Not Funny

by David Sugarman

In the mid-1990s, it was hard to get away from a comedy duo called Élie and Dieudonné. They appeared frequently on light entertainment programmes on French television, and they alternated long-running shows in Paris theatres with nationwide tours, before eventually going their separate ways in 1997. They were an odd couple: Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the son of a Cameroonian father and Brittany-born mother, was black, big and well-built, deep voiced, slow-speaking, calm; Élie Semoun, the son of Jewish Moroccan immigrants, was white, short and wiry, a high-pitched voice, fast-talking, neurotic. Their comedy routines played on the contrasts between them, principally of the stereotypes that they represented. Subtlety was not one of their hallmarks.

Self-deprecatory comedy can be effective at taking the sting out of racism and other forms of intolerance. But you have to be laughing with rather than laughing at. It’s a cliché to say that it’s OK for black comedians to use the N-word, that they are “claiming ownership” of it. It’s often said that Jewish jokes told by Jews are funny, but told by non-Jews they can be offensive. In the case of Élie and Dieudonné’s comedy routines, they sailed close to the wind: it’s a fine line between “self-deprecatory” and “derogatory”.

As I was starting to write this piece, I took a look at some of the pair’s sketches on YouTube, to remind myself of them: their heyday was 20 years or so ago. The title of one sketch caught my eye: “Cohen and Bokassa”. The two begin by playing children and start arguing over a ball (“it’s my ball…” “it’s mine now…”) and come to blows. They dash offstage and come straight back on as the fathers of the two boys. Each starts by defending his own son but the dialogue soon denigrates into a slanging match. The two adults start fighting just as viciously as their sons. Blackout. Ha ha.

So what does the slanging match consist of? A series of racial slurs. It starts out with the Jew attacking the Black: “The building’s full of you lot – so where are the cotton fields?” It gets a bit nastier: “Still on benefits, are you? It must pay for the bananas.” All right, these were less sophisticated times. In the UK we had Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour in the 70s, not to mention Till Death Us Do Part in the 60s, so let’s just say that Élie and Dieudonné were simply mocking racist attitudes, and move on, shall we? No. We won’t. Because Dieudonné’s very next line is: “In 1945, Cohen, the Jerries should have finished the job.” Taken aback, the Jewish character asks the Black character to repeat what he has just said. Which he does, but in what the script of the sketch calls “in an African language” (unspecified).

Where is the humour in that line? There’s nothing new about satirising Nazism – Chaplin, Lubitsch and most notably Mel Brooks have all done it. But who could make a joke of the Holocaust itself? Dieudonné, that’s who. Not only in this sketch, but in numerous appearances in theatres and on video in recent years. One of his contributions to the corpus of French comedy consists of a song called Shoananas, an invented word combining Shoah, the term for the Holocaust generally used in French, and ananas, the French word for pineapple. The song parodies a particularly idiotic children’s song (itself more than a little racist) about hot chocolate, called Cho Ka Ka O. For this gem, and various other monologues, stand-up routines, sketches and Internet performances (including mock interviews with a well-known Holocaust denier), M’bala M’bala has been fined on a number of occasions. Reportedly, none of these fines has been paid. The French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has talked about inflicting a performance ban because of the anti-Semitic content of his latest show, which is due to transfer from a Paris theatre (which he owns, incidentally) to a nationwide tour.

Sadly, Dieudonné has a large and loyal following in France. I wish I could claim that they are simply devotees of alternative comedy, albeit comedy of a highly dubious nature. He has an engaging personality, he is a skilled and experienced performer. But this does not account for his popularity: unfortunately, the only conclusion to draw is that his fans share his views. Anti-Semitism is a crime in France. The expression of racial hatred is a crime in France. Every performance given by M’bala M’bala, not to mention press and media interviews, seems to contain a new example of his views. Just the other evening, referring to a French radio journalist who is Jewish, he mused, “I can’t help thinking of the gas ovens.” Not even Jean-Marie Le Pen at his most crass would have gone quite that far.

