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.