It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

French cultural blogger Caroline Doudet, better known online as L’Irrégulière, who reviews books, films and TV series on her blog Cultur’elle, has been convicted by a French court for being ranked too well by Google. Or more exactly, for publishing a piece discouraging readers from eating at a Cap Ferret pizzeria.

The court requested she changed the blog entry title, seen as denigrating. L’Irrégulière elected to remove the whole article instead. “Technically, it was quicker to remove than to edit, especially since Google does as it pleases anyway, as we can see with the cached page”, she explains in an email interview.

L’Irrégulière reproached the restaurant for its terrible service, a criticism echoed by more than a few reviews on Trip Advisor, although a near-equal number rave about the place and its pizzas.

The whole affair happened on the down low, barely mentioned by L’Irrégulière herself, until lawyer and star Tweeter @Maitre_Eolas (142K followers) highlighted it on 7 July. The news was picked up by media analysis site Arrets Sur Image and has since made headlines in specialist digital publications as well as in mainstream news outlets such as Le Monde and The Independent.

Ms Doudet, who acknowledges being surprised by the support she’s received from readers and strangers alike, says she didn’t expect the reactions to reach such proportions: “I was always going to let my readers know about it, probably on Facebook since I didn’t write about the whole affair on my blog itself. I doubt it would have had such a snowball effect though”.

In addition to being asked to edit her title, L’Irrégulière has to pay up €2,5000 in damages, a significant amount for this high-school teacher. Asked by her readers how they could best support her, the blogger set up a crowdfunding page on platform Pot Commun. She’s since had to shut it down since the process isn’t allowed by the French tax administration.

So is this the end of bloggers’ freedom of speech in France? Unlikely.

Although seemingly about slander, this ruling is actually about Internet misunderstanding and how behind the judicial system is. The judge asked for the title to be edited, ignoring caching. The restaurateur brought the case to the courts because “the article was going up and up in Google ranking”, which is the nature of SEO and something no amount of ruling can do anything against. Ms Doudet declared to the BBC that “this decision creates a new crime of ‘being too highly ranked [on a search engine]’, or of having too great an influence’”. The Google algorithm (as well as people’s searches) is responsible for that ranking, not her.

The restaurateur, like the lawyer who advised her, ignored that any outcome favourable to them would be met with an Internet storm. Today, anyone searching for “Il Giardino Cap-Ferret” on French or English search engines will be met with articles about the ruling rather than about the greatness (or lack of) of its cuisine. The damage to the restaurant reputation is higher than to Cultur’elle, a thoughtful, well written and intelligent amateur French blog that, ironically, I would never have discovered otherwise. Of course, this is a perfect example of the Streisand effect whereby strong attempts to crush one bit of information from becoming public results in its popularisation.

As Eloise Wagner, an intellectual property lawyer, writes for Le Nouvel Observateur, lawsuits prompted by bad reviews are nothing new in the gastronomy world, although they tend to be about guidebook criticism. French law allows criticism providing it is fair, objective and not made with the intention of damaging a reputation.

Ms Doudet elected not to have legal representation at the emergency hearing because it came as a surprise and she wasn’t able to get any in a short period of time. A lawyer would have argued that the review wasn’t done to damage the restaurant but based on a series of facts experienced by the blogger, which she lays out in the entry: dishes sent in the wrong order, unprofessional service etc. A lawyer would also have quoted a number of French and European prior cases and legal texts that go against the ruling.

Since, under French law, the ruling against L’Irrégulière doesn’t create a legal precedent, but that hopefully the reaction to it will be a cautionary tale for other companies wishing to pursue a similar route, it is unlikely the affair will have many freedom of speech consequences.

As for Ms Doudet, she hopes the ruling won’t change the way she writes her blog although she observes “there are topics I might avoid, which is silly since I have been to many nice places recently. It’s true I rarely write rants like this one, and when I do it tends to be more about news topics than brands. Regarding books, my reviews tend to be quite measured anyway and I doubt any publisher would risk a trial.”

Posted at 7:20pm and tagged with: france, blogger adventure,.

Explore the Fêtes Galantes at Paris’ Musée Jacquemart-André

From Watteau to Fragonard, Les Fêtes Galantes, an exhibition currently showing at Paris’ Jacquemart-André museum, is the perfect introduction to this elegant and refined period of French art history.

The term refers to a new style of painting and drawing that blossomed in the early 18th century, at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and lasted throughout the Regency period. Typically, the paintings feature groups of men and women engaging in games or conversation amidst idealised representations of nature.

Located on the top floor of the Jacquemart-André museum, the exhibition explores, over 60 paintings and drawings, the chronological evolution of Fêtes Galantes.

The star of the exhibition is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Fête à Saint-Cloud, a large painting on exceptional loan from France’s national bank La Banque de France. It depicts, in great detail, a fair in a Western suburb of Paris. There is a puppet theatre, puppet sellers, women playing, a fallen tree… Each scene could be a painting on its own.

Although La Fête a Saint-Cloud is an extraordinary painting and I was lucky to see it for real, my favourite section of the exhibition was the display of Antoine Watteau’s drawings, particularly his red chalks. Here, his talent and the spontaneity of his strokes are visible to all. Stripped from the corset of oil painting, his characters seem ready to move out of their frames, their clothes coming to life in the vivid rendering of fabrics and pleats.

