I love reading books about France and the French as told from the perspective of American expats. Harriet Welty Rochefort‘s books (French Toast, French Fried) are personal favorites, as well as Diane Johnson’s novels Le Divorce and Le Mariage.
It’s not often that I pick up a non-academic book about France by a non-American Francophile, so when I find out about one I immediately place that order from my favorite local bookstore. Touché: Why Britain and France are so different, and why they do things in opposite ways, by journalist Agnès Catherine Poirier, takes it a step further, adding to the thrill. She’s a French journalist who lives in London and works for both British and French publications and broadcast outlets, so she has a unique outlook about her own countrymen and women as she eyes them from across the Channel. And bonus: she trains her critical French eye on the people in her adopted country, too.
Touché is a collection of original essays touching on a melange of topics, from the differences between consumer culture in Britain and France, to the author’s passion for “café society” (she’s no fan of Starbucks, and her hatred of the chain knows no bounds: “Today, British high streets are proud to announce they’ve been Starbuck-fucked 489 times.”), to my least favorite chapter, “Pets”, where she is brutal in her criticism of “vegan terrorists” and fondly compares her love for her childhood goldfish to the love she had for “the pattern on my wallpaper.”
Okay, it’s not perfect, and as an animal rights supporter married to a vegan, I finished that particular chapter with a bad taste in my mouth. But that last paragraph should give you a clue as to the experience of reading Poirier: she has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to express them, and her extensive experience as a film critic and journalist adds layers of sophisticated wit and sharp intelligence that make for a lively, fun read.
American Francophiles will devour the chapters about how the British eat (because of its subtle comparisons to how the French eat), the differences between how the British and French approach sex and love, the love letter to French independent, non-chain retail shops, and the aforementioned lamentation of the coffee shop-chain invasion in Britain. If you’re also keen on politics, Poirier’s dissection of the British suspicion of Europe — Brexit was still years in the future at the time the book was published in 2006 — and her observations about the differences between the French Left and the British Left won’t disappoint.
Once upon a time, her recounting of her past life as a young, blasé Marxist might have seemed alien to even the most politically astute American reader, but in politically volatile 2020, with American right-wing groups throwing words like “Cultural Marxism” and “radical left” around promiscuously as if they actually understood what they mean, her political evolution can seem almost romantic, so very….French.