Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Picture lines outside the boulangerie in Paris, apartments ovens cranked high and almond frangipane filling poured onto butter dough. Bright children's eyes gathered around the table after dinner. Right now in France most everyone's celebrating the tradition of l'Epiphanie. It's a family affair, too. L'Epiphanie celebrates the day on which the three kings Gaspard, Balthazar and Melchior came to pay their tribute to the world-famous baby born just a couple of weeks before. In French those wise men go by the name of Les Rois Mages - the Magi - and their first names are totally coming back in fashion these days, let me tell you. Except maybe for Melchior, that's a tough one.
Like many a Christian holiday, this one has lost its religious significance in most French families, gaining a sweeter, much more buttery one in the bargain: on the day of the Epiphany, families share one of these Galette des Rois, a flaked pastry pie filled with frangipane, a butter-rich, smooth mixture of crème d'amande - almond cream and crème pâtissière - pastry cream.
The actual date to have the galette has gotten fuzzier and fuzzier: some families celebrate on the 6th, some on the first Sunday in January, but it's mostly considered fine to celebrate it all through the month of January.
The thing about a Galette des Rois, apart from its deliciousness, is the family ritual that goes with it: the youngest child of the family hides under the table, an adult divides the galette in even slices, and the child calls out which slice goes to whom.
Why all the fuss you ask? Aah, it is just this small thing that everyone wants to win : la fève is hidden in the galette.
Historically a dry fava bean - hence the name - fève, was used. Now it's a little porcelain figure - often a clay santon. That figure used to have some kind of religious meaning but that, too, has gone the way of the dodo. Whoever gets the slice with the fève is named King or Queen for the day, gets to wear the golden paper crown that comes with the galette and glows with pride. Of course, in the south they like to be different and eat a Gâteau des Rois shaped like a ring-shaped brioche garnished with candied fruit.
While the happy King or Queen - usually one of the children - is munching another slice of galette their parent or grandparents are probably reading a little tan book that's taken French publishing by storm. With a simple tan cover, handwriting in the foreground, and only 13 pages of actual text written by a semi-obscure 93 year old man it contains no sex, no jokes, no fine writing and no startlingly original message. You think, publishing disaster? No, a publishing phenomenon.
Titled 'Indignez vous!' Cry out! (or Become Outraged, which I like) this slim pamphlet by a wartime French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, has and is smashing all publishing records in France. The book urges the French, and everyone else, to recapture the wartime spirit of resistance to the Nazis by rejecting the "insolent, selfish" power of money and markets and by defending the social "values of modern democracy".
'Indignez Vous' which costs €3, has sold 600,000 copies in three months and another 200,000 have just been printed. The original print run was 8,000. In the run-up to Christmas, Mr Hessel's call for a "peaceful insurrection" not only topped the French bestsellers list, it sold eight times more copies than the second most popular book, a Goncourt prize-winning novel by Michel Houellebecq - the famous naval gazing philospher author.
The extraordinary success of the book can be interpreted in several ways. Its low price and slender size – 29 pages including blurbs and notes but just 13 pages of text – has made it a popular stocking-filler among left-wing members of the French chattering classes. Bookshops report many instances of people buying a dozen copies for family and friends.
But Mr Hessel and his small left-wing publisher who normally have print runs in the hundreds say that he has evidently struck a national, and international nerve, at a time of market tyranny, bankers' bonuses and budget threats to the survival of the post-war welfare state. The publisher also thinks that the success of the book might be an important straw in the wind as France enters a political cycle leading to the presidential elections of May 2012.
In a New Year message Mr Hessel, who survived Nazi concentration camps to become a French diplomat, said he was "profoundly touched" by the success of his book. Just as he "cried out" against Nazism in the 1940s, he said, young people today should "cry out against the complicity between politicians and economic and financial powers" and "defend our democratic rights acquired over two centuries".
Not everyone likes the book. Hessel takes up the cause of the Roma, the unpopular gypsies and their substatus in France. He's stirred some controversy with a lengthy denunciation of Israeli government policies, especially in the Gaza Strip. Mr Hessel, whose father was a German Jew who emigrated to France, has been accused by French Jewish organisations of "anti-semitism". But when hasn't controversy pushed a book into a bestseller?
Mr Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. When he was seven his family emigrated to France. He joined General Charles de Gaulle in London in 1941 and was sent back to France to help organise the Resistance. He was captured, tortured and sent to concentration camps in Germany. After the war, he helped to draft the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
His small Montpellier-based publishing house Indigène, which commissioned the book, said Mr Hessel had revealed a "deep sense of indignation in France".
"They dare to tell us that the State can no longer afford policies to support its citizens," Mr Hessel says. "But how can money be lacking ... when the production of wealth has enormously increased since the Liberation (of France), at a time when Europe was ruined? The only explanation is that the power of money ... has never been so great or so insolent or so selfish and that its servants are placed in the highest reaches of the State."
The book's originality is the suggestion that an organised "Resistance" is now called for, just like in 1940. "We, veterans of the resistance ... call on young people to revive and pass on the heritage and ideals of the Resistance," the book says.
Here's a sample of his messages of resistance
* "I would like everyone – everyone of us – to find his or her own reason to cry out. That is a precious gift. When something makes you want to cry out, as I cried out against Nazism, you become a militant, tough and committed. You become part of the great stream of history ... and this stream leads us towards more justice and more freedom but not the uncontrolled freedom of the fox in the hen-house."
* "It's true that reasons to cry out can seem less obvious today. The world appears too complex. But in this world, there are things we should not tolerate... I say to the young, look around you a little and you will find them. The worst of all attitudes is indifference..."
* "The productivist obsession of the West has plunged the world into a crisis which can only be resolved by a radical shift away from the 'ever more', in the world of finance but also in science and technology. It is high time that ethics, justice and a sustainable balance prevailed..."
I suggest we all act like the French right now; munch buttery almondy slices of galette de rois and get outraged.