Inspired by pastoral scenes, Watteau was a pioneer of the Fêtes Galantes genre. A fascinating short video at the very beginning of the exhibition explains how the at-times-lazy Watteau would cover his paintings with a sheet when his work done, just so he could make a copy and reuse groups of characters on other paintings. He used this technique on two depictions of a Pilgrimage to Cythera. Experts are still disputing which one he painted first. Neither painting is on display at the exhibition but the discussion surrounding them, particularly the debate as to whether the characters are arriving at or leaving from the island of love, is another Fêtes Galantes trait. Calling upon themes of love and relationship that resonate with all of us, the genre entices the imagination.

For instance, Jean-Francois de Troy’s The Rendez-Vous at the Fountain or The Alarm depicts a couple in close conversation. Is it an illicit meeting between lovers? Sweet words between newly enamoured young people? Or maybe a conversation between a man and a woman whose families disapprove of their union? A servant, asked to keep guard, interrupts. Quick, one of you hide! Someone is coming and they can’t be seen together.

Another painting that’s easy to extrapolate from is Jean-Baptiste Leprince’s La Precaution Inutile. A woman in her late teens sits on a bench, tied to an older man. He is sleeping. Is he a father, worried his daughter is going to show independent thought? A much older husband forced on her, concerned his wife might not be so enamoured with all his wrinkles? A servant tasked with looking after a girl displaying too much liberty? Whoever he is, his stratagem failed: a young man, partly hidden in the bushes, is taking advantage of his slumber to seduce the charge.

Beyond the beauty and technicality of the paintings, the Fêtes Galantes exhibition is a reminder of what romance was in the 18th century, and of the restrictions and social conventions imposed on individuals.

Sadly, the exhibition doesn’t make the best of its incredible surroundings. Much like the Nissim de Camondo museum, the Jacquemart-André Museum is a private mansion turned national museum, which dates back to the early 20th century. The Jacquemart-André couple collected multiple Fêtes Galantes paintings, which can be seen throughout the residence, without a clear link made to the exhibition taking place upstairs.

Collectors and artists, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart assembled, over 10 years, 5,000 or so oeuvres d’art ranging from Tiepolo’s massive fresco The Return of Henry III, moved from Italy to overlook the grand staircase, to Uccello’s iconic Saint Georges and the Dragon, which was reproduced in all my English language books.

An island of quietness straight on Boulevard Haussmann, the museum hosts a high-end café, with surroundings matching in grandeur and decoration the collections. There is a Fêtes Galantes-themed menu. My sister and I had the Lancret, a duck with soy and honey sauce, green asparagus and risotto and mushrooms. This was followed by a nutty Russian cake and a cream and raspberry-filled macaroon from the decadent dessert trolley. Despite this, the best part of the café probably is Parisians-watching. They are exactly the kind of Parisians you read about in books and magazines but don’t think exist in real life. This seems to be where they lunch.

Photo credits: (1) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), La Proposition embarrassante Vers 1715 - 1720 Huile sur toile 65 x 84,5 cm Musée de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin; (2) Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), Fête galante avec joueur de guitare et sculpture d’enfants jouant avec une chèvre Vers 1717-1719 Huile sur toile 115 x 167 cm Inv. Kat. Nr. 474 B Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders; (3) François Boucher (1703-1770), Les Charmes de la vie champêtre Huile sur toile 100 x 146 cm Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (4) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pierrot content Vers 1712-1713 Huile sur toile 35 x 31 cm Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; (5) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Fête Galante avec la Camargo dansant avec un partenaire Vers 1727-1728 Huile sur toile, 76,2 x 106,7 cm National Gallery of art, Washington, W. Mellon collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington; (6) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Baigneuses et spectateurs dans un paysage (Les Plaisirs du bain) Avant 1725, huile sur toile, 97 x 145 cm Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des peintures, collection du baron Edmond de Rothschild (1926-1997); dation en paiement de droits de mutation, 1990 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (7) François Boucher (1703-1770), Pastorale Huile sur toile, 64,5 x 81 cm Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; (8) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), La Fête à Saint-Cloud Vers 1775-1780, huile sur toile, 214 x 334 cm Paris, Hôtel de Toulouse, siège de la Banque de France © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot; (9) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Le Jeu de la Main chaude Vers 1775-1780 Huile sur toile, 115,5 x 91,5 cm Washington, D.C., National Gallery of art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington 3 

Posted at 6:53am and tagged with: Paris, france, address, museum,.

Places to go and things to eat around Guérande (Brittany)

You might know Guérande (Photo 1) for its sea salt. It is collected in the Marais Salants (photo 2) through a long process that involves waiting for the seawater to evaporate. If you’re asked for more than €5 for a five kilo bag, at the market or at one of the shack on the side of the roads, you’re being had.

I know Guérande because aged one to five, I holidayed there every summer, at my grandparents’ house. I have limited memories of the place, although during the week I just spent there, I kept being struck by justified feelings of déjà-vu.

We stayed at Le Croisic (photo 3 and 10), a nice enough village at the end of a peninsula. I wouldn’t recommend it for a long term stay; you’d probably get claustrophobic as almost any journey requires going through the village of Batz-sur-Mer. Alternatives would be Piriac (photo 5), a typical Brittany village or La Turballe (photo 4), a port which is busy all year round. Local specialty: the sardines, which you can see being unloaded from the boats every day. You, and the dozens of seagulls waiting for their goodies.

O Jardin Secret, 10 quai du Port Ciguet, 44 490 Le Croisic

One of the best value-for-money restaurants on Le Croisic wharf, O Jardin Secret serves fresh products straight from the Criée (fish market) standing opposite. The basic, three-dish menu costs €16.90, and includes a choice of fish soup or home-smoked salmon for starter followed by the fish of the day with a beurre blanc sauce and mashed potatoes or meat. Dessert is a floating island, sorbet or the local Far Breton, a cooked custard with plums.

