Paris Diary

While designer rioters clash with police in the surrealist streets of Strasbourg, the naked truth, outwitted by a caramel bar, goes on trial in Meaux, one of the cheese capitals of the world
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The Independent Online
Irony is one of those journalistic words which becomes as worn as a piece of soap in a cheap hotel. This week, for the first time in 10 years, I went to Strasbourg, one of my favourite cities (a city in which I have often had recourse to worn pieces of soap in cheap hotels). I experienced something with so many layers of crude irony, that it might have been scripted for a television movie.

In a town which has been fought over by the French and Germans for several centuries, I saw young French men and women and young Germans fighting side by side. To be precise, they were, in the spirit of anarchic European unity, smashing up kerbstones and hurling them at the CRS, the French riot police. They were doing so (supposedly) to protest against the semi- submerged racism and anti-semitism of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. The battlefield they chose - without thinking about it or, as far as I could see, about anything other than their evening's entertainment - was next to the Synagogue of Peace on the Avenue of Peace. The battle was all over in less than five minutes. The fashionably black-clad young French and German anarchists scattered at the first baton and tear gas charge by the CRS - themselves fetchingly attired in a new design of felt- lined, smoke-blue helmets.

I was triply annoyed with the Benetton and Gap anarchists. They had broken with the spirit of an otherwise peaceful demonstration against the NF national congress. They had given the odious Le Pen - a malevolent clown - something to bray about the next day. And, if I am honest with myself, I was most disappointed that, after I had stumbled on the scene at just the right moment, they did not provide me with a better punch-up and a better story.

It would happen in Strasbourg. Brussels is a famously surreal city, appropriately the home of Rene Magritte. But Strasbourg, the other Euro- capital, is also given to the surreal. It is an oddly attractive Franco- German mongrel: a mixture of German jolliness and French wit. Strasbourg food, more importantly, has French quality and German quantity. I first went there in 1980 to cover the European Parliament and went back often over the next seven years. The Parliament, with all its pretensions and barminess, was an intriguing place. The different nationalities of the EU were tipped out of the isolation of their comfortable Brussels homes and offices and pitched together for a week at a time. Strasbourg, as I knew it, was a place of weird political alliances, impossible cross- cultural friendships and ill-advised affairs.

It was epitomised by Bang the Bells, a bar and restaurant in the gloomy backstreets near the station, patronised by French stage-criminal types. It was run, with a tongue of iron, by a rotund middle-aged lady in an eyesight-threatening nylon dress. I have forgotten her name. I have forgotten the real name of Bang the Bells, if I ever knew it.

It had been colonised by Irish Euro MPs and, up to a point, British Labour members, then in the full rage of socialist Euro-scepticism. Mostly the cross-cultural relationship in Bang the Bells was Franco-Irish. It was called Bang the Bells because you had to ring to get in after a certain hour.

Karaoke was perpetrated in Bang the Bells long before the word entered the English language. One night John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, was obliged to sing, in a fine quavering baritone, "The Town I Loved So Well". Another night Frank Cluskey, Dick Spring's predecessor as the leader of the Irish Labour Party, a sweet bear of a man, was approached by an Irish visitor. "Mr Cluskey," she said, "is this how socialists eat?" Frank looked down at what was a perfectly normal gargantuan Strasbourg meal. "Yes, missus," he said. "Through my gob like everyone else."

After the riot manque on the Avenue of Peace, I walked into the city centre. Its narrow old streets had been wholly occupied by roving gangs of French and German kids from that day's demonstration. They were smashing the occasional window, lighting bonfires, playing tom-toms, juggling with clubs, rolling joints. It was like being in a medieval city which had just been stormed by a foreign army.

The Strasbourgeois were nowhere to be seen on the streets but were, mysteriously, occupying their normal places in all the restaurants. I joined them happily for a while. Afterwards, I was drawn by migratory instinct towards Bang the Bells. I knew it would not be there. Madame of the lurid dresses did a runner years ago. Some misunderstanding about tax, apparently. I found what I believed to be the historic site. It is now occupied by a perfectly ordinary-looking formica and aluminium bar. Ah, the town I loved so well ...

Meaux is a dull town east of Paris best known for cheese (it is one of the capitals of the Brie country). It risks becoming more famous later this month for a court case, a riddle found in a caramel bar, and a middle aged philosophy teacher who stripped naked in front of his pupils.

Bernard Defrance, 51, faces a stiff fine and possibly the sack. He deserves, in my opinion, the Legion d'honneur. His classroom striptease was an act of immense courage, performed to encourage his pupils to think for themselves (something which the French are beginning to realise that their technically excellent but rigid school system does not do often enough).

To jolt his students out of conventional thought patterns, Mr Defrance has for 20 years, without previous complaint, played a game with his 18- year-old pupils called "strip-philo". He has even written a book about it. Willing candidates have to answer questions on the theme of "Qui suis- je?" (Who am I?). If they get a question wrong, they remove a piece of clothing. At the insistence of his students, Mr Defrance also takes part.

In November last year, a pupil came up with a riddle he had found on the wrapper of a caramel bar: "Je suis Sophie, mais je ne suis pas Sophie. Qui suis- je?" (I am Sophie but I am not Sophie. Who am I?) Mr Defrance could not solve the riddle and ended up naked. One of the other pupils complained to his parents. They complained to the police.

The key to the riddle is that it is a pun on the verbs etre (to be) and suivre (to follow). The question can also be understood as: "I follow Sophie but I am not Sophie. Who am I?" The answer is: "Sophie's dog or Sophie's lover." Mr Defrance faces the court case on 21 April with Socratic equanimity. He is ashamed, he says, of only two things: that he did not realise that one of the students was uncomfortable with the game; and that he, a teacher of philosphy for 30 years, was defeated by a riddle from a sweety bar.