Friday, 24 February 2012

The Mélenchon - Le Pen debate: From the gutter to the sewer…

Would you vote for either of these people?
The dreadful fare served up to French TV viewers yesterday evening was not worthy of its billing as a ‘political debate.’ It was abject, ugly, and it heaped discredit not only on the participants, but on French TV and political culture as a whole.

The idea of pitting France’s most reviled politician against its most boorish personality in a political debate was extremely risky from the start, and the derisory result came as no surprise. Perhaps the expectation of a debacle explains why the debate got the highest viewing figures on French TV last night.

The protagonists were extreme-right Front National leader Marine le Pen and extreme-left Front de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon – both of whom are presidential candidates - and they were invited to debate on national TV channel France 2 during prime-time yesterday evening. The subject, of course, was their respective political platforms and election proposals.

In fact, it was a minor miracle that the debate even happened in the first place, because Le Pen had fiercely resisted France 2’s decision to pick Mélenchon to oppose her up until the last moment, citing the latter’s use of insults such as “stupid’, “barbaric”, fascist and “half-demented” to describe her. But she finally relented for reasons which still remain unclear.

Mélenchon got things underway with a politely-expressed question on abortion, whereupon Le Pen, ignoring it, turned instead to David Pujadas, the presenter, accusing him of organizing the event uniquely in order to boost viewer ratings. Whereupon she swiveled round to face Mélenchon, and accused him of insulting “the 40% of the working class who are going to vote for me.” Mélenchon tried another question, and Le Pen told Pujadas that she was not going to debate with Mélenchon. Who tartly riposted with “Well what are you doing here then! Leave!” Le Pen asked Mélénchon to apologise for calling her “half-demented” only to hear him snap back “So? You’ve still got the other half.”

This spectacle was a litany of mutual insults and petty sarcasms. “You don’t serve any purpose….and look at me when I’m talking to you” shouted Mélenchon. Le Pen, needling him, said “We’re not on the same electoral level….You’re a public insulter.” 

On it went, with Mélenchon’s face becoming contorted with sneering disdain and Le Pen completely ignoring him by pretending to organise her papers. Finally she repeated to Pujadas that she wouldn’t debate with Mélenchon, saying that seeing as his policies were delusions and that he himself was a delusion, no debate was possible. 

And that was that.

It would of course be easy to find all this amusing if only because it was so ludicrous, and indeed it was, in a way. But there was nothing funny about the level of debate. It was a parody of everything that politics should be about, and it was an insult to French politics, the presidential election, every single French voter and every single TV licence payer.

From Mélenchon’s jeering, leering snarling  and nastily aggressive tone to Le Pen’s insulting feigned indifference and her risible attempts to mock her adversary, the whole show was a contemptible travesty and a showcase for the stinking underbelly of extremist politics on both sides of the divide.

French political debate has always been marked by ill-tempered insult, but the Mélenchon-Le Pen confrontation yesterday saw it reach new lows. It slithered off the pavement and into the gutter before oozing into the drains and dripping into the stinking sewer and cesspit of ideological hatred.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Buying a good baguette in France: A piece of cake?

Toasted, with butter and marmelade. Yum!
 You can enter any boulangerie in France and buy a real French baguette with its succulent and aroma-filled inside and its golden crust, which ‘gives’ and crunches just perfectly when you bite into it.

Well, that’s what tourist agency brochures and travel articles would have you believe, but things aren’t that simple unfortunately. The reality is that the type, price and quality of bread you buy can and do vary substantially. Finding a good, authentic, baguette – or other types of bread – is not as easy as it is widely believed to be, and most people here have their favourite boulangeries as well as their ‘to be avoided at all costs’ addresses.

So what is a ‘boulangerie’ in France? In which of them should you buy your bread, and why? 

