Category Archives: French life

Tout finit par des chansons

EUrovision logo

posted by Catriona Seth

            Yes, it’s that time of year again: the daffodils have come and gone, the lily of the valley is blooming, the lambs are frolicking in the fields and… the Eurovision song contest is upon us. As you may know, the French are fiercely patriotic about how much time is given to French chansons on their airwaves. Armed with knowledge of past Eurovision successes in la langue de Molière, like Patricia Kaas’ S’il fallait le faire [If it had to be done] (2009), Marie Myriam’s L’enfant et l’oiseau [The child and the bird] (1977), France Gall’s Poupée de cire, poupée de son [Wax doll, rag doll] (1965) or Belgian Sandra Kim’s J’aime la vie [I love life] (1986), not to mention Céline Dion’s 1988 winner for Switzerland, Ne partez pas sans moi (Don’t leave without me), all of which can be found here,, I trawled the internet to find out what countries which count French amongst their official languages were sending as their musical message to the world. I was in for a severe disappointment. Switzerland is going for The Last of our Kind by a Canadian called Rykka, Belgium for Laura’s What’s the pressure and Luxembourg is not entering this year. France has, perhaps uncharacteristically, gone for a long bilingual song called J’ai cherché [I have looked for] which is here One presumes that the singer, Amir, is hedging his bets and trying to appeal to different constituencies by choosing to sing both in French and in English. Overall, it is a meagre crop for les francophones, you may say. Indeed, so let’s hear it for one candidate who comes from an exclusively German-speaking land, Austria, and is singing in French: Zoë, with Loin d’ici [Far from here].




Zoë Straub is 19 and attended the Lycée Français in Vienna so her French is perfect. Try listening to the song first to see how much of it you catch. It is about a faraway land which is a sort of paradise we should strive for.

Here are the lyrics, with a couple of words explained at the bottom of the page:

Et quand tu chantes, oui moi je chante aussi
Quand tu t’élances, je suis
Et quand tu voles, oui moi je vole aussi
Si tu t’élances, j’te suis

Dans un pays loin d’ici
A la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
A la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante…

Et quand la route nous semble sans issue
Sans aucun doute, j’te suis
Sans aucun doute, même si on s’ra perdus
Sans aucun doute, j’te suis

Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante

On chante et on danse et on rit, on s’élance, réuni, enivré, dans l’imprudence

Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante

On chante, on chante, on danse, on danse
Dans un pays
On chante, on chante, on danse, on danse
Loin d’ici.

You will notice the elisions in the sung version (j’te instead of je te; on s’ra for on sera).

Je suis here is the first person of the verb suivre, to follow, not of être.

S’élancer is to rush or dash forward.

Enivré is the past participle of the verb enivrer. Être enivré is to be drunk (ivre). It is used her metaphorically.

A quick note on the title of this post. Tout finit par des chansons: this is the last line of Beaumarchais’ famous Mariage de Figaro. In the play, it more or less means It all ends happily. Literally, it means It all ends with songs.

La Galette des Rois

photo [8485]

posted by Catriona Seth

Whilst France is proud of its republicanism with ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ as its motto, and of its secularism or ‘laïcité’, many of its traditions go back to the ‘Ancien Régime’, the pre-revolutionary catholic monarchy. One of these is derived at once from marking Epiphany or Twelfth night (‘l’Epiphanie’ or ‘le jour des Rois’) when the three wise men (‘les rois mages’ or magus kings as they are known in French) are said to have bestowed gifts on Jesus, and from carnivalesque celebrations in which social hierarchies could briefly be reversed, in the spirit of the Roman Saturnalia. The ‘galette des Rois’ is the sweet pie served on the ‘jour des Rois’. Like Victorian Christmas puddings, it contains a charm. Originally ‘galettes des Rois’ were baked with a raw broad bean or ‘fève’. Whoever found it in their portion became king or queen for the day. Modern boulangeries and pâtisseries offer a bewildering variety of ‘galettes des Rois’ with little china or earthenware charms called ‘fèves’ after the more prosaic pulse used in bygone years. The first of these porcelain charms are thought to have been in the shape of babies meant to represent Jesus. When the Revolution briefly renamed the ‘galette des Rois’ ‘galette de l’Egalité’, the republican ‘bonnet phrygien’ or Phrygian cap was the inspiration for the shape of the ‘fève’.

photo (28) [8487]

            The most usual recipes for ‘galette des Rois’ are of ‘pâte feuilletée’ (puff pastry) filled with ‘frangipane’ (frangipani or almond stuffing), except in the South of France where the ‘gâteau des Rois’ is a brioche flavoured with orange blossom (‘fleur d’oranger’).