Crêperies

Holidaying in Brittany without eating a single crêpe should be a sin. They are the local pizza, best served with a bolée de cidre, a bowl of cider. Crêpes can be cheap since the ingredients involved aren’t costly – you shouldn’t pay more than 6 for a basic savoury galette de froment with ham and cheese, and no more than 4 for a basic sweet crepe with sugar and butter.

Fleur de Sel, Village de Kervalet, 44740 Batz-sur-Mer

The best crêperie we tried was the restaurant Fleur de Sel, located in the cute and typical village of Kervalet (photo 7). Aside from the traditional ham, cheese, mushrooms galettes, the place offers specials ranging from La Turballaise, spread with a sardine-butter-shallots concoction, to La Paludier, with eggs, onions, pancetta and cheese. I had La Bretonne with a leek fondue, pancetta, crème fraiche and cheese, which was the perfect balance of tastes. My dessert was La Pimms, which had nothing to do with the alcohol and was instead filled with orange marmalade, hot chocolate sauce and topped with an orange sorbet. My dad had La Gourmande, topped with salted caramel ice-cream and a warm chocolate sauce while my mum chose La Normande with stewed apples, vanilla ice cream and salted caramel (photo 6). The bill added up to 54, including a bottle of local cider. We left stuffed and content.

Le Commerce, 1 rue des Viviers, 56760 Penestin

Le Commerce, in the Morbihan county (insider tip: to figure out when you have crossed the border from one French county to the next, watch out for a sudden tarmac change), is a fast-served crêperie with an imaginative menu. I had a complète with ham, cheese, mushrooms and eggs, which was moist and filling. My dad had one with Andouille de Guéméné, a local sausage delicacy made with smoked pork large intestine, another must-taste from the region. My mum had one with ham and tomatoes that was a bit dry. For dessert, you can’t go wrong with another local specialty, the salted caramel spread. Mine, the decadent Angélique, came with whipped cream, toasted almonds and vanilla ice cream.

Local products

La Belle Iloise (photos 8 and 9) sells yummy tinned fish, three words you might not read together very often. The chain has stores all along the Brittany coast selling tuna, sardines, fish and lobster soups as well as mackerel sandwich fillings at factory prices. Take an empty suitcase: all products are sold by lots of at least three. Prices start around 5 for three salmon and tarragon spread tins. It’s also a great place for presents, since all stores offer assortments.

Driving through Brittany, you’ll keep seeing biscuiteries and fabriques de biscuits on the side of the road. Park by any of them and you’re guaranteed to find a wealth of butter-based desserts: palets and galettes, gateaux Bretons, crepes, Kouign amann… La Trinitaine, a semi-industrial chain, sells the cheapest salted caramels of the lot at 17 per kilo.  And I’d know, since we visited about 10 to compare. The salted caramel spread is a nice alternative, perfect on brioche, also produced locally. For a more upmarket and semi-artisan version, local son and “meilleur ouvrier de France” (‘best artisan in France’) George Larnicol has opened stores all over the region, selling for instance a little Kouign Amann, the Kouignette and Petit Ruilh, a melted biscuit filled with homemade jam.

Noirmoutier new potatoes. Like Jersey’s, but from a more local island. Can be found in any worth supermarket or from markets. | Secret Bichonné du couvent.  A tome-like cheese with the cutest name (and considering France is rumoured to count 300 types of cheese, there was competition) since it means Beloved secret from the convent. | La Fraiseraie. A local artisan ice-cream chain that started in the 70s, growing strawberries around Pornic. You can still buy the locally picked strawberries, as well strawberry syrups and jams in their 10 stores but the real treat is their ice-cream: a rainbow of tastes. I recommend praline as well as poire-chocolat (pear and chocolate) made with actual pieces of pears.

All prices accurate as of 30 June 2014. Photos courtesy of Pierre Goulet.

Posted at 7:42pm and tagged with: address, france, food,.

Paris Museum Review: Nissim de Camondo

The Nissim de Camondo Museum's story reads like too many French Jewish family stories from the first half of the 20th century.

Eager to serve his country, the young Nissim enlisted as soon as World War I broke out. At first, he served in the infantry, in the trenches, before joining the brand new French Air Force. He went missing during an air battle in Eastern France, aged just 25.  

In his memory his father, the banker, aesthete and collector Moïse de Camondo, gifted his hôtel particulier, in Paris’ posh and quiet VIIIe arrondissement, to the nation. His other child, daughter Beatrice Reinach, had shown no interest in his collection of 18th century art. Moïse stipulated that the museum would bear his son’s name and would be kept exactly as it was at the time of his death, in 1935. Nothing added, nothing removed.

Beatrice died a few years later, rounded up with her husband and two children by the police. Like so many French Jews, Beatrice had thought that her nationality, combined with her family’s services to the nation, would protect her. First kept in the Drancy transit camp, the Reinach family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they died - either gassed or from typhus - between 1943 and 1945. With them, died the last of the Camondos.

Although not at the heart of the museum, the family’s painful history is present throughout the visit. It brings very human emotions to a time that would otherwise solely focus on the beauty and artefacts on display.

Nissim is there, through photos as well as through the home office he only used a few times whilst on leave. Beatrice is there through her love of horses, seen for instance in a bronze equestrian statue of her.

