François Mitterrand was in trouble. Elected president two years earlier, in 1981, on the promise of a “French road to socialism,” things had not gone as planned. Perhaps he had gone too far, too fast, but within a year the French franc had collapsed and he was forced to make a U-turn. Then came an austerity program, and his popularity plunged.
Mitterrand decided to do what many unpopular politicians have done: go on a foreign junket. He could strut about the world stage, show presidential leadership, and generally try to change the subject.
He picked neighboring Switzerland as his destination. It would be the first state visit by a French president in nearly 75 years—a nice way to capture headlines. And Switzerland being such a calm and safe country, what could possibly go wrong?
A Symbol of Friendship
Mitterrand visited several Swiss cities, including Zurich, Basel, and the capital Bern. And because the Swiss president was from Neuchâtel, he visited that city, too, where a grand dinner was held in his honor.
Neuchâtel is famous as the birthplace of absinthe, that anise-flavored liqueur with a reputation for causing madness—some claim it’s why Vincent van Gogh to cut off his ear! For many years, absinthe had been produced both in Neuchâtel and just across the border in France. Known as the “green fairy,” it had been a popular drink during the Belle Epoque, then banned early in the 20th century before being legalized 20 years ago.
At the time of Mitterrand’s visit, absinthe was still illegal in both France and Switzerland. But the chef in charge of the dinner saw it as a symbol of the friendship between Neuchâtel and France. He decided to whip up a special dessert, using absinthe, of course.
A Close Call
When the guests arrived at the grand dinner, they were astounded to see soufflé à la fée verte (green fairy soufflé) on the menu. The Swiss president feared an international incident, but by then it was too late to change. And so the dinner began.
Luckily, with the help of some interminable toasts, the dinner ran long and Mitterrand had to leave before dessert was served. Still, the incident received a lot of press in both countries, and the chef later went to prison for his offense.
Unfortunately for Mitterrand, his big foreign trip did nothing to improve his popularity…except perhaps among some clandestine absinthe makers.
If you’d like to try a taste of the green fairy, here’s a recipe for the infamous dessert.
Keith and Val Van Sickle live part of the year in St-Rémy-de-Provence and have traveled widely throughout the region. Keith is the author of An Insider’s Guide to Provence (read our review).