Category Archives: French life

Bidules, machins, and trucs from a year abroad: why I love my degree


posted by Madeleine Chalmers

I’ve often been asked why I chose to do a degree in French. My answer is, because it constantly surprises me. The novels, poems, and plays I read for my course at Oxford make me laugh, cry, and think. They might puzzle me occasionally, and always challenge me, but they never leave me indifferent.

Literature, which we read in the original French, forms the backbone of the French course at Oxford. This might sound absolutely terrifying, and not very appealing. Reading in French is a long hard slog, but if you stick with it, it will reward you in ways you couldn’t imagine. I read my first French novels at school with a dictionary balanced on my knees, impatiently deciphering every other word. It was tiring, frustrating, and extremely slow, but absolutely addictive. Reading in English, my eye would skip easily across the page. In French, it felt like I was having to fight for every word, and so, strangely, each word really seemed to matter.

I’ll always remember the rush of joy and pride I felt when I finished my first French book without a dictionary. All of a sudden, I felt as though I had gained access to a whole passionate countryful of new stories, feelings, and ideas – a country I no longer wanted to leave. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Your mind and your feelings come into contact with the mind and feelings of an author who may have lived and died centuries before you were born. He or she offers you his or her vulnerabilities, sense of humour, and ideas about the world – and they collide with yours. The more you read in French, the more fluent you become and the easier it gets, but I promise that you’ll never lose that original thrill of recognition, when, across time and language, an author’s message comes through loud and clear, and it feels as though they were speaking only for you.

A French degree is the experience of other voices and other perspectives. As such, it’s incredibly varied. ‘French literature’ at Oxford encompasses everything written in French – from the earliest Medieval writings to books published last year, from mainland France to French-speaking countries across the world. Options in film, philosophy, and art allow you to get to grips with French culture through approaches which you may not have studied before, while translation and linguistics will make you see language in a whole new light.

One of the distinctive features of a language degree is the year abroad (the 3rd year of the 4 year course). For me, it’s felt like a chance to bring everything together: the French language and culture I’ve studied at Oxford, and French language and culture as they are spoken and lived in France today. It’s the year when a country that has seemed foreign really becomes home.

I’ve always been fascinated by France at the turn of the twentieth century – a period when certain districts of Paris became hubs for innovation by bold new artists, writers, and all-round eccentrics. My year abroad has given me the chance to see exhibitions and museums which celebrate these revolutionaries, and I’ve been able to visit their old haunts and homes. These are moments when the literature, music, art, and atmosphere of a whole time and place slide into focus – and they make all those hours flicking through dictionaries worth the effort. Over the next few months of my year abroad, I’ll try to pinpoint some of those moments – the reasons why I love my degree. First stop (in next week’s post): Montmartre!

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.

Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s legacy to the French language may not be as useful an addition to your everyday vocabulary as that provided by Eugène Poubelle, but it’s perhaps more distinctively French. As well as the name for the execution device itself (la guillotine), Guillotin has also supplied us with a verb, (guillotiner, to guillotine), two further nouns (le guillotineur/la guillotineuse, who does the guillotining, and the rather less fortunate le guillotiné/la guillotinée at the business end of the device), plus, the excellent term, la fenêtre à guillotine, which sounds very much more architecturally exciting than the English sash window. Note that, like la Bastille (and unlike, say, la ville), the double-l of Guillotin and guillotine has a y-sound rather than an l-sound in French (and apparently also commonly in American English – it’s only the British that always get it wrong).

Here are three things that many people can tell you about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin:

1. He was keen on executing people.

2. He invented the guillotine.

3. He ended up getting executed himself by the device he invented.

Here, on the other hand, are three facts about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that are actually true:

1. He was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

2. He didn’t invent the guillotine.

3. He died of natural causes in 1814.

Guillotin considered the death penalty barbarous, and was particularly sickened by the suffering inflicted by botched executions, and by the double standards that afforded more humane forms of execution to the aristocracy than to the common people.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, abolition of the death penalty was most definitely not on the cards, but as an alternative measure, and a step in the right direction, he proposed to the National Assembly the following legal reform:

“Les délits du même genre seront punis du même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l’état du coupable; dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort, le supplice sera le même (décapitation), et l’exécution se fera par un simple mécanisme.”

