Humour français

I have been trying to get to grips with the French sense of humour. Given my tenuous understanding of the language, this is something of a tall order and I’m resigned to it being a long and ultimately fruitless task. Nevertheless there should be a few laughs on the way. Here are a few general observations.

The French can be very funny. We’ve recently been watching a Netflix comedy series Dix pour cent, about the staff working at a talent agency in Paris. It’s available in the UK with the title Call my agent and I strongly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, well-acted and easily stands comparison with the best of US and UK comedy. Another excellent programme on French tv is Scènes de ménages ( a Scène de ménage is what a UK policeman would call a “domestic”). Each week we see a series of very short sketches, each featuring one of a set of six couples ranging in age from their thirties to their eighties. It’s now in it’s tenth series and the characters are all well-established. Again, its well written and acted and I’m a little surprised a UK company hasn’t picked up this simple but effective format.

On the other hand, French humour can often be very childish. When I was teaching in Paris, I was surprised by how often a group of adults could be reduced to fits of giggling by any passing mention of nudity, bodily functions or lavatories. Once I discovered this, I found a touch of the Frankie Howards was a useful way of enlivening a lesson that was beginning to sag a little.

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The phrase double entendre is not used in France To get the English meaning across in France you would say double sens or sous- entendu.    

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The French love calambours (puns). The language lends itself well to them for two reasons. Firstly, in spoken French, the syllables in a sentence are much more evenly stressed. An English person is unlikely to misunderstand the phrase “mighty tower” as “my tea tower” but in French “les rapaces” (the birds of prey) sounds identical to “les rats passent ” (the rats are passing). Secondly French has a lot more homophones than English : sain, saint, ceint, (healthy, saint, surrounded) are all pronounced the same, as are ver, vert, vers (worm, green, towards ) and sceau, saut, seau (seal, jump and bucket). The list of homophones seems to be endless.

 Puns have an honourable history in French classical literature. In the 16th Century when the dramatist Corneille wrote: Le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule (Desire increases when the effect recedes), he knew full well that his audience would pick up the alternative Le désir s’accroît quand les fesses reculent ( Desire increases when the buttocks recede).

A popular type of pun today is Monsieur et Madame. These are similar to English “knock knock jokes” (or the late arrivals at the ball in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – Mr & Mrs Decent-Exposure, & their son, Ian; Mr & Mrs Nutcluster, & their daughter, Hazel)

Monsieur et madame Vanbus ont une fille. Comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Hillary!

Mr and Mrs Vanbus have a daughter. What’s her name?
Hillary!

(“Hillary Vanbus” = “Il arrive en bus,” = “He’s arriving by bus.”)

Monsieur et Madame Bonbeur ont un fils, comment l’appellent-il?
Jean.

Mrs and Mr Bonbeur have a son. What’s his name?
John!

(“Jean Bonbeur” = jambon beurre = a ham sandwich)

Monsieur et Madame Diote ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Kelly!.

Mr and Mrs Diote have a daughter. What’s her name?
Kelly!

(Kelly Diote = Quelle idiote! = what an idiot!)


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The French also like spoonerisms (contrepèteries) – where two letters are switched around in a phrase to change its meaning. Again these have been around a long time – In the 15th century Rabelais gave us “Elle est folle de la messe.” ( she’s crazy about mass) and “elle est molle de la fesse,” (“she has a soft behind.” ).

Most of the modern versions I’ve come across are obscene but this poster is relatively tame.

 Macron nous a dit 2 gros mois / Macron nous a mis 2 gros doigts (Macron told us two great months / Macron gave us two big fingers.)

Here’s another: Les Russes sont en fetê. / Les fesses sont en route. (The Russians are celebrating. / The buttocks are on their way). They do seem to have a thing about buttocks, don’t they?

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Like all nations the French have their stereotypes. The target for national humour is Belgium, with Belgians being portrayed as uniformly thick. They are similar to Irishman jokes in England, and about as funny:

Pourquoi les Belges ont-ils arrêté la chasse au canard?”
Parce qu’ils n’arrivent pas à jeter le chien assez haut!”

Why did the Belgian stop hunting ducks?
They couldn’t throw the dog high enough.

The only Belgian joke that has made me smile doesn’t really fit the category:

 “The director of Pulp Fiction is making a movie about a Belgian comic book character who gets coronavirus and has to self- isolate. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s “Tintin’s Quarantino”.

I’ll get my coat.

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Within France there are numerous regional stereotypes but these very according to where you ask. Here are a few opinions I’ve picked up from some very unscientific research. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a scrap of truth in any of them:

Parisians think that everyone outside Paris lives on a farm.

People to the south of Paris (Versailles, Chartres, Orléans): are “closet monarchists”.

