The Things France Does Better

The Huffington Post celebrated Bastille Day last year with a list of fourteen things they reckon France does better than anyone else in the world. With France in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, I thought it might be a good moment to remind ourselves of everything that’s brilliant about the country. Here’s their selection:


As the French celebrate their national holiday on July 14, the love for their country will be on full display. What better way to mark Bastille Day than to give La Belle France kudos for the many stylish ways in which it trounces the rest of the world? From delectable delicacies to iconic structures, take a look at the reasons why we tip our hats — or excuse us, berets — to France for simply doing some things better than anyone else.

1) Enticing Visitors From Around The World

france tourist take picture
A tourist takes a picture of a souvenir shop at the Champs-Elysees in Paris. (AFP Photo/Jacques Demarthon)

It’s not just the French who love their country; the world loves France too. France was the world’s top tourist destination in 2012, with 83 million foreign visitors — that’s almost 20 million people more than the country’s total population.

2) Mastering The Art Of Affection

A couple kisses during a flashmob in Paris on February 14, 2014. (AFP Photo/Francoi Guillot)

With its cute bars, the banks of the Seine and magical Montmartre, Paris consistently tops the lists of most romantic cities in the world and is a top honeymoon destination. Words like “chérie,” “amour,” and “French kiss” have become part of a global lexicon of love. And the French aren’t all talk either, as the country has consistently ranked among the countries whose inhabitants have the most sex.

3) Serving Lip-Smacking Pastries

french macarons
Macaroons at a bakery in Paris. (AFP Photo/Francois Guillot)

Croissants. Macarons. Éclairs. Madeleines. If your mouth isn’t watering just thinking of these sumptuous French pastries, you should probably have your taste buds checked. Chefs like Christophe Adam, famous for his bright-colored éclairs, andMussipontain cake master Sébastien Gaudard have developed a fan base around the world.

4) Sharing Their Exquisite Wine With The Rest Of The World

horse drawn cart is used on
A horse-drawn cart is used to collect grapes at the Laur-Bauzil domain of the Massamier la Mignarde castle near the southwestern French town of Pepieux. (AFP Photo/Pascal Pavani)

While the French have surprised the world with a significant drop in wine consumption in recent years, the average resident of the wine heartland still drinks 1.2 bottles a week. And fear not — since France remains a top wine exporter, you can still imbibe as much Bordeaux and Burgundy as you’d like. France reaped in 5.6 billion euros ($7.7 billion) from wine exports in 2012. Demand from the Asian market for French wine has bolstered exports, with China guzzling down a whopping 1.36 billion bottles of wine last year.

5) Taking Their Demands To The Streets

france protest large
Some 30,000 people protest in the streets of the French eastern city of Grenoble. (AFP Photo/Jean-Pierre Clatot

The French seem to have perfected the art of protest. Whether it’s a demonstration around a higher retirement age, train workers going on strike, or fed-up passengerspushing back against the train workers’ strike, the French are never too shy to take their demands to the streets. Alternatives Economiques writes that while the country today sees fewer strikes than it did in the ’70s, the nation still has more strikes than most other developed nations.

6) Having A Way With Words

jean paul sartre
French playwriter and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his study in Paris, on November 28, 1948. (AP Photo)

Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre: The bon mot of France is world-renowned. But did you know France has taken home 15 Nobel Prizes in Literature — more than any other nation — since the inception of the awards?

7) Serving Award-Winning, Exquisite Cuisine

france michelin restaurant
French Chef Paul Bocuse and his assistants Gilles Reinhardt, left, and Christophe Mulle, right, in the kitchen of his famed Michelin three-star restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Collonges-au-Mont-d’or. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

France’s gourmet tastes and history of fine dining make it no surprise that the nation received more Michelin stars than any other country in 2013. Recently, in Paris aloneyou could choose from 70 starred restaurants, 10 of which had received the exclusive three-star rating. In the Michelin rankings, only Japan comes close to challenging France’s fame for food.

8) Taking Work-Life Balance Seriously

france smartphone
People show their smartphones on December 25, 2013 in Dinan, northwestern France. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

France’s “joie de vivre” may stem in part from the government’s strong record in defending workers’ rights to disconnect. In 1998, the administration agreed on a 35-hour work week, after which overtime kicks in. And just recently
France amended national regulations stipulating that certain classes of workers should be guaranteed the ability to disconnect from remote working devices during 11-hour “rest periods.”