When the pudding is served, chance plays its part in the selection process which is called ‘tirer les rois’: the youngest member of the party, ‘le benjamin’, squats under the table and calls out the name of the person to whom each piece of the ‘galette’ is to be given. You become king or queen, can choose a consort and are allowed to keep the ‘fève’ if it is your piece of pie. Collectors of ‘fèves’ are known as ‘fabophiles’. Nowadays, pâtisseries and boulangeries supply paper crowns when you purchase a ‘galette’ and the ‘fèves’ come in many shapes, from cartoon characters like Astérix or Tintin to famous people like Marie-Antoinette or Napoleon, from Provençal ‘santons’ to cars, planes or all manner of other things including rings—which may allude to one legend: that the inspiration for the first ‘fève’ was the heroine of Perrault’s fairytale, ‘Peau d’âne’, losing her ring in the cake she baked.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, before the Revolution, when republican ideals were being actively discussed by some intellectuals, the ‘philosophe’ Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote occasional verse when he became ‘roi de la fève’ two years running. Here is the beginning of the ‘Complainte’ in which he refers to ‘les embarras de la royauté’, the particular troubles one has to face when one is monarch.


Quand on est roi, l’on a plus d’une affaire,

Voisins jaloux, arsenaux à munir,

Peuple hargneux, complots à prévenir,

Travaux en paix, dangers en guerre,

Ma foi, je crois qu’on ne s’amuse guère

Quand on est roi.


The stanza uses different types of lines (‘vers hétérométriques’). In French verse, stresses are not counted but syllables are and, on the whole, give their name to the lines (the exception being the twelve-syllable line more often called ‘alexandrin’ or alexandrine than ‘dodécasyllabe’, and of which there are two in the last quotation infra). Here you have examples of ‘décasyllabes’, ‘octosyllabes’ and a final ‘tétrasyllabe’ (which acts as a refrain in the rest of the poem). Diderot was a famous thinker and writer, but did not go down in history as a great poet. This is a piece written for fun rather than for posterity. A little further along Diderot says that when he fell asleep during his term as king, in his dreams he carried out heroic exploits and made new laws of a particular kind:


Vraiment, je fis des lois, je les fis même en vers.

En vers mauvais ; qui vous dit le contraire ?

But then writing bad verse, he adds, is not a cardinal sin, even if you are a king!


Avoir une affaire: nowadays ‘affaires’ refer to business. A businessman or woman is ‘un homme ou une femme d’affaires’, if you work in business you are ‘dans les affaires’. If you say ‘j’ai une affaire en ville’ it means I have some business to sort out in town. In the poem ‘avoir plus d’une affaire’ means to have a lot on your plate which you need to sort out.

Arsenaux à munir: ‘arsenaux’ is the regular plural of ‘arsenal’, which was originally where warships were built and armed. It is also, as in English, a weapons depot—and that, incidentally helps explain why Arsenal footballers are known as ‘the gunners’. ‘Munir’ here has the same root as ‘munitions’ (the noun exists both in English and in French). It basically means to stock up or equip. It can be used simply to say that you have what you need for a particular purpose: ‘pour faire mes courses, je suis muni(e) d’un gros sac’ means you are well prepared with a big bag to go shopping.

Hargneux is an adjective formed on the noun ‘hargne’, spite, so it means spiteful or aggressive.

Un Complot : a plot

Prévenir : Here it means to prevent, as in the popular saying ‘mieux vaut prévenir que guérir’. Often it is a synonym of ‘avertir’, to warn.



Here is a 1774 painting called Le Gâteau des Rois, housed in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. It is by one of Diderot’s favourite artists, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). It is a ‘scène de genre’ or ‘genre painting’ showing ordinary people in a domestic setting and is a far cry from some of the grandiose mythological pictures which other contemporary painters produced. Greuze made a point of representing family members in their homes, usually wearing their everyday clothes. Here, our attention is drawn to the expressions on the characters’ faces: something special is obviously happening. One piece of the ‘galette des Rois’, in the middle of the picture and of the table, has been set aside. It is probably the ‘part du pauvre’ (literally, the pauper’s share), traditionally kept for anyone who might walk in. The youngest child is not hidden under the table as he would be nowadays. He is pulling the pieces of cake out of a white napkin held by the paterfamilias as the names of the people present are called. Greuze shows how a simple event can turn into a ritual and a moment of domestic harmony. It suggests that you do not need wealth and luxury to enjoy moments of peace and happiness.


