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OCCASIONALLY THE French government office of statistics publishes population figures showing the resident population in each département (something like UK counties) and the annual increase through immigration. Our dépar

OCCASIONALLY THE French government office of statistics publishes population figures showing the resident population in each département (something like UK counties) and the annual increase through immigration. Our département, the Hérault (pron. 'erro'), named after the river that runs through it, is one of the most favoured by immigrants. Something like 80,000 each year. We were part of this figure once, nearly 20 years ago in my case, a bit longer in Josephine's.

The Jeudistes ChoirThe Jeudistes Choir

(Photo: Cor van Leeuwen)

And now there's one more. Or sort of. I'll explain.

Two years ago, through the good offices of my cousin Moira, I took my small choir Les Jeudistes on what they were graciously pleased to designate their World Tour of Kent and Sussex. Our visit centred on Sevenoaks, a medium-sized town in Kent, where we were received royally, and non-Brit choir members formed as favourable an impression of the British people as an unusually sun-drenched, bluebell-carpeted, rhododendron-bloomed, may-blossomed and village-greened Garden of England would allow. Naturally at the end of our visit we invited our hosts, who were mostly members of a church choir, to come and sing for us in the south of France.

Nothing happened for months and months, and then suddenly, round about last Christmas, it began to look as though a return visit might be possible, probably the following July. This was good news.

* * *

JOSEPHINE AND I then threw ourselves enthusiastically into a little crafty but thoroughly agreeable politicking. One of the scheduled concerts for our guests, who called themselves Ad Hoc Voices, was in the village church. After concerts in the church the mairie (i.e. the municipality) generally offers what they call le verre d'amitié, the glass of friendship, a commendable wine-and-nibbles custom shared and enjoyed by artistes and public alike. We were assured that this would be laid on for us.

But times are no less hard in France than elsewhere, and the village council is strapped for cash. Other recent verres d'amitiés we'd attended had been measly in the extreme, two crisps and a peanut and half a glass of rouge. Our schedule for that evening was busy, with a full rehearsal at 6.00 and the concert starting at 8.30 (and things are never on time here) and probably not finishing until 10 at least. Too late to eat out. Ad Hoc Voices would sing for their supper in vain, unless someone waved a magic wand. And not only them: Les Jeudistes were renewing old ties and were due to sing alongside our guests. (Les Jeudistes are in red and black in the photo above. You can just see my red sleeve on the extreme left.) They too would go to bed hungry, unless . . .

. . . we thought long and hard about how to magic a decent supper out of the mairie, until we realised we held a trump card. One of the Ad Hoc Voices was Simon Raikes, no less a person than the Mayor of Sevenoaks. We went to see the village maire, who is also the equivalent of a county councillor, at his Sunday morning surgery. We mentioned, almost in passing, that a personage as elevated as himself, first citizen of a Kentish town of some 20,000 inhabitants, would be among our singing guests. With, of course, his First Lady.

* * *

AT THE extensive buffet supper which followed the concert, the tables groaned under the weight of locally cured and smoked hams and sausage, hot and cold smoked trout from a local fish farm, cheeses, local breads and patés and terrines, tapenades of local olives and chestnuts, vinaigrettes and dressings from locally-pressed olive oil, and tarts of local apricots and other succulent fruits, not to mention row upon row of bottles of local wines.


Before we could settle to any of this municipal abundance there was a ceremony to be performed. The maire, resplendent in suit, tie and écharpe, the tricolour mayoral sash, attended by similarly-sashed colleagues and local councillors, made a short speech  which he concluded in three stages. Firstly, he awarded Simon honorary citizenship of the Hérault département. Secondly, he presented Simon with a large, heavy medallion as a token of his new status. Thirdly, he grasped Simon by the shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks.  

Simon stood up to this with all the aplomb and dignity that might be expected of a Mayor of Sevenoaks. The ceremony continued with a shower, indeed a downpour, of gifts for Simon to take home to grace the Mayor's Parlour.

The maire and his coterie, the combined choirs and several members of the public then set about easing the strain on the buffet tables and shortly after midnight everyone went home really very content indeed, a-brim with Anglo-French bonhomie and with tums full to bursting. But no one was more satisfied than Josephine and I in the knowledge that our Machiavellian machinations had fully paid off.

* * *

A FORTNIGHT later Josephine and I are exploring the stalls of the village Marché Bio (a Sunday street market for 'pure' biological produce) when we meet the maire and several village councillors doing the rounds as well. We're invited to join them for the official apéro, which is short for apéritif, pre-lunch drinks, and despite feeling that we haven't the slightest justification for inclusion among the great and good we go along.

So we're plied with wine, muscat (a fortified wine something like sweet sherry) or soft drinks under the shade of the village plane trees and somehow the conversation round the table turns to la bise, the habit of kissing alternate cheeks twice, three or even four times. It's not a British custom, we say, although it appears to be growing. (I don't know how true this is, but it seems so to me from our occasional visits.) Certainly not between men. We mention how surprised Simon Raikes had been to receive la bise from the maire some days earlier.

'That wasn't la bise', the maire says, emphatically. 'La bise is for family and friends. That was the Republican Accolade.'

Republican Accolade? This is something new to me. His actual words were l'accolade républicaine, so I don't think anything's been lost in translation. If there was any obvious difference between the Republican Accolade and la bise, it was lost on me.

I have noticed, now I come to think of it, that among the 80,000 annual incomers mentioned above there's a fair whack of Anglo-Saxons, and some of these take a long time to adapt to local customs. However there's one local custom that Anglo-Saxon expats, especially men, seize on immediately with a joyous freedom unknown in the UK or the US: La bise. Now of course they need no excuse to salute womenfolk so generously: they are simply exercising the Republican Accolade.

80,000, did I say? Correction - with Simon Raikes' new status that should be 80,001. But I'm not going to speculate what might happen if he tries to institute the Republican Accolade back home in Sevenoaks.