Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What the French are obsessing about: galette des rois and a book

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.

Cara- Tuesday


  1. Mmmmmm...I'm in! Such an informative post. Thank you! Going in Sunday's "Best New Year's Posts" roundup.


  2. There isn't anything that Hessel writes that can't be applied to the United States.

    In order to get "Don't ask, don't tell overturned in Congress, he had to agree to drop his plan to let the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy expire. The really wealthy don't pay taxes anyway.

    In the 1960's young people were outraged about the war. Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society policies were paying for the educations of a hefty percentage of the demonstrators, did not run for election in 1968. Nixon was inflicted on the country. He ended the war in Vietnam but shredded the Constitution. Two investigative journalists didn't give up trying to find the reason for the Watergate break-in and Nixon had to resign. People everywhere were glued to the hearings in Congress that led to his resignation.

    In the US the only thing that outrages anyone is that the president of the United States is a Democrat of a skin color different from that of the previous occupants of the White House. Instead of Woodward and Bernstein, there is Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, none of whom are held to any standards of truth.

    Society isn't moved by a war that was built on a lie. It isn't moved by the job losses or the home foreclosures. Society's mantra in the US is "as long as I have mine...." Selfishness is the motivator of policy. The US couldn't come together against a common enemy today. The war on terror is a term thrown out to justify the erosion of personal freedom. Congress refused to continue to pay the health care expenses of the first responders to the World Trade Center.

    In reference to the Civil War, Lincoln stated that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." The US is a nation divided between the those who don't have enough to get by and those who will never have enough.


  3. Well this is the same French that had little problems deporting the undesirables. The "cry out" against Nazi Germany was more of a wimper.

    France loves the social benefits but shuns the burden of paying for them. And of course these befefits are only for the true French (white catholics).

    The outrage should be over the French States treatment of immigrants in the last 20 years.

    Universal Human Rights do not exisit in banlieu of Paris.

  4. It's been long few days of political discussions with foreign friends having political roots almost as ancient as Mr. Hessel's. They had escaped to New York City for the holidays. Today they left, giving me the chance to gaze upon your beautiful galette

    But then I read on. It's amazing how in so many countries old soldiers (and their widows) are simultaneously screaming out at what they see as the utter disregard of cultural values that once inspired so many to fight and others to die. And each wonders for what are those principles ignored? More easy francs, euros, dollars or those other currencies to the east?

    Is this free-running phenomenon of Ancient Soldiers' misgivings a coincidence, a function of shared advanced age, or a fair assessment of the reality of our times?

    I think I'll just eat the cake.

  5. I love both of these--the pastry (and the traditions) and this writer and his message.

    Now where can I, in the Big Apple, get both of these?

    As someone who watches MSNBC and sees a lot of opposition to the rightwing, as a counter to Fox, and who has joined in anti-war, anti-foreclosures, pro-health care and education protests, actions objecting to anti-Muslim, anti-Latino and anti-gay bigotry--and know many people personally and through the Internet who join in, too, things here aren't a lost cause.

    Also, there were huge demonstrations in Arizona against the passage of the racist anti-immigrant legislation, and many in support across the country.

    People are down here, and I think, don't know what to do, although the lessons of the 1960s in the U.S. and recent protests throughout Europe provide lessons on what to do.

    Historically, also about WWII, I am under the impression that there were many ardent members of the French Resistance. Unfortunately, many were caught and paid the ultimate price, but I've read of heroic women and men who survived the war and have discussed this. There have been fantastic accounts of this Resistance, even inside the camps.

    Also, I thought that there have been demonstrations in France protesting the government's treatment of Roma and other immigrants. Maybe not enough, but something.

    There should be a million people out protesting this, true.

    I appreciate this post a lot, but am more of an optimist than many.

  6. Thanks, Michele!
    Beth as always you find the cogent words.
    Anonomyous - well, no one in the US knew about the trouble in the banlieus until CNN picket up on it. Hessel does make a case for the Roma.
    Jeffery I thought of the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night (or do I get the title wrong?) I'd love to be 93 and still have something to say, the eyes to see, and be ABLE to say it and have it published before I kicked the bucket.
    Kathy d thanks for your opinion and I'm optomistic too

  7. I haven't read what Hessel said about the Roma, but if he supports and defends them, I'd agree with him.

    The Roma people were targets of the Nazi war and propaganda machine, and many were killed.

    They're trying to survive in Europe, amid and despite increasing vilification, discrimination, deportation and physical assaults.

    I can't see anyone who is for equality and human rights not supporting their right to live and work where they need to, free of harassment.

  8. Beth,
    What should outrage people in the U.S. are those who accuse others of being racists simply because they don't regard our current president as a god. Unless you have proof that someone's attitudes toward Obama's policies and decisions are based on his race and not on those policies and decisions, you have no right to accuse people of racist attitudes. The race card has been played and played and it is as destructive as racism itself.