Sons of immigrants prop up a symbol of ‘Frenchness’: The baguette

Beware that basket of limp crust put in front of you. Not all French bread is created equal. So sacred is the classic baguette that French law strictly codifies it, protects it and regulates it.

There are in fact few things more closely associated with France than the baguette, that long crusty stick that announces its nationality like no other bread.

So the mastering of that symbol of Frenchness by Mahmoud M’seddi, an immigrant’s son and this year’s winner of the Grand Prize for Best Parisian Baguette, is about more than great baking. At a moment when President Emmanuel Macron is taking a toughening line against immigration, M’seddi’s triumph challenges the very notion of what it means to be French.

Ask him whether there was any significance in the fact that his father arrived from Tunisia more than 30 years ago, and he will snort an indignant denial: “I’m French. This is my home.”

As a loyal Frenchman he has absorbed the classic outlook of the French Republic. It is assimilationist and not integrationist; there are no ethnic distinctions, only citizens of France. Mother France subsumes all identities into one.

With that in mind, M’seddi, a kinetic and good-humored 27-year-old, conquered one of France’s holy bastions. And not only him. It is immigrants or their heirs who are in fact propping up the sacred tradition.

Last year’s best baguette winner, Sami Bouattour, is also the son of a Tunisian immigrant. Three years ago it was a baker of Senegalese origin, Djibril Bodian, a two-time winner. Two years before that it was another Tunisian.

This year, it was M’seddi who was the outsider beating the insiders at their own game. He now has the privilege of supplying the Élysée Palace, seat of the French presidency, with the bread of breads for a year. He showed a selfie of himself with a grinning President Emmanuel Macron to drive the point home.

Deep beneath a Left Bank sidewalk in Montparnasse, inside the spotless tile work space he calls his “laboratory,” Arab pop played on the radio on a recent day.

His carefully prepared dough metamorphosed into crusty baguettes, and M’seddi was a whirl of motion.

The phone rang, and M’seddi answered in Arabic. Yet he also upbraided a questioner when asked about his origins.

“People like to remind me of it, yeah, sure,” he said testily. “Me, I don’t make these distinctions. I couldn’t care less about it,” he said. The French tricolor flag adorns the sleeve of his baker’s coat.

“Look, I grew up here,” he said. “I studied here. I pay my taxes here. It’s true that Tunisia called me, after I won. They’re proud. But the Parisians are proud, too.” His customers can’t stop hugging and kissing him, he said.

His bread — rich, crusty and earthy — is very clearly superior to its industrial cousins that are the unsavory Paris norm. The dark crust can be smelled from another room, an excellent sign. You taste wheat, not chemicals, when you bite into one of M’seddi’s baguettes. 

It was youth and diligence, not heritage, that should be emphasized, he insisted. “Look, I worked hard to get here,” M’seddi said.

“I see myself as an artist, as a magician,” he said. “I take a primary material, and I make something out of it. And I make people happy.”

A lot of people. “Twelve million people go into a boulangerie” — a bakery — “every day to buy baguette,” the president of the Paris baker’s syndicate, Franck Thomasse, announced solemnly to the festive crowd in presenting the award outside Notre Dame cathedral on a recent Saturday.

Opposite him, bakers were shaping dough, and next to him stood the mayor of Paris, the rector of Notre Dame, and the head chef of the Élysée Palace. Framing the scene was the intricate medieval bulk of Notre Dame.

“Outside of France, it is one of the principal symbols of France,” Thomasse told the crowd, and there was nobody to contradict him.

But when the runners-up in the baguette competition were called to the podium in the giant Festival of Bread tent, under the benevolent gaze of the city’s top spiritual, temporal and gastronomic authorities, one fact stood out. Nearly half the bakers had names that were distinctly un-French. Immigrants were disproportionately represented.

But there were few in the crowd to make a connection that appears obvious to Americans: immigrants and their offspring are naturally more inclined to take the tough jobs that natives reject, and work them hard. The Hamilton doctrine has yet to make inroads here.

M’seddi, who works in his “laboratory” until midnight mixing dough, was initiated into the culture early on. His father, Mohamed — his “idol,” to whom “I owe everything” — gets up at 4 a.m. to make the bread in an associated bakery.

Some 1,200 boulangeries close in France every year. Boulangerie work is hard, and the elder M’seddi tried to keep his son out of it.

The fact that immigrants kept winning the competition is merely “a reflection of the cosmopolitanism of the Ile de France,” the Paris region, said Denis Bourdain, a juror on the panel that awarded the prize.

Guillaume Gomez, the Élysée’s ebullient head chef and himself the son of a Spanish immigrant, insisted there was no connection between national origin and baguette-making, even as he acknowledged that “those who succeed are the ones who really work hard.”

“That’s the real social ladder,” he said.

The Élysée gets several bread deliveries a day and Gomez was sure that M’seddi was up to it.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, herself born in Spain, a Socialist on her party’s left and known as a champion of immigrants, drew a political lesson from M’seddi’s win.

“I find it extraordinary, because it’s not the first time,” Hidalgo said in a brief interview at the Bread Festival. She depicted the triumph of immigrants as a rebuke to anti-immigrant movements like the National Front. “Not only do they not take bread from our mouths, they put bread in,” she said.

Energy and “passion” — M’seddi’s word — are abundantly in evidence in his laboratory. He lives in an apartment overhead on the Boulevard Raspail, so he can attend to his bread at all hours of the day and night.

In the presence of the dough he seems never to stop moving. Hours are needed for the fermentation. The precise alchemy of time, temperature and ingredient is closely guarded. “I’m going to keep the method a secret,” he insisted.

He picks up the dough gently, to transfer it from the machine that divides it into thick cylinders, to the shaper and from there to the oven.

“I take it very delicately,” he said. “I do the maximum to preserve it, until it is baked. You’ve got to protect the dough, from beginning to end.”

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