Boulangeries have changed enormously over the years, and it’s important to know why and how. Up until about 35 years ago the price of bread was fixed by governmental decree. This simple mechanism wasn’t difficult to enforce as there were only a few types of bread at that time. Also, the decree system went a long way towards explaining why bread was more or less the same everywhere – although there have always been good and bad bakers - because the strict pricing policy dictated that the recipe be a relatively basic and simple one.

But the law introduced in 1987 which allows bakers to fix the price of their own bread radically changed the market because it was at least partly responsible for the much more varied kinds and qualities of bread we see today. This is because deregulated pricing has allowed bakers to produce the kinds of bread they want to, using the types of flour and other ingredients they want to, within the limits of legislation controlling the quality of bread in France. Adapting to different client groups is also easier today – for example you will generally find a wider choice of breads in large cities than in villages, where bread is often more traditional in presentation. Some bakers in more affluent areas sell higher-quality products at higher prices, and others in other areas may have a different client base.

This law represents one of the two major changes in the French baking industry which have taken place over the last 40 years, and although the offer is more varied, so is the quality. And that’s where a little knowledge goes a long way.

The other major change centres upon the question of just what a boulangerie actually is these days, and just what a ‘real baguette’ is too. There are three principal types of bread shop today, and the differences between them are substantial as they reflect the major evolutions in bread making techniques which have occurred over the years.

Many people - including quite a few French people incidentally - walk into a baker’s shop to buy bread thinking that they are in a boulangerie. But there is a good chance that they are not, and what kind of baguette they buy depends on which type of shop they walk into.

The first – and luckily for us the biggest – category is that of, well, the old-style ‘boulangerie.’ There are around 32,000 boulangeries in France today. Boulangeries are the guarantee of a product made wholly on the premises, and they are thus the most authentic. They are instantly recognisable because they actually have a sign or logo outside saying ‘boulangerie.’ This is because they are the only bakers who respect the high standards that must be respected to produce authentic bread.  A boulanger must be a professional artisan who chooses his own raw materials, makes his own dough, controls its fermentation, and shapes and bakes it on the premises. No frozen products or freezing techniques may be used.

If a boulanger also makes patisserie (cakes, tarts etc) and/or viennoiserie (croissants, pains au chocolat etc), those products have to be produced using the same criteria.

In other words, you know you’re getting an authentic product. That said, whether or not it pleases your own particular tastes is another matter, and I’ll be writing about what good bread is and how to recognise it in a subsequent article. Also, some boulangers are better, more conscientious and more experienced than others, and that also increases variety and quality. 

But – and there’s always a but – not all boulangeries are fully independent artisans. The last 30 years has seen the emergence of another category of bakers – those who are under contract to produce bread for a ‘marque meunière’, or ‘flour producer brand.’ These shops all sell more-or-less exactly the same products, because the bakers are under contract to exclusively use a particular flour producers’ flours and other ingredients to make breads of the flour producer’s choosing. They must also scrupulously respect the preparation and baking recipes they are instructed to use, down to the smallest detail.

And you don’t have to be a ‘real’ baker to start up one of these shops. Anyone can do it. A few months’ training in their training school and you’re up and running. This kind of baker is to all intents and purposes operating a kind of franchise, and more and more of them open each year.

Because they produce on the premises from start to finish however, they too can call their shops ‘boulangerie’, and the flour producer provides its own distinctive corporate and trademarked colour schemes and logos etc to market the shop and the brand. That means they are instantly recognisable to those who know their bakers’ shops. Banette, Polichette and Baguetti are some of the better-known brands. Traditional bakers aren’t happy with this state of affairs though, because they claim that the profession is heading down the road to corporate uniformity in both product and methods.

The bread itself? It’s often reasonable, given that it wasn’t even made by experienced bakers in many cases, but it is, well, standardised in both taste and aspect and it often lacks character. I’ll buy one if there’s nothing else around. And I’ll certainly buy one before ever being tempted to walk into the third – and most hotly contested - category of bakers’ shops, the ‘point chaud’.

