What are they on about?

28th September 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham reads rather too much into French road signs

Charlie has no illusions about the French. One school trip and he's got their measure - their culture, their politics, their graffitiI If only my education had been as relevant.

"France," he says, "is a hotbed of fascism. Look out for the Nazi stickers when you drive down to your g te next weekend. They're everywhere, especially the road signs." Now, when I was 16, we learned French from textbooks, not street furniture. And if every autoroute had been plastered with swastikas, the gentleman who taught us to recite Baudelaire with a Dundee accent would never have mentioned it.

And Charlie is right (I bet he's a real pain in class). At the first rest-stop outside Calais, I amble over to a metal road sign. It's telling us that there are toilets here, as well as a play area and some rather stylish nappy-changing facilities. On the reverse, though, it's a less uplifting story. There is a little oblong sticker, whose design is dominated by a stark black oval. "NF" it says, and the two letters, joined at the base, tilt away from each other in a way that suggests violent disorder.

Soon I am stopping the car every few kilometres, behaving on country roads like a man with prostate trouble. It's true what Charlie said. The stickers are everywhere, from diversion markers to no entry signs.

In addition to the NF symbol, each bears the legend Securite par Signalisation, the letters SES being woven into the sort of pyramid design beloved of freemasonry. There are also the words Controle par Asquer, and while I have no idea what Asquer means (it rings no bells, even when I whisper it in a Dundee accent) I am in no doubt as to the overall tone.

"Security! Control!" I bark, when finally I break down and report these observations to my fellow travellers. Even when one points out that the French don't have an NF but an FN, I cling to my conspiracy theory.

It turns out that NF stands for Normes Francaises, and that the stickers are nothing more sinister than the seal of approval from some French standards council.

Back home, I break the news to Charlie. "Let me get this right," he says. "You thought I was being serious?" I understand why my French teacher kept within the syllabus.

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