we could all be extremely childish about national traits. But is it not extremely surprising to find someone in M. Chirac's position, and, presumably, of M. Chirac's sophistication, not only holding such very juvenile views but using them to amuse his counterparts? I mean, one might expect a stand-up comedian, or a drunk in a bar, to get a laugh about English food, just as the same people here might start off on French notions of personal hygiene.

We can be just as bad. M. Chirac's remarks were no more ignorant than, say, the average comment of a British newspaper about anything relating to Germany. But, frankly, I don't believe in a million years that members of the British political class, even in private, make jokes about the French eating frogs' legs, or whatever. We've lived in an international environment for so long now that such remarks are not just in bad taste, but strong indicators of ignorance and provinciality.

In England, a politician would make jokes about foreign food, in particular, at his peril. Since Elizabeth David, and probably before, the English middle classes have taken it for granted that one of the reasons for travelling abroad is to try foreign food, and to take pleasure in the unfamiliar.

We probably forget that that is quite unusual. I once had the misfortune of going to Egypt with a group of 40 Italian tourists. They took it for granted that, in Egypt, they would eat exactly the same food that they ate at home, and went every evening to Italian restaurants; it is no surprise to discover that the Italian restaurants of Cairo are among the worst in the world. It was unfair, however, of my travelling companions to conclude on the basis of their experiences that the cooking in Egypt was terrible.

I doubt that many English travellers would be as naive as that, and the result is a culture which, not just in culinary matters, shrinks from chauvinistic expressions of disdain. M. Chirac's comments strike us as distinctly odd, not just because they are baseless, but because they reflect a provinciality now widely regarded as vulgar and snobbish.

Really, the tone of the remarks makes M. Chirac sound absolutely desperate, and, like a small child, reaching out to insult an easy target in the silliest and cheapest way. You have to feel for him, though; he is struggling under just too many problems, which he can't or won't deal with.

The referendum on the European constitution; the power of the trades unions; the indefensible CAP; appalling social problems among racial minorities and the dispossessed; M. Chirac just doesn't seem capable of coming to terms with anything. Perhaps the Trafalgar celebrations were the last straw; anyway, the poor man found some relief in being rude about the awful English.

Let's hope, in any event, that he gets the Olympics. That might cheer the poor sod up, and, let's face it, they need a boost more than we do.