This, as the British cyclist Chris Froome found out, isn’t a figure of speech, at least not just that.
On course to win his second Tour de France, Chris has got up the nose of many a French spectator. They vent their frustration through other orifices, by spitting on the cyclist as he speeds by and throwing urine in his face.
Such acts don’t just defy fair play, a notion that has left a negligible imprint on the French mentality. They are actually against the law.
It’s hard not to notice in general, and this summer in particular, that commitment to observing the law is in France somewhat understated.
There’s a riot season on, or rather a current spike in one contiguous riot season. Access to the Channel Tunnel is regularly blocked by rioters taking advantage of the French take on labour relations.
Some thugs represent various unions, some just express their pent-up hostility, some others come along for the ride out of a peculiarly Gallic sense of fun. All are breaking the law, with the law looking on with avuncular kindness.
Cars are overturned and burnt, tyres are set aflame, with noxious fumes turning the Tunnel into a low-scale answer to gas chambers, revolting stuff is smeared over the road surfaces, frenzied crowds clash with the police on the rare occasions that the police try to interfere, thousands of refugees attack British vehicles – all of this is going on practically non-stop.
France, I’d like to remind those who may be forgiven for thinking otherwise, is a core country of our civilisation. One can’t help realising this when walking through, say, our local cities of Auxerre and Bourges.
The British simply don’t have places with such a concentration of monuments to a once-great Western civilisation; nowhere in England can one see so much unspoilt and lovingly preserved medieval grandeur.
The loving preservation is a phenomenon of rather recent standing, it has to be said. Following their Walpurgisnacht going by the name of the Revolution, the French spent the next century busily destroying the very same Romanesque and Gothic buildings – 80 per cent of them, according to the late, great medievalist Régine Pernoud – that enchant today’s cultured visitors.
But the remaining 20 per cent is still more than any country, with the possible exception of Italy, possesses. We certainly have nothing quite like it – but then neither are our more modest towns consumed by the wildfires of riots to anywhere near the same extent.
England – and les autres Anglo-Saxons who have come out of England the way Eve came out of Adam’s rib – has something the French and other continentals don’t have: intuitive respect for the law.
This, I dare say, is more important than great buildings only those few endowed with real aesthetic sense can properly appreciate. For being governed by just laws accepted by consent is a factor of freedom, whose fruits are equally nourishing to everybody.
The French will tell you that they too have the rule of law, but that’s not exactly true. What they have is the rule of lawyers.
For, in contrast to English Common Law based on precedents accumulated over centuries, the French have positive law, one imposed by government. Hence the two legal systems are vectored in the opposite directions: from bottom to top in England, from top to bottom in France.
This has been the case since God was young but, under the organic governments of Western civility, the French kings’ need for legislative activism was limited – their power was mainly restricted by their own conscience, which in turn was guided by the Church.
With the advent of a society inspired by the Masonic slogan of liberté, egalité, fraternité (personally, I would have preferred Aligoté, but I wasn’t asked) it all changed.
Lacking an organic claim to legitimacy, the revolutionary government – and all its kaleidoscopically changing successors – flooded the population with a deluge of laws, constitutional or otherwise.
All in all, in the 226 years since 1789 France has had 17 different constitutions, an average of 13.2 a year (to be fair, the latest one goes back 57 years). As to the number of different laws spawned by the constitutions, one would need a mainframe computer to calculate those.
Most of those laws come from the fecund minds of avocats who bang their clever heads together to devise legislation that’ll hasten the arrival of paradise on earth.
I’m not qualified to judge the level of legal thought that goes into this process and nor am I particularly interested. What is to me patently obvious, however, is that this system doesn’t foster a visceral, intuitive respect for the law – of the kind the English used to have predominantly and still have residually.
Positive law has one visible social effect: it divides people into ‘us’, those who are supposed to obey the laws, and ‘them’, the powers represented by the clever lawyers sitting on the Conseil d’État and similar bodies.
The ‘us’ will obey the law not out of respect but out of fear, and fear alone isn’t a sufficient inducement. When the ‘they’ lose the spunk to disperse riots with unrestricted violence and ship the organisers off to some hellhole like Devil’s Island, there exist no mechanisms strong enough to stop the outrage.
England has built a solid capital of justice, accepted as such by all. We are living off the interest on that capital, rapidly frittering it away. But at least there’s some left, and we must both give thanks and remain vigilant.