Travel between England, France and Spain, and you will notice that there are distinct techniques for keeping a conversation going. In England, talk is passed from person to person, like a small and delicate parcel that everyone must touch but nobody must snatch and which can only be unwrapped if each person peels off a sheet of paper in turn. Doesn't matter if you have no opinion about the subject. Everyone must have their say and recalcitrant talkers will be chivvied into making their contribution, no matter how banal it maybe. In France, conversation better resembles a brawl in which everyone starts bawling at once and he who bawls loudest and longest is begrudgingly listened to by everyone else until a new subject crops up and the skirmish begins again. In Spain, everyone shouts all the time, nobody listens, and everybody's happy. But there is, in France, another, less well known and far more diffident technique wherein every attempt at eliciting a conversation is killed stone dead by a monosyllabic interjection: "Bof!"
There's no translation for this word. In some contexts, it echoes the Anglo-Saxon variant of testes, but it’s far more versatile than your average male reproductive organs. It incorporates something of the traditional 'Gallic shrug' overlaid with a more pessimistic sense of I-can't-be-arsed. It's indicative of dismissive, slightly cynical fatalism. It's not the sort of thing you'll hear the President of the Republic saying, though it would be fun if you did. Instead, it's part of the language of adolescence, admittedly an adolescence that can be arrested well into early middle-age, but none the less adolescent for that, a sort of halfway house between childhood's defiant "Yeah? You and whose army?" and the self-deprecating "I'm afraid I'm passed all that sort of stuff now" capitulation of advanced maturity. Used in response to a question or suggestion, it implies that the person who asked the question or made the suggestion should have known better and that their interlocutor is not going to stoop so low as to respond in detail.
I like this word. French, after all, is a language in which the translations of Don Quixote and Moby Dick each run to two substantial volumes rather than the usual single volume editions in English. It's famously precise, but it does take up a lot of space. That such a complex and multi-layered concept as I-can't-be-arsed-it's-all-going-to-fall-apart-I-don't-think-much-of-that-what's-the-point-what-a-lot-of-cobblers can be reduced to a monosyllabic puff of air is a considerable achievement. In fact, there's nothing else quite like it in French.
Bof! can be used to answer interrogative suggestions: "Why don't you try something else, I'm sure you could?"
It can be used to respond to unwarranted optimism: "Let's look on the bright side."
It can be used to curb enthusiasm: "Did you hear what the President said? That's really rather interesting, isn't it?"
And it can be used as a substitute for a disparaging comment you can't be bothered to make but still want to communicate: "I do admire politicians."
This is a chapter of two bofs and an unbof, bumping about three villages in Brittany that have earned fame or notoriety for reasons that have little to do with the criteria of ordinary tourism.
Ask anybody in France who doesn't live in the immediate vicinity of Ploërmel in Morbihan if they've heard of the place and the chances are they'll say, "Ah, the pope!" This may come as a surprise to the casual visitor. Popes in Rome, we know, popes in Avignon we may have heard about, but popes in Ploërmel? Well, one pope, actually. Jean Paul II. Nine metres of him.
In September 2005, Ploërmel was rocked by scandal. The right-wing mayor, Paul Anselin, a man of such authoritarian instincts his political opponents have nicknamed him 'Pol Pot', announced that a nine metre statue of the pope by the Russo-Georgian sculptor Zourab Tsereteli would be placed between Ploërmel's College du Sacré-Coeur and the Ecole St. Joseph. Cue local and national outrage.
First, the statue was free, but the town council had voted 130,000 euros for the plinth and an opening ceremony, 130,000 euros a lot of taxpayers felt might have been better spent on local services than on glad-handing a big bronze pope.
Second, if public art was required, there were plenty of good Breton sculptors just itching for such a commission, so what was all this business with Russo-Georgians?