The rest of the country think that Parisian are rude, sulky and arrogant.

People from Normandy can’t give you a straight answer to a question and are addicted to apples.

People from Nord-Pas-de-Calais are depressive, in-bred and alcoholic.

People from Brittany are stubborn, scheming and “really alcoholic”.

People from Alsace are uncommunicative, with ridiculous accents and shitty weather.

People from the Auvergne are crafty, greedy and live on cheese.

People from Marseille are always exaggerating, and the women are the equivalent of Essex girls.

People from the south-west (Basque country) are loud, colourful and alcoholic.

People from Toulouse are always late and live on cassoulet.

People from Lyon are laid-back and have an inferiority complex towards Paris.

People from Poitou and the Loire ( i.e. us) are stubborn, boring, conservatives.

People from Bordeaux are champagne socialists (“gauche caviare” ); they either have an uncle who owns a vineyard or are pensioners living by the sea.

People from Nice are not very nice at all.

I’d be glad to hear of others or of any observations on French humour.                  

Two meetings with the mayor

Tuesday was Bastille Day, a more subdued occasion than in most years. There were no big firework displays, either in Paris or here in Poitiers. The usual grandiose military parade in Paris was redesigned to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers, and medics were all honoured at the scaled-back event.

In his address to the nation, President Macron announced a recovery plan for the economy which will include ‘at least 100 billion euros’ in addition to the 460 billion already committed to economic support since the start of the epidemic. The previous evening, the government had announced a significant agreement with trade unions which will see the wages of health workers rise by €183 a month on average (a more tangible benefit than being clapped at every evening).

Here in Poitiers in the main square, there was the usual display of troops, gendarmes, firefighters, and ambulance workers. The presentations of medals, presumably now all long-service awards, took place in the presence of the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, and a sprinkling of civil and military dignitaries. As in previous years, the brass band seemed to be playing La Marseillaise every ten minutes but, perhaps in acknowledgement of the new regime, they ended with a surprisingly effective rendition of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’.

Wandering around to take some photos, I found a good spot behind a barrier near the stage. On the other side of the barrier, a woman in uniform with a camera, clearly some sort of army PR person, had noticed the same vantage point and started to walk towards me, smiling. I assumed that she was acknowledging that she was about to pinch my viewpoint and, accepting that she had her job to do, I smiled back and shrugged. She then proceeded to nod her head from side to side several times and enlarged her smile into a large Joker-like grin. I thought this was a bit weird, but nonetheless, a little self-consciously, I nodded my own head back at her. At this point she raised her hand to her face and blew a kiss towards me. I thought this was really too much, and I was about to say something offensive when I suddenly felt something brush against my leg. Looking down, I saw a little girl, about four years old, who had obviously been the intended recipient of all the photographer’s gestures. I slipped away quietly.

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On Thursday we went to the first public meeting of Poitiers Collectif since their stunning victory in the municipal elections. It was a very warm evening, and two hours of sitting, wearing a mask, in a room without air-conditioning was not much fun. The meeting was fairly inconsequential. Various members of the Collectif spoke and promised us consultations, petitions, focus groups, awareness sessions, and the like. One sensed that the audience was a little underwhelmed. Still, the speakers all seem very nice and enthusiastic, and these are early days.

There was a question-and-answer session at the end. The mayor, Madame Moncond’huy, listened politely while a couple of people complained about parking restrictions and refuse collections. I was close to nodding off when I suddenly heard a voice at the back that I thought I recognised. I looked round and, sure enough, there was Mr Twomey, up on his feet.

I hadn’t heard from him since our strange phone conversation a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm room, he was wearing the fawn raincoat he always seems to be in, and he was sweating profusely. Next to him was a small, red-faced woman in her fifties whom I didn’t recognise. Both of them had moved their masks to the tops of their heads, despite sitting right next to a sign clearly stating that masks should be worn.

It took a while to tune in – Twomey’s French is not much better than mine and he’d clearly had a few drinks – but I gradually understood that he was complaining about the lack of public conveniences in Poitiers and going into rather too much detail about the number of times this had forced him to take emergency measures. He then made a very poor joke about Madame Moncond’huy’s name (it’s pronounced ‘Mon Con Dwee’) and the phrase ‘men can’t wee’, which he seemed to think highly amusing. Luckily, nobody in the room seemed to understand a word of it.

I could see one or two of the security staff exchanging glances and edging towards him, and I feared there might be an embarrassing incident. Fortunately. at this point, the red-faced woman hissed loudly, ‘Shut up, you eejit’ and yanked at his raincoat, forcing him to fall back into his seat with a silly grin on his face. The mayor made no attempt to respond to his remarks and immediately took the opportunity to thank us all and close the meeting.

