There's hardly something more deeply rooted in the French fabric than the traditional Vin D'Honneur which takes place at the end of inaugurations, speeches and at ceremonies of various kinds that dot the social life of the French provinces. It takes place in the office of a business, in the town hall or at the fire department, any place and any excuse is good for a healthy rejoicing and socializing along a self-serve table with wine, kir or sparkling. I regularly write a few lines to honor this civilized practice which help tighten bonds in the community and is a welcome fun in the routine of daily life.
This story takes place in Valençay (Berry, southern Loire) at the inauguration of Talleyrand's tomb, which was transferred inside a former chapel. Talleyrand, who was Napoleon's foreign minister had his home in the Chateau de Valençay, a beautiful architectural monument which is open to visitors.
Usually, there's a speech of some kind during which the public waits patiently, hands off the table or the bottles, but the reward is around the corner, when the speaker invites the assembly to get their glass filled. Here the speech took place outside in front of the door of the chapel. Then the guests were invited to enter the next building which belongs to the city hall and where waiters were waiting to pour drinks. In general, the drinks in vins d'honneur are kir, rosé and white wine. There's no real limit set to what you can have, as long as there's a steady supply of bottles. Of course some people take in more than they should, and I did it myself occasionally, but overall people are pretty reasonable. So why should there be anything wrong with this civilized tradition ?
Jean Morel, the owner of the chapel, who was a Talleyrand heir and until 1979 the owner of the Chateau de Valençay, participated in the ceremony.
The mayor of Valençay Claude Doucet can be seen on the picture above making his inaugural speech. He was followed by the Prefet and by the historian of Valençay and Talleyrand André Beau.
Talleyrand, whose complete name was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, lived through the last years of the Royalty, the French revolution and the Napoléon years and adapted all along these shaky years to the different regimes. This Loire Chateau, which was his home, still has many of its period furniture and family paintings. The large kichen in the basement where you can see all its impressive wood-cookstoves is a must-see part of the Chateau. This kitchen is where Carême, the king of cooks of this era (as he was dubbed), prepared his cuisine. Talleyrand hired the best of the best for his service, and Carême, like his modern counterparts, was later hired by foreign princes and he worked in London and in Saint Petersburg. See here and here for glimpse on the royal kitchen.
The man on the picture is Jean-Michel Petit, he is the president of the group.
This ceremony-cum-apéritif story opens the way on a debate about a wilder type of apéritifs which have been in the spotlight of the French newspapers recently : the apéros géants. The mainstream media has been emitting a lot of white noise recently about those street apéritifs organized on the flash-mob style by youths across the country, often in the city-center of major towns (see this short video about one such apéro in Nantes). Embedded with the stories were the dreaded words of binge drinking coming ashore to our gallic provinces. What happened is that one of these flash gatherings organized through Facebook and text-messaging attracted several thousands young revellers in Nantes, everyone bringing their booze along. One of these youths drank too much, fell from a bridgelater in the night and died. That's when the white noise started and people started asking for more laws against drinking in the street with in the back of the mind the worry that binge drinking is settling for good in France. Words are very important to spread scare and here the new word is Apéro Géant, which means "giant apéritif". The two words are probably sounding like a nightmare to many mayors and local police and are certain to set off a Pavlovian response like a prohibition edict.
Here are a few thousands youths who just want to have fun in a country where the economic future is rather bleak (many university graduates end up working for 300 € a month as trainees here - see here and here). They use the tools of their generation, Facebook and Twitter to be together and indulge in a few affordable drinks to brighten their moods in the gloom. Comes an accident with a young guy who falls from a bridge and the hygienist crowd sets the dogs on Facebook and on apéros géants. This accident and the related new phenomenon of giant apéritifs had a wide coverage in the media. Several influential voices in France asked for a crackdown on apéros géants, for example asking that organizers could be traced and considered liable if something turned bad, others asked that prior registration of the gatherings be made with the police like it is done for political or Union demonstrations.... Some cities like Strasbourg have forbidden these flash gatherings and position police forces preventively Place Broglie or Place Kleber when they suspect there's a giant apéritif underway...
On the other side, the wired revellers responded by planning a huge apéro géant across the whole of France through Facebook (see this facebook page). It is not clear wether the hygiesist crowd will go as far as to ask for the banning of Facebook in France like it has been done in certain muslim countries after the Muhammad cartoon contest, but I think some of them would be ready for that. To get a visual idea of the new phenomenon, just check Google-image "apéro géant" for a try. I'm confident that these youth will not be intimidated into forced abstinence and will find ways around to gather, have fun and drink...