The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain


I came upon this book in a list of comfort reads in A Life in Books and have been completely charmed by it. First published in 2013 in France, it is set in the mid-1980s and begins with the President of France François Mitterrand leaving his hat in a restaurant. It is picked up by a young bureaucrat thrilled to be dining next to the President; he is unable to resist stealing the hat. Daniel Mercier is magically changed to a more imposing person and speaks up authoritatively in his workplace. By accident he leaves the hat on a train, and the woman who takes it because it is raining is emboldened to make positive changes in her life. She leaves it on a park bench to bring a fitting end to the short story she will write about this event. And on it goes.

Beginning with the loving description of the meals that Daniel and the President and his companions at the next table eat, the Frenchness of this book is in evidence. The oysters with a bit of sherry vinaigrette, the white burgundy wine (Pouilly-Fuissé), the seafood platter.  Many of the cultural references are lost on me, but the implications are clear enough. One of those who picked up the hat was known as “The Nose” because he created perfumes and could name the perfume worn by anyone who passed him on the street.

And I want to remember the upper class man whose friends derided Mitterrand because of his progressive political view. He unwittingly switches his hat for the President’s hat and comes to see those in his social circle as boring and unthinking. At a social gathering for art lovers he pledged to buy paintings by Basquiat who was completely unknown at the time. When they were later valued at $10 million francs, his old friends didn’t know what to say.

Overall the tone was positive with only an occasional skewering; The Nose’s completely silent analyst appeared ridiculous. I found this to be a pleasantly clever book, a perfect comfort read.

Antoine Laurain, The President’s Hat, Gallic Books, 2013, 208 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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