But most present of them all is their father Moïse. Moïse had the mansion built made-to-measure, modelled on the Versailles’ Petit Trianon's architecture, to welcome his collection of 18th century treasures, including paintings, furniture, china, carpets.

All were sourced from le style transition (1750 to 1774) and le style Louis XVI (1774 to 1785), two key Arts Décoratifs styles inspired by the discovery of Pompeii and geometric motives.

Walking through the museum, it’s hard to imagine that was only built and furnished 100 years ago; Moïse’s modern taste (in terms of home comfort) are an easy reminder of how far ostentation had been indulged between the Revolution and the early 19th century.

Moïse and Nissim both had large bathrooms with stoneware baths and bidets. The chef had a phone in his office. The kitchen displays the best late 1910’s culinary technology. Guests could take a lift rather than climb the spectacular flight of stairs.

In keeping with Moïse’s modernity and functionality, the museum recently launched the augmented reality app Camondo AR. Available on iTunes and Android, it guides the visitor through one of my favourite rooms: le cabinet des porcelaines, which displays an extensive collection of chinas. They span 18th century styles and techniques: soft paste porcelain from Chantilly, Meissen porcelain from Germany and the highlight, three sets of green services Buffon from Sèvres, decorated with illustrations from Buffon’s 1770 Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (a natural history of birds). Thanks to the app, you can point your smartphone on any plate and hear each bird sing. The cabinet is a reminder of how much our current eating habits own the 18th century. Until then, there were no dining rooms; people ate in their bedrooms.

Moïse’s modernity wasn’t just functional, it was also personal. He had divorced his wife Irène Cahen-d’Anvers, who you might have heard of thanks to her portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Their marriage had everything to do with bringing two powerful finance families together, and nothing to do with love. Following her daughter’s death in 1945, Irène inherited the Camondo fortune, which she is said to have squandered.

Luckily, the conditions of Moïse’s donation stopped her from splitting his painfully gathered collection. The museum was closed during the war and emptied of its treasures, stored for safekeeping in the Valençay castle. Thanks to this foresight, we can admire Moïse’s precise taste. For instance, two console tables on display in the Salon des Huets were purchased almost 30 years apart. The library dictated the height of the first floor because it needed to be perfectly dimensioned to welcome the panelling Moïse had bought from an original 18th century mansion. The Savonnerie carpet in Moïse’s room comes from Versailles, where it had been delivered in 1760 so Mesdames the King’s sisters could use it in the chapel on holidays and Sundays.

Through his purchases, Moïse safeguarded multiple 18th century oeuvres d’art. He isn’t the only member of the Camondo family French museums owe a debt to: you can spot the name next to numerous early 20th century paintings in museums like Le Louvre and Orsay. This is thanks to Moïse’s cousin Isaac - his 1911 donation contained some of the Impressionists’ most famous paintings. Manet’s Joueur de Fifre, Degas’ La Classe de Danse and Sisley’s L’Inondation à Port-Marly are all on display thanks to Isaac’s taste.

The Nissim de Camondo museum is open Tuesday to Sunday. Leave two hours to visit, up to three if you go through every option on the audio guide.

Photos courtesy of Camille Goulet.

Posted at 8:54pm and tagged with: Paris, 18th century, address, france, museum,.

Classy Film: Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

Some childhood dreams are hard to let go. For me, it’s the determination I had, aged 12 to 18, to do my higher education at Sciences Po Paris, then the ENA, followed by an obviously brilliant career as a diplomat for the Quai d’Orsay, home to the French ministry of Foreign Affairs. Neither four years at the LSE or four years of project management for a luxury British brand have deleted it.

Having followed a different path, I satisfy the child in me by watching and reading endless material on these three French institutions. Quai d’Orsay, a comic book turned feature film about an ENA-graduate working as the Foreign Affairs minister’s speechwriter, ticks all my boxes. Add to that a healthy dose of humorous criticism of the French administration, first class acting and directing, and you get a film I just couldn’t not like.

The original comic book is based on former Foreign Affairs minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s time at the Quai d’Orsay and builds up to his Security Council speech against US intervention in Iraq. It is inspired by co-writer Abel Lanzac’s (real name Antonin Baudry) time as cultural and economic advisor to Villepin. Written by the comic book authors Christophe Blain and Lanzac, the movie closely followed this scenario.

Quai d’Orsay opens with Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) trying to work out what to wear to his interview with Foreign Affairs minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte). He settles on a pair of white chinos and some square, dirty shoes, a choice that has the civil servants he bumps into laughing and makes him feel out of place. Although very much an administration insider through his ENA training alone, Vlaminck is an outsider and the viewer’s eyes through much of the movie because of his novelty to the ministry, a status exemplified by his wardrobe faux pas.

Lesson learnt, on his first day, Vlaminck switches to a dark suit, though not a matching one. It earns him some advice from one of his more careered colleagues: try wearing a matching suit but avoid black, especially with a black tie and square shoes or risk looking like a bodyguard.

Vlaminck’s dress sense is a recurrent theme of the first half of Quai d’Orsay, as he tries to find his footing as a speechwriter, to figure out what Taillard de Worms expects and learn to navigate the system. He gets a schooling in office politics when Valérie Dumontheil (Julie Gayet, who, when the film was released, was known for her acting work, rather than as François Hollande’s mistress), the Quai’s Africa specialist, compliments him on his first speech, hits on him and makes fun of his poorly-ironed collar and his polished shoes, only to backstab him in a team meeting ran by the real Quai boss, Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup, awarded a César for this role).