Thirdly, it was widely disputed that Tsereteli was a 'good' sculptor. A favourite of the Muscovite mega-rich oligarchs and the grandees of the Kremlin, Tsereteli specializes in colossal statues that make up in bulk what they lack in subtlety. Frequently accused of heavy-handed academicism, he has been scattering giant bronzes about Moscow ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union (including a 96 metre Peter The Great!), but not satisfied with that, he's started giving the things away abroad, too. Unfortunately, not everyone wants a Tsereteli. His Balzac got shunted about France for dark ages before it found a home, Manhattan politely turned down his 175 ton commemoration of 9/11, and the people of Ploërmel were none too sure they wanted a statue at all.
Fourthly, people wondered why they were getting it. How come the mayor of an obscure Breton commune was chummy enough with a high-flying Russian sculptor to be getting free statues out of him? 'Services rendered', said Anselin, and refused to elaborate. Journalists started digging and it transpired that Anselin had links with the French arms dealer, Pierre Falcone, who is in turn linked to the billionaire Russian businessman, Arcadi Gaydamak. Nothing was proven, but there was a widespread suspicion that there was a bad smell in the room and it wasn't coming from the pope.
Above all, though, it was the fact that the statue was of a pope that got people's backs up. Balzac may have been obliged to haul himself about the country before finally finding a berth at Agde in the Herault region, but whatever else he may have been, Balzac was no pope - not to the best of my knowledge, at least. And the 1905 law concerning the separation of church and state specifically forbids the placing of religious symbols in public places. This is hard to understand for the British who have happily muddled along for several centuries with intimately interlinked political and religious authorities, and the only time anybody talks about it is when debating whether disestablishmentarianism is the longest word in the dictionary or not. But secularity is one of the lynchpins of French republicanism and people can get very heated in its defence. Very heated. The Ploërmel pope rapidly became a cause celebre.
"C'est n'importe quoi!"
"If he wants a statue, let him have it in his garden."
In fact, Anselin had offered the statue to the local friary, who've got a nice big garden and might have been supposed to be quite keen on the pope, but for some reason the brothers had declined this kind offer, so he was stuck with nine metres of pope and nowhere to put the thing and he couldn't very well stick it in the shed.
"You got nothing better to do with your money than put up a statue to a dead pope?!"
"A Stalinist statue for a Stalinist administration!"
It all got quite intense. Protests were made, petitions were signed, websites set up, demonstrations staged, but all to no avail. Anselin was adamant. The Pope stays!
Clochemerle? Never heard of it.
I don't know whether it has anything to do with the pope or not, but there seem to be an uncommonly large number of houses for sale as we drive into Ploërmel. And there he is! Can't miss him. Big pope. Well, biggish. Jean Paul II, standing on his plinth, framed by a bronze scaffold topped with a dirty great cross. To be honest, it's a little hard to see what all the fuss was about. True, the statue isn't very pretty, but then neither is Ploërmel. More to the point, all those reports about nine metres of pope were a bit disingenuous. The bulk of the statue is plinth, frame and cross. You only actually get about three metres of pope for your money, three metres too many for French republicans, but still several metres short of nine, which it must be said, would have been a pretty scary prospect. Three metres is big for a pope, but it's not that large for a statue. And the sculpture itself is not really as Stalinist as we'd been lead to believe. Competent town-hall bust stuff, no better, no worse. Certainly looks like the pope. True, the bright shining bronze is a bit vulgar, but come in search of a Sino-Soviet-Saddamite-North-Korean monumentalism, and you'll be disappointed. Apart from us, there's a couple of middle-aged bikers, all belly and leather and too many business lunches, posing for a photo in front of the plinth, and an old boy gazing at the pope's backside with dazed admiration muttering something along the lines of "Now that's what I call art". The Pope appears to be smirking. Perhaps he's pleased with the message inscribed below his feet: "N'ayez pas peur", have no fear. One lapsed catholic, seriously lapsed, demands what that's all about.
Momentarily disappointed in our search for schlock, we stroll into town. They're busy digging up the road. There's a rather jaunty cock atop the war memorial. Behind the church there's a locked door with an A4 sheet in the frosted glass window saying, "Everything English". In one sense, that's a fair description of Ploërmel. There are security cameras everywhere. This may not shock someone coming from the UK, where I believe there are more surveillance cameras per head of the population than in any other country in the world, but the definition of civil liberties is a very mutable thing and what exercises one nation will be of not import to another. The British are up in arms about identity cards as a potential infringement of their freedom, but are perfectly happy to have cameras recording their every public move. In France, ID cards are so integral to daily life it's actually illegal to go out without one, but surveillance cameras are considered a bit iffy, especially in a quiet country town like Ploërmel. This is the smallest commune in France to have installed CCTV. The message is - There may only be 8,500 of you, but We Are Watching You!