End-of-year round-up

NoteCardParis1posted by Simon Kemp

Adventures on the Bookshelf is about to head off for its Christmas break. There’s just time for a quick look back at 2015 before we go.

For France, 2015 opened with a tragedy and has closed with another one. In January, we looked at responses in the French press to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.

Last month, we found ourselves witnessing another massacre, this time on a much larger scale, with the attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France, and diners and drinkers of Paris’s cafe culture. Again, we looked at some of the responses to the events in the French media.

In between, though, there was much to explore in French language, literature and life. We learned how to make grammatically correct chocolate cake with the aid of glamorous French movie stars, discovered why Terry Pratchett causes trouble for French gender rules, and uncovered the complex secrets of the mysterious Mrs Vandertramp.

Expanding our vocabulary, we encountered the gripping etymological drama of the unicorn and the crayfish, found out what the cool kids on the street are saying these days, and learned the hidden connection between limousines and bayonets. Plus, there was the opportunity to laugh at hapless French sign-writers struggling with their own language, or try your skills in our fiendish faux-amis quiz.

Guest appearances were made by two more heroes who gave their lives to the service of the French nation and their surnames to the service of the French dictionary: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and Etienne de Silhouette.

We also discovered what the students at Oxford have been up to lately, from turning parchments into webpages to falling in love with the Montmartre district of Paris.

As ever, there were suggestions of books and films you might like to if you want to explore French culture in a little more depth.

And, snuck in among the other posts, were a few reasons why you might like to think seriously about doing a degree in modern languages, and a little advice on how you might go about it if you wanted to apply to study the subject with us.

Merry Christmas to you from the Oxford Modern Languages Faculty. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you on the first Wednesday in the New Year.



From Saint Nicolas to Petit Papa Noël


posted by Catriona Seth

In places like Lorraine, the former sovereign duchy which became a part of France in 1766 and is now a ‘département’, or in Fribourg, in Switzerland, one of the earliest signs of the festive season is the presence, in the local ‘boulangeries’, of figures made of ‘pain d’épices’ (gingerbread)—which the Swiss sometimes call ‘biscômes’—in the shape of a bishop, complete with a crook or crozier (‘une crosse’) and a mitre (‘une mitre’—the word for the episcopal headgear is the same). He is Saint Nicolas (there is no ‘h’ in the name in French), a 3rd century Turk who is the patron of Fribourg and of Lorraine, but also, amongst others, of sailors, physiotherapists and children. His feast day on December 6th is celebrated with public processions in which he walks the streets, with his donkey, sometimes accompanied by a darkly clad individual, the ‘Père fouettard’, literally the whipping father, who is supposed to chastise badly behaved boys and girls. Saint Nicolas, on the other hand, carries a long basked strapped to his shoulders like a backpack—it is called ‘une hotte’ and is similar to the one used by grape-pickers. In it he has presents and sweets for those who have not been naughty.


Because he was considered to be a major figure of the early Church, Saint Nicolas’ relics were revered in different places of worship like Bari in Italy, Fribourg—where his right arm is preserved in a jewelled reliquary—and Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, South of Nancy, in Lorraine, where one of his finger bones—a ‘phalange’ or phalanx—is still kept in the treasure-house of an important gothic basilica. The modern pageants grew out of religious ceremonies.

The name ‘Santa Claus’ is a deformation of Saint Nicolas or its Dutch version, Sint Nicolaas, and in many French-speaking regions the bishop has been overtaken by the jolly figure of Father Christmas as the purveyor of gifts to be opened no longer on December 6th, but on the 24th or 25th. ‘Le Père Noël’ is called upon to leave presents not in stockings, but in shoes left out at the foot of the tree—‘le sapin de Noël’. Whilst the tradition of singing carols is much less prevalent in French than in English, many French-speakers know the words to the musical equivalent of a letter to Santa, Petit Papa Noël—said to be, in Tino Rossi’s original version, the best-selling French single of all time. The singer (in fact a father giving voice to his sleeping son) asks Father Christmas not to forget his ‘petit soulier’ when he comes down from the skies to deliver thousands of toys—‘des jouets par milliers’. The request comes, even though he admits ‘je n’ai pas été tous les jours très sage’, but then again, hands up anyone who can claim only ever to have been good!