Dumontheil’s character is in itself a criticism of the administration. She is the only high-level woman in the team. All the other women featured are secretaries, or Vlaminck’s girlfriend. The Quai is a testosterone-charged universe, with the expected ribaldry. After Dumontheil publicly destroys Vlaminck’s speech with her criticism, one of their colleagues explains him that this is the Quai’s way of fucking, before illustrating it with a saucy song. Considering there is a gratuitous shot of Dumontheil in her underwear half-way through the movie, director Bertrand Tavernier might have missed the sexist angle of his story.

Criticism of the administration, for instance how the Quai d’Orsay doesn’t have Internet access (I’m not sure if this is still true), is only a small part of the scenario. At the heart of the parody is the minister, rather than his civil servants. Taillard de Worms’ personality oscillates between the ridicule of a five minute speech on the importance of getting the right yellow highlighter - because he needs to highlight the best sentences in everything he reads, especially Heraclitus’ Fragments, his trusted-to-the-point-of-absurdity text - and the eventual greatness of his UN Security Council speech.

Heraclitus and the highlighter obsession are not the only two jokes from the original comic book that Tavernier translated well on screen. Another of his coups is Taillard de Worms’ way of walking into rooms: he sends all loose sheets flying and the secretaries sitting on piles of paper to prevent disaster the second they hear him coming.

Between these funny moments and the insider look I crave to the Quai d’Orsay, this was never the film which was going to quash my childhood aspirations. Instead, it got me googling madly for documentaries on l’ENA.

Quai d’Orsay will show at the Ciné Lumière, followed by a Q&A with Raphaël Personnaz, as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinéma festival on 28 April 2014.

Posted at 1:15pm and tagged with: Classy film, france, politics,.

Food, Fashion, Beauty and Culture: My Toulouse Coups de Coeur Addresses

FOOD

Les Sales Gosses, 7 rue de l’Industrie, 31 000 Toulouse

Worth a visit for the concept alone, Les Sales Gosses is a booking-compulsory restaurant where dishes and décor are inspired by childhood memories. For instance, the round hand soap in the toilets is attached to the wall, as in every French primary school. The à la carte menu (€17.50 for two dishes at lunchtime, €29 in the evening) changes regularly. For starters, my sister and I enjoyed breaded Camembert with sautéed vegetables and a soft-boiled egg with mash potatoes and a mustard emulsion. Steak with old-fashion vegetables and Kiri soft cheese-ham ravioles with courgette spaghetti followed. The café gourmand looked really good too: a cup of coffee with a Kinder egg, cotton candy, Malabar-flavoured ice cream and a slice of cheesecake.

Le Paradis du Fruit, 10 place du Capitole, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 1)

The go-to place for healthy lunches, brunches, breakfasts and dinners, the Toulouse version of the Le Paradis du Fruit franchise doesn’t disappoint. I’ve had some bad experiences in Paris with restaurants in the chain, but this one serves fresh food at a good price point. The menu offers real choice: for instance, you can pick the base for a salad and the proteins to add to it. I had Chinese cabbage with avocado and grilled king prawns, my friend had spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes with salmon (both €11.90). The sauce is automatically brought on the side. Make sure to look at the dessert menu and its decadent ice cream compositions. My personal favourite: the Parad’Ice with whipped cream, strawberry and raspberry and mango sorbets as well as fresh mango and strawberries (€9.50).

La Gourmandine, 17 Place Victor Hugo, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 2)

Imaginative, tasty cuisine and swift service at this French cuisine restaurant. Each dish offers a take on traditional, often local, flavours - for instance a trio of foie gras, each cooked differently, or duck confit and duck filet spring rolls. If you go at lunchtime, don’t miss the great cheese shop offering French, local and international cheeses just opposite the restaurant.

Le Bibent, 5 Place du Capitole, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 3 and 4)

The most expensive of the four thanks to its incredible location, bang on Place du Capitole, and its Michelin-starred, Parisian chef-owner Christian Constant, Le Bibent mixes traditional French and Southern cooking. I had a foie gras-based starter and a beef stew for main, two tasty and comforting dishes. Located in a renovated 19th century brasserie, with an original Belle Epoque decoration, Le Bibent is worth a visit for the surroundings as much as the food.

FASHION

Nude by Emi, 12 rue Léon Gambetta, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 5 and 6)

A new-ish shoe brand my sister swears by, the Nude by emi store is a bit off centre. It’s worth the few additional steps though: in the girly space, you’ll find ballerina shoes, lace-up brogues and Chelsea boots in an array of colours and prints. Everything is made in France and is of the highest quality. My personal favourite: the Bonnie (€59). This style comes in the same shape for the left and right foot; each shoe takes the shape of your foot as you wear it. I own them in three colours: lacquered turquoise, bright blue velvet and salmon leather.

Repetto, 25 rue de Metz, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 7 and 8)

Repetto stores are the same everywhere, so why this particular one? Customer service. The sale assistants are knowledgeable about the brand and helpful. As Repetto expands its range to include elegant, ballet-inspired womenswear, comfortable, pop colour trainers and fruity fragrances, the Toulouse store is a great space to experience its latest offerings. Make sure to try out the handbags (from about €500), which are perfectly finished and light to carry.

BEAUTY

Spa Carita, 12 rue Ozenne, 31 000 Toulouse

A nice enough spa, served well by its employees and its products, but it lacks in serenity and is a bit pricey. As for the Spa Nuxe in Paris last summer, I went with my sister and we were disappointed. I chose the papaya face care (€69). The best part was a sunflower seed and essential oil exfoliating cream, sadly not available as part of the Carita offering because of how messy it gets: you have to rub it in until the essential oils have been completely absorbed by the skin and nothing but the sunflower seeds remain.

