VIVA JEANNE!

The story goes that the American entertainment industry ruled the roost and dictated popular culture until The Beatles appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964 and then attention switched to the other side of the Atlantic. There’s a degree of truth in that, but until the Fab Four delved into Victoriana and the rich tapestry of British folk and chamber music, their look and sound was a perfect synthesis of America and Europe; Hamburg made them a band, but Paris gave them a haircut and a continental style unique to the UK. The trio of German art students (including photographer Astrid Kirchherr) who befriended The Beatles in Hamburg were war-babies whose disgust with the actions of their parents’ generation led them to look to Paris for inspiration. And Paris was the place to be at the turn of the 60s.

In the late 50s, a group of critics at the French movie magazine, ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ – including the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – decided they could make better films than the directors whose work they were reviewing, and once they began doing so they inadvertently created one of the most influential movements in movie history, the Nouvelle Vague. With its stark monochrome cinematography, untested actors, location shooting and documentary-style realism, the Nouvelle Vague (or ‘The New Wave’, as it was known in English), was a dramatic contrast to the majority of Hollywood’s output and inspired the up-and-coming crop of US directors who would shake Tinsel Town at the end of the 60s. It also helped kick-start Britain’s own ‘kitchen sink’ school of cinema.

Along with unknowns such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Jean-Pierre Léaud – whose careers were established via their roles in classics like ‘A Bout de Souffle’, ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’, and the peerless ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ – emerged an actress whose impact owed a great deal to the Nouvelle Vague, yet transcended it so that she isn’t solely associated with that particular movement and has simply become recognised as one of the premier cinematic stars of her generation. I’m talking about, of course, the great – and now, sadly, late – Jeanne Moreau.

Words such as ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ are bandied about so freely these days that they have achieved the same level of meaninglessness as the tiresomely ubiquitous ‘awesome’; but Jeanne Moreau, who has died at the age of 89, was genuinely legendary and iconic. Her status as such largely stemmed from her role in Truffaut’s 1962 movie, ‘Jules et Jim’. The character she played in it, Catherine, is a free spirit who forms one-third of a love triangle around the outbreak of the First World War; although the film is set half-a-century earlier than when it was made, Catherine embodies the attitude associated with the youth poised to take centre stage in the 60s. It made Moreau an overnight international star.

Predating ‘Jules et Jim’ by three years, however, Moreau had given a remarkably moving and subtle performance in Louis Malle’s ‘Les Amants’, which remains perhaps the most exquisitely romantic movie I’ve ever seen; and it isn’t remotely soppy, just real – the hallmark of French cinema’s golden age. But the worldwide success of ‘Jules et Jim’ opened doors for Moreau that led her to working with the renowned likes of Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Elia Kazan, and Britain’s own Tony Richardson, who became so infatuated with Moreau during the two movies he made with her that he left his wife Vanessa Redgrave for her.

Jeanne Moreau didn’t abandon the cinema of her home country whilst building a career outside of France, however; she may have shared a screen with France’s other international cinematic icon Brigitte Bardot in 1965’s ‘Viva Maria’, but a far more substantial role came in 1974’s ‘Les Valseuses’. In this once-controversial black comedy, she plays a recently released prisoner who is seduced by a couple of hedonistic sexual vagabonds (one of whom is played by a young Gerard Depardieu). What makes her on-screen threesome with the pair relatively unusual even now is the fact that the ménage à trois consists of two men and one woman rather than the standard one man and two women. But it’s a scene that is oddly tender, even if it happens to be followed by one of the most awful methods of suicide to ever befall a character in a movie. Let’s just say a revolver is inserted into a part of the body only a woman could insert it into.

I remember a later role for Moreau in a 1993 BBC TV film called ‘A Foreign Field’, starring alongside Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall, which dealt with the return of WWII veterans to Normandy, one of the last times the wartime generation were portrayed in the present tense. Although surrounded by some considerable acting heavyweights, Moreau’s part was pivotal to the drama, playing a woman two of the male characters had enjoyed romantic assignations with at the time of the D-Day landings. Again, she managed to imbue her performance with both a touching quality that made the viewer care what happened to her, as well as a mischievous aspect that showcased her talent for comedy.