Crimes if the same type will be punished with the same type of penalty, regardless of the rank and estate of the guilty party: in every case where the death penalty is given out, the method will be the same (decapitation), and the execution will be carried out by simple mechanical means.

The motion was accepted, and the Assembly set about finding itself an inventor to come up a device that would fit the bill. The credit for the design and construction of the prototype guillotine goes to the trio of Jean Laquiante, Tobias Schmidt and Antoine Louis (for a short while, it seemed possible that the machine might become known as a ‘Louison’). Guillotin’s name attached to the machine as the legislator who proposed that something should be done, not as the man who created the actual solution to the problem. In fact, the naming of the device after him proved an enduring embarrassment to Guillotin and his family, so much so that the family later petitioned the government to rename the machine, and, when this was rejected, changed their own surname to avoid the association.

The story that Guillotin ended up guillotined himself is entirely mythical. There was in fact a certain Dr J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon (no relation) who met that fate, and it’s also true that Joseph-Ignace fell foul of the Revolutionary authorities and was imprisoned for a short time during the Terror. From these two facts the myth seems to have arisen, and as usual, the truth has trouble getting in the way of a good story.

Lastly, guillotine is not the French word for that machine your school has for cutting multiple sheets of paper with very straight lines. The French call that un massicot. And yes, it’s because it was invented by a certain M. Massiquot.

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.

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

Un été chez Montaigne


posted by Jessica Allen

 One of the key features of the modern languages degree is that the third year is usually spent abroad. At Oxford, we are exceptionally lucky in that we are able to spend this year however we want as long as our plans are approved by our tutors. With no work which counts towards our degree to complete, it’s therefore a year in which we are able to really focus on becoming fluent in our language(s) as well as exploring any particular interests we happen to have, whether these are academic, extra-curricular or related to career choices. I study both French and German, so this time last year I was faced with the enviable situation of having to split my fifteen months between two languages. Having long ago decided that I wanted to study at a German university, I was left with the task of slotting in France around the two four-month long semesters.

The first window I had was the summer vacation after my second year. Back in January a fellow Oxford linguist and one of my tutors mentioned on the same day that it was possible to undertake a stage (internship/work experience placement) at the Château de Montaigne, where the sixteenth Century Humanist Michel de Montaigne lived and composed the Essais, for which he is best known today. As a huge Montaigne fan I couldn’t believe it, so I sent a letter detailing my love to Montaigne to the address on the website. A few weeks later contracts were signed and I had a two month placement for the summer. The deal was very good: five days of work per week in exchange for free accommodation within the walls of the nineteenth century château itself, plus 70 euros a week and a gorgeous leather bound book.

The tower from quite an unusual angle.

Life at the château was incredibly varied and fulfilling, which was a pleasant surprise, given its location in a tiny village with absolutely no services and with the nearest larger village a 50 minute country walk away. I woke up naturally every morning at about 7am when the sun began to shine through the crack between the shutters of my room, which was in a converted wing of the château where Montaigne’s own horses most probably lived. I then had a few hours for reading, writing and breakfast before my working day began at ten. The job itself consisted of selling tickets and merchandise in the gift shop and hosting wine tastings, as well as undertaking a few duties in the huge wine warehouse, which was certainly very enlightening for someone who knew little about wine beforehand. But the most exciting thing was the guided tours. Twice a day I collected the heavy key and walked from the reception area through the woods to the château and the attached fourteenth century tower, the only part of the building which was not destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century. The guided tour, an account of Montaigne’s life and work, is based in and around the tower and lasts about forty five minutes. At first, the idea of doing this in French was daunting, however once the facts were clear in my mind I found myself really enjoying this linguistic exercise, and actually only gave a handful of tours in English or German. The best part of the job was definitely meeting so many fellow Montaigne fans who were always happy to exchange ideas, as well as introducing several people to his life and work who had never encountered it before.