CULTURE

Le Musée des Augustins, 21 rue de Metz 31000 Toulouse (photo 9 and 10)

The city’s fine arts museum, this convent-turned-museum houses sculptures from Romanesque times to the early 20th century, alongside paintings covering the same period. Schedule about 90 minutes for the visit (€4), and be sure to stop at the small monastic garden that’s filled with aromatic herbs. My favourite part: a brick staircase where sculptures by local artist Alexandre Falguière feature, both in plaster and as a finished bronze or marble.

L’Utopia, Impasse du Château, 31170 Tournefeuille

A cheap, charming cinema in the Toulouse suburb of Tournefeuille, L’Utopia shows small films d’auteur you won’t find anywhere else in Toulouse as well as Hollywood successes in the original English. Here again, the décor is half the experience, with old-fashioned seating, beautiful wooden stairs and fireplaces inside the cinema. There’s also a garden and cafe to have lunch in between showings.

Previous Coups de Coeur addresses: Paris

Posted at 3:26pm and tagged with: france, address,.

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”

Watching Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour in the Maison de la Culture in Nevers, a few metres away from where some of the film’s harrowing scenes were shot, was quite an experience for my 15-year-old self.

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.

Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

I was reminded of Hiroshima, one of the few Resnais films I have seen, when the French director died last week. What I remember best, aside from feeling proud that my small town was on the big screen, is disgust. As Nevers is liberated, the German officer Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) had an affair with, is shot. Like thousands of other women accused of collaboration horizontale, her head is shaved.

Marguerite Duras, the Prix Goncourt-winner and Académie Française member screenplay writer, chose to set the plot in Nevers because the town’s name resembles the English word “never”. At least that’s how my French literature teacher explained it at the time, in a class dedicated to the links between the film and the Nouveau Roman literary form. Never again as everybody said after World War I, never again as the world said after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Hiroshima is about memories that wounded survivors and their attempts to forget and get on with their lives.

Resnais’ first feature-length movie takes place in Hiroshima a few years after 6 August 1945. Elle, in Japan to shoot a movie about peace, meets Lui (Eiji Okada), a local architect, and the two have a passionate, though brief, affair. The morning after their first night together, she scratches him, reminding her of her time with her German lover (Bernard Fresson).

Watching the film at 15, I was disgusted and shocked by the scenes of her being shaved, a feeling I didn’t find again in cinemas until I saw Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book in 2006, a movie focused on a Dutch resistance woman embedded in Nazi headquarters. At the end of the war, women are shown being shaved and showered in faeces.

Even George Clooney’s more recent The Monuments Men briefly deals with the topic of women’s treatment after the war. Matt Damon finds Cate Blanchett in a Parisian prison. In the worse French accent ever attempted by an Academy award-winner, she asks him - with more than a hint of sarcasm - if he hadn’t heard she slept with Germans, a false accusation based on her working for the German officer looking after the Parisian art collection. She was actually trying to save the art by informing her brother in the Résistance of convoy movements.

Fairness is one of the values I hold dearest, which is why the misogynistic treatment of women at the Libération disgusted me at 15 like it does today. British Historian Antony Beevor describes the ceremonies of public shaving as “a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation. One could almost say that it was the equivalent of rape by the victor.” (The Guardian, 5 June 2009)

An entire generation was born between August 1945 and my own birth, yet we’re still funny about who was on whose side, and even more weird about talking about it. My paternal grandmother, a young dressmaker in Le Mans throughout the war years, always spoke with the utmost contempt of her colleagues who had been “fraternising with the occupier”. I was quite young at the time so fraternising was probably an all-encompassing term, a euphemism for affairs and an exaggeration for conversations. As Beevor explains, the source of this kind of contempt was more likely jalousie than patriotism. “People envied the food and entertainment these women had received as a result of their conduct”, he says.

Uneasiness about wartime has unexpected consequences. For instance, after Edward Snowden leaked classified documents about global surveillance programs, French media tried to explain why whistleblowing just isn’t a thing in France. The most common explanation was that wartime denunciations, which affected everyone, Jews, résistants, or the neighbour who annoyed you, left such a collective trauma and shame that France, as a society, doesn’t like people who tell. Apathy and cowardice were other, more acceptable, reasons.

We all like to think we would have been brave during World War II, helping the Résistance, hiding Jews and so on. These behavioural fantasies align with what we see as right in retrospect, in the easiness of academic debate rather than survival conditions. France ended up with more claimed résistants at the Libération than it really counted between June 1940 and summer 1945. If any of the conversations I’ve had were to be believed, had today’s French population been alive during WWII, everyone would have resisted.

Yet it’s not that simple, which is exactly what those movies show us, and what we seem not to learn from them. For me, the real judge of character wouldn’t just be what you would have done during the war, but also what you would have done just after, to the people who hadn’t been on your side.

Posted at 8:19pm and tagged with: Classy film, france,.

Nevers, the making of a ghost town

Nevers was never a vibrant, busy city but when I was a child, it had over 6,000 more inhabitants than it does today. When I was a child, la Nièvre, the county Nevers is in, had given France its then President (François Mitterrand) and a Prime Minister (Pierre Bérégovoy). Under their government, the county gained the French Formula 1 race, which was held in Magny-Cours, barely 20 minutes away from Nevers, and the country’s latest hospital. But today, neither doctors nor Formula 1 fans want to come to Nevers. It’s too quiet, too complicated to get to. The circuit doesn’t host Formula 1 anymore and the hospital isn’t quite as much of an example anymore. 

