"Honest to goodness," an American visitor said, "the French are getting to be the Chinese of Europe. Everything is prestige, saving face, looking good all the time." And if ever a nation lost face and prestige simultaneously, it was France at the pre-Olympic meeting in Grenoble last February. The West German, Swiss and Austrian teams pulled out in a mighty Teutonic huff, complaining that their accommodations were fit for dogs, but barely. The weather alternated between subtropical and subarctic. The bobsled run at Alpe d'Huez turned out to be a mistake on the order of the Maginot Line, and the downhill ski run at Chamrousse routinely deposited the world's best skiers on their derrieres. Even some of the local participants gave up in disgust. 'It has become a competition between the French and the Greeks," said one pert French contestant, loading her skis on the top of her Renault and heading out of town.
The reverberations came like cannon fire. "We had expected difficulties, to be sure, but not scandals," said the director, Dr. Robert H�raud. L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, editorialized under the heading NOBLESSE OBLIGE: "The affair is very serious. The situation has been abundantly exploited outside our country. In the face of this scandal, this incident must at least show that a great deal of effort remains to be done in view of the Olympic Games. There is not a second to lose."
"In certain offices in Paris," Mike Jacquemain recalled, "there were people who said, 'Look, we don't want to know whether it was your fault, the Pope's fault or Nasser's fault. Do not let it happen again!' "
Armand Massard, president of the French Olympic committee, said, "The prestige of France is at stake in the eyes of the world."
Another Olympic official said in confidential tones, "I am not exactly sure who provided the first impulse of action, except that he had a high tenor voice and the word grandeur was heard several times. I am told that the telephone wires fused and had to be replaced." After the call, the whole ponderous mechanism of French sporting bureaucracy was junked in favor of experts from every walk of life, private and otherwise. Jacquemain, a hotshot travel agent from Nice, was brought in to take care of visitors to the Winter Games. The chief stewardess of Air France was invited to head a staff of Olympic hostesses. The city editor of the Dauphin� Lib�r�, a newspaper in Grenoble, was put to work handing out Scotch and press releases to reporters. Roger Vadim, the film director and perennial bridegroom ( Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and, currently, Jane Fonda), was hired to take charge of "entertainment." A brain trust from the navy department was drafted to work on commissary problems. French tourist agents were called home from all over the world, and others were dispatched to Innsbruck, to Cortina and even to Squaw Valley to find out what went wrong in previous Winter Olympics.
Unfortunately, there was just so much that the French Olympic officials could do about Grenoble, the host city. Perhaps the nicest thing about the town is its name. Twirl it about on the tongue: Grenoble. It has a pleasant lilt: Gre-no-ble, with the last syllable barely pronounced. Grenoble conjures visions of the boy Stendhal, born Henri Beyle, playing happily at the knee of his grandp�re in the town of his birth; of Hector Berlioz, who loved "excessively, furiously, outrageously" in Grenoble; of Choderlos de Laclos and his Liaisons Dangereuses.
The political history of the town is equally memorable. One is told of the day in the 18th century when Louis XVI's trail boss rode toward Grenoble to tell the people to smarten up and obey the king's laws. "So's your old man!" cried the citizens, peering down at the governor from their rooftops, and they pelted him out of town with tiles. Since that time the phrase conduite de Grenoble has been in popular use throughout France. Directly untranslatable, it means "the bum's rush." When a bartender decides that you are becoming obnoxious, he tells you to cool it or you will be handed a conduite de Grenoble. Such is the order of the city's contributions to the rich French language. One is also given to understand that the French revolution was born at a meeting not in Paris but in the Dauphin�, of which Grenoble is the capital.
The trouble is that all this history is small consolation when the fogs and smogs of industrial Grenoble hunker down on the city as though from an inverted bowl of mushroom soup, or when one looks about at the tawdry high-rise cement-gray apartment architecture that symbolizes the town's abrupt wrenching into the 20th century, or when one comes up against the intense provincialism of some of the inhabitants. Nowadays Grenoble likes to advertise itself as "the city of Stendhal," which indeed it is, except that the author of Le Rouge et le Noir and Le Chartreuse de Parme got out of town as fast as his stubby legs could carry him when he came of age, and he never returned except for short visits to his relatives. Stendhal hated Grenoble and the people of the Dauphin� to his dying day. He characterized the city as a dull, drab, colorless place peopled by the petit bourgeois and the nouveau riche.
Time has changed Grenoble, but not entirely for the better. The university now has a student body of 18,000, and all over town there are technical centers and laboratories where important research is under way. But the scent of the chemical industry hangs in the air when the wind is wrong, and one finds a ring of dirt on the inside of one's shirt collar after a few hours' wear.
The population is of two distinct types: the old Grenoblois, a mountaineering sort of person, stolid and quiet, of whom other Frenchmen say, "Even his breath comes out cold," and the new bourgeois, the booster, the go-ahead provincial who is pushing for la journ�e continue, "the continuous day," a workday made up of nine hours with 45 minutes off for lunch instead of the traditional French 10-hour day with two hours of food and relaxation. "And we will get it, too," says a Jaycee type of young man, his eyes fixed unblinking on the future. " Grenoble always moves ahead. Now we have 250,000 people. By the year 2000 Grenoble will be a city of half a million, all of them on the 45-minute lunch. Don't forget: Grenoble is a city in motion. We received the blue ribbon of construction for putting up more new buildings per capita since World War II than any other French city." Yes, the visitor is almost constrained to say, and it looks it.