The reception area for the attraction with our kitchen on the floor above

Our working day was over at six thirty. At this point, the three girls who worked permanently at the château would head home, leaving us four stagiaires (interns) to our own devices. We would cook together whilst watching the sun set over the vineyards. Despite being so isolated, there was always plenty to do, not least exploring some of the abandoned rooms of the chateau which no one seemed to have visited for hundreds of years. This isolation was also excellent for my language skills, for there was no chance of finding a big English-speaking group to socialise with, and between the seven of us we almost exclusively spoke French. It was a lovely environment because we were all girls aged between 20 and 24, and occasionally in the evenings we would have dinner parties or decamp to one of the many rustic soirées in the surrounding villages.

This immersion into French rural culture also forced me to develop a whole new set of practical skills, for example changing the gas, hand washing sheets and towels, and cleaning up petrol spills. On my days off I really wanted to see some of the picturesque Aquitaine region. Luckily, where there’s a will there’s a way, so with the aid of an ancient, gearless bicycle, I would leave the château when it was still dark, catch the once daily train out of the nearest village after a perilous bike ride through the vineyards and, by 8 or 9am, I would have reached my destination. I visited Bordeaux, Bergerac, Sarlat, and several of the surrounding villages, each of which had its own little quirks and was well worth the early start. The only train home was at 6pm, but at that point I was usually starting to miss the comforting air of the château anyway.

Bordeaux (1)
One of the days in Bordeaux

After two months I was sad to leave and still miss the opportunity to really engage with French language, literature and culture in a practical context on a daily basis. Maybe it seems odd that a twenty year old girl considers her best summer ever to be the one she spent living in an isolated château deep in the French countryside, but I’ll never forget the time I spent retracing Montaigne’s footsteps, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this experience to others looking for a rewarding, short-term work placement in France on their year abroad.

La Boetie’s house in Sarlat….quite nice for a complete contrast (!)

The Things French People Do

An interesting little piece from Slate magazine for you this week. Kyle Murao, an American exchange student in Paris, writes about the French customs he found ‘wonderful but strange’ during his stay in the country. They make a nice portrait of France through American eyes. If you’re British, they’re also quite interesting as a way of measuring how far across the Atlantic you are culturally: are they as strange and wonderful to you as they are to someone from the US? Or are they perfectly normal things that we Europeans, British and French, like to do?

Over to Kyle:

Some French customs that I found wonderful but strange are:

Faire la bise. The double kiss on both cheeks. I miss this more than anything, because in the year that I spent in France, I kissed more beautiful women this way than I ever did before or since. You kiss everyone you meet, and if you kiss someone as if leaving but then still hang out at the party, it’s very rude. These days the double kiss is mostly done woman-to-woman or woman-to-man, but older generations also practice it man-to-man, with no sexual meaning at all.

Feeding children delicious adult food. None of this disgusting baby food or plain, tasteless crap. French parents don’t destroy their kids’ taste for good food before it’s developed by feeding them chicken fingers. They make them sit there and eat roquette salad and cassoulet de Toulouse.

Not drinking everything (milk, juice, water) ice cold. Rather, drinking it at room temperature. In fact, when you’re brought water at a café, you will sometimes get a puzzled look from the waiter if you ask for ice.

Helping complete strangers out of a sense of social solidarity. In America you avoid touching strangers for fear of legal liability if they get hurt while you’re helping them. In Paris, if you see a blind or disabled person at a corner, it’s considered completely normal to grab his arm and walk him across the street. If you’re out of spare change for a metro ticket and you don’t have a pass, it’s also very common for someone nearby to simply give you money to buy one. I had this happen several times, both as recipient and giver.