What's really sinister, though, are the loudspeakers. They're everywhere, fixed to walls beside the cameras, burbling piped music like those sound systems councils put up at Christmas to regale the weary shopper with jingle bloody bells and Noddy Holder's bid for immortality. Except here the piped music is interrupted every thirty seconds or so by a mincing voice promoting the local entrepreneurs and encouraging the idle flâneur to stop wasting his time and to get in there and buy something, you bloody waster! It's really rather nasty and the longer we stay, the more uneasy I become. Maybe I'm over-reacting, perhaps I'm having some sort of panic attack. It's perfectly possible. Get stuck inside a shop too long and I begin to believe I'm never going to get out again. It's very distressing. Perhaps the impression that the shops are now getting proactive and coming after me is enough to tip me over the edge. But I still think there's a distinct whiff of Big Brother about Ploërmel. Forget about the pope. N'ayez pas peur! There's something gone badly wrong here and it's been going badly wrong since long before Jean Paul II got himself done up in bronze. Ploërmel is the antithesis of a Petite Cité de Caractère. It's got no charm, no focus, no character and gives the impression of having being put together with willful incompetence, as if this were an experiment in making all the wrong town-planning choices that were possible and just sort of jamming stuff together to see what it looks like. And it's this very awfulness I recommend you go and see. There are more pleasing sites all around Ploërmel, but when you're bumping about, you don't want everything to be too conventionally pretty. You want things to be a bit off the wall, too. And Ploërmel is very off the wall with its CCTV and disembodied injunctions to buy! buy! buy! And there's always the pope - and his friends . . .
Didn't I mention that?
That Paul Anselin, he must be chastened by the way his statue was received, eh? He won't be making that mistake again, will he? Er, well . . . By the time this book goes to press, a winged lion by a local sculptor should have been installed in Ploërmel. Then it's back to our boy Tsereteli for a St. George and The Dragon and -wait for it- a nineteen metre General de Gaulle.
Clochemerle? Never heard of it.
Nineteen metres of General de Gaulle might well be the defining nightmare for the personality that inspires our next visit in this triptych. It was de Gaulle after all who 'gave away' Algeria, wherein the rot began.
Trinité-sur-Mer is an estuary port that would probably be no better known than any other seaside resort were it not for the fact that it was the birthplace of a national figure who is deeply attached to his roots and wants everyone else to be deeply attached to their roots, too. Head of the extreme right-wing Front National and presidential candidate for the party until 2007, Jean-Marie Le Pen was born in Trinité-sur-Mer in 1928, the son of a fisherman of Italian stock, and a girl from the farming hamlet of Kerdaniel at Locmariaquer.
When he talks about his childhood, Le Pen's reminiscences are only a shade this side of that We-had-it-hard/Call-that-hard! Monty Python sketch. His home was a two room cottage with a dirt floor and an attic full of fishing gear. There was no electricity or running water, the privy was a thunderbox at the bottom of the garden, and the eggs were sold at market, never eaten by the family, except on Easter Day. "C'était très pauvre. Pauvre, mais hônnete". The poverty only got worse when Le Pen was 14 and his father was killed after his boat hit a mine, an accident rather than the result of fighting the Germans as has sometimes been suggested. At sixteen Le Pen volunteered for and was turned down by the French Resistance.