Madame S and I left quickly in case Twomey spotted us. I didn’t want anyone there to connect us in any way. I resolved to make contact with him at some stage in the near future to find out who this woman is (he has never mentioned any sort of relationship) and what exactly is going on in his life at the moment. I thought it better not to tell Madame of this plan.

Money, masks and markets

When I were a lad’ (1)

When I was about 12, I went through the collecting phase. Stamps, coins, football programmes, etc. None of them lasted that long. During the stamps period, I remember a teacher, Mr Murray, a slightly deranged Scotsman, telling me that a good guide to a country’s importance was their postage stamps. Small inconsequential nations (the word ‘tinpot’ may have been used) were forever producing new sets of gaudily coloured stamps commemorating a trivial event in their history or an individual that nobody outside their borders had ever heard of. ‘Serious’ nations, like the UK, would just have the head of state on their stamps and would produce commemorative stamps on only the rarest of occasions.

This would have been about 1963, and a quick check shows that, certainly as far as the UK was concerned, he was right up to that point. In 1924, the first commemorative stamps were issued for the British Empire Exhibition. There were only a handful of commemorative issues over the next thirty years, usually to mark a royal occasion – a coronation, wedding, or jubilee.

Sadly for Mr Murray, it was about this time that the rot set in. From 1963, the Post Office started issuing commemorative stamps more and more regularly. There were four sets in 1964 (including a set marking Shakespeare’s quatercentenary) and nine in 1965 (including a set to mark the death of Winston Churchill). In 2019 there were fifteen (including Marvel Comics, The Gruffalo, and Star Wars). So far this year there have been sets for video games, James Bond, and Coronation Street. Delights to come include Rupert Bear, Sherlock, and Star Trek.

Why am I telling you this? Well, a similar trend can now be seen with the UK’s currency. In my coin-collecting phase, I briefly owned a very handsome 1860 Victorian half-crown; a hundred years later, apart from the monarch’s head, the design was still almost identical.

Now it’s been announced that the Royal Mint are producing a set of coins to honour Sir Elton John. Four of them will have a face value of £5 (but for some reason will cost £15 each). There will also be a £100 one-ounce gold coin (costing £2,320), and a £100 kilo gold coin (£68,865). Apparently it’s the latest in the Royal Mint series of ‘Music Legends’ coin sets. The first of these, which had Queen on them, came out in January. This passed me by completely, but then, ‘Queen to appear on UK coin’ is not the most eye-catching of headlines.

Queen
Elton John

Does any of this matter? Not really. Probably just a touch of indigestion.

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When I were a lad’ (2)

I can remember a time when, on leaving the house, all you had to do was remember your keys and money. Over the years, glasses were sadly added to the list, then a phone – at which point the mnemonic KPMG became a useful reminder. Now a mask is yet another item to join the little pile on the hall table. I’ve got used to wearing mine now, and I’m getting better at putting it on without being reminded to do so by Madame.

I’ve noticed that, even when not wearing them, most people are now carrying one ready to slip on when going into a shop or café. Some leave them dangling from one ear, which I think gives them a slightly deranged look. Others tuck them under their chin or upwards and onto their foreheads, like cricketers with their sunglasses. In The Times recently, Matthew Parris tells of seeing a man in a suit with his mask folded neatly and tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket, only the blue point showing, as a gentleman might do with the handkerchief into which he is never going to blow his nose.

According to Mr Parris, the ripped jeans favoured by teenagers today could be a throwback to the Renaissance when, for a time, there was a fashion for men’s garments to sport a pre-sewn slit to hint at a (highly unlikely) recent sword fight. In the same way, at some time in the future when this pandemic is long forgotten, it might be fashionable for women to hang elegant fabric pendants from one ear, or for young men to strap a piece of elasticated cotton on the tops of their heads. And nobody will remember why.

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On Wednesday morning, I went to the market at Place de Provence. This involves a climb up a very steep hill to reach the Couronneries quartier of Poitiers, which is basically a collection of housing estates with a few small scattered malls and cheap shops. It’s a very different place to Centre-ville, where we live, and this is reflected in the street markets in the two areas. In Centre-ville, the Saturday market is held around the central covered market, which is open six days a week. It is mainly a food market, with a few antiques stalls around the periphery. The customers are predominantly white, and there are occasions when I’ve visited and it has reminded me of the Armstrong and Miller sketch about English Farmer’s markets, which is worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

In the Couronneries, the market is held on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. Place de Provence sounds nice but is basically a large car park in front of the U Express supermarket. The population is a lot more cosmopolitan here, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of London’s Brick Lane. As well as food, there are stalls selling clothes, household goods, bedding, and furniture.