Bagging your own groceries while shopping. I had to get used to having someone else handle all my food at the store when I came back from France. (Perhaps this is why you never see grocery carts overflowing with unhealthy food.)

Going to a family-run pharmacy to buy medicine. You can’t buy drugs at big stores, and there’s no equivalent of Walgreens.

Being able to drive a car like an absolute maniac and having motorists not be considered second-class citizens versus jaywalkers (as they are here in the U.S.).

Talking about politics at the dinner table. Here in America, I at least was always taught that discussing politics at dinner was rude. But the French love frank, intellectual debates, and I can’t recall any dinner parties where politics wasn’t discussed.

Tearing off the awesome crusty end of a baguette and eating it while you walk home.

Great French Lives: Eugène Poubelle

Poubelle portrait.jpg
M. Poubelle

posted by Simon Kemp

Eugène-René Poubelle was préfet, or regional administrator, in charge of the Seine département, essentially Paris and its suburbs, from 1883 to 1896. What he did while he was there has left a permanent mark on French life, and on the French language. Does his name sound familiar to you at all?

M. Poubelle is the man who brought dustbins to France. In respectful memory of this extraordinary achievement, the French word for bin is la poubelle. (This little fact also featured in the Chassez l’intrus quiz a few weeks ago.)

des poubelles

Paris in the late nineteenth century had a problem. Two million people lived there, and two million people create quite a lot of rubbish. It was Poubelle’s job to come up with a system to deal with it. His solution was surprisingly far-sighted: he didn’t just introduce the bin, he introduced three bins per household: one for perishable rubbish, one for paper and cloth, and one for crockery and shells. It was a precursor of modern recycling. The boxes were known as boîtes Poubelle, soon shortened to poubelles. While the three-box rubbish-sorting system may not have endured, the name has stuck.

Not only did the French honour M. Poubelle by naming their rubbish receptacles after him, the Parisians gave their préfet one of the greatest marks of respect the city can offer: they named one of their streets after him. In the swanky sixteenth arrondissement, home to Paris’s most expensive real estate, you can find the Rue Eugène Poubelle.

rue Poubelle

Last month, an apartment on this street sold for 1 440 000 euros, which is a lot of money to pay to live at an address that very nearly translates as Trashcan Alley.




…..And one other thing. I was contacted a few weeks ago by the BBC to ask if I’d mind verifying the definitions and pronunciation of some French words they wanted to use in their CBBC  ‘comedic panel show’, The Dog Ate My Homework. (I know, the life of a Schools Liaison Officer is just an endless round of showbiz glamour.) All of the words seemed to have been picked because they sounded funny, and inevitably, poubelle was one of them. Ever the educator, I insisted that they couldn’t say la poubelle on air without at least a nod to the memory of the great M. Poubelle. Will they mention him? Probably not. We watch a lot of CBBC in my household, owing to the presence of a number of eight- and nine-year-old boys, but I haven’t seen the show yet. If you catch it, and Eugène makes it to air, please let me know!

dog homework


Year Abroad Glossary

Posted By Rowan Lyster, in her third year at Somerville College reading French and Linguistics, and currently on her year abroad on a university exchange in Montpellier, France. This is an extract from

This is a brief guide to some new concepts and words I’ve been introduced to during my year abroad in France. I can’t guarantee the accuracy of my definitions; Google translate may be useful if you want to actually learn new words…


La grève: A spontaneous gathering where hundreds of students come together in peace and harmony to make avant-garde sound art using klaxons, megaphones and fire alarms. And occasionally bongos. Sometimes culminates in a fun-filled parade along the tramway, encouraging the bemused citizens of Montpellier to take life at a slower pace by stopping the entire transport system.


Erasmus: A magic word which gets you into classes you shouldn’t be going to, and out of work you should be doing. To be applied freely in all circumstances, especially in conjunction with a look of confusion and sadness.


