France on the Brink: A Great Civilization Faces the New Century

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  • ISBN-13: 9781559705240
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/14/2000
  • Pages: 454
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

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France on the Brink

A Great Civilization Faces a New Century
By Jonathan Fenby

Arcade Publishing

Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Fenby
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1559705248


Chapter One




France occupies an exclusive place in the world, and could accept nothing less. It is, its President declares, a beacon for the human race. The nation and its people may be loved or hated, but they can never be ignored. This, after all, is the land which gave the planet Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, Charles de Gaulle and Gérard Depardieu, the Musketeers, Madame Bovary and Cyrano de Bergerac, Brigitte Bardot and Joan of Arc, claret and the cinema, the Cancan, denim and champagne, the theory of deconstruction and Édith Piaf, the Statue of Liberty and the modern totalitarian revolution, liposuction and the vegetable mixer, the sardine can, striped bathing costumes, the Impressionists, disposable razors and babies' feeding bottles. In 1998, its soccer team beat the odds to win the World Cup. Who could ask for anything more from a nation -- and who could deny its uniqueness? The French have a term for their particular position -- l'exception française. In case anybody should be tempted to miss the point, the country's Head of State had a mother-of-pearl button sewn on his suit jackets to attract the eye when he stood in group photographs with other world leaders.

France is central to the future of Europe, and, it sincerely believes, to the globe as a whole. With the fourth biggest economy, nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it can claim to rank behind only Washington in international reach and ambition. Since General de Gaulle restored the country's faith in itself after 1958, the national psyche has sprouted a self-confidence which is not always becoming, but which leaves no doubt that it offers the rest of the world something out of the ordinary.

Not for the French the small opt-outs or grey compromises which satisfy others; they wield vetoes and strut the stage with a panache rare in the late twentieth century. Their vision of history is unabashedly Francocentric. The supreme monarch, Louis XIV, didn't win many wars, but no European doubted that his Sun King court at Versailles was the centre of the Universe -- and just imagine what would have happened if his successors hadn't made a hash of the Anglo-French wars of the mid-eighteenth century and had emerged dominant in North America. The most famous Corsican of all time may have ended up in poisoned exile on an island in the Atlantic, and become an overblown inspiration to dictators and press barons alike, but Bonaparte could still appear to Hegel as the master of the world, inspire an estimated 45,000 books and set Beethoven to write the 'Eroica' Symphony, even if the composer did withhold the dedication in what may have been the awakening of the Romantic movement to reality. Charles de Gaulle could be, in the words of an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, 'one of the biggest sons-of-bitches that ever straddled a pot', yet his style of national leadership equalled Napoléon's in coining a new adjective for the world. Wherever they go, the French take their country with them -- from Corsican restaurants in Indochina to their unrivalled network of lycée schools around the world, which ensures that French children follow the central curriculum from Bonn to Beijing.

Lenin and Mao may have overthrown empires, but they were johnnies-come-lately in the revolutionary stakes. The uprising of 1789 set the template for getting rid of tyrants, and the national anthem still urges citizens to take up arms to defend the day of revolutionary glory. That being the case, the French are nurtured in the knowledge that they belong to the mother of modern republics, erected into a lay religion in the nineteenth century and epitomised in every mayor's office by the bust of the young woman Marianne, with her revolutionary headgear and exposed bosom. The fact that the bust is modelled on the most beautiful actress of the day helps: for the historian Emmanuel Le Roy-Ladurie, it is enough that 'France is, first of all, a woman. A beautiful woman.'

The people of the country called the Hexagon -- bounded by the Channel, the Atlantic, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Rhine -- feel they do not have to bother overmuch about what the rest of the world thinks of them; simply being French is enough. They have little time for multiculturalism -- foreigners and emigrants from other nations should count themselves lucky to be allowed inside the tent, and should conform to French ways and culture. After all, which other nation can boast such a baker's dozen of writers as Rabelais, Molière, Corneille, Racine, Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Baudelaire, Proust and Dumas père and fils? Feydeau set the template for farce and, even if his creator originated from across the border in Belgium, Commissaire Maigret was quintessentially French. When it comes to painting, the list is equally impressive -- from Poussin and De la Tour through Corot and Cézanne to the Impressionists and on to Matisse and Braque. Henri Cartier-Bresson may be the century's greatest photographer, and the whole world knows the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the horrors of Bluebeard, the adventure of Around the World in Eighty Days, the Cannes film festival and the Paris fashion shows.