The first thing to go, back when I was in primary school, was the caserne (barracks). Before the military left, I remember sitting in a traffic jam at noon, on the way from school to lunch. Last time I went back, during the 3pm, 5 minutes-long drive from the station to my house, I spotted just three cars and four people on foot. For every end-of-war commemoration, we would be woken up on bank holidays by a canon. Postings to Kosovo were real, not just another headline in the news, because some of my friends’ dads went. And then one day, the children went too. The disused caserne was meant to become the new nursing school, to host the county archives, to be turned into a real estate development. Over a decade on, it hosts a pharmacy and wild grass. So do a lot of houses, abandoned and never sold when the militia left. The city didn’t cry over it with as much to-do as Mrs. Bennet, but it really should have. Instead, Nevers became the perfect city to buy a manor for the price of a London studio. The problem is: hardly anyone wants to. 

When Mitterrand left and Jacques Chirac took power, Nevers, a traditional, anchored left-wing city, found itself on the wrong side of the political spectrum. The left doesn’t have to do much to win elections there beyond making sure its name is on the ballot. Mayorship isn’t as much earned as it is bestowed to pre-determined heirs who run the city until they feel like leaving. Didier Boulaud, who took over from Bérégovoy after his suicide by the Nevers Canal (most of the city believes it was state murder), held the job for seven years. The power check that’s meant to happen through the risk of losing elections has so far been close to nil. It doesn’t happen through the local rag either, since it is the kind of paper where spelling mistakes are considered acceptable – editing would be against editorial independence. 

The newspaper, which I even wrote for in high school, used to be printed locally, right by the train station. These days, fewer trains pass through Nevers, and the nearby restaurants and hotels seem to have a new owner every time I return. There was hope, at some point, that a high-speed train (TGV) linking Paris to Nevers would resuscitate the city. A support meeting was held; apparently, the turn out was so high, the highest of all the cities the TGV would be stopping at, that partition walls had to be taken down. The hope of an entire city, riding on a train. How very industrial revolution. The TGV project has been shelved until further notice because of a train derailment a few months ago. Reason: tracks might not have been taken care of as well as they should have. The TGV budget will go into refreshing the tracks, and Paris will remain two hours away.

Nevers is a beautiful city and I wouldn’t have grown up anywhere else. It has a rich history with a church, l’Eglise Saint Etienne, a model of Roman art which used to be pictured in the dictionary. They’ve stopped doing mass there though because they couldn’t afford to keep the heating on and nobody wants to pray when it’s cold. There is a cathedral, which survived a WWII bombing, revealing the presence of a 6th century baptistery. The very first Loire Castle, geographically at least, has been standing proud since the 15th century. Nevers hosts an incredible artisan industry, la faience, a high-end type of porcelain brought back from Italy during the Renaissance. It has been featured in classic movies, such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and gave its name to a fencing thrust, or at least to the duke who invented it in the book Le Bossu, la botte de Nevers, guaranteed to kill one’s adversary with a swift hit between the eyes. 

Yet for all this richness, cows and pilgrimage are probably Nevers’ two strongest points. The cows: le Charolais, offer the best type of beef. The pilgrimage: Bernadette Soubirou, the saint who saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes and came to the Nevers convent. Unearthing her years after her death, the nuns realised that her body hadn’t rotten and, claiming a second miracle, covered her in wax and put her on display in the chapel, where you can see her to this day. As a result, Nevers is something of a compulsory stop for people on their way to Lourdes. These are the days when the train station becomes busy again. 

Nevers definitely has the potential to develop again, but it doesn’t know how to capitalise on it. Stuck in the middle of France, far from the sea and the mountains, it hasn’t developed the writers’ or yoga retreat economy many fledging French cities are enjoying. Big city inhabitants crave country vacations, foreigners come to Burgundy for food and drink and a little bit of culture on the side – all activities Nevers is more than able to provide. There are enough destitute farms around to start up a high-end B&B chain, not to mention all the inhabited mansions within the city. Yet the local tourism authorities haven’t bothered to publish an English website, the city’s presence on social media, in any language, is non-existent and advertising campaigns to encourage people to visit are nowhere to be seen. Until Nevers takes an audit of its local strength and comes up with 21st century solutions to exploit them, the city isn’t going to revive. In the meantime however, I would strongly encourage you to go spend your holidays there. I can promise you peace and quiet, good food and a nice castle.

Posted at 6:04am and tagged with: first person, france,.

Classy Film: Un Prince Presque Charmant

Had Un Prince Presque Charmant been an American movie, it would have starred Katherine Heigl as a young, vivacious, naive Southern girl yearning for her Prince Charming. This is the level of this French rom-com, which borrows every banality of the genre and peppers it with a good dose of French societal clichés. 

I considered prefacing this blog entry with a spoiler alert but really, you can guess the entire scenario just by looking at the poster. Jean-Marc (Vincent Perez) is the overworked and misogynistic Parisian owner of an electronics company and the majority shareholder of a small factory in the South of France. For economic reasons, and without caring about the people about to lose their jobs, he decides the factory should relocate to Bulgaria.

The film was released last January, as relocations and factory closures were switching from being the hot topic on the evening news to the hot topic on the big screen. Another movie exploring potential relationships between the CEO of big companies and the employees whose lives he destroys came out three months later, Ma part du gâteau

Right after signing the relocation contract, a strike forces Jean-Marc to undertake a three-day-long road trip from Paris to Monaco to get to his daughter’s wedding. France is paralysed by a strike that criticizes, in the vaguest ways, just about everything evil about capitalism and reminds Jean-Marc at every possible crossroad why choosing to dedicate his time to his career rather than to his daughter was a bad idea. 

