Ask someone who follows current affairs or watches TV what mental images the word ‘France’ conjures up, and you’d probably get the following: economic stagnation, unemployment, the Front National, inter-ethnic strife, the most unpopular president in living memory, tax exiles in London, crime-riddled banlieues, the grim Paris as depicted in the police drama Spiral, and refugee camps in Calais. Judging by the media coverage, at least, France is the current ‘sick man of Europe’.
There is, of course, a wholly different France of popular imagination. This is the one incarnated in the annual, two day ‘Le Weekend’ French festival in Sandwich, on the east Kent coast. Here you will witness the jolly France of wine, croissants, sausages, berets, striped Breton shirts and the music of Edith Piaf - the France of good food, wine and song.
It’s a long time since French forces sacked Sandwich, back in 1457, and on this sunny Saturday there’s a spirit of cordiality as locals, visitors from Kent and those from across the Channel mingle in the heat and sun, the smell of fresh bread, roasted garlic and freshly baked croissants whifting through the air. On sale are biscuits, chocolate, crêpes (one stall promises a ‘Crepe In Your Face’), sweet garlic, mustard, cheese, spicy sausages and foie gras. This is France as its tourist board would have it, the one found in your Teach Yourself French books, the one you might remember from those Tricolore school textbooks of yore.
At the quayside there is an exhibition of vintage cars, featuring cutesy Citroen CV5s and that sleek, space-age French icon from the past, the Citroen CS23. The jet-black model on display here brings to mind the 1973 film, The Day of The Jackal. There’s an Edith Piaf tribute singer on King Street and a pleasant-sounding folk-blues-rock-bluegrass act called Les Troubadors de Paris, dressed up in Breton tops, red kerchiefs and berets. The group also features an accordionist. All that’s missing are strings of onions round their necks.
I meet two of the band members, Fiona (originally from Sheffield) and Antony. ‘Comment ça va?’, I introduce myself, timidly - receiving, unusually but happily, a response in French. I was sorely tempted to direct the ensuing exchange towards politics - I had rehearsed ‘Quel est votre avis de Marine Le Pen?’ - but since talking politics with strangers isn’t the done thing with strangers in Britain, why cause embarrassment with visitors from abroad?