I must be a slow learner. We’ve been spending a lot of time in France for the past 25 years, half the time for the past 17 (just under, Mr Taxman, relax).
Yet only the other day did I understand something vital about that country: France doesn’t exist as a single entity. There are two Frances, not one, each with her own personality.
I saw the signs much earlier; I just couldn’t synthesise them into general understanding. At first, I was simply satisfied with observing the differences between the English and the French.
There are many – in fact I can’t think of another two neighbouring nations that have so little in common. This, though during large swathes of history France owned much of England and vice versa.
Look at the country roads, for example. In our neck of the French woods, many roads stay ramrod-straight for miles, as if someone had put a ruler on the map and drawn a line (actually, someone did). In England, on the other hand, most country roads are practically labyrinthine, especially in Devon.
Why? Because right of way was left out from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. In England private property was sacrosanct. If an owner didn’t want to sell a parcel of his land to the government, that was it. If the government wanted to build a road, it had to go around, not through, his holding.
No such problems in France: landowners could be ‘repossessed’, as the French inaccurately refer to confiscation. The rights of the state trumped property rights, and the owners were obliged to accept whatever the state was willing to pay for their land, usually, I suspect, a fraction of the market value.
For someone imbued with the English sense of justice, this is egregious. For the French, explained my good French friend, that’s par for the course.
“The English,” he said the other day, “regard the central state as a factor of at least potential oppression. In France, the people adore their central state. In the old days the kings protected the people from the local barons, and the warm glow of gratitude was inherited by the subsequent republic.”
Since by then we had gone through several bottles of decent Burgundy, I didn’t feel like pressing for a debating victory. Otherwise I could mention that the French butchered their king with considerably greater enthusiasm than the English beheaded theirs.
Or, closer to our time, that the French start building barricades the moment the government does something they don’t like. In the 35 years that I’ve lived in London, I’ve witnessed two riots. In Paris, that’s the annual average, which hardly betokens the behaviour of people passionately in love with the state (and I’m not even counting the non-riotous demonstrations).
In any case, I knew that all my French friends are enthusiastically, philosophically dirigiste. They see nothing wrong in an omnipotent central state assuming powers that conservative Englishmen would regard as despotic.
Another close friend, a lovely man in every other respect, even adores Putin because he personifies the notion of a strong, imperial government. My objections that so did Hitler never make a dent in his statist ardour.
It follows naturally that all my friends without exception are Euro-federalists. That stands to reason: if they see a big state as ipso facto good, then the bigger, the better seems to be the only logical conclusion. And states don’t get much bigger than the one the EU sees in its myopic, jaundiced mind’s eye.
You’ll have noticed that I keep talking about my friends, who are all well-to-do, extremely well-educated, multi-lingual, aged late-40s to mid-70s, politically Gaullist (which in France is right of centre), typically with a financial or legal background. A pre-selected group, you might say, and you’d be right.
But in all the decades of French living, I’ve talked to many other people as well: barbers, car mechanics, plumbers, electricians, farmers, butchers, neighbours, tennis players (I don’t know what most of them do, but they don’t resemble my friends at all) – well, you know.
And these people are much closer in their views to their English counterparts than they are to my French friends. They treat the government with suspicion at best, antipathy at worst.
They detest the EU – to the point that Macron is convinced, with good reason, that France would vote for Frexit given the chance (which is why she’ll never get that chance). Fiercely independent economically, they resent any state interference. Their views on immigration are close to those of Marine Le Pen (if not quite her father’s).
So on, so forth – the difference is striking. Now, it’s ill-advised to generalise on the basis of one’s personal observations. Still, my experience is extensive enough to afford me some leeway in that undertaking.
Since Descartes postulated that all true knowledge is comparative, I’d be betraying my French friends if I didn’t take his idea on board. Hence I’m comparing not only one group of Frenchmen to another, but also all of them to their English equivalents.
And in my 35 years as Her Majesty’s subject, I’ve never observed such a sharp divide, nay chasm, separating the Weltanschauung of different classes. Some Englishmen are conservative, some aren’t. Some are Leavers, some Remainers. Some opt for individual liberty before collective security, some don’t. Some are woke, some aren’t.