On the road, Jean-Marcs has a chance encounter with Marie (Vahina Giocante), a beautiful provincial girl much younger than him who dreams of meeting a prince. Rom-com twist: Marie is in the fact the daughter of the relocalated factory owner, though only the film viewer knows this from the start. 

Written and produced by Luc Besson, Un Prince Presque Charmant quotes the classic tropes of the rom-com genre: the two unknowns mistaken for a couple who face sleeping in the same bed, the CEO realising that he has missed out on the best of life, the big company eating a small one, the douche who becomes a gentleman when he meets the right woman…

In the first part of the movie, Jean-Marc is shown as an abusive boss who thinks it’s ok to be rude to his female secretary Evelyn (Judith Siboni) or to the woman delivering lunch. The film opens with him making fun of Evelyn’s suggestion that she could drive because really, how could she handle a car that powerful? Jean-Marc’s early world is split between the men who run companies and the women who make their lives easier, who entertain them and who they sleep with. Although this behaviour is easy to dismiss because the premise is that this is a redemption story, I don’t believe we should. The idea that abusive, misogynistic men can be reformed is about as likely as Edward marrying Vivian. 

Jean-Marc’s character turn-around is suggested by three changes of clothes in the whole film: at the beginning, he wears a classic, suave three-piece suit – alongside his car, his private plane and his threesomes, it suits his life of a CEO. As the road trip starts going south, as he encounters roadblocks and runs out of petrol, the elegance gets messier, the status symbols start being taken off one by one: the jacket, the vest, the tie. By the time Jean-Marc switches to a Renault electric car, considered “feminine”, he wears a casual double blue outfit of jeans and a shirt. Even though he finishes the film in another suit, it’s for his daughter’s wedding and it’s clear that this new attire is about finally making right by her rather than showing off power and money. 

I doubt Un Prince will be released in English-speaking markets. It received average reviews from critics and spectators alike in France. Its French-ness could, as is often the case, drag in some viewers, but not enough to justify many screens. If you don’t speak the language, you won’t be missing out. 

Posted at 10:29am and tagged with: Classy film, france,.

On 23 September, the French tribunal de grande instance, a Civil Court, ruled that the LVMH-owned fragrance and cosmetics chain Sephora couldn’t open its Champs Elysées store after 9pm. For the past 17 years, the store had opened until midnight Monday to Thursday, and until 1am on Fridays and Saturdays. 

The case was brought to court by the unions, despite heavy criticism for it from both management and employees. Firstly because they argued 20% of their revenue was made during night opening hours as tourists walked the Avenue, and secondly because they complained it would require a reshuffle of their schedules. Public radio France Inter interviewed a female employee who explained evening shifts worked for her because it enabled her to look after her sister’s children. Fifty employees even turned up to the hearing to support Sephora’s late night openings. 

Sephora management wasn’t the only ones who deplored the ruling. “The laws sometimes have to be open to the new world, and the new world is business that never stops,” Ventes-privées entrepreneur Jacques-Antoine Granjon said in a phone interview with The Business of Fashion on 8 October. “Where there is a need and where you have people who are ready to work, they should let them work.”

Granjon takes advantage of the no-Sunday work unless you are in the food industry law: his website is the third most visited in France, right behind Amazon and eBay. However, online shopping only works for people living in France, rather than for one of its first economy drivers: tourism

France needs to allow evening and Sunday work in luxury stores because tourists, who come to the country to buy its fashion and high-end goods, don’t care about French labour laws. If they can’t shop Printemps, they’ll shop Harrods or 10 Corso Como instead.

When Zadig & Voltaire first opened on Sloane Street, as a good little French brand, it was closed on Sunday, as I discovered one day,whilst doing my Christmas shopping. I went to the King’s Road instead, where all the stores were open. Zadig & Voltaire’s opening hours anomaly didn’t last long, although many luxury Sloane Street stores, such as Chanel and Saint Laurent, still close on Sundays. 

According to the weekly French management magazine Challenges, the grands magasins (department stores) generated 5 billion euros in revenue last year, mainly thanks to tourists, including Chinese customers who made up over 40 million customers in 2012. In Nice, on the Mediterranean, tourists account for 40% of local department stores turnover. 

Golden Week, the Chinese national holiday during which shoppers come to Europe en masse, has just ended. Last year, during that first week of October, one million Chinese customers came to Paris, over 800,000 more than the number who came to London according to a Business of Fashion interview with Gordon Clark, the UK managing director of shopping tourism company Global. Although many come with tour operators who would take into account department store opening hours, the lack of Sunday business is surely a miss for companies relying more and more heavily on tourist spending. 

I am not suggesting store management forces employees to work Sundays. It should be a choice. Labour laws provide financial incentives for people who elect to work nights or weekends, and days off are given later in the week. My summer student jobs included cleaning up the local hospital where I enjoyed working weekends or late shifts because the salary was significantly increased, and I got time off on weekdays instead. 

The Sunday work debate is representative of France’s current attempts to become more competitive without giving up any of its workers hard-earned social advantages, including the 35-hour working week. Buying French fashion in France holds a certain cachet (not to mention lower taxes and therefore prices than in many other countries), which the country needs continue to champion in order for the luxury industry to survive and flourish. 

Posted at 6:09am and tagged with: france, politics, retail,.