PARIS -- One of the nicest things about Paris is seeing the city on foot, strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens while gazing up at a clear, blue sky and dreaming of Renoir and l'amour and ... Oh, hey, sorry, did you step in that? Now, one of the other really great things in Paris, of course, is dining at one of those old oak-and-brass brasseries amid perfumed Parisians and cigarette smoke and ... What? You mind that Yorkshire sniffing at your plate? Well, that's another thing about Paris.
Even if you like dogs, France has an annoying abundance of them: 37 million, more per person than anywhere else in the world. Visitors to Paris never fail to notice -- usually after they step in -- the ubiquitous dog droppings that mar an otherwise clean city.
There are no "Clean up after your dog" signs (and no one does), no "No dogs allowed" notices on restaurants, apartment buildings or stores (so everyone brings them). Where the Frenchperson goes, so goes Fou-Fou -- the size and temperament of an oversized rat -- tucked under the arm, wearing his little flannel throw, wrinkling his nose at the wayward bird or scraps of bavette a` l'oseille. Not known worldwide for their courtesy and warmth, Parisians often seem to show more deference toward their pets than toward their fellow bipeds. Not to mention their children.
Of course, not all French dogs are three inches high and named Fou-Fou, but they are all terribly spoiled. French dogs have their own magazines, clothing stores, hairstylists, eye doctors, dietitians, fashion shows and, of course, their own defense leagues. There is even a fertility center for impotent or homosexual dogs, an institute called Maisons-Alfort.
True, there are fanatical dog-lovers in the United States, and yes, England is well known for its radical pro-animal activists ("Masked intruders liberated 50 white hamsters from a Lancashire cosmetics laboratory Monday ... "). In all of these cases one might suspect a strain of antisocial behavior: Those who can't deal with the foibles and complexities of human beings may well prefer an animal as a cuddly -- if unchallenging -- alternative.
The French, however, make no bones about their preference for animals over humans. A recent cover story in the magazine the Life of Animals featured a French radio and television personality and his English sheep dog. The headline read: "One sought the perfect dog. The other a perfect master. Between Patrick Sabatier and Birdy it was a bolt of lightning -- eternal love, immediately -- united for the better!"
This cannot be healthy.
Salvation, or at least a dose of sanity, has come from French journalist Fabien Gruhier, who has written his revenge in a book called "Bas Les Pattes," a play on words that comes out meaning roughly "Down With Dogs." Released last month, it is a mishmash of long-repressed thoughts about animals, one man's run-on diatribe against the behavior of the French toward their pets.
"We live in an atmosphere of animal idolatry that transcends all electoral cleavages in order to better bring in the votes," Gruhier writes in j'accuse! fashion, blaming politicians such as Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac for lacking the fortitude to enforce existing laws against dog leavings. "You can show all the human massacres that you want while I lap my soup in front of the television. But don't you dare touch a hair on my darling toutou. This is France? Yes it is."
A spokeswoman for the mayor sniffs that Gruhier's remark is "anecdotal," adding, "I believe Mr. Chirac has shown his political will in other areas." However, she does confirm reports that the mayor recently contracted with a French manufacturer to find a product to be added to dog food that will render dog stools more ... well, firm. Two years ago Chirac bought a fleet of motorcycles to scoop up poop, but apparently it falls apart too easily.
Journalist: "Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to make people clean up after their animals?"
City Hall: "The French temperament, as you know, is very undisciplined," says spokeswoman Michelle Debedde. "This does not help civic coexistence."
Such logic drives people like Gruhier crazy. "Those stupid machines," he says. "It's scandalous that my taxes should be paying for this, and it cultivates bad habits, because people don't think they need to clean up." The writer, 45 and a cat owner, poses a frightening question: When there are more animals than human beings in France, who'll be there to pick up after them?
Gruhier points out interesting, if sometimes irrelevant, statistics in his book: The French spend 1 percent of their domestic budget on their pets, the equivalent of 10 times the gross national product of Bangladesh. The French spend twice as much money annually on their animals as they do on books.
He does border on overkill (suggesting that Soviet perestroika is a plot to release Marxist-Leninist dogs on the West in exchange for hard currency) and occasionally barbarism (he barely disguises his relish in relating stories of animal torture), but Gruhier has nonetheless touched a nerve in Gaul. When he promoted the book for an hour on Radio-Tele-Luxembourg, the radio station was bombarded with 5,000 phone calls. Within a week of the book's release Gruhier received 80 letters from readers, half of whom wanted to make dog meat out of him and half of whom wanted to invite him to dinner.
"The book by Fabien Gruhier simply disgusted me, not only by its evil intent but by its immeasurable idiocy," wrote a woman from outside of Paris. Other readers, including one who took eight pages to explain his "revulsion," canceled their subscriptions to the Nouvel Observateur magazine, where Gruhier writes about science.
By contrast, another wrote: "Thank you and bravo for finally daring to denounce the euphoria around animals, which is, finally, a kind of fanaticism."
Gruhier concurs. "There's a sort of religion of the animal that we live in -- I'm not just talking about the droppings on the sidewalk. When you go to a restaurant in the United States they bring you a chair for your child and keep out the dogs. But in France it's the opposite -- they make it clear that your children aren't wanted, and they put the dogs at the table."
It may be, then, no surprise to learn that the French own more domestic animals than anybody else. There is a Fou-Fou for every 1.4 Frenchmen. Brigitte Bardot alone keeps about 50 (pets, not Frenchmen), mostly cats.
In private Gruhier admits that a pet can be a solace to a single, elderly person, and a loyal friend to a child. He quietly admits that it is probably worse to become dependent on, say, alcohol than on an animal.
But ought not there be limits?
At the Boutique du Chien in Paris's 18th arrondissement, toiletteuse Nadege Lechevin shows off the winter pre~t-a`-porter collection, designed in-house: a black leather jacket with silver studs for about $50, a nautical red rain jacket with a gold anchor on the breast pocket for the same price, and a fake-fur leopard cape with a leather fold-back collar for about $70.
There is a Yorkshire terrier trembling in the window, fresh from his wash and trim. Perhaps his taxi is late (the boutique runs a taxi service). Perhaps his analyst is on vacation. Perhaps he absolutely hates the way he looks in fake fur.
Maybe. But perhaps he is dreading the return of his owner. Frankly, he can't stand bavette a` l'oseille.