‘Merde’ is probably one of the few French words english-speakers understand from a very early age. I can’t remember how or why I happened to learn the French for ‘shit’, but in all likelihood it wasn’t thanks to my French professor at school.
‘Merde’ also happens to be in the title of Stephen Clark’s best-selling novel, a funny and well-observed take on French culture, in France, from a British perspective. Now the French, in their love of wordplay and puns as humour, tend to find this title somewhat offensive – as it suggests that France is shit. And seeing as the hero, Paul West, spends a year in France – this would seem to be the logical association.
However if you’ve read the book, or indeed lived in France for any length of time, you would know that ‘in the merde’ actually implys ‘stepping in shit’. This title alludes to the plotline of the book – as well as highlighting one of the most revolting facts of French life.
That is – France is covered in dog shit.
Nowhere is this more true than in Strasbourg’s Parc du Contades. At first glance, a lovely well groomed park in the heart of the German quarter, but on closer inspection – a giant open-air toilet for dogs.
Now while the park bylaws might say things like ‘keep your dog on a lead’ and ‘no fouling’, most dog owners don’t give a toss; and thanks to them no child can visit the park and return without something radioactive stuck to their shoe. Even worse, at certain times of day the park’s ambience is enough to induce the gag reflex.
So, M. le President – if you really want to change the perception of France abroad – I suggest you tackle this particular issue with all due speed and efficiency … and perhaps a pair of rubber gloves?