Zut alors! The French are being encouraged, ordered even, to abandon a cherished custom. France is urging her people to cut back on the customary double-cheek kiss in order to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The health minister has advised the country to avoid this traditional greeting, known as ‘la bise‘.
A popular joke says that you can recognise where a person comes from by counting the number of kisses. It’s disconcerting to opt for two only to find that a third, or even a fourth is required; and where do you start – on the left or right? Right seems to win, at least in Paris, which means you home in on your left, but even the French can be confused. If Paris leans one way you can guarantee that the rest of France will, out of sheer cussedness, do the opposite, which is the case in the south. The accuracy of this bise map is not guaranteed!
How much of a cherished custom is la bise? France 24, the TV news channel which takes humorous digs at French customs, said that kissing outside an intimate social circle was restricted to the lower class; the tradition of young men and women kissing really dated from the mid-twentieth century. Now everybody’s at it. A spin-off perhaps of the swinging sixties in Britain?
Do the French, in times of stress, really say “sacrebleu!” (written like this according to my heavyweight dictionary), or is it a myth put about by ‘la perfide Albion’? Literally meaning “sacred blue,” but bleu was substituted for Dieu to avoid using the word God and upsetting religious sensibilities. One reason the British presume all the French say ‘sacrebleu’ could be blamed on the fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. He was very fond of the phrase (and he is alive and well on French TV).
Two years ago the mayor of a town in eastern France said that she found the kissing ritual ‘tiresome’ adding that ‘I have had enough of giving la bise to dozens of people.’ She admitted to arriving late at meetings, or using a cold, as an excuse to avoid the kiss greeting, adding that she thought it was unhygienic. She may well have helped to avoid spreading the coronavirus in her town.
She was referred to as Madame le Maire, which would not go down too well in the UK. The strong-willed, first female mayor of Paris had other ideas. She defied the French language police and insisted on being called Madame la Maire and not, at that time, the grammatically correct male version. The custodians of the French language, the Académie Française, officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu no less, are considering introducing new words to cover feminine occupations, but unwillingly one suspects. Only two years ago the academy had this to say “It is unclear what the goal is and how it could overcome practical obstacles of writing, reading, visual or aloud, and pronunciation”! Any change to the status quo will plainly not be universally welcomed.
The Immortals, as they are known, now have another thorny problem to address. Virus in French is a masculine noun so le coronavirus should logically be masculine. What the illustrious members might lose sleep over is Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease. Now, disease in French is feminine so what would be wrong with la Covid-19? Where is the problem? Perhaps American readers, if there are any, might like to reflect on la CIA and le FBI. Why not just abolish the definite article?
The ‘Immortals’ of the academy
A word of warning to the uninitiated; the verb to kiss, baiser, is a depth charge waiting to detonate under the unwary. While it means to kiss it is also a vulgar slang term, depending on the context. One example will suffice; if a woman says ‘il m’a baisée‘ it does not mean ‘he kissed me’. He might have done but, put politely, they made love. Better to stick to ‘faire une bise à quelqu’un‘ or, even safer, ‘embrasser‘. Lesson over.
Soon it will be time for our leader to speak to us again (Emmanuel Macron, of course). The verdict on his first speech in this crisis by a British journalist was that it was ‘prolix’. Yes, I had to consult the dictionary as well. Was Prolix a relation of Astérix or his best friend Obélix? (Prolix for President perhaps). Just tediously lengthy was the answer.
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