For a time-warp experience, you can find the original Tino Rossi recording of ‘Petit Papa Noël’ taken from the 1946 black and white film Destins here:

And Vincy’s lyrics here.

This is the chorus (‘le refrain’) of Petit Papa Noël:
Petit papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel,
Avec des jouets par milliers,
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.

And here is some vocabulary for the rest of the song:

La paupière : the eyelid.
Quelque chose me tarde: I am impatient for something to happen. The verb ‘tarder’ has the same root as ‘tard’ and ‘un retard’, meaning late and a delay.


Un joujou: a toy. Remember, ‘joujou’, which is a familiar term derived from ‘jouet’ is one of the words ending in ‘ou’ which has an irregular plural (not an ‘s’, but an ‘x’): des joujoux.

The following words all have irregular plurals with ‘x’: bijou, caillou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou & pou. Some French-speaking children learn the following mnemonic: ‘Viens mon chou, mon bijou, sur mes genoux, laisse tes joujoux et jette des cailloux à ce vieil hibou plein de poux.’

In the mnemonic, ‘chou’ is not used to mean ‘cabbage’ but as the equivalent of ‘dear’. ‘Un pou’ is a louse and ‘un hibou’, an owl.


‘Le marchand de sable’, literally ‘the sand merchant’, is the sandman who is said to sprinkle sand in children’s eyes to make them sleep and dream sweet dreams.


‘faire dodo’ is a familiar expression meaning to sleep. You sometimes encounter ‘dodo’ as a noun: ‘J’ai fait un bon dodo après le déjeuner’ is a way of saying I had a good sleep after lunch.

photo (13)


Two Responses


posted by Simon Kemp

This week, two responses to the Paris attacks that you may not have seen.


Firstly, an interview with a teacher at a school around the corner from the Bataclan, which is also not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices where this year’s earlier attack took place. Marie Piquemal, a journalist with Liberation went to talk to her over the weekend after the attacks to talk about how she would face her pupils on Monday morning. The full article is here.

«Je veux les aider. Etre avec eux, le plus disponible possible.» Cette maîtresse de CM2 enseigne à Paris, dans une école voisine du Bataclan. Elle ne tient pas à ce que son nom apparaisse de peur que ses élèves (ou leurs parents) lisent et que cela les perturbe «encore plus». Elle fera classe ce lundi matin, comme dans toutes les écoles. Le ministre de l’Intérieur a annoncé samedi soir que tous les établissements scolaires et universitaires rouvriraient lundi, après avoir été fermés samedi.

disponible: literally, ‘available’, but here in the sense of ‘I want to be there for them’

CM2: top year of primary school, for 10-11-year-olds

Elle ne tient pas à ce que son nom apparaisse: she does not want her name to appear (in the newspaper)

Le ministre de l’Intérieur: equivalent post in Government to British Home Secretary

Tout le week-end, elle a essayé de se préparer au maximum. Elle a imprimé des images qui lui serviront de support pour les échanges en classe: un drapeau en berne, la devise de Paris, ce dessin de Joann Sfar avec cette bulle: «Les gens qui sont morts ce soir étaient dehors pour vivre, boire, chanter. Ils ne savaient pas qu’on leur avait déclaré la guerre.» Elle a aussi pris un stock de bougies, la chanson Imagine de John Lennon. «Je verrai avec mes collègues ce qu’on utilise ou pas. Mais j’ai préféré prévoir, pour ne pas me sentir démunie.» Elle ajoute: « On a beau essayer d’anticiper, il va falloir gérer sur le moment. J’espère surtout ne pas avoir de grosse mauvaise nouvelle. On a tenté de joindre toutes les familles, mais il n’a pas été possible de savoir pour tout le monde.»

les échanges en classe: class discussions

en berne: at half-mast

 la devise: motto. The motto of Paris is ‘Fluctuat nec mergitur’, which translates as ‘It is tossed in the waves, but it does not sink’. It accompanies the city’s coat of arms, which has the image of a ship:


 démunie: at a loss, without resources

gérer sur le moment: play it by ear

Elle raconte aussi que beaucoup de parents, angoissés, ont appelé le directeur pour savoir si la sécurité serait renforcée. La demande a été transmise au rectorat. Une cellule psychologique sera par ailleurs opérationnelle dès lundi matin pour aider les enfants et les parents. Ce sera aussi le cas à l’école du 155 avenue Parmentier, dans le quartier voisin où se trouvent Le Carillon et Le Petit Cambodge, également attaqués vendredi. Et dans tous les établissements «où les élèves, leurs familles et les personnels de l’Éducation ont été particulièrement affectés», précise un communiqué du ministère. Mais aussi dans ceux où l’équipe pédagogique en formulera la demande.

