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Culture : France Loves the Adventurers of the Extreme : * The individual exploit may not be unique to the nation's culture, but French take it to the edge.

December 10, 1991|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Why did Frenchman Gerard d'Aboville row his boat across the Pacific Ocean?

After the four-month ordeal--during which he capsized 36 times--D'Aboville claimed that the experience served absolutely no useful purpose and that he hated it from beginning to end. "Everything I did serves nothing. There is nothing that can be learned from it," he said, "But I succeeded."

D'Aboville's virtual dismissal of his accomplishment did not dim the glory reflected in the eyes of his fellow Frenchmen, however. If anything, his self-denigration enhanced his image. France is not an "I'm the Greatest" kind of country. To be acceptable, conceit needs to be hidden behind layers of seeming indifference.

Since returning home after his solitary voyage from Japan to the coast of Washington state, D'Aboville has been treated like a national hero. Hosted on talk shows, deified in the popular press, courted by publishers, consulted by philosophers--the balding 46-year-old former business school dropout has been bathed in the kind of national homage that only the country that produced Napoleon can render. A recent poll by the photo magazine Paris Match listed D'Aboville as the newsmaker who most fascinated Frenchmen. He easily outdistanced the entire political class of France and such foreign competition as Terry Waite, the recently released British hostage, who was kidnaped in Lebanon while trying to negotiate the release of Western hostages.

His reception is in keeping with the trend of recent years in which the cult of the solitary adventurer has become a passion in France.

"Let's call them the 'adventurers of the extreme' for lack of a better definition," the magazine L'Express suggested in an analysis of the D'Aboville phenomenon. "Gerard d'Aboville is at the prow, the latest link in a chain that has even business executives jumping into canyons on bungee cords."

By venturing alone across the Pacific, D'Aboville joined a pantheon of historical French adventurers that includes such heroes as Charles Blondin, who in 1857 was the first man to traverse Niagara Falls on a tightrope (two years later he repeated the feat carrying his manager on his back); Sylvain Dornon, who in 1891 walked from Paris to Moscow on stilts; Alain Bombard, who in 1952 spent 113 days on a raft in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing for food but plankton, and Jean-Louis Etienne, who in 1986 spent 63 days walking alone to the North Pole.

Gerard Mermet, editor of an annual publication, Francoscopie, which monitors trends in French life, said the recent wave of adventure worship dates to the solo sailboat exploits by Frenchman Eric Tabarly, who in 1980 set the one-man speed record for crossing the Atlantic.

"It was Tabarly who returned to the French the possibility of winning back through such exploits that which they had lost in other domains."

Although the individual exploit--solitary man or woman against unforgiving nature--is certainly not unique to French culture, it is often the French who take it to its most existential extremes. The popularity of the Paris-Dakar motor rally across the Sahara each winter is just one example of the desire among the French to test themselves against the elements or voluntarily place themselves in dangerous situations. (D'Aboville himself competed in the Saharan race three times, in 1980, 1986 and 1988, riding on 125-cc. motorcycles.)

In the 13 years of the Paris-Dakar rally, more than 25 people have died in the three-week ordeal across 8,000 miles. In 1988, five people were killed and more than 50 injured. But it only heightened the French interest for the event.

Paris Match once termed it "the cruel and magnificent Paris-Dakar." This year's race is slated to begin Dec. 23 in Paris with more interest than ever.

But the thirst for adventure also shows up in other domains, such as the disproportionate number of French free-lance photographers in war zones and the ready stream of French volunteers for risky international relief organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres--Doctors Without Borders.

"There are two kinds of motivation for the volunteers," said Francois Luiggi, a recruiting officer for the Medecins Sans Frontieres in Paris. "The first is a feeling of compassion for the people and the second is a curiosity about the unknown and about whether they (the volunteers) have what it takes to live in a strange land." Last year, Medecins Sans Frontieres sent 850 young French doctors trekking off into remote wilds. Another 2,000 doctors are on call for medical crises like the civil war in Yugoslavia.

It is not surprising that three of the country's most popular television shows are about journeys to remote lands, life-threatening stunts and adventures in nature.

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