Magazine article The Spectator

France Is for Folk

Magazine article The Spectator

France Is for Folk

Article excerpt

THERE is no doubt about it, the French know how to put on a show. In this instance, I don't mean the Folies Bergere but the agricultural show that took place at Paris's equivalent of Earls Court last week (though, come to think of it, there may be a connection: aren't bergeres shepherdesses as well as wing chairs?) Imagine the Royal Show coming to central London. No, you can't, can you? But in Paris the Salon International de (Agriculture gets three and a half times as many visitors as our premier agricultural event. The posters of an enormous, golden-haired bull, which appeared on the backs of many buses, would probably be banned by Ken Livingstone. As for the ones in the Porte de Versailles, which showed a slice of steak wrapped up for the supermarket, with the word `Marguerite?' below it? Well, the French public is considerably more robust about what happens to its livestock than we are.

Anyone who has become used to the British mantra that farming is failing and rural life is in decline ought to see how they do it in France. One stand cheerfully displayed a selection of vicious-looking hunting knives, which would be under lock and key, if not illegal, in the United Kingdom (though, this being France, a number were combined with corkscrews, presumably so that you could crack open a bottle while gralloching your stag). Peep through a half-open door near the carriage horses, and you see a dozen or so men with Solzhenitsyn-style beards drinking red wine around a chequered tablecloth. This really did look like La France Profonde. To judge from their home-dyed hair, not to mention the singlemindedness with which they elbow you out of the way, a good number of visitors also come from the provinces: it is difficult to imagine that many residents of Paris would have much use for the day-old chicks that are on sale.

On the other hand, it is quite possible to picture some fancy breeds of fowl - with their pompoms, ruffs, feathery feet and, in the case of the dandified Leghorn cockerel, Mick Jaggerish gait - flapping around the boutiques of St-Germain. Artificial flowers, painted eggs, aromatic candles, garden benches, seed potatoes, ceramic fruit to put on the wall, violently coloured crystals in gigantic cocktail glasses in which to grow bulbs, a kind of Play-Doh (educatif et ludique) made out of organic maize - all rural France was vibrantly, festively, sometimes hideously there.

And yet at least 40 per cent of the visitors come from metropolitan Paris. This show does not exclusively cater to a narrow interest-group, made up of farmers and double-- dyed countrymen. It celebrates, reinforces even, some of the myths that are shared by French men and women of whatever origin. There is the myth of the farmer as artisan. This year I never reached the dairy section, but from my last visit I remember a series of romantic black-and-white photographs, taken by the French equivalent of the Milk Marketing Board, on the theme of femmes et fermes.

We were shown women such as Marie-- Noelle in the Cotes d'Armor, who has 65 milking cows. A calf had `just been born in the field without the least difficulty. It doesn't need to be trained to move into a box laid with fresh straw. Its mother's name is Venus.' Joelle in the Tarn-et-Garonne (20 cows) said, 'I am attached to my roots. I have never encountered anyone who would despise me because of my job. On the contrary, friends from Toulouse adore coming to the barns and getting on to a tractor.' Most of the economically indefensible units run by the women were said to make wonderful cheese. …

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