Every day my daughters enter and leave their school through a door over which is suspended the tricolore, with the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité emblazoned above it. Collecting them one day, I fell to musing aloud about the improbability of finding a Union Jack at the entry to every British school, let alone a national motto, if indeed one existed. I should know better than to muse aloud. On this occasion I found myself face-to-face with a Frenchwoman wearing a particularly unforgiving look. Mais bien sûr que non, she said, before going on to explain that in England we could not have cette devise (freedom, equality, brotherhood) parce que, in England, we had le class system.
The existence of le class system is, of course, undeniable. It is there in daily references to the “silent majority”; in our recriminations over Brexit; and even in our designation of the littlest room as “toilet,” “loo,” or “lavatory”. We all spend a great deal of time publicising our position on the class ladder by emitting subtle signals decipherable only by fellow Brits. There are those who proudly climb a few rungs by “bettering themselves”. There are also those who are intent on clambering down, starting by announcing, in an accent devoid of consonants, that they were born on a council estate to parents who were only recently out of the mines (it being generally accepted in some circles that the area of intersection in the Venn diagram of high birth on the one hand and personal integrity on the other is vanishingly small).
So, yes, we remain ensnared by le class system even in the twenty-first century. Suggesting that France lacks a socially-gradated system, however, would be misleading. Here, as everywhere else, égalité is all very well so long as the moneyed can be privately equal behind the walls of their maisons de maître, and the poor will content themselves with being equal in their high-rises.
It’s not just a matter of money, either. In France, as in the UK, a distinction is made between the picturesque working class of garlic- and beret-wearing paysans and the urban poor, who are routinely suspected of being lazy and scrounging. At the other end of the scale, there are those who proudly vaunt their aristocratic heritage, living in dilapidated piles and driving ancient Renaults, but who would shudder at the thought that they might be placed into the same category as the nouveau riche, with their Porsche Cayennes and their Swarovski crystal.
The problem for any British interloper is that the code in France is subtly different, as Eadred the Bald and I recently discovered. One night a few weeks ago our serious, literary-minded elder daughter (let’s call her the Reader) surprised us by asking to have her ears pierced at the tender age of nine.
According to my well-thumbed British code book, pierced ears before secondary school come under the same social heading as Coca-Cola in baby bottles. As a British parent, you can be certain that, if you allow your child to have their ears pierced at a tender age, sooner or later you will overhear some tight-lipped parent loudly telling their child that they can’t have their ears pierced too because “it’s just not something we believe in at your age”. It is the same phenomenon that attaches to childhood bikinis. I have lost count of the number of times that my children’s two-piece swimsuits have given rise to a frosty silence on the part of British visitors.
When the Reader made her request, therefore, my instinct was to turn her down. She deserved a reasoned answer, though, and it was here that I stumbled. Yes, letting her have her ears pierced would place us amongst the settee-sitting ranks in the UK, but in France a canapé is just a canapé, and here, pierced lobes are viewed not as a mutilation but as an adornment. When discussing the issue with French mums they could not understand my hesitation. Wasn’t it just a little bit déplacé, I ventured. Pourquoi ? came the baffled response: c’est très joli.
Concluding that our only objection was based on the prejudices of a class system masquerading as a moral code, Eadred and I eventually decided that there was no good reason why the Reader should be prevented from emulating her French peers. So it was that, a week ago, she developed earrings. Her little studs have been greeted with admiration here in Lyon. I am, however, bracing myself for our social descent when we first unveil her disfigurement in the UK…