Dessin d’ObservationAn ‘art’ class I attend which, going by the lessons so far, consists of tracing and colouring. Lessons incorporate an element of orienteering, due to the fact that the classroom changes most weeks.


Emploi du Temps (Timetable): An elusive, possibly mythical creature; sometimes you think you’ve got it pinned down but it inevitably uses the power of shapeshifting to escape your clutches. Not to be trusted under any circumstances.


8h30: A time with which I was not previously familiar, but at which I now have two 3-hour classes. Boo.

Certificat Médical: A document which is inexplicably required if you want to do any form of organised sport, up to and including ‘relaxing stretches’. I mean, seriously? Each sport must be individually specified on the certificate in order for it to be valid. At my doctor’s appointment to get this, I was asked about my entire medical history (including frankly VERY personal information), told I should have had every vaccination under the sun, and warned about the dangers of going out late at night. I was also asked to do 30 squats with my arms stuck out, before having literally every inch of my torso listened to with a stethoscope.


La Météo: A wildly inaccurate source of information about the weather. The only guarantee is that it will in no way correspond to what you can see out of the window. Fortunately it is usually pessimistic; last weekend’s “storms” were actually a few minutes of light drizzle. Speaking of which…

La Pluie: A distant memory.

L’Hiver: The time of year where you occasionally have to wear jeans and maybe even a jacket. Extremely distressing for those who grew up in the south of French.

Being ‘Englished’: When you speak to someone in your best French and they insist on replying in English, despite your obvious exasperation and refusal to go along with it. Happens less and less as time goes on, which is gratifying.

Cousine/CuisineTwo words I can’t seem to distinguish in French. This is a surprisingly big problem as my cousin is also here; often results in people wondering why I spend so much time with my kitchen.


Email: Apparently not really a thing in France, given the number of replies I have received to the hundreds of emails I’ve sent. May try carrier pigeon if this continues.

Dimanche: A weekly precursor of the apocalypse, during which everything closes and the streets become eerily empty. The only sound is the slamming of shutters and the rumbling of my tummy as I realise that I have, once again, forgotten to buy any food.



Apologies for the lack of pictures in this post, I’m feeling lazy . Here is an autumnal tree from the Botanical Gardens (or ‘Garden of Plants’ as they call it here) to make up for it.

 (Rowan’s previous post on Montpellier student life is here.)



100% Made in France

posted by Simon Kemp

While we’re on the subject of newspapers, here’s another report, in English this time, that might interest you. The Guardian reports that, following a call to French citizens from a government minister to support the country’s economic recovery by buying French products, one person decided to do just that. Exclusively.

Journalist and documentary-maker Benjamin Carle set out to live for ten months using, living with, and eating exclusively made-in-France products. It turned out to be harder than he’d imagined:


“He set just three rules: eat only foods produced in France, eliminate contact with foreign-made goods and do so on €1,800 a month (above the minimum wage of €1,430 to cover the extra expense of living in Paris).

The journalist was shocked to find out at the start of the experiment that only 4.5% of the contents of his flat were made nationally – and that the rest would have to go, including the lightbulbs (China) and green beans (Kenya).

The removal men left his home almost bare.

Left without a refrigerator (none are made in France), or nail clippers, he was forced to chill his food on the window ledge and saw at his toenails with a penknife.

His foreign-made clothes, down to his underwear were replaced with more expensive, alternatives: French-produced underpants (€26), socks (€9), polo shirt (€75), espadrille sandals (€26), but no jeans as none are produced in France.

On discovering France makes no refrigerators (apart from wine coolers) or televisions, but is big in aeroplane seats and windmills, he sighs and says: “Great. Nothing that will fit into my apartment.”


You can read the full report here, and discover why he made it to only 96.9% French. There’s also an embedded clip from the TV documentary he made about the experiment.