François Hollande faced voters in the second round of this weekend’s local elections as the most unpopular president in modern French history. Yet his stock runs high in my family – especially with my 14-year-old son, who is the proud keeper of a clutch of thoughtful letters from the president himself.
It all started when Max asked the French president to give the Légion d’Honneur to the two Paris doctors whose brain surgery had saved him from a debilitating form of epilepsy that no drug – or even Great Ormond Street, Britain’s leading hospital for children – could control.
“They are of course great professionals, but they are also people of an extraordinary humanity,” wrote Max, in a letter translated into flowery French prose by a family friend. He told the president that the pair’s work was so unique that they had done both their patients and France proud.
A first letter to Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had gone unanswered. But Max is a stubborn soul. He was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was six years old and at one point, prior to his operation three years ago, he had endured up to 40 seizures a day – so he was not to be discouraged. For good measure, he also sent the president a copy of an article I wrote for the FT Weekend Magazine about how he came to be treated in Paris.
And one day in April 2013, an envelope from the Elysée Palace dropped through the letterbox of our house in north London. A letter in French, signed by the president himself was, for all its formality, simple and touching.
You were good enough to share your wish to see the doctors Francine Chassoux-Truffinet and Bertrand Devaux named to the rank of chevalier in the national order of the Légion d’Honneur.
First of all I would like to assure you that I was particularly touched by the feelings that dictated your initiative. So I would like to thank you for this in person.
Rest assured I have ordered a very careful examination of the candidatures and I will inform you of the result . . .
A few months later, a second letter arrived.
I have the pleasure to inform you that I have decided to award the Légion d’Honneur to Francine Chassoux-Truffinet and Bertrand Devaux, for their services to France.
Knowing your interest in these candidatures, I wanted to inform you of this personally . . .
It is not every day an English schoolboy gets to decide who receives France’s most important form of official recognition. And earlier this month, at Ste Anne hospital in Paris, our family watched France’s minister of research decorate the neurologist and neurosurgeon who have treated patients there for the past 30 years.
The minister, Geneviève Fioraso, saluted the pair’s world-beating work to identify and safely remove epilepsy-causing brain tissue: “It is not only science and technology that you advance but hope that you restore to people,” she said. “It is only right that the republic should thank you.”
Yet in emotional speeches of gratitude to their families, colleagues and patients, both doctors also paid tribute to Max, “thanks to whom we are here tonight”, to quote Prof Devaux, whose success rate operating on patients identified by Dr Chassoux runs at 90 per cent.
Sylvie Chabannier, a 49-year-old nurse who benefited from surgery at Ste Anne much later in her life than Max, also attended the ceremony. “What an excellent idea [to have written to the president],” she said. “I just wonder why nobody thought of this earlier.”