angoissé: anxious

le rectorat: local education authority

la cellule psychologique: psychological support unit

l’équipe pédagogique: the teaching staff

«Les psychologues seront là, c’est précieux», dit encore l’enseignante. Son école est près du Bataclan mais aussi des anciens locaux de Charlie Hebdo. «On a vécu les attentats de janvier. C’était au moment de la sortie des classes, un mercredi midi. Les enfants ont été confinés à l’intérieur, ils s’en souviennent.» Jeudi dernier, l’école a fait l’exercice d’entraînement annuel du «plan de mise en sûreté des écoles face aux risques majeurs» (PPMS). «Les élèves ont posé plein de questions: “Est-ce que ca peut se reproduire?”. Je les ai rassurés du mieux que j’ai pu. Je leur ai dit qu’ils ne risquaient rien. Mais là, cela va être plus difficile. Qu’est ce que je vais leur dire?»

l’enseignante: teacher

les anciens locaux: the former premises

le plan de mise en sûreté des écoles face aux risques majeurs: the security action plan for schools in case of major risk

du mieux que j’ai pu: as best I could


Secondly, a short video. It’s called Cent Maux, which means ‘A Hundred Bad Things’, ‘ A Hundred Evils’ or ‘A Hundred Hurts’. It’s also homophonic for ‘Cent Mots’, ‘a hundred words’, and the video consists of a hundred words (in French and English) responding to the attacks. If that doesn’t sound very engaging to you, then I suggest you give it two minutes of your time and be proved wrong.

[The video seems to be resisting my attempts to embed it in the blog, so you’ll have to go and visit it on its Facebook page here. It’s worth the trip.]




posted by Simon Kemp

Usually this blog tries to give you things that will help you better understand what’s going on in France, and language tips that will help improve your French.

This week, though, I can’t help you understand what happened in Paris last Friday night, as I don’t understand it myself. And the only French word I have for you is one that, if it hasn’t been part of your vocabulary up to now, you won’t be able to use in normal conversation for a while:

BATACLAN, noun, masculine
Familiar. Attirail encombrant composé d’objets dont on veut se dispenser de donner le nom.

Cumbersome materials made up of things one does not want to take the trouble to name. ‘Gear’, ‘clobber’.


1. ‘Ta bonne maman ne pourra pas être à Dieppe dimanche. Il lui faudra, au moins, un jour ou deux pour resserrer tout son bataclan.’
FLAUBERT, Correspondance, 1866, p. 221.

Use in phrases: (Et) tout le bataclan. Et cætera, et tout le reste. Etc., and all the rest

2. Ah! si l’on n’avait pas la religion, la prière dans les églises, (…), si l’on n’avait pas la Sainte-Vierge et saint Antoine de Padoue, et tout le bataclan, on serait bien plus malheureux, ça c’est sûr…
MIRBEAU, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1900, p. 21.

Etymology: Origin obscure. Possibly onomatopoeic.

Normal blogging again from next week.

Great French Lives: Etienne de Silhouette


posted by Simon Kemp

A while back, we learned that Joseph-Ignace de Guillotin did not invent the guillotine. Today it’s time to discover that Etienne de Silhouette didn’t invent the silhouette, either.

The story is quite a mysterious one, in fact.  The word silhouette, in French and English, originally referred to cut-out profile portraits in black paper, resembling a shadow of the sitter. Like this one, for instance:


If you go to the Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris, you’ll probably still get someone try to persuade you to get one of yourself.


The portraits, and the word ‘silhouette’, originated in the eighteenth century. It’s known that the word is derived from the name of Louis XV’s finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, but it’s not exactly clear why.

Etienne de Silhouette was born in Limoges in 1709. He was to rise to the rank of contrôleur général des finances at the court of King Louis by the age of fifty, thanks to the patronage of the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. He was appointed to the post in March 1759, but didn’t even make it to the end of the year. Attempting to get state finances into better shape, he advocated cutting spending, getting rid of loopholes that allowed rich state officials to avoid paying tax, and imposing a touch of austerity on the lavish spending of the royal court. This last proposal in particular didn’t go down too well, and he was booted out of office in November of that year, retiring from public life to live on his country estate for the rest of his days.