Arriving in Paris as a student, he earned a reputation for being munificent with his mouth and even more munificent with his fists, and in 1949 was elected president of the radical right-wing student union at the University of Paris Law School. After serving in the army, he joined the populist movement of Pierre Poujade, a former stationer who blamed France's postwar economic turmoil on tax-collectors, intellectuals and Jewish big business. The movement fell apart after 1958, but not before Le Pen had become France's youngest ever member of parliament at the age of 27. Following a second stint in the army, this time in Algeria, he lost his seat and became presidential campaign manager for Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, former Vichy minister and defence lawyer for the OAS leaders who had, among other things, conspired to assassinate de Gaulle. In 1972, Le Pen formed the Front National and in 1974 stood for president, getting one per cent of the vote. In 1977, a wealthy admirer left him a fortune, securing his financial future. By the 1990s, his share of the vote had risen to 15 per cent. In 2002, the socialist presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, was knocked out in the first round, forcing French left-wingers to don the blindfold, pinch their nostrils shut with a clothes peg, grit their teeth, cross their legs, curl their toes, tie a knot in their craws, plaster their necks with deep-heat cream, and vote for the widely despised incumbent, Jacques Chirac. The spectacle was extraordinary. It was as if an entire nation had been obliged to scrape their nails across a blackboard and pretend the sound it made wasn't particularly unpleasant.
The outpourings of Le Pen, both physical and verbal, are well documented and are far too distasteful to be detailed here, including as they do comments most people regard as racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and homophobic - there are a lot of phobias in Le Pen's discourses. Rather more interesting, though, for the purposes of bumping about is the question of what impact Le Pen has had on his hometown.
Trinité-sur-Mer is nowadays a popular yachting centre and the quayside is defined by the usual yachtie paraphernalia of restaurants, bars, chandlers, and shops selling stripy T-shirts. But behind this veneer, the old fishing village has remained intact and is largely untouched by the big business of moneyed leisure. It's a strikingly charming place, too, with narrow peaceful alleys and tiny paths snaking their way between picturesque old cottages.
There are no statues of Le Pen, though his father's name does appear on the war memorial in the church square. The inscription, 'J Le Pen', is one that would also have served for Le Pen fils before he entered politics, when he changed his name from Jean to Jean-Marie, allegedly on the advice of his wife, who reckoned it a better device for pulling in the conservative Catholic vote. A little way behind the church, opposite the Impasse de Farfadets, is the cottage where Le Pen was born, now turned into a holiday home to which he returns every year at All Saints. Locals are understandably cagey when asked about the town's most famous son. Trinité-sur-Mer is a conservative place, but not that conservative and, like elsewhere in Brittany, the Front National has traditionally scored poorly in elections. Some of Le Pen's contemporaries hint at dark secrets they'd rather not tell, others are openly hostile, but the comments are by no means all negative. He is still regarded as 'un enfant du pays', even if most people disagree with his political views, and virtually everyone will tell you that when he's in residence he expects no favours and assumes no airs or graces.
As tourism goes, this trip was all a tad furtive. You can appreciate people must get a bit miffed at snooping journalists turning up before every election and they probably don't need some sardonic Englishman sticking his oar in, too. After we'd glanced at the cottage, we strolled down the Impasse de Farfadets which leads into a lovely flower-lined path winding between the back gardens of houses before emerging on a private driveway overlooking the seafront. I was quite pleased by this; it seemed only right that a foreigner visiting Le Pen's birthplace should engage in a little light trespassing. Better still, the night before, there was a crescent moon rising above Trinité-sur-Mer.
The shock of Le Pen making the second round of the 2002 presidential election was a profound national trauma and it was in no small measure thanks to that shock that there was such a record turn out for the 2007 election, in which Le Pen was roundly shoved back into fourth place. In that perhaps, he was a good thing for democracy. Nonetheless, he still got ten per cent of the national vote, and the extreme right is far from a spent force in France. Le Pen has played the politics of opposition so effectively that opinions once considered marginal if not actively deranged are now aired without shame, and he will for a long time represent something that many people want represented, a consistent strand in French politics ever since the days of the Dreyfus affair, reappearing in the Vichy regime, the Poujadist movement, and the candidature of Tixier-Vignancour, and doubtless to be embodied by someone else in the future. Dismal it maybe, but dead it ain't.
