Men in Black
In Boulogne at the start of our summer adventure, on a visit to Nausicaa and the Boulogne Festival of the Sea, we get caught up in a visit by the French President. We unwittingly tail Le President as he moves around the city. With his security force. And I find myself inexplicably drawn to the magnetic power of his Men in Black. Is it the uniform? The Jack Bauer style ear pieces. Or the romance of a well dressed Frenchman with a dark side…
Shady goings on in Boulogne
You might not notice them, but they are there. Among us. Yet apart. Standing out. Yet blending in.
White aprons, striped T shirts and pastel shorts are the dress code of a hot day at this French seaside. But there are others who are different. They stand in groups, seemingly relaxed, yet on closer look as coiled as the headpieces feeding back the mood of the crowd. And the where-abouts of the boss. Their polished cavalcade lies abandoned as they fan out across the bay. Some on the rooftops, watching, waiting. Others in the fish market; using their noses to smell risk, not fish.
While we wander, they watch and wait
We happily wander the Fete Sur Mer; Boulogne’s Festival of the Sea. Held every two years in the city, it’s an important celebration of daily life in the first port of France. It is also a bright, colourful exhibition of everything to do with the sea. From the old fashioned ship in the bottle, to the newest conservation project to promote a sustainable fishing industry, it’s all here, complementing our short break, which has a strong nautical theme.
We began on England’s South Coast, where we watched Britanny Ferries sail holiday makers across to France, then later in Dover we chatted to people emerging from a ten hour training session of preparation for swimming the channel. We jumped on a ship ourselves and toasted the sea with a bucks fizz from the top deck. We had moules for dinner, much to the kids’ disgust. And we visited Nausicaa, the excellent National Sea Centre.
Now we wander from stall to stall, taking part in a competition to haul net, listening to songs of the sea, watching experienced fingers shed mottled silver coloured skin. And we never quite kick the feeling of being observed.
They watch and they wait. Jackets, suits, sunglasses, and phones absorb the light. They breathe darkness. Their hearts beat into a black hole. I can’t keep my eyes off these Gallic creatures. But they aren’t watching me. They’re scanning. There will be fireworks later, but are they listening for gunfire now? There will also be a ceremony where the boss will make a speech. This speech was even mentioned in the British Press. The world is watching.
I knew the President was coming in advance. For a moment I feared I’d be interviewing him when my contact messaged to say our schedule had to be rearranged due to the visit of their premiere. But unlike the rest of the crowd, I wouldn’t recognise Monsieur Hollande if I fell over him. Which clearly I’m not going to do. As thirty Men in Black would immediately descend upon me.
A sea view
The President is on a boat. Sailing down the channel to Boulogne harbour as part of an impressive maritime procession. At least I think he’s part of it. Crowds have gathered on the bridge and all along the promenade. There’s none of the bunting, flag waving and hysteria that accompanies a British Royal visit, but there is a quiet sense of anticipation. And twitching. The men move an inch or two towards the edge of the hotel roofs they temporarily inhabit, they talk more intensely into their hand held devices and ear pieces, and they fan further down the prom, breaking up from their clusters.
Which one is he?
“Is that the President?” says Hannah, as every boat in the procession goes past. I take my cue from the Men in Black. You see, while they silently watch us, I silently watch them back. I tell her the top man is definitely on the naval ship at the front. The one that their attention is pinned on. She’s impressed at my knowledge, and I just hope she doesn’t ask which one He is. It’s hot by the sea and the procession is finishing.
Reunited at the Hôtel de Ville
When the procession is gone we leave the waterside. We will be back later to watch fireworks from a tall ship but have a couple of hours to spare. We buy sandwiches and cold drinks and walk into the walled part of Boulogne Old Town through the stone arches. The Old Town is beautiful. It winds us around and upwards, passing traditional houses and little restaurants advertising pizza and moules. And then we stumble across the flags, lining a grand building. With a crowd encircling it.
Somehow we are reunited with All the President’s Men. Suddenly. Amongst his abandoned cavalcade and metres away from the doorway of the Hôtel de Ville. There are maybe a hundred people casually scattered around but a couple of dozen of them are dressed in tell tale black. Doing that casual yet not casual thing. And I get a good look at them. They’re not all in matching suits, like the security forces in The West Wing. Many are in semi uniform jeans, and jackets. But all have the lapel badge and the edge of darkness. And they are not quite as relaxed as they appear. Stuart puts a tuna wrap on a ledge and four of them pounce. I take it back in case it causes an international security crisis.
Close enough to touch
This isn’t like The West Wing. If President Bartlett, or even the real life President Obama was here I’m sure the whole old town would be sealed off. But this is France and there are no cordons or barriers. It appears we could even walk through the front gardens to the doorway of the Town Hall. Maybe even go in and join the President for dinner. I decide to give it a go. And the Men in Black part. One makes eye contact with me. It’s probably accidental. But we have a moment. Ok, I have a moment. I look for his gun. I don’t find it. He is remote, untouchable. French. A polished shell with a dark, hard centre. I am English. Standing in my shorts with a sweating tuna wrap in my hand. And I think I am in love.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the Boulogne Sur Mer Tourist Office for hosting us to enable you to bring you this story. The experience, views and opinions expressed remain, as ever, entirely our own.