OPINION: The ‘secret dinners’ scandal has tapped into two French obsessions – food and elitism

Every country has its own sources of blind hysteria, writes John Lichfield. In the United States, they are guns and religion. In Britain, amongst many other things, they are animals and the Royal Family.

OPINION: The 'secret dinners' scandal has tapped into two French obsessions - food and elitism
Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/AFP

In France, subjects which send people up the wall include a vague suspicion that the Boss Classes are cheating and anything to do with food.

Put those two things together and France loses its mind. A few days ago, the M6 TV channel broadcast an investigation into Covid-lockdown-busting, clandestine restaurants in Paris.

They showed footage, filmed secretly, of des gens huppés (posh people) scoffing champagne and caviar at €200 a head in a secret restaurant near the Louvre in the heart of Paris. The organiser, supposedly anonymous but easily identified, said (hushed voice) that ministers – yes actual members of the government – often took part.

Cue an explosion of nationwide anger. In the space of a couple of days 190,000 tweets were posted with the hashtag #OnVeutLesNoms (give us the names). Another 32,000 tweets carried the hashtag #MangeonsLesRiches (eat the rich).

There is no evidence whatsoever that any minister has eaten in a clandestine restaurant (which certainly exist and not just in Paris). The man who organised the dinner filmed by M6 has since announced that his claim was a “joke” and an “April Fool”.

He is Pierre-Jean Chalençon, a socialite and collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, whose explosion of blonde hair makes Boris Johnson look well-groomed. Mr Chalençon, 50, has links with the far-right including Jean-Marie Le Pen and the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné.

M6 television says that it has also heard from an anonymous source that ministers have eaten in secret restaurants since all  French eating places were closed last October. It has produced no evidence for such an incendiary allegation.

Forget the denial and the lack of evidence. Leave aside for a moment the dubious methods of M6 and the motivations of Mr Chalençon.

A large part of the French population is convinced and will remain convinced that ministers – like the pigs in the last scene of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – are perpetually feasting while ordinary people are denied a croque monsieur in the Bar de Commerce.

A media witch-hunt is therefore in progress. Any famous name who has eaten in a clandestine restaurant is likely to be a victim of delation – snitching.

An unnamed secret restaurant waiter appeared on one of France’s most watched TV shows,  Cyril Hanouna’s Touche Pas à Mon Poste last week and said he had often served ministers. He was shown pictures of everyone in the government and could identify no one.

The left-wing investigative website Mediapart reported this week that the former centre-right interior minister, Brice Hortefeux and the veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel had met recently in a private room for lunch catered by a closed restaurant. Both have admitted it. Both have admitted they were wrong – while saying they could not really see how this was very different from eating privately at someone else’s home.

In the months before M6’s “scoop”, scores of people and restaurateurs all over France were caught and fined for eating or organising paid meals in private. Little excitement ensued.

In January, a police commissaire was caught by police sitting down to lunch at a restaurant in Carpentras in Vaucluse in the Rhône valley. He was muté (transferred) to Val d’Oise, in the north west Paris suburbs (which must presumably count as a punishment post for the Police Nationale).

To show how “shocked” it is by the new allegations, the government has launched an inquiry and redoubled police activity against clandestine restaurants. Paris 2021 has come to resemble Chicago 1921, with police swoops on “speak-easies” where clients are illicitly consuming not bourbon but boeuf bourguignon.

READ ALSO Police bust 100 illegal diners at clandestine Paris restaurant

The story has its absurd and amusing side. It is also, I fear, very destructive – and was possibly meant to be so.

The present interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, was right to say that the M6-Chalencon allegations “undermine the foundations of democracy”.

The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement two years ago was rocked-fuelled by fantasies of this kind – “Brigitte Macron earns €200,000 a year from the state” – as well as genuine grievances.

As Robert Zuili, a psychologist and expert on public hysteria told the newspaper 20 Minutes: “Truth is not so important as the need to find a target for one’s anger. Any opportunity is seized upon.”

William Genyes, an expert on French political elites, says: “There is a widespread fantasy that the elites live in a world of their own, cut off from the real world. It’s no surprise that this story has exploded as it has.”   

Pierre-Jean Chalençon may just be a rich buffoon. His links to the far right may be just a coincidence.

No matter. As the Covid epidemic drags on and next year’s presidential election draws nearer, we will see much more of this kind of thing.

France is not patient with its leaders at the best of times. These are the worse of times.

Member comments

  1. Incisive report – one of your best. I wonder how many voters will associate this “scandal” with an impending General Election?

  2. Devout Macron fan Lichfield draws big “sociological” conclusions from this fait divers. That, not even five days after it burst out, has already been washed out by the next news cycle (P1 variant, J&J, regional elections, etc. ). That’s the cruel fate of a weekly column. And, BTW, if it hadn’t used ‘dubious methods’, the Washington Post would never have revealed the Watergate scandal – not that both events are on the same political scale, but nice methods just lead to nice journalism.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


France is a friend, UK PM Liz Truss admits after ‘jury’s out’ campaign claim

Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss have moved to mende fences with France, weeks after saying that the "jury's out" on whether President Emmanuel Macron was a "friend or foe" to Britain.

France is a friend, UK PM Liz Truss admits after 'jury's out' campaign claim

Truss met Macron for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the president’s European Political Community meeting in Prague, aimed at bringing the continent together in the face of Russian aggression.

The two leaders afterwards pledged “ambitious” measures to tackle illegal migration against a background of record numbers of people making the dangerous journey across the Channel by boat from northern France.

Truss had given her “jury’s out” answer during her campaign to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative party leader, delighting the Eurosceptic Tory faithful.

But it raised eyebrows as she was foreign minister at the time and supposedly in charge of diplomatic relations with Britain’s neighbour.

She told UK broadcasters before Thursday’s meeting she had worked “very, very closely” with the president and the French government in Paris.

“We’re both very clear the foe is (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, who has through his appalling war in Ukraine threatened freedom and democracy in Europe and pushed up energy prices which we’re now all having to deal with,” she added.

Asked directly if she considered him a friend, Truss replied: “He is a friend.”

In a statement after Thursday’s meeting, the two leaders promised to come up with solutions to deal with migrant crossings and to hold the next UK-France Summit in 2023.

They agreed “to deepen cooperation on illegal migration within the bounds of international law, to tackle criminal groups trafficking people across Europe, ending in dangerous journeys across the Channel.

“Interior Ministers should conclude an ambitious package of measures this autumn,” it added.

Macron often had prickly relations with Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson, who spearheaded the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union.

But Johnson, who joked in Franglais that Macron was “un très bon buddy” (a very good friend), called Anglo-French relations “of huge importance”.

The two nations are close NATO allies and UN Security Council members.

Macron at the time played down Truss’s remarks, saying he would not hesitate for a “second” in affirming Britain as an ally.