Because many people see bread and pastries in a shop that looks like a boulangerie, they automatically assume that it actually is one, but the point chaud is anything but. 

A point chaud is basically a place with lots of cold rooms and freezers which you rarely see because they are at the back of the shop, and these storage facilities are filled with frozen baguettes, croissants and many other products. The products were mass-produced in a factory anywhere up to 200km away and are delivered frozen, to be baked in the shop. (Incidentally, these frozen-product factories also produce the millions of baguettes etc sold in supermarkets.) What you do see however are the baking ovens and bread racks full of bread, just like in a real baker’s shop. But there isn’t even a qualified baker on the premises and the bread is ‘baked’ in batches by serving staff as and when it is needed, from whence the ‘freshly baked’ impression the more unsuspecting clients get.

As you may imagine, these shops are not appreciated by traditional boulangeries and bakers, who do not consider what they sell to be ‘real’ bread. Worse, they are springing up all over the country and there are already over 6000 of them. Their products are often of very average quality and taste and I personally would never buy them. Many people do buy them however because they don’t – unbelievably you might say – check for the most obvious sign that they are entering a point chaud, which is that they cannot use the word ‘boulangerie’ on the shop front or anywhere else, and they must use the denomination ‘point chaud.’ You have been warned.

The result of all these changes is that unless you know how to recognise which kind of baker’s shop you are walking into, you only have something like a 50/50 chance of buying a traditional baguette made by a trained artisan. The rest are either frozen products which have been heated up and browned or trademark branded bread. Not all of the latter two are bad of course, but it can’t be denied that they do not share the same characteristics and taste as bread made by a real baker who uses his experience and originality to produce the kind of baguette that connoisseurs prefer. 

At the end of the day though, bread, like wine, cheese, and food in general, has to be ‘learned.’ And the first thing to do is to forget all the dreamy travel brochure ideas of wonderful baguettes on every street corner and learn how to tell the difference between a real baker’s shop and the rest. This may entail using a little more discernment and not necessarily entering the very first baker’s shop you see, but the result is often well worth the effort.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sarkozy launches his blitzkrieg campaign against Hollande

Sarkozy hitting on Laura Bush. Ah, these Frenchies...
It has only been a couple of days since Nicolas Sarkozy declared his intention to seek reelection yet his choice of campaign style is already clear. He’s going for the jugular. 

Not that this should surprise anyone of course. He is a dangerous opponent in any campaign, as the hapless Ségolène Royal found to her great cost in 2007 when he mauled her to metaphorical death. 

His would-be victim this time is François Hollande, who has so far been the sole vector of his venom. In just two days Hollande has been accused by Sarkozy of lying from morning till night and of being vague, a throwback to the past, and dishonest.

This tactic is likely to continue right up to the last moments of the campaign, because Sarkozy cannot rely on his results alone to persuade voters to reelect him. His best hopes lie in keeping the spotlight on perceived failings in Hollande’s campaign and policy offer. 

One of those perceived failings is Hollande’s reputation as a somewhat insipid and indecisive politician. Sarkozy is sure to use this to try and demonstrate that it is precisely this supposed flaw in Hollande which would prevent France from implementing the many reforms that Sarkozy claims are going to be necessary to get the country’s economy back on track and reduce unemployment, which has reached record levels.

That is why Sarkozy’s accusation of lying targeted Hollande’s recent and highly unflattering declarations concerning the world of finance, banks and the markets. He knows that the economy is the Achilles heel of the Parti Socialiste and he is not likely to let voters forget it.

Will this tactic work and get him reelected? The answer to that question depends largely on Hollande’s reaction to it. Sarkozy is obviously out to destabilise him, to get him to lose his usual affable and avuncular cool and say something he would regret. Again, Royal would testify to the efficiency of that particular ploy as she fell for it hook, line and sinker.