Dieudonné has been in the news a great deal across the planet recently. For once, he hasn’t particularly drawn attention to himself; the world’s media have been attracted by an even more skilful attention-seeker, one Nicolas Anelka. The story will be familiar to most readers. Anelka, a controversial French-born footballer currently playing for West Brom in the English Premier League, scored a goal in a televised match the other day and in his so-called “celebration” performed a gesture that is known as the “quenelle” (which consists of keeping one arm straight and putting the opposite hand to the shoulder or upper arm). This gesture was invented by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and forms part of his act.

Now, I write as one who once created a fascist salute. This fact is unknown to everyone except the cast of a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in Bristol in 1982 (and a few hundred spectators). I had no personal delusions of grandeur: I was playing the minor role of the Duke of Florence (in whose army the play’s hero briefly serves), and we decided to play a short rabble-rousing scene in a style vaguely inspired by il Duce, aka Mussolini. I thought up a gesture that would get everyone on stage (plus a sound effects tape) to roar in approval (if I remember rightly, I struck my chest twice, left and right, with my right hand and stuck my arm straight up in the air). By comparison, Dieudonné’s salute is a bit of a damp squib!

My personal theory is that it is inspired in part by Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Dr. Strangelove. The character’s right arm has a life of its own as it battles to perform the Nazi salute at every opportunity, while his left hand struggles valiantly to prevent it. Likewise in the “quenelle” the straight arm is prevented from springing up into a Nazi salute by the restraining hand on the shoulder or upper arm. But what does it mean? It’s said that its meaning is anti-Semitic. Is there any proof of this? I originally intended to answer this question by posting a link to a file that a friend of mine shared the other day, containing more than 70 photographs of people performing the gesture against backgrounds that allow for no ambiguity whatever: synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Jewish museums and kindergartens, the Wailing Wall, street signs including the word Juif (“Jewish”) and Juiverie (“Jewry”), and so on. I have decided against posting it publicly, but I will be happy to share it with anyone who emails me. It is chilling.

Nicolas Anelka has tried to get out of a potential 10-match ban by saying that he understood it to be “anti-system” and not anti-Semitic. Believe him if you want; I don’t. The English Football Association’s “Kick It Out” campaign against racism in football is likely to see a stringent punishment applied to him. In France, President François Hollande and the Sports Minister, Valérie Fourneyron, have issued condemnatory statements about the use of the “quenelle”. Will it be banned? It may be utopian to think so. And unfortunately, I fear that it might actually come to greater prominence on France’s own football terraces. In France, there is no equivalent of the “Kick It Out” movement, and certain groups of so-called supporters – most notably those of Paris St Germain – are not exactly noted for their neutrality in matters of racial discrimination.

Tea Or Coffee?

by David Sugarman

There’s a deadly dull programme on French TV at breakfast-time on Saturdays and Sundays called Thé ou Café, a tedious, funereally paced hour-long celeb profile and interview that saps you of the will to live. Take my word for it: watch the Japanese cartoons or teleshopping on all the other channels, they’re far more rewarding. This dreary yawnfest is called Thé ou Café for the simple reason that each edition starts with the presenter asking the guest that most profound, incisive and psychologically revealing of questions: do you prefer tea or coffee? Freud and Jung, you should be living at this hour…

Give the French their due, they do know how to make coffee. It’s hard to imagine the odours of France without the pungent smell of espresso. At breakfast-time, though, they have developed the curious practice of dunking their jam-smothered baguette in it. Anyone who has spent much time in France, especially staying with a French family, will have observed this, although surely not tried it. You see the familiar sight of bowls on the breakfast table and look around for the boxes of cornflakes, Weetabix or… oh no, is this a muesli household? But no, there are usually no cereals. Instead, coffee is solemnly poured into the cereal bowls which you have to hold up to your mouth with two hands to slurp your coffee from. You then smear your baguette with jam, and enthusiastically dunk it in your coffee. And this is the country of cordon bleu gastronomy?