9) Maintaining A Laissez-Faire Attitude Toward Their Leaders’ Romantic Relationships

hollande affair
Celebrity news magazines headlining on French President Francois Hollande are on display at a Paris newstand. (AP Photo/Zacharie Scheurer)

The rumors surrounding President François Hollande’s romantic relationships have given the French much to chat about. But reports of infidelity are nothing new for French leaders: Several past presidents have confirmed their extramarital affairs. Perhaps most notorious was François Mitterrand’s orchestrated announcement of his second family, which was kept secret for 14 years of his presidency. And many French people might be understanding of their leaders’ romantic decisions: A poll from the Pew Research Center showed that the French are more accepting of infidelity than people in other countries.

10) Producing Elegant Mature Femmes Fatales

catherine deneuve
Actress Catherine Deneuve poses for photographers as she arrives in Cannes for the film festival. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

With elder actresses like Catherine Deneuve and politicians like Ségolène Royal, the French have a handful of classic ladies of a certain age to look up to. And while many these celebs may hold their anti-aging tactics close to their chests, some have revealedquirky strategies: “The day I stopped using soap, my life changed,” declared actress and TV presenter Léa Drucker.

11) Designing Haute Couture

givenchy paris fashion week
A model walks the runway during the Givenchy show as part of the Paris Fashion Week. (Francois Durand/Getty Images)

What can rival the iconic looks of Gaultier’s striped sailor shirt, Louboutin’s red-soled high heels or the suit jackets and pearls from Chanel? So strap on those stilettos and throw your scarf into the air if you want to even consider competing with those French fashionistas.

12) Building Beautiful Structures, Old and New

louvre exterior
A picture taken at night shows the Louvre museum Pyramid. (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure

France has gifted the world with some of the most iconic and breathtaking buildings,modern and classic alike. The Centre Pompidou museum and the Flower Towerresidential building are just some of the ultra modern pieces in Paris. Meanwhile, the Palace of Versailles is a masterpiece of secular baroque architecture; the Notre Dame Cathedral is a standard bearer of Gothic style; and the Eiffel Tower once wasconsidered one of the most avant garde structures of its time. And lest we forget the grandiose chateaux, which you’ll find both in the sprawling countryside of the Loire Valley as well as in urban centers. France is among the top five countries with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 39 of France’s beautiful structures are currentlyprotected with the label, with an additional 37 submitted for approval.

13) Keeping The Wheels Going Round

tour de france paris
Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish during the 20th stage of the the Tour de France in Paris, France, Sunday July 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

It’s no wonder that it was a Frenchman who established the world record for being the fastest recorded centenarian cyclist, at 102 years old. Indeed, the bicycle and French culture go hand in hand. Not only does the French countryside provide for some of the world’s best cycling routes, but the country is also home to the world’s foremost cycling event: Le Tour de France. While last year’s edition marked the tour’s 100th anniversary, the tradition is actually 110 years old (it was suspended during the world wars).

14) Sneaking Their Words Into The English Language

A concierge takes a reservation on January 4, 2013 in Cannes, France. (AFP Photo/Jean Christophe Magnenet)

It’s a fait accompli: The French language has sabotaged English conversation with countless words and expressions. So whether you’re an amateur or a savant of French idioms, you’ll likely experience déjà-vu when listening in on a rapport between two Francophones. And with French as an official language in 29 countries, and one of the official languages of the United Nations, it would be quite the faux pas to not expand your cache of the so-called “Language of Love.

Bookshelf Book Club: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

 posted by Simon Kemp

 As promised, a reading recommendation from the works of France’s newest Nobel laureate. Unusually for Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (1997) is actually non-fiction, but it reads so much like his novels that many of its early readers thought it was one.

The story begins when Modiano comes across a brief article in an old French newspaper, dated 31 December 1941, at which point France was under Nazi Occupation. The article was a plea for information about a missing girl, with a description of her appearance and the clothes she was last seen wearing. Here it is:

ON RECHERCHE une jeune fille, Dora Bruder, 15 ans, 1 m. 55, visage ovale, yeux gris marron, manteau sport gris, pull-over bordeaux, jupe et chapeau bleu marine, chaussures sport marron. Adresser toutes indications à M. et Mme Bruder, 41 boulevard Ornano, Paris.