So far, Hollande seems to have sensed the danger and is quite rightly refusing to rise to the bait and enter into a direct confrontation with Sarkozy, saying that he expected this noisy start to his opponent’s campaign and that he thinks candidates “need to convince the French, not each other.”

This will not be enough on its own to win against Sarkozy however, and he is still faced with the challenge of persuading voters that his policies are credible. This involves striking a tricky balance between keeping the challenge up on Sarkozy’s record and proposing an alternative that voters will believe.

Sarkozy has another – if lesser - threat to his reelection to take into account, and that is the fact that Modem leader François Bayrou and the Front National’s Marine le Pen are both concentrating their attacks on him, thus sparing Hollande from criticism, at least for now. With these two candidates polling a total of roughly 25% of the first round votes, Sarkozy, who is nevertheless widely expected to reach the second round, will have to woo some of their voters if, as is expected, he faces off against Hollande.

But Sarkozy’s biggest obstacle by far to reelection is himself. The French like to feel a sense of affection and admiration for their presidents, and Sarkozy has never managed to convince many of them that he is anything else but a bling-bling vulgar parvenu who is debasing the presidential function. Whatever goes wrong in France is rightly or wrongly put down to his policies. I even heard a gentleman complain to a fellow passenger on a bus recently that Sarkozy is to blame for fare-dodging teenagers on public transport in Lyon. “C’est la faute à Sarko” has become a standard joke reaction to anything that goes wrong. Your sink is blocked? “C’est la faute à Sarko.”

More than any other, this handicap is going to be very difficult to overcome for Nicolas Sarkozy. If the French don’t feel a real affinity with a candidate, he or she has got real problems. Hollande is decidedly not France’s most inspiring presidential candidate ever – indeed he’s only a candidate because DSK decided to commit political suicide in a New York hotel – but anti-Sarko sentiment is still running high.

Sarkozy does have one ray of hope though, in the form of a recent poll which showed that although the French don’t rate his results over the last 5 years very highly, he is, paradoxically, still believed to be more capable of getting the country back on track than Hollande, despite people’s dislike of him.

Could this save him? Can he win? It’s still too early to tell. His voting intention scores have increased since he declared his candidature, but Hollande is still a long way ahead.

One thing’s for sure though. If Nicolas Sarkozy is reelected, he will go down in French history either as a brilliant political campaigner who won two unwinnable elections in succession, or a politician who pulled off the political robbery of the century, au choix.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: My favourite French left-wing ‘firebrand’

Jean-Luc 'you are dead meat lady' Mélenchon
Ah you have to hand it to good old Jean-Luc. If future historians ever draw up a top-ten list of French politicians of the 2000's who knew how to grab the headlines he would surely be in the top three. 

Mélénchon was a member of the Parti Socialiste for years and was mostly to be found on the fringes of the party as a member of one dissident group or another. He did however get himself appointed as a minor minister in Jospin’s cohabitation government and he kept that post for two years, from 2000 to 2002. That has been just about the only time he has ever toed any party line to any great extent.

But he became disenchanted with the socialists in 2008 and left to found the Parti de Gauche before declaring himself a candidate for May’s presidential election under the banner Front de Gauche.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is nothing if not controversial and his abrasive character and unconventional views have resulted in him managing the extraordinary feat of not only alienating everyone on the right – that’s only normal - but on the left too.

He disagrees with everyone from the Communists to socialist candidate François Hollande, and the latter will not have appreciated Mélenchon’s reaction to him being selected as a candidate. “Why choose” asks Mélenchon “a pedal boat captain like Hollande when we are entering the stormy season?” 

His most furious invective however has been directed at right-wing party the Front Nationale, and its leader, Marine le Pen. In typically hyperbolic style, he claims she is “Hitler’s heir”, and the extent of his disdain for her ideas is summed up by his colourfully-worded claim that she has “the Dracula effect”, which, he says, is why taking her policies apart is like switching on a light – they all crumble to dust and disappear. Brilliant! And I agree.