But at least the coffee resembles coffee. Which is more than you can say for the tea. The 21 miles between France and England never feel longer than when you could kill for a cuppa. Why the French have so little appreciation of the point and purpose of a cup of tea will always remain a mystery to me. All too often waiters in cafés are clearly not au fait with the mechanics of the tea-brewing process. They have small teapots albeit with ill-fitting lids; they have teabags (Lipton Yellow wouldn’t be my choice, mind you); and they have the means of producing scalding hot water. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they bring you the wonky teapot two-thirds full of tepid water, with the teabag still in a paper wrapper beside it, that’s what goes wrong. But it can get worse: order a thé au lait and a fair number of cafés will produce a small jug of hot milk for you to pour into their apology for tea

Buying decent teabags in France is pretty much a lost cause, of course. When Marks & Spencer closed down their French operations in 2001, it was an event of near-catastrophic proportions for many British tea-drinkers in France, who were forced to adopt complex strategies for teabag-acquisition missions to supermarkets across the Channel, or lean heavily on friends visiting from Blighty. Most tea on French supermarket shelves should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act (or, as we call it here, Directive européenne 2005/29/CE dite Pratiques commerciales déloyales). Especially so-called “English Breakfast Tea”: it’s a no on all three counts! There is just one variety, called “Thé corsé”, that can produce a good, full-bodied brew. It’s exorbitant, but cheaper than a cross-Channel ferry when you run out…

In Anybody’s Language

by David Sugarman

The French for “to call a spade a spade” is “appeler un chat un chat”, or “to call a cat a cat”. I was going to add “bizarrely” but it’s no more bizarre than the English version. Actually, in good French writing you might indeed refer to it as a cat at the first time of asking, but you would be advised to have a stock of synonyms at your disposal should it wander back into your text, so you can then call it “the animal”, “the pet”, “the creature”, “the quadruped”, “the beast”, and so on.

The French, you see, are very fond of avoiding repetition, and they go to considerable lengths to get out of repeating themselves, as if they were playing Just A Minute. At first, it seems as if they are highly erudite and are showing off their knowledge, but after a while you realise that the expressions they use are as lazy and clichéd as having a beret and a string of onions denote a Frenchman.

The problem may have started with Molière. The great French playwright and actor got a butchering by a contemporary critic named Boileau when he staged a farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin. Citing a piece of broad comic business involving hiding in a sack, Boileau snootily scoffed that he could no longer recognise “the author of Le Misanthrope,” referencing the satirical comedy of manners written and performed by Molière five years previously. Fair do’s: Boileau’s making his point clearly enough, pinpointing and implicitly praising one of Molière’s finest “serious” plays to highlight his distaste for the laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser. For the critic, contrast a scene worthy of a bad sitcom with a work deserving a place in the theatrical pantheon and it’s job done.

These days, you regularly come across the expression “l’auteur du Misanthrope”. But it is not used in a pointed way. You don’t ever read “the author of Le Misanthrope was, indeed, a dreadful misogynist,” or, with a hint of irony, “in real life, the author of Le Misanthrope was actually the life and soul of the party.” No: it has become just a lazy way of saying “Molière” without repeating yourself. So you might write something as meaningless as “The author of Le Misanthrope was born in 1622.” It adds nothing, it’s just showing-off, and I find it annoying as hell!

The phenomenon is used by journalists without batting an eye. Two quite frequent examples come to mind. Just to avoid repetition, French Prime Ministers are often known as “le locataire de Matignon” (“the tenant of Matignon”), after the Prime Minister’s official residence. And whenever one of the Prime Ministerial incumbents doubles as a mayor (in France, politicians can and often do hold more than one office), another solution presents itself: the current Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, often makes his second or third appearance in newspaper articles in the guise of “the mayor of Nantes”. Even when the article has nothing to do with the city of Nantes or being a mayor. It’s not like referring to an individual as a “disgraced businessman,” a “former hostage,” or whatever, to give a new-readers-start-here gloss on the identity of the protagonist in a news story; it’s just a smart-alec lazy way of saying “the Prime Minster” without committing the cardinal sin of repeating yourself.