Silhouette’s attempted reforms led his enemies to call him a skinflint, and his name was soon associated with meanness and frugality. Apparently, breeches without money-pockets were known as ‘culottes à la Silhouette’ at the time. It’s been claimed that this is the reason Silhouette gave his name to the shadow-portraits, either because they were a ‘portrait-on-the-cheap’, or because they thinned people down to a shadow of themselves. That may just be part of the general slander Silhouette suffered after his short-lived stint in control of the nation’s purse strings. Other accounts suggest he was a genuine enthusiast for shadow-portraits, and would sit guests to his home in front of a blank canvas, before using a special lamp to project their shadow onto it for him to draw around.


Either way, whether he was an enthusiast for the craft or a victim of some very roundabout insult, it’s unlikely that Silhouette was the inventor of the technique. For starters, shadow puppets have been in use in south-east Asia for at least a thousand years, and it’s known that these ‘ombres chinoises’ reached Europe at around the time we’re talking about, where they became generally popular. As with Guillotin, it seems, the famous name gets the credit, and the real inventor, whoever they may have been, is lost in the shadows.


The View from the Other End of the Tunnel

Channel tunnel Eurostar Eurotunnel train

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s always interesting to see how news in your country gets reported abroad, and it’s particularly interesting when France and Britain are both reporting on a story that concerns both of us. The refugee and migrant crisis at the Eurotunnel in Calais is one such story. It’s had a lot of coverage over here and a fair amount in France too, although the French reports have a rather different tone to them. recently published an article on the whole affair. You can find it here. (Watch out, though! They’ve given it a rather, erm, eye-catching headline in English…) After some remarks on British attitudes to the tunnel, and to foreigners in general, the author gets on to the current situation. Here’s an extract, with some of the trickier vocabulary picked out in bold and listed under each paragraph:

(UPDATE: The article pre-dates the death of Aylan Kurdi, the photos of whom on a Turkish beach have so dramatically changed the debate in recent days. Here is another French article on Calais published since.)

Chaque semaine, des milliers de migrants tentent de traverser la Manche par le tunnel qui a fini par être ouvert en 1994. Ces aspirants voyageurs sautent par-dessus les tourniquets—ou, plus précisément, franchissent les immenses grillages proches de l’entrée du tunnel aux environs de Calais, en France. Dans des scènes dignes du pire cauchemar de John Bull, réfugiés, demandeurs d’asile et migrants économiques essaient désespérément de sauter à bord de camions à destination de la Grande-Bretagne et, espèrent-ils, d’une vie meilleure (en clients avertis, les migrants savent que la vie, en tout cas lorsqu’elle est évaluée en termes d’emploi et de statistiques économiques, est plus douce dans le pays de Shakespeare que dans celui de Racine).

sauter par-dessus les tourniquets: jump the barriers

digne de: worthy of

le pire cauchemar: worst nightmare

le demandeur d’asile: asylum seeker

le client averti: smart customer

Comme il était à prévoir, les événements de Calais ont déclenché les mêmes peurs incontrôlées et le même langage désinhibé qui bardait les premiers débats britanniques autour du tunnel. Fin juillet, dans un article orné de photos de gendarmes français échouant à regrouper des migrants ou se contentant de les regarder courir sous leur nez, le Sun a braillé «Les Frenchies sont atroces!» Pour ne pas être en reste, le Daily Mail a claironné que le cri de ralliement des migrants était: «C’est l’Angleterre ou la mort», et le journal en a profité pour exiger de savoir quand le Premier ministre David Cameron entendait «agir». Les tabloïds, jouant sur les souvenirs de 1940, ont raillé la lâcheté de la réaction française devant la vague de migrants tentant d’entrer dans le tunnel et appelé le gouvernement britannique à faire intervenir l’armée.

Comme il était à prévoir: As might have been expected

déclencher: trigger, set off

désinhibé: uninhibited

échouer à faire qq ch: fail to do something

Pour ne pas être en reste: So as not to be left out

entendre faire: intend to do

railler: mock

Cameron n’a pas encore mobilisé l’armée mais en revanche il n’a pas manqué de faire appel à ses réserves rhétoriques. Lors d’une visite officielle au Vietnam, il a utilisé le mot«nuées» pour décrire les milliers de migrants désespérés qui tentent de forcer le passage dans le tunnel. Plus souvent utilisé pour qualifier des insectes que des êtres humains, ce mot a probablement eu plus de succès auprès des lecteurs du Mail que d’organismes comme la filiale britannique de Médecins du Monde, dont le directeur a observé que ce que Cameron appelait des «nuées» était en réalité «des gens ordinaires—des mères, des pères, des filles et des fils—qui vivaient dans les conditions les plus atroces qui soient et que personne ne devrait avoir à supporter.»