It will come as no surprise to anyone in those circumstances that he attracts so much fierce criticism in the right-of-centre media that he has a visceral dislike of mainstream journalists, and French Television’s David Pujadas is his principal bugbear, or should I say one of them. Pujadas once interviewed a trade unionist during the evening news and Mélenchon can be seen watching it. So incensed is he at Pujadas’ questioning that his face contorts into a vicious snarl of disgust and he calls him a ‘flunky’ and a ‘bastard/son of a bitch.’ Not that that’s the first time he has used those kinds of epithets to designate his targets. This man takes no prisoners.

I could relate many other, similar, stories but suffice it to say that he has been involved in so many scandals around the use of words like ‘vichy’, ‘nazi’ ‘facist’ and others that it’s difficult to count them all.

So much for his way of doing business, but what policies would he implement if ever he were to be elected president?

As a general policy line, he advocates what he calls a ‘citizen’s revolution.’ The idea generally involves taking over all the banks and financial institutions and taxing the rich to the hilt. Not particularly original – after all, comment threads in the press are full of people with names like ‘Kill Capitalism’ and ‘Boycott The Banks’ who advocate the same angle – but it is certainly, how can I put it, striking in its ardor.

Concerning industry delocalisation and offshoring, he would requisition companies which announced their intention to delocalise. This policy would be part of a package which would include the heavy taxation of any delocalised product imported from abroad which is made by French companies in France and which cost more. He seems to be confident that foreign companies would continue to invest in France under those conditions. Well, it is his campaign after all and not mine.

Finally, he proposes to ban the use of words like ‘black’ and ‘arab’ to describe people. All descriptions of people which use defining words for race, colour, origins and other categories would become illegal. Why? No idea, but that he should come up with an idea like that doesn’t surprise me, and that’s probably because nothing he could ever dream up up with would surprise me.

In other words, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a man I love to hate, my nemesis, my bogeyman if you will. Yet I’d hate to see him leave politics and he would be a great loss to French political life. Love him or loath him, characters like Mélenchon brighten up politics, be they on the right or the left of the spectrum. He is someone who, if he didn’t exist, would have to be invented.

Oh, and could we see him in the Elysée in three months' time? With vote intention polls giving him about 6% of the vote that is highly unlikely. But just imagine what it would be like if it happened. He’d make Sarkozy’s “casse-toi pauvre con” remark look like a declaration of love….

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Is Europe heading for ‘an early grave’?

A new grave, awaiting a client. Europe maybe?
It most certainly may be if one is to believe Kevin Rudd, Australia’s foreign minister. He issued his gloomy warning in a speech to world leaders attending the Munich Security Conference and his words are sure to cause anger and embarrassment in Europe.

Rudd said that Europe was absent from the debate over the growing economic and political influence of China and Asia, adding that “…this should no longer be the case.”

"The danger that I see” he said “is Europe progressively becoming so introspective and so preoccupied with its internal problems on the economy and on the eurozone in particular that Europe runs the risk of talking itself into an early economic and therefore globally political grave".

"We don't want that. We actually think Europe has fundamental strengths to deliver to the rest of the world but we are not seeing a whole lot of that right now.”

Depressing stuff indeed. But is he right? 

It must be said that it’s not as if his speech – headline-grabbing as it was - breaks any new ground. Analysts and government think-tanks have for years been churning out study results which demonstrate the inevitable decline of Europe in relative terms because of the shift in the balance of the world’s economic power centres.

But another, and more ominously pertinent, clue as to the veracity of Rudd’s words in today’s context is to be found in the reaction to them by EU internal market commissioner Michel Barnier, who curtly claimed that Europe would “emerge stronger and better organised from this crisis.”

Barnier’s answer is almost as depressing as Rudd’s predictions. There are no reasons whatsoever to believe that Europe will come out of this crisis strengthened. On the contrary, the Greece bondholder discussions are dragging themselves out and last Monday’s EU summit failed to make any progress on the EU bailout fund. In other words, the measures decided during the December summit to address the eurozone crisis – measures which were derided by many analysts as being too little too late and which led to Cameron washing Britain’s hands of the whole affair – are still waiting to be implemented.

