Paul Kimmage: 'Patriotism is a dirty word in France'
The month was January, 1983 and L'Aeroport Charles de Gaulle was like nothing we had seen before; white marble tunnels that channelled you from an arrivals satellite to the terminal; glass tubes with moving floors that whisked you skywards towards the baggage hall.
"It's like a scene from Buck Rogers!" I gasped.
"Unbelievable," my brother, Raphael, replied.
Fifteen minutes had passed on our first visit to France and already our gobs were smacked.
The bags arrived promptly but there was a worrying delay with our bikes. We paced the floor nervously for what seemed an age and then spotted them on a trolley being wheeled towards the belt by a man in a bright orange jumpsuit.
"C'est a vous les velos?"
We could smell him from the end of the hall. His breath was absolutely humming.
Garlic wasn't big in Coolock at the time.
Later that night, we squatted on a hole masquerading as a toilet and watched people eating mussels for the first time. Our first visit to a 'supermarché' was eye opening:
Les cuisses de grenouilles?
Le steak de cheval?
"You're not serious!"
Les escargots de Bourgogne?
And a stench in one corner that almost made us gag:
"Is that you?"
"What is it?"
They called it "fromage".
We returned to Paris the following year and spent six months racing our bikes and trying to be French in the suburb of Vincennes. Swear words were the first absorbed:
And soon we were eating steak 'a point', drinking water from bottles and coffee without milk.
The Euros were in France that summer; it wasn't hard to cheer for Les Bleus and two years later, when I raced onto the Champs-élysées at the end of my first Tour de France, my conversion was complete. It was the hardest three weeks of my life and as I stepped from my bike, glowing with contentment, I was embraced by an older team-mate.
Bernard Vallet, a veteran of eight Tours, had tears in his eyes. "Now you know what it is to ride the Tour de France," he said. And by extension, I assumed, what it was to be French.
But I had no idea.
* * * * *
A Wednesday morning in Paris: I take a Metro to the Champs-élysées and find the place on the cobblestones, just past the finishing line, where I stood with Vallet in 1986. Thirty years have passed since that Sunday in July but to the eye, little has changed. The Arc still radiates Triomphe; the Place de la Concorde the splendour of a forgotten age; and yet . . .
Four kilometres south, at the Gare Montparnasse, thousands of angry workers waving the flags of the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) are descending on the city to protest at changes to the employment law. Sixty kilometres west, in the small town of Magnanville, a police commissioner and his wife have been murdered by a crazed jihadist.
The suburbs reek with uncollected refuse bags; the Chateau de Versailles has closed for the day; there are bag checks at every department store; a train strike has paralysed the city for months and the air crackles with the scream of angry sirens. What's happened to la belle France?
Laurent Benezech and Dani Allan are sitting in the kitchen of their home in Jambville, a short drive from where the police commissioner was slain. Laurent hails from the Midi-Pyrenees and is a former French rugby international. Dani was born in England and works in Paris as a lawyer.
We've been talking about the attacks and the strikes and a brilliant column last week in the Mail on Sunday about Karim Benzema, the (former) French football international who refused to sing the national anthem and hailed from a suburb of Lyon (Bron-Terraillon) where no one cheers the team.
"One of our great ideas - and the opposite of what happened in England - was to put all the immigrants who came to work in France in the same area at the edge of the towns," Laurent explains. "It worked when life was easier and these people had a job but the problems started when the crisis hit and unemployment started to rise.
"Now you have families who are the third generation without a job. And that's one of the reasons we have these jihadists. What is France offering these kids when they turn 14? Nothing. But you've gangsters in places like Marseilles offering plenty, or imams promising them 72 virgins when they die."
"How did you feel on your debut when they played La Marseillaise?" I ask.
"I sang it," he replies. "It's part of the ritual of playing for France."
"But how did you feel about it?"
"It was an achievement," he says. "I was proud. It had always been a goal."
"But you're playing for the country where you were born," I press. "How did that feel?"
"No, no, no. There was no problem," he protests.
Dani has been listening and starts to laugh. "That's not the answer you would get from an Irishman or an Englishman," she says. "And it's one of the reasons I love the French - they are so bloody complicated. After the Bataclan attack last November, there was a call to show your solidarity by putting a French flag in the window of your home and it caused the most enormous debate.
"The French associate waving a flag or demonstrating any sign of being French with far-right principles. 'You want me to present myself as a supporter of Jean-Marie Le Pen!' "
"There has always been an issue here with flags and symbols," he says. "When I was a kid, we didn't show our colours - it was a generation after the war and we were wary of waving flags in a nationalist or aggressive way. I remember when I was playing for France we (were given) a tracksuit with a creative use of blue, white and red. It was like a flag. I wouldn't wear it. It was too (loud)."
"Patriotism is a dirty word in France," Dani says.
"You have to remember that France, firstly, is an accumulation of different regions," Laurent explains. "Savoie was in Italy for a period of time; Bordeaux was English. I come from a region that has always been French but the only thing I learned from my youth was the need to differentiate between the cows that made the milk, and the humans who drank it. And I think that should be enough. After that, I discovered there were black people and yellow people and gay people . . . so what? They are people."
"I've met a lot of French people who put their region first," Dani says. "The guy from Brittany will say, 'Je suis Breton avant que je suis Francaise'. And the Basques will say the same. Their identity is very much more about being Basque or Breton or Corsican than being French. Maybe it's a problem with being such a vast country."
"Well there's also the historical context," Laurent says. "Don't forget - and this is important - but during the second World War the national part of France (Vichy France) was German for a long period of time."
"But they don't as a nation identify with each other," Dani says. "I worked with a guy from the Basque coast, just south of Biarritz, who decided to resign. 'Il faut que je rentre aux pays,' he said. (I need to go home to my country.) It's crazy! It's like: 'I am living in the capital of a country which is not my country!'
"It's funny, but I always find myself at the dinner table supporting the cause of the French, and telling them not to forget what they have to be proud of - and they have an awful lot to be proud of. And yes it's complicated for the reasons we've discussed - they are a very disparate and different group of people - but maybe that's why they understand why Europe works so well and the English don't."
Benezech did not place a flag in the window.
"I could have done it in that situation," he says, "but there wasn't a flag in the house. And I don't believe in gestures. It's quite latin to promise a lot and deliver nothing afterwards. I'd rather be discreet and deliver something."
Dani starts to laugh: "Our kids are much more likely to put out bunting for the Queen's birthday than if France win the Euros," she says.
I drive back towards the city where the sirens still wail.
The protests have been violent and closed several Metro stations. Commuters are converging on Montparnasse, sweating and exhausted, and swearing into their phones over the latest cancelled trains. A woman is playing a piano on the departures floor.
The notes make your spirit soar.
It's a small reminder that the place will be okay.
And you smile: "Vive la France."
Sunday Indo Sport