Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Angleterre, je t'aime (by Giles Hattersley, the Sunday Times )

The Sunday Times
September 03, 2006

Giles Hattersley meets Marc Levy

The French ego has taken a beating this summer. In July Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, published Témoignage (Testimony) in which he told his countrymen to buck up, work harder and be more like the Brits. The response to Sarkozy’s call to arms was a resounding “Bof”. But thanks to some juicy revelations about the minister’s private life, the book has been at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list for weeks, permeating the culture with its doubting voice and making for plenty of uncomfortable debate about the national character.

This was only the beginning for France’s confidence crisis. Also that month Marc Levy, the country’s bestselling novelist, published Mes Amis Mes Amours, the story of two divorced Parisian men who move to the UK to raise their children. The plot was really just a framing device for Levy’s real purpose: a love letter to his adopted home of London.

In the book (which will be published in English next year) the author waxes poetic on the joys of living in Britain. He writes of superior baguettes (made by English hands with English flour), our lovely climate (“You never get a completely grey day like in Paris”), the charming locals (“Shop assistants that actually smile at you!”), a more varied intellectual life and a capital city more conducive to love than a moonlit stroll by the Seine. London, concludes Levy, is everything Paris was 40 years ago.

Like Témoignage, this slice of Franco-bashing shot straight to the top of the French bestseller list. At 400,000 copies it is already the highest selling novel of the year. But it has sparked far more vicious invective than Sarkozy’s book. Apparently it is one thing to brand the French as workshy, petty snobs who need to get the Anglo-Saxon work ethic, but questioning their ability to produce the world’s best pastries or doubting their supreme prowess as lovers is out of order.

On a recent debate on state radio, callers rang in to savage Levy’s pro-Anglo stance. It might be acceptable, they conceded, to live in London for some high-paying job, but the idea of crossing the Channel to improve on l’art de vivre was anathema.

“But look around us,” cries the rakish Levy, 44, in an accent courtesy of Jean-Paul Belmondo. “England is so marvellous.”

And he’s right. It does look marvellous sat in South Kensington, sipping Perrier outside Levy’s favourite cafe, the Raison d’Etre. This is home to those baguettes that he’s so fond of and is on Bute Street, known affectionately among London’s large French population as Frog Alley. This evening, in the shadow of the Lycée Français, the bookshops and boulangeries are full of yummy mamans buying their children ice-creams and talking French.

As Peter Mayle wrote of the British invasion of Provence, this is the French response. “There are 300,000 of us in the UK now and it isn’t like we all come here just to get a job. It is more than economic. It’s about open minds. You may look uptight with your trench coats and umbrellas, but you are really very relaxed — more relaxed than we can ever be,” says Levy.

“Because of that, when you land here you feel as if you can do anything. The French try to restrain the attractiveness of England by saying it is only for jobs that we should come, but they should forget that. England is the land of opportunity. It is just like America 100 years ago.”

As his motherland is currently in economic purgatory, the opportunity bit seems a given. But can we really be culturally and socially superior? “Absolutely. Back in the 1960s Paris was the heart of creativity, although it wasn’t the richest city in the world and had great social problems. But it had this amazing energy and joy of life. It seems to me that, in the mid-1990s, this energy landed in London. London, and some other parts of England too, have this perfume of culture and happiness.”

But British culture is all Daily Star and Big Brother’s Chantelle. How can we compare with a country where philosophers are feted like rock gods? “It is a myth this thing about France being all high culture,” he laughs. “If Robbie Williams walked down the street in Paris with Bernard-Henri Lévy, I can assure you that no one will be shouting ‘Bernard! Bernard!’ There are many more French women who would prefer to have lunch with Johnny Hallyday than Jean-Paul Sartre.” Levy should know. His long-term girlfriend is a reporter for Paris Match magazine.

“Your culture here is really much more high. Your planning laws, for example, allow fantastic new buildings to be made. They are a sign that the whole country is progressing — 99% of Paris doesn’t even belong to the 21st century. Paris is like a dead city with no progress while everything here has the buzz,” Levy says.