It is not only that France feels no concern about standing apart: the urge to be different is, in the words of the commentator Dominique Moïsi, a fundamental part of national existence. As the novelist Julian Barnes puts it, the French embody 'otherness'. We are almost perfect, declared a Tourism Minister, though she also urged her compatriots to be more welcoming to visitors since 'even the most attractive girl needs a bit of make-up to seduce'. The French are conceited rather than vain, in a phrase used by the British politician, Roy Jenkins, about De Gaulle. Two centuries ago, Napoléon hit a note for the nation to live up to: 'My power depends on my glory, and my glories on the victories I have won. My power will fail if I do not feed it on new glories and new victories.' Or, as le Général remarked: 'The French need to be proud of France. Otherwise, they fall into mediocrity.'

This nation's special character looms far larger around the globe than any country containing only 1 per cent of the planet's population has the right to expect. Presidents of the Republic play on their double role as head of state and head of executive government to impress the world. As they travel abroad, they carry Europe 'on the soles of their shoes', one French minister declared. France was the last Western nation to test nuclear weapons, and one of the first to take serious action in Bosnia, where seventy of its soldiers died. In the postcolonial world, it maintains territories stretching from the North Atlantic to the South Seas, not to mention its shared suzerainty over the tiny tax haven of Andorra, high in the Pyrenees. Its natural position as the leader of Southern Europe puts it at the head of 175 million people from Portugal to Greece. Long after decolonialisation, Paris retained a chasse gardée in Africa, from where half a dozen rulers looked to the banks of the Seine for guidance and protection. France ranks ahead of Britain, Germany, Japan and the USA in the proportion of its gross national product devoted to overseas aid, and has produced a truly great humanitarian organisation in Médecins Sans Frontières.

Open the record book and the achievements come tumbling out. French women have the longest life-expectancy in Europe; until her death in 1997 at the age of 122, the world's senior inhabitant held court in an old people's home in Arles, making rap recordings and complaining about the food. At the other end of the age scale, Étienne Bacrot became the youngest-ever chess grandmaster at the age of fourteen. France has the world's largest opera house, one of Europe's most extensive and least crowded road networks, and as big a railway system as Britain and Italy put together. Only the United States house more nuclear power stations. The French go to the cinema more than other mainland Europeans, and their film industry produces the most full-length features on the continent. They eat high levels of butter and eggs while maintaining a low rate of heart disease and -- until recently at least -- an obesity level one-fifth of that of Americans. A Europe-wide investigation reported that their children were the most healthy on the continent.

This country grows the most expensive potatoes on the planet, nurtured on seaweed and once sold for 3,000 francs a kilo. It is the. world's biggest exporter of apples, and bred the first hybrid tea rose. France houses what may be the world's earliest work of art in the form of a 32,000-year-old cave painting, and the most ancient walnut, an 8-million-year-old fossil discovered in Burgundy in 1995. It produced the greatest court diarist in Saint-Simon, and witnessed the first parachute descent, two centuries ago from a balloon above the Parc Monceau in Paris -- the intrepid jumper had prudently tried it on his dog beforehand. A Frenchman sailor was the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic. A seventeenth-century prelate, Pierre de Fermat, set out the theorem which took three centuries to prove and Albert Binet invented the intelligence test. On a less elevated tone, France has given the world the first men's underpants with a horizontal fly; a toilet which keeps users locked inside until they have washed their hands; and lavatory paper printed with short articles on culture, geography and the European Union. For other sources of information, the French may suffer from having a weak national press, but Canal Plus runs Europe's biggest cable television operation and Elle magazine claims to be the highest-selling international women's publication.

It was French agents who finally captured the terrorist Carlos the Jackal in the Sudan. Rugby players from the south-west and France's colonies give Gallic Grand Slam style to the Five Nations, and a French athlete won the gold medal in the 200 metres at the Atlanta Olympics after competing 'just for fun'. A Frenchman holds the world record for staying under water without breathing. Two others set new standards for speed eating of snails -- 275 in 15 minutes -- and shucking oysters -- 2,064 in an hour. Their compatriots are both champion pet-owners (42 million household animals for 58 million people) and leading carnivores (just 1 per cent of the population is reckoned to be vegetarian).