en revanche: on the other hand

faire appel à: call up, call upon (i.e. Cameron isn’t mobilizing the army, but he’s calling up his reserves of rhetoric)

la nuée: swarm

un organisme: (here) organization

la filiale: branch

les plus atroces qui soient: the worst possible (literally, ‘the most atrocious that might be)

Se déclarant «très préoccupé» par la situation à Calais et plus particulièrement par les kilomètres de camions attendant sur les autoroutes anglaises de pouvoir entrer dans le tunnel, poussé à la fois par les problèmes de sécurité qui se posent dans le tunnel et par les équipes en grèves dans les ferries français, Cameron semblait également soucieux de la réaction de la France. Il a tapé sur les doigts des Français, évoqué les sommes—plus de 4,7 millions d’euros— déjà dépensées par son gouvernement pour renforcer le réseau de sécurité autour de l’entrée du tunnel côté français, et promis d’affecter 10 millions d’euros supplémentaires à la sécurité du tunnel.

en grève: on strike

soucieux de: concerned about

taper sur les doigts de qqn: rap someone on the knuckles

le réseau de sécurité: security cordon

affecter: (here) allocate


Shock News: France Better than Britain!

The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not always known for its warm and fuzzy feelings towards our continental neighbours, recently made a shock announcement.

France is better than Britain.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you maybe suspected this already, but to see it confirmed as fact in black and white by the Daily Telegraph must nevertheless come as something of a surprise.

The full article, written by Alex Proud, is here. Below is an extract:

To be fair to us, the French do have a better starting point. They hit the geographic jackpot. Their country comes with everything included. They’ve got Europe’s highest Mountain (get lost, Elbrus, you’re Eurasian at best). They have a second mountain range which is still better than anything we have. They have a third mountain range (the Massif Central) which is also better than anything we have. They have proper sunny beaches in the south, booming surf beaches in the west and Brittany in the north. They have one of Europe’s biggest canyons. In between all these stunning attractions, they have tons of beautiful and varied countryside, some quite like England, but less spoilt.
By comparison, we have a lot of islands, which, while beautiful, are off Scotland where they are too cold and wet to be particularly useful. Our mountains are big hills which lack the requisite altitude to ski on reliably or hold pretty glaciers. We do have a lot of coastline. But honestly, much of this is chilly or badly located. It’s true that Cornwall is great but the French have Brittany, which is like Cornwall, but warmer and with better food.

OK, so France is pretty. You knew that. But there’s not much we can do to change our landscape, climate or population density. However, there are quite a few things the French just do better – and these we could learn from.

Next we have the food. Yeah, yeah, I know that London is probably a more exciting place to eat than Paris these days. And I know that there is good food to be found outside London. I even know that the French quite like McDonald’s. But the fact is, if you pitch up to eat at random in the middle of nowhere in the UK, you’ll probably get average pub grub, quite possibly made in a factory in the Midlands and reheated, and likely pretty expensive. If there is somewhere serving decent food, it’ll be full of people from London congratulating themselves on being there.

In France, by contrast, you can get a good meal anywhere. It may feel a bit retro (there won’t be a horribly Anglicised Thai green curry in sight) but it’ll be honest regional cooking, inexpensive, and come with wine. What’s more, the person on the table next to you might well be a local farmer or a builder.

Aha, you say. But what about the economy? Here in the UK, we’re lucky enough to enjoy an endless stream of right-ish propaganda about how the French economy is dans la toilette. But these claims really don’t really stand up to much scrutiny.

For starters, France’s growth figures for the first quarter of this year were twice as good as ours. It’s true they do have significantly higher unemployment, but they also have extremely high productivity. In fact, as The Economist recently noted, “The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week.” This is not something you hear very often from our chancellor. They also have a rather better balanced economy and a considerably lower Gini Coefficient, the preferred measure of inequality. While we’re at it, they beat us on GDP per capita, earn roughly the same and have a lower cost of living.

So, maybe (and this hurts) those lazy, boozy, holiday taking, socialism-loving Frogs are actually better at making money than we are. But this shouldn’t be such a surprise. The French don’t focus obsessively on their economy. They don’t bend over backwards to please businesses or foreign billionaires. They have a healthy disdain and distrust of the wealthy. And they’re better at making the rich share. Perhaps the French realise that they live in a society first and an economy second – and this actually makes them all richer.