Yet from what I can see, such beliefs, or if you will character traits, are spread evenly throughout the whole population. Whatever the national spread is statistically, it’ll be roughly the same across all social groups. In that sense, the classes are closely integrated.
In France they manifestly aren’t – this though Britain is supposed to be a class-ridden monarchy and France an egalitarian republic. In fact, she is so egalitarian, so committed to the égalité emblazoned on the façade of every public building, that one is justified to maintain that there exist two Frances, not one.
Another observation – take it for what it’s worth. The French Revolution abolished all titles of nobility for a while, whereas in England they are very much extant. And yet titled French people seldom let one forget who is a count, who is Madame la baronne, and whose title is older.
By contrast, the titled English people I’ve met never flaunt their pedigrees – and they certainly don’t patronise, say, their servants the way the French so often do. Some even commit blue-collar crimes: a young English lord I know once did a year in prison for knocking off a convenience shop.
I’d suggest that the French are more class-conscious not in spite of their revolutionary republican constitution, but specifically because of it. They overcompensate, which is a natural human response to deprivation.
Still, as I always tell my dear French friends, their country can be forgiven everything for her wine and cheese – not to mention her founding role in Western culture.
P.S. Speaking of the French Revolution, it not only abolished aristocratic titles, but also decriminalised incest. That touch of libérté will soon be reversed, with sex between next of kin to be outlawed. That’ll destroy sex life in my part of Le Pen-voting France, where long winter nights are cold, and where men tend to be stronger and faster than their sisters.
7 thoughts on “Which France do you mean?”
Your P.S. strikes me as odd. Incest is often associated with aristocrats, I’m surprised to learn it was something they outlawed. Is that meme simply prole disinformation?
Around us incest is called le cinema des pauvres — the cinema of the poor.
It seems like the de-titled Gaullist French barons have it all backwards; it is they who affectionately look and looked to the state and to the King for protection from the independent riot-prone general population, rather than the inverse. I suppose that is exactly the way the King and the now republican state desire it to be.
Speaking of having it all backwards, French cheese may be the best, but they must export only their worst wines since I prefer to eat it with wine from Canada, USA, Chile, or Argentina. If it has to be a European wine, the stuff from Spain or Italy is usually a better bet.
With all due respect, I have to disagree on this last point.
“the French start building barricades the moment the government does something they don’t like.”
In the aftermath of the suppression of The Commune Baron Hausmann tore down old Paris and rebuilt the city with wide boulevards so the artillery could fire direct at the rioters at blow them to bits.
You get many things right as usual, in this post, but there’s one point on which you make a fundamental misunderstanding.
The French lower classes (your butchers and car mechanics) are just as dirigiste as the upper classes (your friends in the legal and financial professions).
Of course they riot all the time. Of course they pretend to love liberty and hate the state. That’s until they ask it to throw its weight around against their enemies. Meaning, roughly, everybody else.
The explicit longing for a strong and meddling state (“L’Etat fort et stratège”) is a main tenet of the Rassemblement National, the populists and the far-right generally. Your butchers and car mechanics are disproportionately represented in that part of the political spectrum.
France’s problem is not that it is divided between two categories of people. It’s that everybody wants one thing and the opposite at the same time.
Cue the Gilets jaunes. That was an anti-tax revolt, right ? Wrong ! At the same time people rioted for less taxes, they claimed the only solution was more taxes. For others.
That’s literally what the pioneer of the movement said. Jacline Mouraud, who famously asked, in a YouTube rant, where all the tax money went, said a few days later that the only way to dampen the anger of “the people” was… to soak the rich with more taxes.
I’m sure you are right. Many people who protest against high taxes actually protest against THEIR high taxes, not the principle of a high-taxing, high-spending welfare state. By the same token, those butchers and bakers and candlestick makers may well be dirigiste, swearing by L’Etat fort. But I was talking not so much about the people’s innermost feelings, but their expressed thoughts and pronounced attitudes. Hence I still insist on the seminal difference between hoi polloi and my friends. The former, while having nothing against the idea of a meddling state, invariably detest the current meddling state. The latter like both, even if they may have an issue with some politicians, usually those who openly say “Il faut faire payer les riches”.