Jeanne Moreau’s film debut was in 1950 – the same year Marlon Brando exploded onto the big screen in ‘The Men’ – and her final appearance was in 2012, just five years ago. Sixty-two years isn’t a bad run for a movie career, and it’s testament to Moreau that she was as good an actress as an old lady as she was when a young woman. She was pretty special and she’ll be missed.

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THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN POSTPONED

I would imagine the sigh of relief from Brussels can be detected in Paris tonight. As with the recent failure of Geert Wilders to claim victory in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s threat to win the French Presidency has been vanquished. Of course, over in EU Central, the potential panic wasn’t based on her far-right rhetoric and how it might impact upon those within France who don’t fall into her favoured demographic, but the explicit anti-EU bandwagon she’d attached herself to – a common thread amongst Europe’s contemporary far-right parties. In the wake of Brexit, the fear that the other leading Western European nations might follow suit and bring the whole bureaucratic house of cards crashing down appears to have been eased; but how long for, one wonders.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s petulant jibe at how the English language is losing its relevance on the continent a couple of days ago for some epitomised the arrogance of the unelected passengers on the Brussels gravy-train, whereas others might regard it as a tit-for-tat response to the equally combative approach of the right in both Westminster and on Fleet Street. It was almost reminiscent of when the host of the Eurovision Song Contest would make his or her announcements to the audience in French before being forced to repeat them in English – just so viewers knew which language took precedence. European harmony is certainly in short supply at the moment, but Juncker and his colleagues can take solace from the fact that, of the three key General Elections taking place in Europe this year, at least one of them has gone their way. And it’d be a major upset if the Germans don’t do likewise.

It’s probably true to say Britain never truly embraced the European project with the same verve as our continental neighbours; we were the cautious bass-player in the early Punk band who was the last member of the group to cut his hair and stop wearing flares – and even then, the barber and the boutique were approached with reluctance. If any member state was eventually going to bail out, it was bound to be Blighty; perhaps the real surprise is that it took so long before it happened, not that it actually did happen. For France to reach the same conclusion, however, would have been unthinkable until very recently. Then again, France’s all-encompassing enthusiasm for the European Union has been whittled away by similar factors that motivated some to vote Leave here last year.

Considering France has suffered more than most from Islamic terrorism in the last couple of years, the issue of immigration has unsurprisingly registered highly in this Presidential Election; Marine Le Pen, like Farage and Trump before her, has tapped into the neglected concerns of natives who, already victims of the post-2008 economic downturn, have naturally laid the blame at the door of globalisation and freedom-of-movement immigration. Le Pen has exploited this for her own gain, as any canny politician would, but it’s easily done when such a large demographic has been consistently ignored by the mainstream parties for so long. That neither Le Pen nor Macron belongs to a mainstream party speaks volumes as to this dissatisfaction with the political process.

Marine Le Pen has portrayed herself as a figure outside of the establishment, though it’s not as though she rose from humble beginnings and has entered the political arena overnight; she’s very much a member of an establishment, just not the establishment. However, she was able to play the outsider card on account of her opponent. Standing against Emmanuel Macron – former investment banker, ex-member of Hollande’s cabinet, liberal centrist and (crucially) pro-EU – the gift of Macron to Le Pen masks Macron’s own independence from the political establishment, leaving the Socialist Party and forming his own party, En Marche! By the way (just in case you were wondering), the exclamation mark is part of the party’s name.

Macron appears to be a rather bland professional politician in the Blair mould, espousing the kind of centrist rhetoric that’s certainly been discredited on this side of the Channel; in fact, the only thing I can see remotely interesting about him – other than (at 39) he’ll be France’s youngest-ever President – is that he married his former teacher, some twenty-odd years his senior, thus fulfilling the fantasies of many an adolescent boy. Were he a Brit and their positions were reversed, i.e. he’d been the former tutor who’d married a pupil, he could probably expect a knock on the door from Inspector Knacker and the Historical Fishing Party Squad; but they’re French, of course, and the French don’t get so hot under the collar about such things.