The town of Condom is living up to its name with the world's only contraceptive museum, while the Mediterranean port of Sète has the first museum devoted to the sardine. The Tour de France cycle race is watched each year by more on-the-spot spectators than any other annual sporting event on Earth, and is televised in 163 countries. When it comes to literature, the French count the largest number of Nobel Prizes; their authors include one who wrote a whole book without using the letter 'e' and another who, suffering from 'locked-in syndrome' after a severe stroke, dictated a memoir by blinking his eye as an amanuensis read through the alphabet. What other state can boast a President who flew to a summit meeting reading poetry and another who repaired to a garden on election eve with a slim volume of Japanese haikus? Which other people could have prompted a 235-page academic treatise on their gestures, from the Phallic Forearm Jerk to the Ambiguous Gut-Punch? And a best-selling book even claims that Christ was buried in France.

France's armed forces, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute in London, are outdone only by the US and China in 'martial potency'. Its people feel that they belong to a thoroughly modern, powerful nation. Their Post Office set up the first on-line data network available to households throughout the nation, and their government took the lead in developing the supersonic airliner. Their high-speed rail service was so successful that double-decker carriages have been introduced on the main link between Paris and Lyon to handle the flood of passengers -- and the Train à Grande Vitesse so outdid Britain in its bullet links to the Channel that railway executives across the narrow sea were reduced to making jokes about the virtue of giving travellers time to appreciate the Kent countryside.

France entered 1999 with an annualised inflation rate of 0.3 per cent, wage settlements are low, and the government insisted that events in Asia and Russia would not seriously dent its growth forecasts. Strong exports and limited imports have boosted the trade performance since 1992, with 1997 producing a record surplus of 231 billion francs. The budget deficit was officially forecast to fall to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 1999 -- just over half its level in the mid-1990s. As the decade progressed, the franc grew so muscular that the speculator George Soros was reported to believe that it might be the key European currency of the future rather than the Deutschmark. When the US dollar and sterling showed their own muscles later in the decade, exporters reaped a dividend that compensated for low domestic demand. Such was the international confidence in the economy that, at one point, France was able to pay lower interest on bonds than Germany.

The value of the Paris Bourse has soared, with the trading volume rising by 39 per cent in 1998. Pursuit of shareholder value by a new breed of managers attracted foreign funds in their billions -- non-French investors accounted for half the turnover on the stock market. Overall, France became the fourth biggest recipient of foreign investment in the world, as companies such as IBM, Motorola and FedEx developed their operations -- and, most significantly, Toyota decided to build a 4-billion-franc plant in Valenciennes rather than in Britain.

French companies are world leaders in tyres, cosmetics and yoghurts. Air France is the fourth biggest international carrier. The state is a major force in the highly successful European Airbus consortium, whose development is being steered by a Frenchman. A hundred space rockets have been launched from the base in French Guyana. Électricité de France is by far Europe's biggest exporter of power. A French firm has built the world's largest flight kitchen at Hong Kong's new airport; another has installed almost half the new telephone lines in China. The AXA-UAP group is the second largest asset manager in the world. The Société Générale bank has snapped up one of the last City investment houses, Hambros, and France's second largest insurer, AGF, has managed to enlist German backing while keeping its French nature. At the same time, the luxury goods firm LVMH established itself as a top world player with its growth round the globe and its assault on Italy's Gucci. The French state even found itself owning a Hollywood film studio.

France is the world's favourite holiday destination, attracting over 70 million visitors in 1998 and earning 175 billion francs from tourists. After all, which other country can offer the châteaux of Versailles and the Loire, the walled city of Carcassonne and the papal palace of Avignon, the jewel church of Vézelay and the Romanesque beauties along the pilgrim trail towards Compostela, the hilltop fortresses of the doomed Cathar heretics in the Pyrenees, the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims or Albi, the central square of Nancy or the Dominican church and hidden medieval town-houses of Toulouse, the Spanish-accented charm and Fauvist colours of the anchovy port of Collioure on the Mediterranean and the turn-of-century elegance of Deauville on the Channel? From the rough beauty of the Cévennes and the towering peaks of the Alps to the lavender fields of the Drôme and the softness of Anjou, from the wild horses of the mountain plateaux of the Spanish border and the pink flamingos of the Camargue to the storks nesting on the rooftops of Alsace and the seagulls wheeling over the vast D-Day invasion beaches of Normandy -- no country of comparable size, perhaps not even those of much greater size, can equal such variety of landscape and life.

