French Flair and Charlie Hebdo

From March 2015, an attempt to find a silver lining from the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris in January. Maybe a bit contentious, this one.

Enough time has now passed that I feel comfortable sharing with you my favourite moment from January’s Charlie Hebdo massacres. Now, some readers might find it inappropriate to have a favourite moment of a tragedy, but if it’s acceptable to name the one thing that spoiled your wedding day, it’s logically consistent to name the one thing that cheered you up during an atrocity.

For me, the highlight or saving grace was a quote from the French president, François Hollande, when he praised the French police and special forces for their ‘courage, efficacy, and flair’. The reason I like this so much is that it seems almost heroically French for an elite commando unit facing a hostage situation orchestrated by desperate murderers, to decide that the correct response would be to act with ‘flair’. It brings to mind special forces storming the building with Kevlar helmets at jaunty – no, not even jaunty – at rakish angles. They’d not charge into the terrorist compound, they’d languidly glide through like Zinedine Zidane in his pomp, idly picking off the hostage-takers while barely seeming to break sweat, yet somehow with an infinite amount of time to make decisions.

You can picture a fresh-faced MI6 operative on secondment, eagerly bustling into a smoke-filled basement room with a ream of papers tucked under one arm. ‘I’ve got the plans for the building,’ he’d say, ‘there is access through a roof hatch, or there’s also a side entrance through…’ At this point a grizzled French commando looking a bit like Leon, from the film Leon, would cut him off. ‘Ah, rosbif, you have so much to understand,’ he would sigh, somehow managing to exhale the sigh at the same time as inhaling a long drag from a gauloise. ‘You are so uptight, with your plans, and your protocols, and your unimaginatively-aligned headgear.’ He would grip the MI6 operative’s hands and stare into his eyes, a little too passionately for the gravity of the situation, saying ‘Rosbif, you must learn to live a little’, while blowing a lungful of carcinogenic smoke directly into his face.

It is wonderfully French to expect special forces to perform their roles not just effectively, but with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. Now, I’m no Andy McNab – that’s now been proved beyond reasonable legal doubt by a series of embarrassing identity fraud trials – but there is one thing I do know. When it comes to counter-terrorist hostage operations, you are supposed to sais exactly quoi.

It’s sometimes said that people reveal their true character in adversity. With this in mind, maybe the Hollande should have used the word ‘panache’ rather than ‘flair’. One definition says that panache is ‘a word of French origin that carries the connotation of flamboyant manner and reckless courage.’ At the most superficial level, that sums up the French national stereotype quite nicely, and if the cap fits, wear it. But wear it rakishly.

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