So, Le Pen may have lost this time round, but the challenge facing Macron, regardless of the blessing he’ll receive from Brussels, is to try to heal some of the gaping wounds French politicians have allowed to fester for a long time. If he doesn’t, he’ll find his opponent in 2017 (who is hardly the sort to disappear from the political scene with a whimper due to one defeat) will be more than ready to take him on again in 2022. The French electorate have resoundingly rejected the two dominant parties of the last half-century in this Presidential Election, so past loyalties can no longer be relied upon. Macron has quite a task on his hands, and if he isn’t capable of getting the job done, both he and his countrymen will suffer the consequences five years from now.

As for home soil, we’ve nothing to be smug about…

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UNE LECON D’HISTOIRE

Apparently, 2017 is the first year since 1924 that General Elections have taken place in all three of Europe’s economic powerhouses – that is France, Germany and…yes…us. Back then, Édouard Herriot and his left-wing Cartel des Gauches alliance claimed victory in the French Legislative Election, Otto Wels led Germany’s Social Democratic Party to victory in the German Federal Election, and over here it was Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives who triumphed over Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government. The instability of Europe in the aftermath of the Great War was perhaps emphasised by the fact it was the second time German voters had been summoned to the polling booth that year, whilst in the UK, it was just ten months on from the last General Election; by contrast, it had been five years for French voters. However, these historical facts somewhat obscure the tumultuous changes our nearest continental neighbours underwent from 1789 to 1958.

From the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, France experienced more than a century of chopping (literally) and changing at the top. After King Louis met his maker via Madame Guillotine, there followed a short-lived series of substitutions for the monarchy – the National Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the National Convention, and then the notorious Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre, which was responsible for the infamous Terror; this was followed by the final Revolutionary Government, the Directory, which ended with Bonaparte’s seizure of power in a 1799 coup that resulted in the nation’s most successful general becoming First Consul.

Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor within five years of the coup and held onto power for another decade; Bonaparte’s abdication in 1814 led to a brief restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy via the corpulent Louis XVIII, brother of the executed XVI, who was temporarily usurped after Napoleon’s flight from exile in Elba. With Waterloo bringing to end the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Louis XVIII was back on the throne. He was succeeded by another Bourbon brother, Charles X, in 1824, though Charles was deposed during the July Revolution of 1830 and replaced by his cousin Louis Philippe. Louis himself was forced into exile during the 1848 Revolution, ironically following his predecessor to a safe haven across the Channel.

The Second Republic was proclaimed in the aftermath of 1848, with Bonaparte’s nephew first being elected President and then, when denied a second term, staging a coup that ended with him being crowned Emperor of the French (using the title Napoleon III). He reigned as Emperor for an impressive eighteen years, though his ambitions backfired during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, an event which marked a significant change in Central Europe’s balance of power. Prussia’s victory was a key factor in the unification of Germany five years later, whereas for France it marked the end of the country’s role as Europe’s dominant nation. From a Prussian perspective, it also served as revenge for the first Bonaparte’s brutal dismemberment of the German states over half-a-century before.

The Third Republic was proclaimed as Napoleon III followed a familiar path of English exile (where he died in 1873, buried in Hampshire). Paris was ruled by the radical Paris Commune – a collective Karl Marx referred to as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – after the country’s defeat and was under siege from the regular French Army for two months until normality reasserted itself and came to term with France’s humiliation at Germany’s hands. This incarnation of France survived until the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1940 and the formation of the puppet Vichy Government.

The Fourth Republic was formed after the Second World War, but collapsed during the Algerian War of Independence in 1958; from its ashes rose the Fifth Republic, which is still the political system France is governed by today. Its architect was the leader of the Free French Forces whilst in exile during WWII, Charles de Gaulle, who was elected President and held onto power until being rejected in a referendum in 1969; he died a year later. Since his successor, Georges Pompidou, France has experienced a relatively stable transference of power via the ballot box, yet arrives at yet another crossroads today with serving President François Hollande not seeking re-election.