PARIS. A young girl, Dora Bruder, is missing, 15 years old, 1 m. 55, oval face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports coat, dark red jumper, navy blue skirt and hat, brown sports shoes. Any information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.


For some of Modiano’s readers, this petite annonce was already familiar, since it had appeared in an earlier novel of his, with no indication at that point that it was a genuine newspaper article. As Modiano explains in Dora Bruder:


Je n’ai cessé d’y penser durant des mois et des mois. (…) Il me semblait que je ne parviendrais jamais à retrouver la moindre trace de Dora Bruder. Alors le manque que j’éprouvais m’a poussé à l’écriture d’un roman, Voyage de noces.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months and months. (…) I felt that I would never manage to find the slightest trace of Dora Bruder. So the lack that I was feeling pushed me into writing a novel, Honeymoon.


In returning to Dora’s story in non-fiction, Modiano isn’t simply writing her biography. Indeed, the story of the troubled Jewish girl who runs away from home, returns, and some months later is arrested, interned in Paris, and finally sent to her death in a concentration camp, has left so little mark on history that Modiano struggles to find the barest details of who she was and what she experienced.

Rather, he gives us the story of his investigation, exploring archives for mentions of her name, revisiting the places she lived to absorb their atmosphere. In the  course of his research, he discovers police reports on the arrests of French Jews, desperate pleas in letters from the relatives of those taken, and letters home from the internment camps on the eve of deportation. Many of these find their way into Modiano’s book verbatim, so that at some points Modiano’s own account fades behind a collage of documents from the Occupation. And intertwined with these strands of Dora’s story, the story of Modiano’s research, and the fragments of other stories of those caught up in the Holocaust, comes one further narrative strand, which is Modiano’s own story, and the roots of his obsession in his own troubled family background. Modiano’s father, we learn, was a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust through his close association with a band of collaborationist thugs, the Rue Lauriston Gang, who at one point intercede after he has been arrested to save him from deportation to the death camps. This difficult legacy of a father who was both Jew and collaborator, victim and accomplice in the Holocaust, lies at the root of all Modiano’s writing, but rarely as clearly shown as here.

Like all Modiano’s books, Dora Bruder is short, written in simple, accessible French, and a very powerful piece of writing.You’ll find no better introduction to France’s années noires, and the uneasy memories of those years in contemporary French society. Here, to finish, is a short extract from the book, in which Modiano visits the military barracks where Dora was held with other Jewish people, before being sent to Drancy, and thence to Auschwitz:


Le boulevard était désert, ce dimanche-là, et perdu dans un silence si profond que j’entendais le bruissement des platanes. Un haut mur entoure l’ancienne caserne des Tourelles et cache les bâtiments de celle-ci. J’ai longé ce mur. Une plaque y est fixée sur laquelle j’ai lu :




Je me suis dit que plus personne ne se souvenait de rien. Derrière le mur s’étendait un no man’s land, une zone de vide et d’oubli. Les vieux bâtiments des Tourelles n’avaient pas été détruits comme le pensionnat de la rue de Picpus, mais cela revenait au même.

Et pourtant, sous cette couche épaisse d’amnésie, on sentait bien quelque chose, de temps en temps, un écho lointain, étouffé, mais on aurait été incapable de dire quoi, précisément. C’était comme de se trouver au bord d’un champ magnétique, sans pendule pour en capter les ondes. Dans le doute et la mauvaise conscience, on avait affiché l’écriteau « Zone militaire. Défense de filmer ou de photographier ».

The boulevard was deserted that Sunday, and lost in such deep silence that I could hear the rustle of the plane trees. There is a high wall around the former Tourelles barracks which hides its buildings. I walked along this wall. There’s a sign on it, on which I read:



I said to myself that nobody remembers anything any more. Behind the wall stretched out a no-man’s-land, a zone of emptiness and oblivion. The old buildings of Tourelles hadn’t been destroyed like [Dora’s] boarding school in the Rue de Picpus, but it came down to the same thing.

But under this thick layer of amnesia you could still feel something now and then, a distant, stifled echo, although you couldn’t say what exactly. It was like being on the edge of a magnetic field, without a pendulum to capture its waves. In doubt and troubled conscience, they had put up the sign: “Military Zone. No Filming or Photography.”


Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder is available in French, as a paperback or e-book, or in English translation.

Be an Oxford Student for a week this summer (for free!)

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posted by Simon Kemp

Would you like to spend a week with us this summer, living in an Oxford college, learning about French language and culture, and getting a taste of what it’s like to study here as a student? All entirely FREE of charge, food and accommodation included? (We’ll even pay for your train ticket to get here.)

If you’re currently in Year 12 of a state school studying French, and have nothing better to do from the 4th to the 10th July this year, please do think about signing up for the course, or for one of the dozens of others on offer, including German, Spanish, or ‘beginner languages’ to give you a little experience of Russian, Portuguese and Italian languages and cultures. (Note that different courses run on different weeks through the summer.)

Here are the details of the French week:

This UNIQ course is a chance to immerse yourself in the literature, theatre, poetry, film and linguistics of the French language.You will spend daily sessions at the Language Centre practising and improving your existing language skills, followed by fascinating lectures and seminars, and the chance to use the world famous Taylorian and Bodleian libraries for private study. 

Our aim is to give you a taste of what it is really like to read French at Oxford, and to give you a sense of the unrivalled breadth of our course. Throughout the week, you will have the opportunity to hone your language skills and consolidate your knowledge of French grammar. You will also participate in classes introducing you to an exciting array of topics, ranging from Linguistics and 17th-century tragedy to French-language cinema and 19th-century poetry.

You will be expected to do some preparatory reading before the course so that you can make the most of the week you spend here: we’ve chosen Annie Ernaux’s 20th-century classic autobiographical text La place.  We will post a copy of the book to all successful participants in early June. Following a lecture that will explore some of the key themes and contexts surrounding Ernaux’s book, you will have the chance to test out (and flesh out) your ideas in a seminar. On the Friday, you will even experience an Oxford-style tutorial, in which you and three other students get to discuss your close reading of a poem with a specialist.

Student Experiences

“I really enjoyed the intimacy of the Alumni Dinner. Also, I enjoyed the morning grammar classes and the 17th Century French Theatre lecture as I was not expecting to enjoy it but really loved it!”

“The mentors were really friendly and easy to relate to, and the tutors were not as scary as I had thought they would be! It was a real adventure and one I wouldn’t hesitate to do again.”

You can find details of all the courses on offer here, along with information about how to sign up. The deadline for applications is February 12th, so you don’t have long to think about it, I’m afraid. We hope to see you in July!

Charlie Hebdo: France and Islam

posted by Simon Kemp

I’m sure you’ve already seen a lot about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and its aftermath (ongoing as I write) from English-language media. In the French press, one article in particular struck me as giving a helpful context to the events for non-French readers. It’s from the newspaper Libération, and it gives you a very quick crash course on Islam in France over the past few years. It’s entitled ‘L’islam, névrose nationale?’ (‘Islam, our national neurosis?’), was written by Cécile Daumas and Bernadette Sauvage, and published the day after the attack. You can find the original here. Below is an extract I’ve annotated for learners of French with difficult vocabulary picked out in red and listed beneath each paragraph, plus links in green to explain famous names and other cultural references.


L’islam, névrose nationale?



7 JANVIER 2015 À 20:26


(Photo Guillaume Binet. MYOP)

Depuis des mois, et particulièrement ces jours-ci, la crispation identitaire est palpable. Ce mercredi matin sur France Inter, les auditeurs se sont réveillés en 2022 : la France a pour président le musulman Mohammed Ben Abbes. Au micro de la matinale, face à Patrick Cohen, Michel HouellebecqSoumissionson dernier roman, sort ce jour en librairie. Les passages les plus violents du livre ne concernent pas tant l’instauration de ce nouveau régime islamique que des attaques aussi sporadiques qu’anonymes – sont-ce des musulmans ou des identitaires ? – qui ensanglantent le pays. Dans la fiction houellebecquienne, des corps jonchent aussi le sol, la France est au bord de la guerre civile…

la crispation identitaire: hardening or growing tension around the question of (national/religious/ethnic) identity

un auditeur: a listener

la matinale: breakfast show (hosted on France Inter by Patrick Cohen)

aussi sporadiques qu’anonymes: ‘as sporadic as they are anonymous’

identitaires: hard-right nationalists associated with the  identitaire movement

ensanglanter: to make bloody

joncher: to lie strewn over

L’hebdomadaire Valeurs actuelles, lui, vient tout juste de boucler sa une : «Peur sur la France – Islam, et si Houellebecq avait raison ?» avec la photo d’une femme en niqab bleu-blanc-rouge. La rentrée littéraire de janvier commence à peine et la question de l’islam est à nouveau en tête de gondole des librairies. Depuis trois mois, Eric Zemmour est sur le devant de la scène médiatique avec sa dernière et énième polémique sur le sort des 5 millions de musulmans à renvoyer chez eux. Et voici Houellebecq qui prend le relais

