Sunday Edit: French Lessons



Take a French lesson from a Nobel Prize winner.

Jean Tirole insists on getting me a coffee. He walks me down the corridor to the office coffee machine, makes an espresso and presents it to me in a plastic cup. Later I ask colleagues of his at the Toulouse School of Economics whether this was a PR stunt. No, they say. Tirole — human enough to have choked up during his Nobel acceptance speech last year — is just a very nice guy.

This skinny figure in an unfashionable brown sweater was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on how to regulate big companies. But in his dingy office in a former tobacco factory, we talked about how to change France — something Tirole has done himself, in miniature, in Toulouse. We spoke a day before the terrorist attacks in Paris changed France. But his ideas for the country apply long term.

Tirole, 62, has an unusual vantage point: almost uniquely among the French elite, he isn’t in central Paris. He asks: “You know the expression ‘monter à Paris’ [broadly, ‘going up to Paris’]? For many people, Paris is what you can best do in your career.” Instead, in 1991, he left his professorship at MIT in Boston for the delightful backwater of Toulouse because his friend, the late economist Jean-Jacques Laffont, persuaded him they could make a French university department world-class. It was a crazy idea. Universities are France’s academic minor league, below the grandes écoles. (read more on Financial Times)

Jean Tirole is a French professor of economics who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of market power and regulation

Apollonia Poilâne’s amazing bread story

Apollonia describes Lionel as a reluctant boulanger, forced into working at the bakery by his father at the age of 14. “But he learned that bread was so much more than what he’d initially thought.” She mimes kneading dough. “These gestures seem repetitive to an outsider. The old French saying is that bakery is a job for les hommes grands, forts et bêtes – tall, strong and stupid. The history of bread proves this is absolutely idiotic.”

It was the history of bread and its role in culture that changed Lionel’s mind about baking. He began to collect books on the subject, amassing a 2,000-volume library, with some dating back to 1544. “It’s one of the biggest of its kind,” says Apollonia. When Lionel took over the bakery at the end of the ’60s, the French were eating bland, sliced white bread and flavourless baguettes, rejecting the dark loaves they associated with the deprivations of war. Lionel strove to keep the best techniques of the past, combining them with new advances (he called it “retro-innovation”), and by the ’70s, pain Poilâne was regarded as the fashionable alternative to pappy white baguettes. In the next decade, it became a byword for the very best loaves. Cafés and brasseries advertised that their tartines were made with his bread: “Ici, pain Poilâne,” read the signs. (read more on The Gentlewoman)

Apollonia Poilâne runs Poilâne (say it ‘pwah-lahn’), a Parisian company started by her grandfather in 1932. 


 Never eat the bread they give you at the beginning of the meal — it’s like eating the peanuts on the bar.

-Apollonia Poilâne