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Swellboy on… France’s civilised values

As the world descends into barbarism, France remains a bastion of civility

Swellboy on… France’s civilised values

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 04 2010
Nick Foulkes

I know it is a cliché, but I still think that France is the most civilised country in the world. And not just because it has the Côte d’Azur, Charvet and Balzac to add to its balance sheet of greatness. As I am found of saying, it is one of the few countries that still values an intellectual dimension to public life and it is a country that has impeccable manners. When these twin characteristics collide, the result is what we in English can only find French words to describe: repartee and badinage.

Whenever I see a Frenchman stand up as a lady leaves the dinner table, I am reminded of the story of the French ambassador to America at the beginning of the 20th century, who was on a ramble with the famously hearty Teddy Roosevelt and his equally athletic aide, the first boss of the US Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot. Faced with the Potomac, the 26th president of the US and his eco-adviser undressed and jumped in for a dip. The French ambassador hesitated before he too stripped off, except for his gloves.

“Why do you wear gloves?” came the understandable question from the hero of San Juan Hill.

“We might meet ladies,” was the gallant Gaul’s reply.

It is this heroic capacity for poise under pressure that I salute. Take for instance the recent business about M Arnault, or rather various companies linked to him, buying up a hefty amount of stock in Hermès. Although M Arnault was at pains to insist that this was a friendly gesture, the chaps at Hermès misinterpreted this act of goodwill as a trifle aggressive.

Not being in charge of a luxury goods juggernaut myself, it is impossible to tell who if anyone is in the wrong here; maybe M Arnault was just being polite in expressing an interest in a wonderful old French firm; maybe the Hermès management was in fact correct in detecting a cunning glint in the Arnault eye, so to speak.

But whatever the financial and business facts of the matter, this corporate coup has already yielded one of the most memorable sallies of wit of recent years. Speaking of M Arnault’s interest in his firm, Bertrand Puech, one of the honchos at the home of the Kelly Bag, described Hermès with the memorable line: “We’re not in luxury, we’re in quality.” Touché, as I believe they say on the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré.

I could be wrong, but somehow I cannot quite see the celebrated British entrepreneur Lord Sugar coming out with such a… how do we say it in Britain… bon mot.