L’hebdomadaire : weekly magazine or newspaper. The ‘hebdo’ of Charlie hebdo is short for hebdomadaire.

boucler sa une: ‘boucler’ is to finish off or wrap up, ‘la une’ is the front page.

La rentrée littéraire: period in which French publishing houses concentrate their releases. The main rentrée littéraire is in September, when almost as many books are published as in the other months of the year put together. January is the focus of a smaller version of the rentrée.

en tête de gondole: literally ‘as a gondola head’, which is apparently also used as a marketing term in English, although I’ve never heard it. It means ‘promoted’, like putting a product on display at the head of a supermarket aisle.

sur le devant de la scène médiatique: ‘in the media spotlight’ (literally, ‘at the front of the media stage’).

énième: umpteenth

prendre le relais: take over (from someone)

Certes, le talent – évident – du romancier n’a rien à voir avec les provocations fausses et faciles du chroniqueur, mais tous deux se font les témoins d’une France en déclin rongée par le multiculturalisme et une forme de progressisme qui irait droit dans le mur. Zemmour a vendu 400 000 exemplaires de son Suicide françaisparu en octobre, Houellebecq est parti pour engranger les mêmes scores. Plus confidentiel, moins polémique, le professeur de sciences politiques Laurent Bouvet vient de sortir cette semaine l’Insécurité culturelle: la crise économique n’expliquerait pas tout du malaise français, il faut aussi prendre en compte les relations conflictuelles à la mondialisation, aux élites, à l’islam. En septembre, le géographe Christophe Guilluy interroge dans la France périphérique «le rapport à l’étranger» qui ne serait jamais une évidence

le chroniqueur: columnist (i.e. Zemmour)

 se font les témoins de: ‘claim to be bearing witness to’

rongée: from ronger, to gnaw (a rodent is un rongeur in French). Here, figuratively, gnawed or eaten away.

engranger: to bag (the image is of getting your harvest into your barn)

Plus confidentiel: can mean ‘more confidential’, but here, more like ‘for a more limited readership’.

n’expliquerait pas: can mean ‘would not explain’, but here it has the sense of ‘according to the book, the economic crisis does not explain…’. ‘Perdrait’ in the paragraph below uses the conditional for the same effect.

la mondialisation: globalization

qui ne serait jamais une évidence: ‘which, according to him, is never a straightforward one’

Intellectuels, polémistes et écrivains en font-ils trop autour de l’islam et de la figure de l’étranger ? Pourquoi cette focalisation dans le débat d’idées ? Réelle préoccupation ou obsession tournant à la névrose française ? Avant Zemmour, il y avait eu, en 2013, l’Identité malheureuse d’Alain Finkielkraut, déploration d’une France qui perdrait ses racines face à une immigration mal intégrée. Renaud Camus, lui, a forgé la théorie du «grand remplacement». Selon lui, les pouvoirs politique et médiatique nient la réalité du changement de peuple et de civilisation. La droite et son extrême surfent sur la thèse, la gauche, «angélique et multiculturelle», est accusée de fermer les yeux.

en faire trop autour de qqch: to exaggerate, make too much of something

la racine: root (literal and figurative)

nier: to deny

surfent sur la thèse: literally, ‘surf on the thesis’, the idea being that the far right are making hay or having a field day with the idea that immigration has profoundly and permanently changed the nature of French society.

angélique: ‘angelic’, but not meant as a compliment! It suggests being out of touch with the real world, and blind to its dark side.

