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I WAS writing last month about a bank robbery in a village not far away that succeeded brilliantly because the villains took the precaution of chaining up the gates of the local gendarmerie before they set about their night's work. It has to be sa

I WAS writing last month about a bank robbery in a village not far away that succeeded brilliantly because the villains took the precaution of chaining up the gates of the local gendarmerie before they set about their night's work. It has to be said that bank robberies and break-ins ruffle the serene surface of rural Languedoc life very little, and in any case one of the villains was caught a day or two later passing counterfeit notes, and I don't expect his defence that the bank had furnished them in the first place carried much weight. In any case he peached on the others and for all I know they're still slopping out in what the French call le bagne or la tôle, which you could translate as jug, clink, stir, chokey or the slammer. Take your pick, as they used to say to Dartmoor inmates on hard labour.

So these villains can't have been the same as the ones who, having identified an isolated and unoccupied holiday house as easy meat, chose a wild and stormy November night to do the place over, trusting that the local flics, i.e. the fuzz, the cops, the Bill, Mr Plod, Insp. Knacker or what in Northern Ireland they still, endearingly, call the peelers after Sir Robert Peel (d. 1850), would be tucked up in their beds.

Up the drive they rumbled in their stolen white van while above their heads the storm raged. They backed up to the house, broke in, relieved the Dutch owners of fridge, microwave, television, video and anything else with any value in the back streets of the nearest large town. But nature intervened: while chummy was helping himself, an oak tree as ancient as it was huge blew down, falling across the drive and preventing any gang of villains not equipped with chainsaws, blocks, tackles and tractors from showing a clean pair of rear lights. What they did is anybody's guess, but some weeks later, when the Dutch owners turned up for Christmas, they were rather surprised to find that someone had made them a present of not only several winters' firewood but also quite a decent white van, inexplicably full of their electrical goods. Nature just occasionally does redress the balance in favour of the deserving.

I MIGHT as well carry on, while I'm at it, mightn't I? Several years ago, regular journeys took me past a lonely holiday house up on the Col de Broussette. A handwritten notice appeared outside one day saying ATTENTION CAMBRIOLEURS (i.e. burglars) and which went on to claim that the house had been done 5 times already and there was nothing of the slightest value left inside. Passing a few weeks later I noticed that someone had crossed out the 5 and had replaced it with a 6.

Still later a 7 appeared in place of the 6 together with the comment cé vrai, I suppose a disappointed burglar's attempt at writing c'est vrai, it's true. I don't know how far submitting suspects to spelling tests forms part of French police investigation procedures, but they'd have got their man by Question 2, surely?

Unless it was all a bluff, of course. Marcel Pagnol, the Thomas Hardy of Provence, makes one of his characters in Manon des Sources, the sordid Ugolin Soubeyran, pin a notice to his kitchen cupboard which says:

Vous fatigez pas à sercher l'arjent. Elle est pas ici. Elle est à la Banque, au milieu d'Aubagne, à côté de la jeandarmerie. 12 Cour Voltère.
Y a rien à faire.

(Burglar, take notice:
Don't trouble to look for the money. It isn't here. It's in the Bank, in the centre of Aubagne, beside the police station, 12 Cours Voltaire.
You're wasting your time here.)

Spelling and grammar obviously weren't Ugolin's strong points, but the irony of the situation was that, true to French peasant tradition, he kept his stash of louis d'or in a pot under a hearthstone. Although his unrequited love for Manon robbed him of his heart, his five wits and eventually his life, his gold remained inviolate. Ugolin reckoned it was mention of the police station next door to the bank that deterred burglars, but clearly Manon des Sources was never a set book up at the Col de Broussette.

THE TENORS and basses of Le Choeur des Hauts Cantons have been having a lot of fun learning the Gendarme's Duet from a little-known operetta by Offenbach called Geneviève de Brabant. I was surprised to find none of them knew it; north of the Channel it's been a standby for amateur choirs and concert party comic duos for at least a hundred years. It's well-known west of the Atlantic, too, where some nutter presumably ignorant of the words turned it into the march of the US Marines. 'It's great to be a policeman,' the not over-heavyweight lyrics go, 'although it's a demanding business: when we've chased naughty boys and had a word with imbeciles, we enjoy a little rest.'

There's popular parody of it just now directed at Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Minister of the Interior apparently with eyes on the Presidency when it comes up for renewal in a few years' time. In response to universal demands for greater security, 'Sarko' has built up a formidable force of flics rivalling the US Marines in number at least. Whether this has actually reduced crime remains to be seen, but at any rate French prisons are bursting at the seams.

Sarko's greatest triumph, however, has been the introduction of hundreds of radar speed traps which record the number of the offending car and post the fine to the registered owner. Although not 100% foolproof (a Breton farmer's veteran tractor was apparently caught doing 180 kph in Nice the other day) the system is making money to pay for yet more policemen hand over mailèd fist. Oui, on est un peu trop fliqué, yes, we're a bit over-policed, said an unfortunate speedster on French TV the other day. But who said crime – well, misdemeanour – doesn't pay?

But what I'm wondering is whether M.Sarkozy would like to come and sing in my choir? I suspect he has a pleasing light baritone, and his presence would give enormous authenticity to the Gendarmes' Duo. How about it, Monsieur le Ministre?


Last month's competition was won by veteran Campbell's Diary buff Rob Quin, who from as far away as Ottawa correctly identified Calvados as the département apparently named after the local firewater and 14 as its number. In addition he identified Hilaire Belloc as the parodied versifier and 'Matilda, who told dreadful lies and was burnt to death' as the parodied poem. Well done, Rob.

Here's this month's competition: Dordogne, Var, Tarn, Durance, Hérault, Deux-Sèvres.

Which is the odd one out, and why?

First e-mail answer to the address below wins this year's Post Office calendar. Bonne chance!