Other clichés abound. You can barely hear a news report of goings-on in Marseille (believe me, there are plenty) without it being called “la Cité phocéenne” (so named because it was a colony of the Greek city of Phocea around 2,600 years ago). And if I had a euro for every weather bulletin in which the highest temperature was forecast for “l’Île de Beauté” I’d be a jillionaire. Don’t look for it on the map: in English we say “Corsica”, and we don’t mind saying it as many times as necessary. But the French don’t want to repeat “Corse”. Of course not…

Although these two expressions are part of everyday French, they usually only occur once the term they are substituting for has been established. Not so, generally speaking, for the blackest of my bêtes noires, the utterly daft idea of calling English “la langue de Shakespeare” and French “la langue de Molière” (him again!). Now, this doesn’t allude to any particular characteristic of the language as used by Shakespeare or Molière (or, indeed, any of a good thirty-odd writers considered as being emblematic of their languages: German is “the language of Goethe”, Russian “the language of Pushkin”, and so on: there’s even a Wikipedia list). It’s just a lazy figure of speech intended to make the writer look clever. Fail! And in the country where the Académie Française effectively fossilised the French language round about the time of Molière, you try explaining to a Frenchman that English has moved on since Shakespeare’s time!

Open All Hours, French-Style

by David Sugarman

I first came across this when I was a student. I spent a year as a language assistant in a lycée in Paris, living in a little room in a sort of dormitory corridor. For lunch most days, I would make do with some bread and cheese and a yoghurt in my room. There were a couple of small corner shops within a hundred metres of my school, both part of chains long since defunct. A couple of days a week I gave classes from 11 o’clock to 12 noon. Except that my classes finished three minutes early, giving me just enough time to sprint up the road and burst through the door of one of the corner shops as the shopkeeper was trying to lock up and hurriedly acquire my bits and bobs of lunch.

The idea of a food shop closing for lunch – a 2-hour break no doubt – struck me as the height of absurdity. I was later to discover that this is an ingrained habit in the French retail universe. Not just small shops, but often medium-size stores and supermarkets, too. When you want to get a bit of shopping done during your own lunch break, it’s easy not to be best pleased. I have fallen foul of the practice more times than I care to remember.

My mother owned a small dress shop for many years in England. As far as I recall, the assistants worked half-day shifts, but my mother took an egg sandwich in tinfoil to the shop every day and she would munch at it in a quiet moment. She wouldn’t have dreamt of closing the shop at mid-day. But I can only assume that French shopkeepers and shop assistants must be made of more fragile stuff, because without their two-hour lunch break they would surely fade away!

The issue of shop opening hours has been very much in the news lately, not with regard to lunchtimes (truth to tell, things are progressing slowly: one of my local supermarkets has just put up a big placard with new opening hours “sans interruption”) but Sunday trading and evening opening. French regulations governing “l’ouverture dominicale” are a mass of contradictions, paradoxes and exceptions. Huge furniture stores like Ikea can open but enormous DIY emporiums can’t. Several categories of stores in tourist areas such as the Champs Élysées are authorised to open, but the same categories in other tourist areas barely a kilometre away, such as the Grands Boulevards, aren’t.

Late-night opening is also a thorny issue, with the trade unions claiming that the premium paid on employees’ wages is desultory. Cases are going through the courts, injunctions are flying around, and the government is talking about new legislation. But don’t hold your breath: the French haven’t quite grasped the idea that if consumers want to shop on a Sunday, in the evening or, heaven help us, at lunchtime, it makes good commercial sense to let them. In many cultures the customer is king, but we all know what the French tend to think of kings!