Le grand French schmooze

Budget deficits are far from the minds of politicians and journalists during the official fêtes of January.

For most people, the New Year is a time to recover from any holiday excesses, and get back to work. But for reporters in France and the politicians they report on, the party season is just now getting into full swing.

We are all caught up in what the French call le marathon des voeux, a seemingly endless round of lavish official receptions at which one member or another of the government offers his or her best wishes for the New Year, along with heaping buffet tables of the sort of things the French do best. A well-connected journalist could spend much of January lunching on nothing but foie gras and Champagne, if he were so inclined. But it would be a shame to ignore the oysters.

The tradition of a ceremonie des voeux hosted by the head of state dates back to Napoleon III's reign in the late 19th century, and it has rather got out of hand. President Jacques Chirac is presiding over 13 such occasions this year - wishing a happy New Year not only to the press, but also to the armed forces, trade union, business and religious leaders, his constituents in his home region, and other audiences.

That all this costs considerable sums of money (the Prime Minister's office declined to say just how much) does not appear to dissuade anyone from maintaining the tradition, even with Paris under pressure from the European Union to curb its budget deficit. Cabinet ministers, political party leaders and businessmen have jumped on the bandwagon, and most foreign correspondents receive at least four or five invitations. It is generally considered wise to show your face at a couple of them. Different reporters have different reasons for attending these functions. Some clearly go to be seen: At the presidential Elysée palace the other day, two of France's best-known TV news personalities planted themselves conspicuously at the entrance to the ballroom where Mr. Chirac welcomed his guests. Others go to see - to catch up with friends, to schmooze with ministry press officials, or to make new contacts. "The most useful thing about these things is seeing people," said Lara Marlowe, a correspondent for The Irish Times, as she mingled with the crowd at Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's bash on Monday. "I keep up with French colleagues this way."

Thomas Sancton, editor of the new French edition of Newsweek, was unashamedly representative of a third group of guests when I asked him why he had accepted Mr. Raffarin's invitation. "The food," he replied bluntly.

The prime minister's fare included a long table in one salon piled with wooden crates of oysters. Out on the tented terrace, a chef whipped up wild mushroom omelettes. And the sprigs of steamed celery, wrapped in slivers of smoked duck breast and topped with a chunk of sun-dried tomato, made a tasty mouthful.

But the presidential petits fours are not to be sniffed at either. "Oops, I've taken too much," laughed one correspondent as sour cream dribbled over the edge of her bite-sized blini under the weight of the smoked wild salmon she had loaded onto it. More manageable were the shavings of raw beetroot, shaped into tiny cornets and filled with cream and caviar, or the baby cylinders of rolled pancake with a peeled shrimp tied atop by a strand of chive, or the simple rounds of toast bearing slices of unadorned foie gras.

I myself, of course, attended these functions for the purpose of reporting this article. But even now that it is written, I think I shall find other pressing professional reasons to attend the foreign minister's reception Friday.

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