As our presidential campaign de-evolves into petty name calling and calls for prosecution, the French are having a quintessentially French scandal of their own. French presidential hopeful Jean-François Copé has found himself in deep fondue after admitting that he did not know the price of pain au chocolat and then radically understated the price. Sacre Bleu. The French have not been so incensed since “The Terrors” and many have denounced Copé as an out-of-touch elitist.
The controversy is reminiscent of George Bush’s ignorance of a supermarket’s UPC scanner.
Copé responded “I have no idea but … I think it must be around 10 or 15 centimes.” The pastries commonly sell for £1.15 and £2.10.
The leading member of France’s rightwing Les Républicains tried a bit of self-deprecating spin in response to the hue and cry: “I confess to being very careful about my figure … so to tell you the truth I haven’t eaten ‘chocolatines’ for a long time!” It didn’t help. French comedian Rémi Gaillard replied: “You’d be better confessing that you don’t give a damn about the real lives of French people.” Worse yet, Copé is a former budget minister who once taught economy and local finances at the renowned Sciences Po university in Paris.
Analogies have been made to Marie Antoinette, though that seems hardly fair. There is actually little evidence that Marie Antoinette actually declared “Let them eat cake” or “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Many historians trace the legend to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. Yet, this autobiography was written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was nine years of age. It was not published until 1782. The reference came in a passage where Rousseau recounted how he entered a bread store to acquire bread to go with some stolen wine. He then recollected the words of a “great princess: Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” He never names Marie Antoinette.
Putting his historical quibble aside, Copé is no Marie Antoinette. He was not declaring that the French should sustain themselves on pain au chocolat. Rather he simply doesn’t buy the pastry and did not know its current price.
Yet, at this point, I would love a debate over a brioche. How about you?