Despite their differences, both markets are a treat to visit. The range and quality of food is really impressive, much of it is locally grown, and the competition keeps prices pretty keen.

On Wednesday when I went, a group of local students were conducting a survey about people’s attitudes to bringing up children and how much of this people felt should be solely the responsibility of women. They were recording people’s opinions on card and adding them to a display in the middle of the marketplace. One of them approached me and, despite my protestations about my poor French, my mumbled contribution was noted and my card was eventually added to the display. All well and good, but the buggers never said they were going to put my age on it!

Non!
Old enough to know better

A week is a long time in politics

On Tuesday I received a ‘thank you’ e-mail from Poitiers Collectif for assisting in their election victory, presumably because I had signed up for their weekly newsletter a couple of months ago. I’d also signed up for the newsletters of their two opponents, the Socialists and the LREM, so I was probably going to be thanked whatever the outcome, but nevertheless it’s nice to feel appreciated.

The truth is I am still struggling to get a clear grasp of the political situation here, both nationally and locally. To me, President Macron and Prime Minister Philippe both seemed to be doing a commendable job in handling the Coronavirus situation, particularly when compared to the seemingly shambolic state of affairs in the UK. Yet M. Macron continues to do badly in the polls, and his party did very badly in the recent election.

One area that I have found difficult to unravel is public finances, i.e. how taxes are shared between local and central government and how the local budget is determined and managed. The arrival of a new regime here in Poitiers will probably mean that this and next year’s budgets will be under a lot of public scrutiny, so this will be a good opportunity to get to grips with local finance.

As far as I can see, lack of funding does not seem to be a significant problem in the way that it is for local authorities in the UK. Schools are well maintained. Libraries, museums, and other public institutions appear to be flourishing. In the two years or so that we have lived here, the council seemed to me to be doing a good job in terms of the basics, like policing, refuse collection, road repairs, etc. The city is clean – graffiti seem to disappear almost immediately, though crottes de chien (dog turds – a France-wide problem) take a little longer. It would be naïve to say that Poitiers does not have its share of the problems that are experienced by all urban communities in France – drug-taking, petty crime, the decline of the ‘high street’ – but by and large it seems a decent place to live. Yet when I asked people their opinion of the previous mayor, Alain Claeys, most seemed apathetic at best. This might, of course, just be the result of his having already been in office for twelve years and people wanting a change. The most common criticism I heard was that he wasn’t really a socialist or was ‘not socialist enough’. On being asked what they meant, people struggled to come up with anything specific.

When I moved to Paris, nineteen years ago, I read France on the Brink by Jonathan Fenby – first published in 1998, it’s probably the best one-volume introduction to France’s history, politics, and culture that one can read. Whilst he admired almost all aspects of French life, Fenby, as the book’s title suggests, was pessimistic about the future. Growing cynicism about the political process, rising unemployment, and racial tension in the city suburbs led him to think that things could not go on as they were. Something would have to give. When we moved here two years ago, I read a new updated version published in 2014. Sixteen years had passed, but the message was the same: the country can’t go on like this.

An alternative analysis is succinctly offered by the French writer and traveller Sylvain Tesson (a sort of French A. A. Gill), who has said ‘France is heaven inhabited by people who think they live in hell’. I don’t want to tempt fate or to belittle the problems faced by many of the population, but maybe there is something in the French psyche that creates this atmosphere of being permanently on the brink. On verra, as they say here: we shall see.

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On Wednesday I collected a package from the Post Office. It was a late-delivered Father’s Day present from my two lovely daughters: a small hamper containing, amongst other things, Yorkshire Tea, Gentleman’s Relish, Maynard’s Wine Gums, and plain chocolate Kit Kats. I’m very snooty about expats who whinge about food they can’t get in France, but nevertheless this was a most welcome surprise. One item I hadn’t seen before was a jar containing a mixture of peanut butter and Marmite. This sounds (and looks) pretty disgusting but is actually very tasty. That said, I don’t think I’ll be offering it to any of our French friends just yet.

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Friday. A week is a long time in politics. The President has replaced his government, and we have a new Prime Minister, Jean Castex. His predecessor Edouard Philippe is now free to take up his post as mayor of Le Havre. In seven days the political scene has changed dramatically, both nationally and locally.

In 1898, in the middle of growing international tension between Russia and Japan, Fred Potter, the editor of a small provincial Irish newspaper, caused some hilarity by publishing an editorial stating that henceforth The Skibbereen Eagle would ‘keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies—whether at home or abroad—of human progression and man’s natural rights’. I think such hilarity was quite uncalled for and hereby serve notice on Madame Moncond’huy in Poitiers and Monsieur Castex in Paris that from now on Postcards from Poitiers will definitely be keeping an eye on the pair of them.