Unlike both Germany and the UK (not to mention Spain and Italy), after the Algerian crisis of the late 50s and early 60s, France largely avoided terrorist assaults on its home soil from the 1970s onwards. The sudden bloody incursion of Radical Islam into French life over the last couple of years has come as something of a shock to the country, which had long regarded itself as a secular multicultural melting pot, despite the grassroots rise of the far-right under the National Front leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The shooting dead of a policeman in Paris by an alleged Islamist terrorist on the eve of the first round of this year’s Presidential Elections could have an understandable bearing on events this weekend, especially where the National Front are concerned. Marine Le Pen has given it a facelift since she engineered the expulsion of her father from the party, but she remains the underdog while Emmanuel Macron, himself something of an outsider from the mainstream, is the bookies’ favourite. As someone who welcomed the Brexit result, Le Pen advocates French withdrawal from the EU; considering France was a prime-mover in the foundation of the EEC, this attitude reflects French fears over the increasing stature of Germany in Central Europe. Old enmities with France’s domineering neighbour have resurfaced in recent years, something that hasn’t necessarily benefitted France in the past.

If this whistle-stop tour through post-Revolutionary France amounts to anything, it’s a demonstration that the kind of uncertainty being portrayed as unprecedented amongst our Gallic cousins is nothing new if one takes the long view. But who takes the long view these days?

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STRANDED IN THE JUNGLE

61Whatever words may be used to describe the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, as far as France is concerned, ‘unprecedented’ shouldn’t be one of them. It only seems so from a British perspective, and it has to be said that the considerable headlines the Jungle has garnered in this country have been largely due to its uncomfortable proximity – the fact that only the Channel separates ‘us’ and ‘them’, thus bringing something close to Britannia’s borders that is largely alien to the British experience in terms of immigration. To the French, this is certainly not the case.

The messy (to put it mildly) partition of India that accompanied independence in 1947 didn’t really have an impact on the British people until the first substantial wave of Asian immigrants arrived on British soil twenty years later; the pattern established once they were here was to house many in declining industrial towns in the north or midlands as well as similarly rundown areas of London. Whilst this policy often gifted natives faced with diminishing employment opportunities the excuse that the immigrants were ‘takin’ our jobs’, the immigrants themselves knuckled down and worked extremely hard, forging new thriving communities in the process. Many were allocated admittedly poor housing, though these were still recognisable houses. The contrast with the ramifications that followed the end of France’s colonial adventure is stark.

The trauma the French went through over the loss of Algeria in the early 60s has no real parallels with the disintegration of the British Empire; none of Britain’s imperial possessions were near enough to the mainland to present Britain with the first-hand fallout of surrendering colonies to home-grown rulers who soon adopted a pseudo-Marxist approach to governance. As the distance between Paris and Algiers is just 837 miles, the four rebel French Generals who attempted to seize power in the face of imminent Algerian independence in 1961 were close enough to France for their threat to launch missiles at Paris from Algiers to be taken seriously. The belief that Algeria was an integral part of France bred such fanatical actions, though the Algerians that attempted to set up home in the Mother Country found that the French themselves didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms.

The appalling Paris Massacre of 1961 was spearheaded by Head of the Parisian Police Maurice Papon, a man whose later conviction for participation in the wartime Vichy regime seems highly in keeping with his behaviour on 17 October that year. He directed the police to respond to a demonstration by 30,000 Algerians on the streets of the capital with such callous brutality that even now nobody is entirely sure how many of the demonstrators were murdered. Only 40 deaths have been officially recognised, though some estimate as many as between 100 and 300 were killed that night; the Seine was said to be a genuine river of blood, with dozens of Algerian corpses floating in it.

Nobody was ever prosecuted for their role in the Paris Massacre, due to it being regarded as part of the Algerian War of Independence and therefore subject to the amnesty that was supposed to draw a line under the crimes committed during it. That the incident isn’t internationally recognised as belonging in the same unwanted pantheon as Bloody Sunday remains a mystery, though the way in which the guilty evaded justice was characteristic of the climate.

