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.

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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”