My France - Edward Stourton

Broadcaster and writer Edward Stourton fell for France at an early age and has been fascinated by the country’s culture ever since. He tells Carolyn Boyd what makes the French tick, and reveals his love for their gastronomy

When did you first visit France?About half my childhood was spent in Lucerne and Geneva in Switzerland, so we were just across from the Haute-Savoie, where we used to go to ski in the winter and the mountains were lovely for picnics in the summer. We left when I was 13. When I was about 15 my parents sent me to stay with a French family and I spent a month without speaking any English at all. So with that, combined with doing French A-level and keeping it going at university, it’s been part of my life for quite a long time.How’s your French now?Because I had that experience, I think in French when I’m in France. I don’t go there so often now, so I find I’m rather slow, but it comes back after a few days. I used to find that even when I was living in Paris, speaking French for a whole evening was quite tiring. I think your mind is much more comfortable with languages when you’re young. If I want to read a French book or article, work-wise or pleasure-wise, I will try and read it in French. Tell me about your time as BBC Paris correspondentI was there for 14 months in 1989. Until that point the BBC only had Paris radio correspondents, the first of whom came into Paris with the Free French in 1944, so it was a great institution. There was a lovely bureau on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honor�. They hadn’t had a television correspondent before, so I was the first one. What did you like about Paris when you lived there?In some ways I found Paris quite a hard city to live in. We’d been in Washington beforehand and it’s very open and informal. Paris is very formal city and having children racing around on their tricycles on the parquet floor of a smart flat isn’t very popular with the neighbours. I’m a great oyster eater and the fact you can stop at the supermarket and buy a big bag of them, is always enough to cheer one up. How often do you go back now?I went back with my wife for my 50th birthday to Normandy to eat lots of delicious food. We go a couple of times a year. We’ve been thinking at some stage of getting a house there. I think if we ever did we’d go down to the Midi-Pyr�n�es, to the foothills of the Pyr�n�es (pictured below) where it’s hot, but you have the snow and mountains for the winter. You’ve written a lot about religion, have you studied its part in French society?That was the sad thing and came out as a contrast going from America to France. In America the churches are always full, but in France, which was called the first daughter of the church’, they’re rather miserable and empty. That’s in Paris anyway, they may be different in la France profonde. It’s still a Catholic culture – more pleasure-loving – but socially its very secular. Your fifth book, It’s a PC World, was all about political-correctness, how PC are the French?The French are the most un-PC people in the world! I’ll give you an illustration from the book. PC was just being invented in Britain in the 1980s, and coming from a male bording school and a male college at Cambridge and then a very macho environment of the British newsroom at that period, I suspect I was pretty un-PC. There was an event called the Iran-Contra affair in which one of President Reagan’s national security staff [Oliver North] was caught selling arms to the Iranians and using the money to arm a group of rightwing rebels in Latin America. It was a huge scandal. The secretary to this bloke was a woman called Fawn Hall who was a classic 1980s beauty with big hair like in Dallas. I remarked on her unlikely glamour and my researcher told me it was demeaning to a woman to speak of her in that way and went on to train me in proper PC behaviour. Then I went to France, and we did a film for Newsnight on the state of French cinema. We interviewed a woman called Matilda May and the producer and I were remarking on her charms’. Again, we were overheard by the researcher who, far from objecting to this, came in the next morning and pinned up images of Mathilda May in her lingerie by our desks. I thought the contrast perfectly illustrated the difference!