Most North Africans aiming to relocate to mainland France managed to avoid being massacred, but their eventual destination was usually the kind of residence Brits tend not to associate with the perceived sophistication of our Gallic cousins – shanty towns, or what the French called Bidonvilles. These proto-Jungle dwellings were largely invisible to overseas visitors and were understandably afforded little if any coverage abroad, though there were as many as 89 scattered around the outskirts of Paris in the late 60s. Although Portuguese immigrants constituted a large proportion of the population in such basic accommodation, many non-white arrivals to French shores could expect to end up there. No other Western European nation in the post-war era had such a severe segregation between natives and immigrants as France during this period.

There was a concerted effort to remove what were regarded as embarrassing eyesores from the mid-60s onwards, though as late as 1973 reports claimed as many as 8,600 people were still living in them. As the 70s progressed, the Bidonvilles were gradually cleared away from around Paris, but they still exist on the peripheries of several French cities and the Jungle is just the latest in a long line of them. The worldwide publicity the Jungle has received in comparison to all the Bidonvilles that preceded it is probably down to the excessive coverage of post-Iraq War events in the Middle East, and public interest in what becomes of those fleeing the region. Add the substantial number of migrants risking life and limb whilst escaping similarly dangerous environments in Africa and it’s a combustible mix guaranteed to generate tabloid scaremongering. But to react as though the Jungle was some new unpleasant innovation is to do a disservice to all those who inhabited the previous miserable Bidonvilles decades ago and were ignored by the wider world.

The closure of the Jungle that began on Monday has essentially been brought about by the media attention and clamour for ‘something to be done’, and I’ve no doubt Fleet Street will issue three cheers now that this particular problem has been pushed back from the coast of Northern France. There’s also the small matter of a Presidential Election in France next year and Monsieur Hollande is in sore need of a few popularity points.

The curious legacy of European colonialism is a reversal of the nineteenth century model, whereby Europeans feasted on foreign resources without first being invited to do so; ex-colonial subjects reciprocating the gesture 100 years later by turning up for dinner unannounced, however, is seen as something of a social faux pas – ditto those who were never colonial subjects, but whose presence on the doorstep is a direct consequence of more recent European gatecrashing. One could talk about reaping and sowing, but I won’t. The French have always had their own way of dealing with uninvited dinner guests, and while dumping successful asylum-seekers in Parisian suburbs that have already become ghettos left to their own devices may be merely a means of shifting the problem from one location to another, even those concrete jungles don’t conjure up quite the same visual misery as a Bidonville does. Get rid of them and the world can believe the dilemma has been solved. If only it were that simple.

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VIVE LA MAMELLE

MarianneViewed as the latest faux-pas by a French politician in the Silly Season’s ongoing Burkini debate, the comment of France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls that the Republic’s Britannia-like national symbol Marianne is a more accurate portrayal of Gallic freedom than an imposed veil because her breasts are bared has ignited another episode of controversy. Marianne ironically tends to be painted or sculpted with her head covered, and though the headgear is the Phrygian cap associated with 1789, a covered head is surely something France’s female Muslim population could relate to. But it is Marianne’s breasts that are the contentious issue here.

Perhaps the most famous artistic interpretation of Marianne is in Eugene Delacroix’s allegorical painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ – and yes, her tits are out for les gars. Painted in 1830, it celebrates the July Revolution of the same year, which saw the overthrow of Charles X. One more revolution eighteen years later saw the forced abdication of his usurper, Louis-Philippe, and Marianne was invoked yet again. A familiar figure on the pre-Euro French coins the Centime and the Franc, Marianne also became something of a pop culture icon in the late twentieth century when the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve were used as models for her.

The bare-breasted version of Marianne was always favoured by radicals; it implied a wave of female emancipation that had relevance in 1789, when women had helped spark the uprising in the first place and were eventually rewarded with progressive legislation unique in Europe. The Napoleonic era saw the erosion of these hard-won civil rights, though Marianne herself remained a regular embodiment of liberated womanhood whenever the revolutionary spirit took hold of the country – as it frequently did throughout the nineteenth century.

