Paul West is in fact the first-person narrator, a 27 year-old Englishman, single and unattached, who is recruited by a French entrepreneur and given a one-year contract to come to Paris to plan and organize a chain of tea rooms which his employer wants to open in the French capital. The novel covers fictional events of that year, starting in September 2002 and ending in the summer of 2003.
Set at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, A Year in the Merde is about the cultural differences between the British and the French, which are somewhat heightened by the war, especially by the opposing views on the invasion held by Blair and Chirac respectively. The French reaction to the strong anti-French sentiment in the United States is also captured in the novel.
A sequel, Merde Actually (In the Merde for Love in the USA), was published in 2005. As it suggests, the title is based on the film Love Actually, A second sequel, Merde Happens, was published in the UK in 2007 and was released in the US in the summer of 2008. A fourth book 'Dial M for Merde' wa released in the UK in september 2008.
When Paul West starts his new job in September he is altogether unaware of the true character and the machinations of his boss, Jean-Marie Martin, who is in his early fifties, rich, handsome, impeccably dressed, friendly, and prepared to pay him a good salary. West does not know yet that Martin, officially decorated for supporting the French economy, is illegally importing cheap British beef (the ban imposed during the BSE crisis not having been lifted yet); that through his political connections he has secured for his daughter Élodie a cheap, council-subsidized HLM apartment; that he associates with the far right; that, although married, he is having an affair with someone from the office; and that he wants to sell him, Paul West, a cottage in the country quite close to the site of a future nuclear power plant.
West is allotted a motley crew who are supposed to work together on his project. However, everyone, including Martin, turns out to be very reluctant to learn what West has to tell them, for example that "My Tea Is Rich" is not a good name for a chain of English tea rooms. Soon West realizes that no one is following his orders, that nothing is happening, that he is being paid for doing, or at least achieving, absolutely nothing. In the end, his contract is prematurely terminated, and he spends some weeks teaching English. ("It was much tougher than working in an office. You can't e-mail your mates while standing in front of a class.")
His love life during that year is an emotional roller coaster ride. In all, West has sex with four different women during that year: Élodie, his boss's daughter; Alexa, who eventually cannot put up with his apolitical outlook on life; Marie, a black girl who willingly drops him when her boyfriend returns from abroad; and Florence, half Indian, the girl with whom he plans to open his own tea room in Paris at the end of the novel.
Red lights are like queues. They are for people who have time to waste.
Sex is wonderful, but it's like champagne. If you're forced to have four glasses at every meal you start to fantasize about a glass of water.
[After some time] I found that I understood a lot more about Parisians' attitude to work. Workdays became a mild irritant inserted between weekends. Friday afternoons were little more than a short period after lunch during which you checked the internet for traffic jams on the routes out of town.
The Communists were promising retirement for all state employees at age 35. The Socialists were proposing absolutely nothing because they couldn't elect a leader who would propose things. The centre-right parties (of which there were about ten) were all promising employers that they would no longer have to pay workers and would be exempt from prosecution for any industrial pollution that killed fewer than 100,000 people. The far right was proposing, less realistically, to have immigrants barbecued in every place du marché on Friday nights. And in a similar vein, the rural party promised to change the law on endangered species so that hunters could now shoot dodos, unicorns, mermaids and American tourists.
This was Marianne, the revolutionary heroine, the French equivalent of Uncle Sam. This being France, instead of a bearded old uncle who looks as if he should be advertising fried chicken, they have a seminaked woman.
A French politician without a mistress is like a sheriff without a gun—people think he has no firepower.