Europe seems to be in a state of denial over the risks that it is running, and nowhere is that to be seen more clearly than in the French press, which deliberately downplayed all the rumours of an agency downgrade of France and is still publishing upbeat articles on the Franco-German tandem and its rosy future in the future of Europe.

It’s as if they just don’t want to acknowledge the looming possibility of the demise of the euro, and even that of Europe itself. But the facts are there. Further downgrades are being predicted, various countries are known to be reassessing their currency printing capacity in case the euro collapses and national currencies are introduced, and meanwhile the American economy is showing strong signs of recovery, against all expectations. 

So, is Rudd right? Or, put another way, ‘can Europe prove him wrong?’ Michel Barnier most certainly did not prove him wrong today, and unless Europe stops fiddling around and decides to grab the debt bull by the horns, and quickly, his predictions will become a reality as Europe slides irrevocably into an early grave.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Do you know your Tu from your Vous? Here’s a guide

You? Or you?
All native English-speakers who also speak reasonably good French and live in France have had to learn the subtle art of ‘tutoiement’ and ‘vouvoiement’ to some extent in order to function socially and professionally.  The only problem with learning it however is that there is no direct equivalent in modern English to compare it to and there is no definitive ‘user manual’ for it either. You’re more or less on your own because there’s a fair amount of subjectivity involved.

This lack of formal rules means that it might be best to explain things in terms of how the French use it in their lives, and what follows is a guide to some of the practices and attitudes you should know about, as well as some of the pitfalls to avoid. Firstly though, what is this phenomenon and how is it defined?

Called the ‘T-V distinction’ in sociolinguistics, it is the contrast in some languages, such as French, between the singular and plural second-person pronouns. This contrast doesn’t exist in English – where ‘you’ is used in both cases - but in French ‘tu’ is the singular and ‘vous’ is the plural. This difference means that depending on who they are used to address and in which circumstances, they can convey respect, courtesy, keeping one’s distance, politeness, familiarity, or insult. That’s why you have to be careful which one you use. (A historical note: there used to be an equivalent in older versions of English – ‘thou/thee’ for the singular and ‘you’ for the plural.)

‘Tu (toi, te)’ is the second person familiar pronoun in French, and ‘vous’ is the second person plural familiar pronoun, but ‘vous’ is also used as the more respectful form of the second person singular, thus replacing ‘tu’, and that’s where things start to get difficult. Which to use?

There is one custom that all of French society agrees on, so let’s begin with that. ‘Vous’ is what you use to address any stranger respectfully and politely in public, whatever their social status or background. That means everyone from shop assistants to waiters to bank staff and local government workers, and it also means literally anybody in the street, for example the person you ask for directions or the person you are apologising to for accidentally bumping into them while boarding a bus. There are no exceptions, and the use of ‘tu’ in these circumstances is considered to be extremely impolite.

That was the easy bit, but there are also many instances when either one or the other is usually used, and this is where things can become more delicate.

Friends and family almost always use the familiar ‘tu’ to each other and many work colleagues do likewise, whatever their position in the company. This is often the case in small companies and places like bars, restaurants and shops, although in some other companies colleagues at the same hierarchical level use ‘tu’ with each other but when it comes to senior management it’s a mutual ‘vous.’ It is rare these days for everyone to vouvoyer at work. When meeting people for the first time outside of a social setting, it is best to use ‘vous’ at first, even though the circumstances in which you meet may be relaxed, such as in a restaurant, where you strike up a conversation with people on the adjoining table. Note also that some older people still use ‘vous’ between themselves even though they are friends as that’s how things were many years ago.