It's a facet of France most French people prefer not to contemplate, but it's there nonetheless, and is not above suggesting France is full of "invaders who want to sleep in my bed with my wife" (sic). Perhaps somebody should point out to the Front National that there are around one and a quarter million French people living abroad, nearly 300,000 of them in the UK. What are they doing, I wonder. They can't all be flogging arms and scouting about for freebies from dodgy Russian sculptors. Whose jobs are they taking and whose wives are they sleeping with? Hm? Answer me that! Questions must be asked.
So what else has Trinité-sur-Mer got to offer apart from a handful of pretty lanes lined with some nice stone houses? Well, there's the coastal path, which is always worth exploring. There's the port with a plethora of yachts to spark the imaginations of the fantasists amongst us. More tellingly, though, this is the heart of menhir land. The majority of the most famous megalithic alignments are just next door to Trinité-sur-Mer. It's all a bit antediluvian, really. Primeval, if you know what I mean.
Head west from Morbihan into Finistère and you will find the tiny hamlet of St. Coulitz, home to a man who could not be further removed from Le Pen. St. Coulitz is the smallest and best preserved of the three communes featured in this chapter, untouched by tourism, and far and away the hardest to locate both on the map and on the ground. Our approach was not helped by the fact that the main road from Chateaulin was closed, as a result of which we began by driving across a peripheral tongue of land framed by a couple of communal boundary signs and thinking that was St. Coulitz in its entirety. But even without roadworks, you could easily miss the place if you weren't actively looking for it.
A scattered farming hamlet set amid attractive rolling countryside, this is a peaceful, lost corner. The web of lanes holding it together are signposted with local names, but there's scant indication of any way out toward bigger places, as if, once here, no one would ever want to leave. They've got a point. I could quite happily settle down in St. Coulitz and vegetate, though vegetate is hardly the word to describe the career of its most famous resident.
We spent a very pleasant half-day there pottering about, visiting the sixteenth century church, the seventeenth century Chapelle Saint Laurent, the bucolic little Fontaine de Troboa, and above all strolling along the canal linking Nantes and Brest. This is a particularly lovely inland waterway and wherever you happen to touch upon it, you can guarantee an idyllic stroll. At St. Coulitz it's lined with majestic plane trees, the towpath is spotted with orchids, and the odd clump of arum lilies form islands in the bankside shallows. And there's plenty of wildlife, too. As we strolled along the left bank, there was a staccato splashing as a scattering of frogs dived for shelter, shattering the still surface of the reflected plane trees - mind you, the frogs are always a bit jumpy when the English are around. Later, a plump coypu rolled lazily off a log into the rust coloured waters of the canal; coypus are illegal immigrants, of course, brought to Europe for their fur, then dumped when fur became unfashionable, but that would probably be no excuse for the likes of Monsieur Le Pen. In the vanguard of our progress was the flashing electric blue dart of a kingfisher, which seemed fitting, since in some ways the whole thrust of this chapter is fishing after kings or would-be kings, those who have been touched by some ambition for power. We also saw a fisherman wading across a weir, again fittingly enough, for the people hereabouts know how to bridge a divide. The thing is, delightful though all this may be, none of it explains why St. Coulitz is so celebrated. Left to its own devices, nobody would ever have heard of the place. But they have, for amid all the exotic flora and fauna there is nothing quite so colourful and heartwarming as the career of the man who was St. Coulitz' mayor from 1989 to 2001.
For the present, we'll call him KY, not for the gel, but after his initials. In short, the career of KY goes as follows: born 1945, studies mathematics in Brest during the sixties, marries 1969, settles in St. Coulitz 1973, and begins working for the local authority, given special responsibility for public works of art; qualifies as a civil engineer in the late seventies and returns to work for the Direction Départementale de l'Equipement, where he becomes 'Monsieur Ponts', charged with building Finistère's bridges. Elected mayor in 1989, he creates France's first Conseil des Sages, an advisory council composed of local elders. In 1990, he receives the Prix National du Civisme and is voted Breton of the Year by the monthly periodical, Armor. And then his career really takes off: 1991, appointed Secretary of State for Affaires Sociales; 1992, confirmed as Secrétaire d'Etat à l'Intégration, elected Conseiller Régional de Bretagne and made a Knight of the British Empire; 1993, sets up the Fondation pour l'Intégration Républicaine; 1994, elected Conseiller Géneral du Canton de Chateaulin; 1995, elected Président de la Communauté des Communes du Bassin de Chateaulin and made Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur; 1997, elected to the national parliament; 2002, named a member of the Haut Conseil de la Coopération Internationale . . .