En fait, cette production littéraire et intellectuelle est le reflet de ce qui se joue depuis une quinzaine d’années sur le terrain politique et social. A l’instar d’autres nations européennes, comme l’Allemagne, la France se trouve dans une circonstance historique exceptionnelle: l’implantation sur son sol d’une nouvelle religion. Du point de vue de l’histoire, cela n’était pas arrivé depuis la chute de l’Empire romain et l’installation du christianisme. L’islam d’Europe, de son côté, est confronté à un lourd défi, celui de vivre en situation de minoritaires. En termes politiques, ce choc culturel et religieux donne les débats sur le voile à l’école à partir de 2003, la question de l’identité nationale quelques années plus tard, l’obligation pour les musulmans de donner sans cesse des preuves de leur adhésion au «modèle français».

A l’instar de: following the example of

la chute: fall

un lourd défi:  a big challenge

Jusqu’aux années 90, pourtant, la question de l’islam reste relativement dépassionnée. Bon an, mal an, la religion, dernière arrivée dans l’Hexagone, prend sa place. De grandes fédérations musulmanes voient le jour. Des mosquées sont construites sans provoquer de polémiques. La classe politique, à travers ses maires, de gauche comme de droite, a semble-t-il «acté» la nécessité de donner sa place à l’islam.

dépassionnée: calm, not heated

Bon an, mal an: literally, ‘[averaging out] the good years and the bad ones’, so perhaps ‘through the ups and downs over the years’.

l’Hexagone: mainland France (because it’s shaped like one).

voient le jour: literally, ‘see the daylight’, so perhaps ‘come into being’.

acter: put into action

Mais au fur et à mesure des crispations identitaires, les discours sur la laïcité et la place de l’islam dans la République se durcissent«Décomplexés»comme le dit Jean-François Copé, l’ex-patron de l’UMP. Une radicalisation se situe au milieu des années 2000, après les attentats du 11 Septembre. En 2006, les caricatures de Mahomet, reprises par Charlie Hebdo comme par plusieurs autres journaux européens, marquent un débat qui se mène, cette fois, au nom de la liberté de la presse.

la laïcité: secularism, the strict separation of religion from state

se durcir: harden

décomplexé: literally, ‘rid of your complexes’, so might translate as ‘more confident’ or ‘less inhibited’

l’UMP:Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the main French right-wing party, and the party of Sarkozy and Chirac

Dans un système politique à bout de souffle, les batailles électorales sont de plus en plus contaminées par le sujet. En 2012, avec un FN remis en scène par la présidence de Marine Le Pen, la dénonciation des communautarismes s’installe au cœur de la campagne présidentielle de Nicolas Sarkozy, puis de celle de Jean-François Copé pour la présidence de l’UMP. Le malaise identitaire et son exploitation font, en partie, office de programme politique pour une droite déboussolée, ne sachant plus comment contenir la vague frontiste. Longtemps ignorée par la gauche, cette question identitaire, et donc le rapport à l’islam, finit par s’imposer aussi dans les rangs socialistes, avec sa part de tensions et de frictions. Sujet suffisamment explosif que François Hollande s’est bien gardé d’aborder pendant sa première partie de mandat. En deux ans et demi, il n’aura prononcé aucun discours sur un islam de France. Un vide que viennent combler les essais en librairie.

 à bout de souffle: literally ‘out of breath’, perhaps here ‘running out of steam’.

FN: Le Front National, extreme right-wing party, which, unlike the UK National Front, is a major political force, polling up to 18% in French presidential elections.

le communautarisme: communitarianism (here used negatively in the sense of a fragmentation of society into separate communities)

faire office de: act as, serve as

déboussolé: bewildered, having lost your bearings (literally, de-compassed)

contenir la vague frontiste: ‘hold back the wave of National Front support’.

combler un vide: fill a gap

Fun with Grammar: Cooking with “de”

Today’s task is to make this cake:


To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:



There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant. The French is in magical inviso-text that you can reveal by highlighting it. (I’ll include all the answers at the bottom of the post too, in case you’re on a touch screen and can’t highlight easily.)

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)








Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles. Inviso-text on!


J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)









J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

How did you do? As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:


de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un


de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel

Inviso-free answers:

Voici le sucre. Voici la tablette de chocolat. Voici les pépites de chocolat. Voici un bol. Voici une cuillère en bois. Voici des oeufs. Voici du beurre. Voici de la farine.

J’ai besoin du sucre. J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. J’ai besoin d’un bol. J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. J’ai besoin d’oeufs. J’ai besoin de beurre. J’ai besoin de farine.

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)