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.
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.