Perhaps that's enough. You get the idea. Big career and doing good stuff. Just look at the words: a bridge-builder, civic duty, social affairs, integration, co-operation . . . It's a remarkable CV by anybody's standards, but in some ways that first step into public office when he was elected mayor in 1989 was the most remarkable of all and the one that made his name. KY is Kofi Yamgnane, a Togolese immigrant known throughout France as Le Celte Noir and famed for being the only black mayor to have been elected by a population that was otherwise entirely white. Witty man, too. One other award: in 1992 he got a prize for political humour after announcing, "je suis un Breton d'après la marée noire", alluding to the black tides of the oil spills that have regularly despoiled the Breton coast. I bet Le Pen was hopping mad when he heard that.
Kofi Yamgnane is often mistakenly said to have been France's first black mayor. In fact, that honour goes to Raphaël Élizé, a vet from Martinique who, in 1929, was elected mayor of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, a post he fulfilled by all accounts with considerable verve and skill. Demobilized in 1940, he sought to resume public service, but was told by the local Feldkommandantur that it was "incomprehensible for German sentiment and the German sense of rectitude that a man of colour should be dressed in mayoral authority". Understandably peeved, Élizé joined the resistance. He was denounced in 1943, arrested and deported, and died during an allied bombardment of Buchenwald in 1945.
Despite the fact that we live in an allegedly more enlightened age, Kofi Yamgnane's election was in some ways the more extraordinary. As a Martiniquaise, Élizé was already a French citizen. He was not an outsider as such, not one of the 'invaders sleeping in somebody else's bed'. When Kofi Yamgnane came to study in France, he was the only black man in Brest and he had no intention of staying. His aim was to return to Togo and build bridges there. As it happened, they needed someone to build bridges in Brittany, so he stayed, married a local girl, and the rest is history. He has clearly been more fortunate than his predecessor, yet his story is not one of unadulterated optimism. When interviewed, he says that his elevation from foreign scholarship boy to minister of state would simply not be possible nowadays because institutional racism would not allow it. He claims he wouldn't even get his residence permit, though I guess he might improve his chances by changing his name to Jean-Marie Le Blanc or somesuch. The business of names is significant. Time and again, highly qualified people from French minorities report that not only do they not get job offers, they don't even get interviews. A foreign sounding name or the wrong postcode are all it takes. It's not just a question of not reaching the highest rungs of the ladder, but of not even getting off the ground.
Kofi Yamgnane lives in one of St. Coulitz' satellite hamlets. Originally nothing more than a calvary, a crossroads, and a farm overlooking Chateaulin, Pennaros is now a scattering of modern suburban houses, all very unassuming, modest, family residences. It's a pleasing setting for a man whose ambitions have never got the better of him, but who has achieved so much. He was voted Breton of the Year for the second time in 2005.
So that's our triptych: three Breton villages, three Breton figures who've made international headlines. Whether any of this tells us anything about Brittany, I haven't a clue, but it does seem to indicate a place much like anywhere else in the modern world, a place where identity is in flux and people react to the uncertainty in their different ways, variously embracing and lamenting change, looking out and looking in, getting by as best they can in complicated times, or clinging to a fantasy of a past when everything was simple and as it should be and all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Like any place in the developed world, France is a crowded room. There are people that want the door open and people that want the door shut; some fancy a bit of fresh air, others fear burglars would climb in an open window; some reckon the burglars are already in the room and you'd better keep your hand on your ha'penny if you don't want to have a very nasty surprise indeed.
So what was all that business about bof at the beginning of the chapter apart from a bit of fun with the French language? Well, as I suggested, bof is a pithy way of declaring partiality. Everyone will have their own perspective on this, but I know which boxes I'm ticking off.
Nine metres of pope? Bof!
Jean-Marie Le Pen? Bof!
Kofi Yamgnane. Unbof! Very unbof.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace