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Readers recommend: The best books, TV series and podcasts about France

We asked our readers for their recommendations for books, films, TV series and podcasts about France and the French - here are some of the best.

Readers recommend: The best books, TV series and podcasts about France
There are some excellent books available all about France. Photo: AFP

So if you’re looking forward to some down time over the holidays, here are some recommendations for entertainment, from heavyweight political biographies to funny TV shows and podcasts about the intricacies of the French language.

Books

Love or hate him, few can deny that French President Emmanuel Macron is an interesting character, and his achievement of creating a political party from nothing and ascending to the highest office in the land within two years was quite a feat.

There are plenty of books about him and modern French politics, but Sarah Jackson recommended Adam Plowright’s book The French Exception: “Macron’s rise is an extraordinary story and the author tells it well.

“You’ll also learn a lot about France – such as the moment when Macron becomes enraged with a protester because he insists on addressing him with the informal “tu” form. I couldn’t put it down.”

Here at The Local we also enjoyed Sophie Peddar’s book Revolution française, which focuses on his rise to power and early days in office.

As a foreigner in France, often feeling a little lost, it’s comforting to know that others have been through this before, and some of them have written very funny books about it.

Stephen Clarke’s classic A Year in the Merde got several recommendations and Jeremy Mercer’s Time was Soft There – a paean to the Paris landmark bookstore Shakespeare & Co – was also recommended.

Margaret O’Hare suggested: “‘Big Pig, Little Pig’ by Jacqueline Yallop. A beautiful read, adored by the Francophiles in my life that I have given it to. My husband isn’t a great reader but even he gobbled it up. It is both a debunking and a celebration of life in rural France. Meat-eating foodies will be enthral to the end.

“In fact it’s a sort of modern ‘A Year in Provence’ which I read for the first time only recently and was delighted to discover that it has aged very well. A slightly mischievous paean to the glorious French psyche.”

And of course anything relating to French cooking is also popular, with Margaret adding: “I forgot to mention Felicity Cloake’s ‘One More Croissant for the Road’ a delightful canter around France à velo in pursuit of culinary perfection in regional specialities (plus the odd croissant). Part road-trip, part recipe book, part love-letter to the French lunchtime, it is a witty and easy read.”

Another tip for food and history lovers was A Bite-Sized History of France by Stephane Hinaut, which “combines stories about French food and history. A great book for a Francophile,” says Julia Gray.

The Greater Journey by David McCullough was recommended for anyone interested in history, while here at The Local we loved Anne Sebba’s book Les Parisiennes – about how the women of Paris coped with war, occupation and its aftermath in the 1940s – and the astonishing Resistance story A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorhead.

For French-speakers we can also highly recommend journalist Valentin Gendrot’s book Flic, describing the year he spent working undercover as a police officer in France.

Box sets

Winter is the perfect time to snuggle up with a good TV series or box set and many of our readers recommended Bureau des Legends, with Sarah Jackson saying: “We got completely hooked on this in the last lockdown and binged on the first four series. It’s about the French secret service. The acting and scripting are both exceptional, with lead Mathieu Kassovitz being particularly good.” 

In a similar vein, at The Local we loved Engrenages (released in the UK as Spiral) about the work of a French police unit in the grittier areas of Paris.

READ ALSO ‘Vile snobs’: Why are the French so annoyed about Emily in Paris?

A classic historical series also recommended multiple times was Un Village Français, with Kim Sieminskie saying: “It shows all sides of World War II. The French are not all good, not just the obvious collaborators, but the every day people who have to made hard choices; the Germans aren’t all bad or evil. It is compelling and the characters are so interesting….. I loved it!”

On a lighter note – many people also recommended Dix Pour Cent (released in English as Call My Agent) which as well as being very funny also gives you a crash course in French celebs as many of the big names in French cinema and music make cameo appearances as themselves.

Another funny French offering on Netflix is Au Service de la France, set among France’s secret services in the 1960s as the country slowly lets go of its colonies.

READ ALSO The best Netflix series that will teach you French as the locals speak it

Podcasts

The French podcast market has flourished the past couple of years and for someone looking for something French-themed to listen to, our readers also had good suggestions.

Julia Gray recommended Paris-centred podcast the Earful Tower, hosted by former Local journalist Oliver Gee, saying: “He takes listeners on walks throughout Paris and interviews a wide range of Parisians. He also does some Facebook live events.”

While Rebecca Bright recommended The French Revolution section of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast.

Anyone keen to discover new parts of France can sign up for Join Us In France Travel podcast, of which one listener said “I learn so much”.

 

She also recommended The Thing About France, which sees France through American eyes. The podcast compares French and American culture, history and relationship through interviews with Americans authors, journalists and others. In one episode, feminist icon Gloria Steinem discusses the difference between French and American feminism.

For those who want to get all the week’s main news stories about France compressed down to a half-hour, The Local recommends Spotlight on France, hosted by two RFI journalists, Sarah Elzas and Alison Hird. A new episode is out every Thursday.

READ ALSO: The 10 best things about Paris that the movies never show

Other recommendations were Dinner For One, which is hosted by a New Yorker living in Paris and according to the description explores what happens “when the Paris fairytale ends and real life begins”.

For French speakers, we also recommend Kiffe ta race, a great listen for anyone interested in race and racism in France. One of the hosts is Rokhaya Diallo, one of the most famous anti-racism activists in France.

One reader recommended France Culture’s radio programme Les Pieds Sur Terre, which is later released as a podcast, saying it was a French version of This American Life.

 

Not strictly about France, but The Europeans is an interesting podcast that covers quite a lot of French issues, since one of its co-hosts lives and works in Paris.

READ ALSO 12 popular French films that teach you something about France

Media subscriptions

And for a gift that keeps giving all year, don’t forget media subscriptions.

Many readers were kind enough to suggest The Local (and we do offer gift subscriptions, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page) but other popular recommendations were The Good Life France, France Today; Bonjour Paris and language site Frantastique.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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