Bidules, machins and trucs from a year abroad: Montmartre

posted by Madeleine Chalmers

Montmartre is a legendary part of Paris – a maze of twisting cobbled streets, trees, squares, that leaves you breathless, and not just from the steep climb.


Tucked away discreetly in a side street behind the Sacré-Coeur, the Musée de Montmartre keeps the memory of the area’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alive. Set in beautiful gardens overlooking the Montmartre vineyards, the museum’s collections are displayed in the house of artist Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo, a building which played host to the most dynamic and innovative artists, painters, and composers of the day. A zinc-topped bar counter, a battered piano with yellowed keys, photographs, paintings, and sketches all conjure up a time when Montmartre was the centre of an extraordinary creative ferment, and a lodestone for artists from across Europe, who would arrive with no money and no French, confident of a generous Montmartrean welcome, with kindness and credit freely given.


Alongside the Moulin Rouge, two iconic cabarets loom large in the museum’s collections: the Lapin Agile and the Chat Noir. Lithe, mischievous, and living by their wits, the nimble rabbit and black cat which form the Montmartre menagerie perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the area. Opened in 1855, the Lapin Agile still offers a nightly dinner and cabaret show 160 years later, although the atmosphere is somewhat different. In the late 19th century, you would step into a spicy fug of tobacco smoke and sweat, the aniseed burn of absinthe hitting the back of your throat. Ears ringing with the plaintive wheeze and rasp of an accordion, and the sound of bawdy, full-throated laughter, you would take a seat at one of the sticky tables, scored with the initials of your predecessors. You never knew who you’d be rubbing shoulders with: wealthy Parisians slumming it for a night, artists’ models, dancers, political radicals, ladies of the night, local eccentrics of every stripe, penniless poets with inkstained fingers or hungry artists still spattered with paint, come from unheated attics and studios to warm themselves with drink and friendship, and to listen to the chansons réalistes of poets such as Aristide Bruant. As their name suggests, these were songs which told the truth about Paris and the seamy underbelly of its nightlife, in a distinctive slang. They were tales of poverty, prostitution, violence, heartbreak, hopeless love, but also bawdy, innuendo-laden or just downright filthy sing-a-longs. They’re emblematic of gouaille – a uniquely Parisian trait, a blend of bolshy straight-talking, cheek, and bravado, with an underlying hint of vulnerability. It’s tempting to sanitize or romanticize the sordid reality of life in Montmartre, but these songs express the extremes of existence there – all human emotions and situations, from joy to misery, expressed with equal intensity.

Montmartre has retained its strong sense of identity: its inhabitants are still defiant outsiders and unrepentant eccentrics, helping each other out and fighting to preserve their traditions. Looking down from the gardens of the museum and imagining summer evenings heavy with the smell of ripening grapes and raucous with the din of the Lapin Agile, it’s easy to fool yourself into hearing the clack and swoosh of the windmills which used to dot the Montmartre hillside – and feeling the breeze of anarchy.


And if you’re interested…

… here’s a flavour of Montmartre’s cultural output during its heyday.


With their exuberant colours, effervescent energy, and startling shapes, these are definitely worth a look:


A larger than life figure, Guillaume Apollinaire was an experimental poet and the father of Surrealism. In his collections Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), he uses words which are simple individually, but puts them together in surprising combinations. He plays with the layout of his poems on the page to form verbal flowers or fireworks.

A particular favourite of mine is Le Pont Mirabeau (here in the original French, with English translations, and musical French versions).


  • ‘Milord’ – In this rambunctious number, Edith Piaf, the ‘Sparrow of Montmartre’, encourages a broken-hearted lover to drink and dance away his sorrows:



  • ‘Rose Blanche (Rue St Vincent)’ – an iconic poet from the Lapin Agile, Aristide Bruant here sets his pen to tell of a woman’s tragic end at the hands of her gangster lover, on the Rue St Vincent in Montmartre (here in a rendition by variety star Yves Montand)


  • Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)
    • A modern take on the area, but which has an unmistakeably quirky Montmartrean charm. The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet lives in Montmartre and is a familiar face in its various restaurants and bars.

The Musée de Montmartre can be found at: 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris


Madeleine Chalmers

I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I have been known to give the odd rendition of a chanson réaliste on my accordion.