“Even your television is wonderful and has a very sophisticated tone. Coupling, The Office — so clever, so funny. And I am absolutely the biggest fan of Nigella (Lawson). She is as beautiful and smart as any French woman and much more natural.”

But surely French women — who never get fat — are the best in the world? “I admit there is a kind of elegance to French women but it comes with a price. Historically, elegance is enforced in French culture and girls are judged very toughly from a young age. Sometimes this makes them not at all elegant on the inside.”

It also, believes Levy, results in a lot of French women (as well as plenty of men) adopting the “Ce n’est pas possible” attitude as a life philosophy: “It is defensiveness that makes them think that power can only come with saying ‘non’. They say it without thinking, all the time, every day, to everyone they meet. It’s like they think, “Lets start with ‘non’, have a think, then if we change our minds we can say ‘non’ to ‘non’. Anything so long as it’s never ‘oui’!” He laughs and lights a cigarette. “These sound like the small details of life to you, but I assure you when there is social or economic trouble in a society, like we are seeing in France now, the attitude of that society can be the difference between survival and disaster.”

Levy and Blighty enjoyed their coup de foudre shortly after he moved to London with his son Louis, then nine, in 2000. By that point he had lived all over. Born in France, as a young man he had worked for the Red Cross and lived in America before repairing to Paris to set up and run an architecture firm specialising in corporate headquarters (he did Coca-Cola and Evian).

In 1999 his sister, a screenwriter, came across a book that he had been tinkering over in his spare time: If Only It Were True, the story of a student’s love affair with a dying girl’s ghost. She encouraged her brother to send it to a publisher, who took it on. Within months the international rights were selling for seven-figure sums and Steven Spielberg had shelled out $2m to make the movie version — which came to light last year as the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Just Like Heaven.

An overnight sensation, Levy quit his job and upped sticks to London because he didn’t like people pointing at him in restaurants. Just as well. His five subsequent novels — which have now sold more than 10m copies — went on to be the bestselling French book in each year since 2000.

Back to the coup de foudre: “My son and I had just moved to London, off Oxford Street, and were late for school so we get a taxi. The driver takes us through Hyde Park where a man riding a horse comes along next to us. The driver and the horse rider they give each other the nod and start to gently race through the park. I turn to my son and I say, how many children can say they race a horse to school? This couldn’t happen in Paris because it is your crazy poetic humour.”

Humour, believes Levy, is our trump card. “Humour and ego fight to occupy the same place in the brain. In England the humour is always more likely to win and in France it will always be ego. The best thing about this for England is that it makes this country more civilised than France. If I was as polite to people in Paris as I have to be here they would spit at me in the street,” he shrugs Gallicly.

“But more than that, humour and civility have made your communities less divided. Last week again you all worried that multiculturalism has failed, but I think the opposite. All over London, all over England, people are getting on with it better than in most countries. The UK should be proud of its multicultural communities.

“I watched the race riots in France last year. It looked like the place was falling apart, which was not true. But integration has not worked as well there as it has in England. Part of that is because of economic problems but part is because of attitude.” Are you saying the French are more racist than the Brits? “It is not racism. It is arrogance and it is very widely spread. In the bad neighbourhoods and in the political classes people agree that things have to change but no one wants to do it.”

A passing beggar ambles up to the table and asks Levy, very politely, for money. “You see, in England even your homeless people are marvellous,” he says, beaming and handing over change.

There must be things you hate, though. He goes quiet for ages before saying that our public transport is dreadful. And British Telecom is a mess. And thank God his son is at the Lycée and not a state school. And that, at the first sniff of a cold, he will bypass the dreaded National Health Service for the French medical centre.

“Now I’m worried that my English neighbours are going to shout at me for being a traitor,” he says, reaching for another cigarette.

He should probably be much more scared of the French.

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