The 'Chaud Lapin' in hot water

by Neil Thomas
May 23rd, 2011

With the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story, the media is putting French Culture on trial, or rather that part of it which turns a blind eye to the supposed peccadilloes of its political figures. Unfortunately, in the case of the former IMF supremo, it is a story that, literally and metaphorically, has got legs.

Although the details are sordid, they have, to some, the air of a Feydeau farce, updated and transferred to Broadway. For others, the story provides the opportunity to parade smutty innuendo (“in which endo?” I hear you ask), but Speak the Culture is, of course, above all that.

We prefer to see it in terms of examining how the French laissez-faire attitude to extra-marital affairs lies at the heart of the matter and how far the Anglo-Saxon media’s coverage will go in challenging the long-standing French acceptance of the ‘libertinage’ of its leaders. Surely this acceptance cannot be maintained in an era of intense media scrutiny where a code of conduct seems to be totally at odds with how male behaviour towards women should be evolving.

The French have long been proud of their culture of brushing adultery under the carpet, but now a New York maid has (however accurate or unfounded her allegations turn out to be) exposed the dirt that has hitherto been covered up.

For Speak the Culture, the media coverage of the DSK story has certainly increased our understanding in many ways, including:

• It used to be the case that if anyone can get away with extra-martial affairs, then Dominique Strauss Kahn – but no longer – now he Kahn’t.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was a book, a play, a film and, it now seems, a deep-seated political philosophy.
• Calling a politician a chaud lapin (hot rabbit) is politer than calling him a rutting chimpanzee.
• Historians refer to a predatory male in a position of power as ‘priapic’ to show off their own classical education, but others would call such a person a dirty old man, or a filthy old lech.
• Clearly being brought up in the ‘oo la la’ French maid tradition and historical costume (=fancy dress) can lead a man to chase a chambermaid round a bedroom suite, in through one door and out through another.
• French oral exam means something different to a VIP.
• International Hotels should explain to their French visitors what ‘Twenty Four Hour Room Service’ actually means, lest translation difficulties cause any further problems.
La gauche caviare, (the caviar left) is the French term for what we refer to as champagne socialism, membership of which indicates someone who is pretending to be of the people, when really they despise the masses, consider themselves superior beings and merely want for themselves the perks that the toffs get.
Histoires de Cul does not have anything to do with seals and actually means ‘bedroom romps’ in tabloidese.
Un drageur is a pick-up artist and a libertine.
• Beware of chauffeurs (a different kind of pick-up artist) – Jacques Chirac’s former driver has published a book in which the loyal chauffeur describes the extra-marital assignations of the former President and tells of how he was known as Mr-Three-Minutes-Shower-Included.
Cinq à sept refers to the hours between 5 and 7 pm as being the traditional hours of adultery (not to be confused with three minutes, shower included).

French media coverage has, until now, stopped at the bedroom door, but maybe the boudoir will no longer be off-limits if DSK is convicted. At that point, French tolerance of such behaviour in politicians will perhaps become culturally unacceptable. If so, the French will have learnt something valuable. The headline would then be “Ex IMF boss gives French Lessons”. (Or maybe you’ll just see that in an ad in your local newsagent’s window.)

Comments (1)

Lovely blog, as usual, Mr Thomas. There has just been a brilliant 15 minute play on Radio 4 by Lionel Shriver called Belgian Waffle which you can find on I player, ici: which nails a pompous British junior Eurocrat and the bossy empire of pamperatti who demand sacrifices from everybody except themselves. I’ve been told it’s a stitch-up; he’ll get off, but grander ambitions nixed.

Posted by johnny bull • 23 May 2011, 17:00

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