The nation that popularised topless sunbathing clearly regards the bare breast in a different light to its old nudge-nudge wink-wink enemy on the other side of the Channel, though the French PM’s opinion has not chimed with some of his countrywomen. Female French historian Mathilde Larrere labelled Monsieur Valls’ comment as ‘moronic’, yet both points of view seem to reflect a wider debate regarding the naked breast that stretches way beyond France. If we put the endless contrasting attitudes towards public breast-feeding to one side, last weekend’s Go Topless Day in New York was a good example of the double standards surrounding that awful word, ‘empowering’.

This event is an annual occurrence staged on the nearest weekend to Women’s Equality Day and there was a parade featuring an abundance of exposed American bosoms. What happened next was utterly unpredictable and incredibly shocking. Lots of fully-clothed men brandishing mobile phones descended upon the parade and took photos and videos, the sick perverts! What on earth did the participants think was going to happen? As is usually the case with zealots, self-righteous conviction is blind to any contradictory opinion and everyone is expected to fall into line. The thought that some men catching sight of tits on display in the middle of the day might actually be turned on by the prospect served to sour the empowerment somewhat. But what is the real difference between baring all on a PC parade and doing likewise on page 3?

A glamour model who goes topless for a living and makes a healthy income through it is regarded as the plaything of wicked male lust, yet go topless for charity or to make some spurious point about exploitation and that is somehow morally superior. Both are down to personal choice, and both will inevitably attract the same male arousal, which doesn’t particular care about the context as long as a pair of boobs is out. It is naive and short-sighted to imagine this will never be a factor, whatever the reason behind the exposure. Marianne’s ample assets are not supposed to represent sexuality, but it’s hard not to envisage anticipatory excitement back in the 60s and 70s when Bardot and Deneuve were announced as models for France’s very own Lady Liberty. And anyone who has seen ‘Les Valseuses’, the glorious 1974 black comedy starring Gerard Depardieu, will realise that some men even get excited when they stumble upon breast-feeding. Fancy that!


GENE WILDER (1933-2016)

WilderThe death of Gene Wilder at the age of 83 yesterday is worth a mention, if only for the string of superlative cinematic comedies Wilder illuminated in a golden period from the late 60s to the late 70s. Rooted in the same great tradition of American Jewish humour as Woody Allen, Larry David and Mel Brooks, Wilder enjoyed his most fruitful on-screen era in collaboration with the latter. His film debut was a cameo in the far-from comedic 1967 drama, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, though he is so funny in the small role of Eugene Grizzard that it was obvious here was a great new talent with plenty of potential. He proved it in Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ the following year, playing Leo Bloom, the neurotic accountant with a Linus-like attachment to a blanket.

Between ‘The Producers’ and the full flowering of his creative partnership with Mel Brooks, he played Willy Wonka in the first movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and also made a memorable appearance as a man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)’. Reunited with Brooks, he starred in arguably the director’s two greatest films, ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’, both superb pastiches of two of Hollywood’s most enduring genres, Horror and The Western.

Wilder then formed another creative partnership that spanned four successful films, this time with Richard Pryor, movies that served to transcend Pryor’s cult popularity and turn him into a box-office star. By the early 90s, however, the work dried up and the last twenty years of Wilder’s life were spent absent from the medium that made him, which was a tragic loss for the big screen. I mourn his passing in that he was one of the few actors – Peter Sellers being another – who made me laugh whenever I saw his face; he didn’t even have to say a line, for his impish countenance simply possessed a quality that was imbued with anticipatory laughter on the part of the audience; when he appeared in a movie, you knew he was going to cheer you up, and that’s a very special gift. I can’t pay him a greater compliment than that.