That said, if you are introduced to the friend of a friend and in an informal setting, ‘tu’ is generally used automatically from the start. Children and teenagers universally use ‘tu’ to address each other. Younger people tutoie more and more easily and so do people such as artists and musicians, and in places such as clubs and associations.

Next, there are very few cases indeed in which one person would use ‘vous’ and the other would use ‘tu.’ It’s almost always a case of both people using one or the other, but there are a few exceptions. Schoolchildren in many schools have to use ‘vous’ when speaking to teachers whereas teachers may use ‘tu’ to them. A person who is much older than their interlocutor may ‘tutoyer’ whereas the younger one uses ‘vous.’ I am 58 and although I would not allow anyone to tutoie me without at least a tacit agreement – in which case we both use ‘tu’ - I do make an exception for people in, say, their 80’s, as long as they are talking to me in an agreeable manner. After all – and contrary to some sections of popular opinion – even the old have to earn respect.

Concerning children, they used to have to use ‘vous’ from the start to everyone, but these days they use the familiar ’tu’ to address all adults until they are old enough to know why a choice has to be made. There are no hard and fast rules here but I would remind any child of over 10 years old who I don’t know that he or she is being impolite by using ‘tu’ to me. Adults tend to tutoie children even older than 10 and expect to be answered with ‘vous’, although it would be impolite to use ‘tu’ when they get to say, 15, unless you know them.

Having met people and used ‘vous’ with them for a while, the next and very important question is ‘when do you both decide that you get on well enough or are on familiar enough terms that ‘vous’ is beginning to seem too formal and that ‘tu’ would be better?’ The rule here unfortunately is that there is no rule, and how they are used is considered to be a reflection of how polite people are and how well they relate to people.

I am someone who prefers to use ‘tu’ as soon as possible in as many circumstances as possible, and that’s only natural given that I like to be on informal terms with people. Other people on the other hand prefer to keep their distance a little by using ‘vous.’ If someone asks you if you may both use ‘tu’, say yes if possible (it’s a sign of wanting to be friends) but only if you want that to happen. You may also decide to initiate the change, but try and be sure that you are not asking prematurely and that the other person would agree before doing so because a refusal can be embarrassing.

However, if for example you are a young woman who works in an office where they normally use ‘vous’ and a manager you think is trying to be overly-familiar with you for all the wrong reasons wants to use ‘tu’ in order to become more bold in his amourous actions, refuse. Refuse politely, but refuse. And he must respect your decision.

A few must-nevers-but-weres and other pitfalls I have seen people fall into? There’s the young man I recall who used ‘tu’ to his girlfriend’s mother the first time he met her. Talk about giving a bad impression. Then there was the arrogant client who used ‘tu’ to a restaurant waiter as was routinely the case 100 years ago only for the waiter to tutoie him in return. The client complained, but the manager, to his credit, defended the waiter. And pity the poor young man who used ‘tu’ during a job interview. I know the interviewer and, needless to say, he did not hire the person concerned. At the opposite end of the scale, I know a lady who uses ‘vous’ to all her work colleagues in a company that uses ‘tu.’ She is reviled as a snob. Finally, one of my many errors when I was learning ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ was to tutoie a lady of over 70, thinking that her tutoiement of me was meant as a sign that she wanted to be informal. She did, but she still wanted to retain the old ‘tu’-‘vous’ tandem and I was put squarely back in my place. Very embarrassing.

It’s impossible to list all the scenarios, and people have different attitudes towards ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, which is why if my English-speaking French friends were to read this, some would agree with my descriptions whereas others wouldn’t. And the same goes for French-speaking English natives.

But nevertheless, don’t forget that although people will pardon your errors if your French is not that brilliant, from the moment you speak good French, you are supposed to be able to have the ability to sense when to use ‘tu’ and when to use ‘vous.’ Use them in a negligent manner and you could end up with the reputation of being vaguely uncouth, or worse, and used wisely, they are a means of demonstrating that you understand French people, their culture and their customs, and that you have good social skills.