Iain Murray: It’s true – the French can always be caught napping

In the struggle to reach the stars, rigorous training, mental acuity and a relaxing lie down are just a few necessary skills – especially if you’re French, says Iain Murray

Stories about Frenchmen are like buses: you wait for ages and when one comes along, it’s full up.

Only las

t week this column noted with surprise the propensity the French have towards heart attacks while putting up shelves, assembling flat-pack boudoir screens and the like. Evidently, DIY, previously thought to be a peculiarly English malaise, afflicts our cross-Channel neighbours with equal, if not greater, malevolence.

No sooner had this revelation sunk in than the news broke that French men have a desire, unrivalled throughout the rest of Europe, to lie in bed at an angle of minus six degrees for weeks on end. Now, before you jump to any oo-la-la-related conclusions, it must be added that these French men will be alone in bed. Alone, that is, save for teams of scientists fussing about taking measurements of heart beats, urine production, psychological behaviour, and so on.

The French – 14 in all – volunteered to spend three months in bed as part of an experiment intended to simulate the effects of weightlessness in space. The head-down tilt of minus six degrees is believed to be the best way of achieving the desired effect.

The experiment is being conducted in Toulouse by the European Space Agency and the French space agency CNES. That’s the who. The mystery is why. It sounds like another French-inspired attempt to demonstrate that anything the Americans can do, the Europeans can do better, or at least as well, or, if all else fails, with more flair. Jealousy of the dollar lay behind the creation of the euro. Could it be that jealousy of NASA lies behind the pretence that Europe is readying itself to launch 14 bedridden Frenchmen into outer space?

However, the most intriguing part of the story has less to with the pretensions of the project than the nationality of the volunteers. Though ads inviting applications appeared in all the member states of the EU, every single place on the project ended up being taken by a Frenchman. The 14 include a French gardener, a French teacher, a French builder, a French postman, a French accountant, and a French psychiatrist. Why not a single Dutch florist, Spanish hairdresser, German acrobat, Danish plumber, Belgian comedian, or Irish philosopher?

The French, of course, deny any fix. Explaining how his compatriots came to monopolise the experiment, Dr Laurent Braak, one of the research team, said the experiment had received the most publicity in France. He adds: “There was a very high interest in participating.”

It is difficult to believe that no suitable candidates came forward from other European nations. To believe that, you would have to accept that the French are uniquely qualified, either by nature or constitution, to lie in bed all day. Simple empiricism rules that out.

It is not seemly to blow one’s own trumpet, and jingoism has long ceased to be acceptable; even so, it has to be said that, given the chance, we British are extraordinarily adept at staying in bed. Indeed, at weekends it is practically a way of life. It is in our blood. The advent of central heating notwithstanding, we remain the biological legatees of generations of stoics, whose only warmth and comfort throughout the long, dark, and freezing winters was found beneath layers of blankets and counterpanes. So, putting false modesty aside, when it comes to festering in our pits, we Brits are without rival. Nor is it entirely the fault of our workmanship – in the grim years when only the Channel stood between us and the Nazi hordes, and daring the bleak post-war aftermath, you couldn’t get the wood – that our beds hardened us to lying at angle of minus six degrees.

Impossible to believe either that had the ads appeared in this country, there would have been a shortage of applicants. How could the nation that was so enamoured with Big Brother fail to produce hundreds – thousands possibly – of cor blimey, bird-brained extroverts desperate to volunteer for anything, however silly, provided it meant someone, somewhere took some notice of them?

No, there is some other explanation, and it has about it the whiff of Gallic skulduggery. When the French space agency CNES assures us that the ads appeared across Europe, we must take its word for it. But were they all identical? Might it be that the English version appeared in the classified columns of the Aphid Fanciers’ Quarterly and read something like: “Wanted – guinea pigs to undertake thankless task. Reward – probable bone and muscle wasting. Apply in writing to BedSores R Us PO Box 44”? And might the French version have been a full page in Le Monde reading: “Thousands of francs to stay in bed. Lie on your back for three months. Be pampered by luscious young scientists. Feel like you’re flying to Mars. La Belle France expects. (Apply early and get a bonus measurement of your urine output.)”

It needs looking into, and our own Advertising Standards Authority are the people to do it. It is a scandal that when, for months on end, the world’s attention is to be focused upon rows of beds, each containing a man tilted backwards, there should not be a solitary, shaven-headed Englishman among them. Might it be that when it comes to lying down and not doing very much at all, one Englishman is the equal of a dozen Frenchmen?

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