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BATHING BEAUTY

VictorianA society that imposes a dress code upon its citizens would be one we’d probably regard as far from democratic. The spectre of Peter the Great, the reforming early eighteenth century Tsar, hovers above sartorial legislation, banning the beard in order to drag his medieval nation closer in line with the Western Europe he was exposed to on his travels; and autocratic feudal Tsarist Russia would hardly constitute a democracy in anyone’s books.

Dress is so subjective that personal opinion could only ever render attempts to introduce laws censoring a particular item of clothing utterly biased. I imagine it’s easier to do so today than it would have been, say, forty years ago in that there is now a greater public consensus on dress; there remain tribal factions, but the so-called ‘alternative’ is as conservative in its mindset as the modest apparel of the masses, with anyone not adhering to the tattoo & piercing uniform mocked behind their backs. It goes without saying that there have always been a small and select few bucking every trend, but the gauntlet they have to run as a consequence is limited to insults on the street and, on occasions, the fist and feet of the mob. The law may not approve, but it does not effectively censure.

The images that appeared this week of armed policemen forcing a woman to disrobe on a French beach took sartorial legislation to a new level, however. Any dress code dictated by religion as opposed to State presents the State with a problem, particularly a secular State like France. For a country once so entwined with the Church of Rome, France post-1789 has consciously taken a step back from the severest edicts of Catholicism and perhaps earned its reputation as a far more easier-going and less uptight nation than its old enemy across the Channel. The convulsions of the Revolution for the traditional State religion were even more traumatic than the Reformation had been here, and Church and State were eventually formally separated in 1905. Secularism may be a choice in the UK, but in France it’s practically State policy. In order to maintain this, a faith with such strong visual insignias as Islam has given the laissez-faire attitude France revels in a genuine challenge. And one could argue France has made a bit of a mess of the whole business.

Personally, I find tracksuit bottoms or crop-tops far more offensive than the Burqa, but we’re back to subjective opinion again. The French Government thought differently when it decided to ban the Burqa five years ago.

Whenever ‘security’ is employed as a reason for any new law that concerns the individual rather than an institution, my suspicious hackles are raised, and France came to the conclusion that the face being covered in the name of religion constituted a security risk. Whilst naturally viewed as a law specifically relating to Muslim headgear primarily worn by women, this also extends to anyone whose face is covered in a public place – though obviously not on a motorcycle. Breaking the law can result in a fine and the threat of ‘Citizenship Education’ (how very Orwellian), and if anyone is found guilty of forcing another to cover their face against their will, a prison sentence of twelve months is on the cards.

Interestingly, this law came into being long before the Islamic terrorist attacks that have struck France over the past year or so, thus proving that exposing the faces of Muslim women in public since 2011 clearly worked as a security measure to prevent such acts. In the wake of recent events, France couldn’t really add to a ban that predated them, though that obnoxious, corrupt midget Nicolas Sarkozy has been stirring it again in his attempt to return to public office, exploiting the understandable paranoia surrounding Islam in a way that allies him with the likes of Marine Le Pen. In response to external pressures, the government of incumbent and under-fire President Francois Hollande has raised no objections to the controversial bans of the so-called Burkini by several French holiday resorts, resulting in this week’s images of police enforcing the ban by ensuring women wearing it remove it.

Ironically, a glance at photographs of late nineteenth and early twentieth century female bathing suits shows a distinct aesthetic connection between those and the Burkini. If a woman’s modesty was considered worthy of preserving on the beach a hundred years ago, why should a woman have to have everything on display in 2016? The problem with the Burkini is its close association with Islamic dress, which is evidently a delicate issue in France today, especially considering that Nice, one of the country’s top seaside resorts, suffered the most recent Islamic-related terrorist atrocity.

However, imposing a ban on an item of clothing that doesn’t even hide the face and therefore doesn’t contradict the Burqa ban of 2011, seems a rather ridiculous way to respond to a State of Emergency and appears even more ridiculous when one compares the Burkini to the virtually identical wetsuits worn by some members of the French Olympic swimming squad in Rio this summer. Context is apparently everything where clothing in France is concerned. And here’s me, a repressed Englishman, thinking the French, who gave the world Brigitte Bardot, were so much more laidback than that.

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