Its capital offers an unparalleled range of architecture, history and personal memory, from the Roman relics of the Arènes de Lutèce to the Renaissance mansions of the Marais around the Place des Vosges, through Baron Haussmann's nineteenth-century construction of a city centre, and on to the legacy of steel, glass and concrete bequeathed by François Mitterrand. Its most popular attraction, the Centre Georges Pompidou in the Beaubourg district, lured five times as many visitors as originally planned, and had to close for two years to repair the resulting wear and tear. It has some of the most famous monuments and open spaces in the world -- the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the Bois de Boulogne. But it also has a uniquely private aspect with its courtyards, alleyways, hidden buildings and concierges who long ago learned that information was power. From China to Argentina, cities in search of glamour call themselves the 'Paris of the East' or the 'Paris of the Americas'. Though London's rebirth as the most lively city in the world hits magazine covers once a decade, it is Paris which clocks in with unbeatable regularity in the top league of the world's most beautiful and exciting capitals. Despite all those tales of outrageously priced cups of coffee on the Champs-Élysées, it is not among the most expensive to visit; and its famously abrupt inhabitants are as likely to be in a hurry as rude. There is something pretty obnoxious in the advertising slogan of Poland's airline for Warsaw as a place of 'quaint little Parisian cafés without the Parisians', for there would be no Parisian cafés without the Parisians -- but then, as we will see in a later chapter, scoring points off the French is a worldwide sport.

Charles Lindbergh became a hero when he landed at Le Bourget airfield in 1927 and, for more than a century, the City of Light was the magnet for artists and writers, and for political exiles ranging from White Russians and Jews, to Communists and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in their memento-filled villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Reporting on the Dreyfus case for a Vienna newspaper set Theodor Herzl on the road to Zionism. The men who were to become Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot studied Marxism and Leninism in France's capital. For decades, Paris was at the cutting-edge of modernity. One of the troop of foreign writers and artists who came to live there, Walter Benjamin, called Paris the capital of the nineteenth century; a bit later, another resident foreigner, Gertrude Stein, dubbed it 'the place where the twentieth century was'. It was home to Picasso and Modigliani, and a last refuge for Oscar Wilde and Marlene Dietrich. Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald sized up their penises in a Left Bank café lavatory. Paris and France adopted Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet. Fats Waller got a chance to play the 'God box' in the organ loft of Notre Dame, and jazz musicians fleeing American racism found a home from home in the Hôtel Louisiane on the Rue de Buci. In a different musical mode, Jim Morrison's grave is still a pilgrimage spot for Doors fans on the northern slopes of the city.

A Paris publisher was the first to print Joyce and Nabokov. George Gershwin sailed home in 1928 with a collection of Paris taxi-horns to use in An American in Paris. Eugéne Ionesco and Samuel Beckett wrote in the language of their adopted country; asked why he lived in Paris, the Irish playwright replied: 'Well, you know, if I was in Dublin I would just be sitting around in a pub.' Cole Porter made April the city's month. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire gave it the sheen of musical romance for cinema audiences around the globe. Humphrey Bogart comforted Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca by assuring her, 'We'll always have Paris.' Even Hitler had to admit that, while levelling London or Moscow would not have disturbed his peace of mind, he would have been greatly pained to have had to destroy the capital of France.

Not to be outdone, other cities, towns and regions have attracted their stars, too. The still two-eared Van Gogh drew his inspiration from Provence. Salvador Dalí proclaimed Perpignan station to be the centre of the Universe. Medieval popes took up residence in Avignon. Deng Xiaoping worked in a provincial factory which branded him 'unsuitable for re-employment'. Chopin made beautiful music with George Sand in the dank flatlands of the centre. Robert Louis Stevenson trekked through the Cévennes on a donkey. Madonna named her daughter after the pilgrimage shrine of Lourdes, and Yul Brynner's ashes were laid to rest in a monastery in the Loire Valley. As for the Côte d'Azur, Scott Fitzgerald's 'pleasant shore of the Riviera' became such a mecca for the smart set of the 1920s that they could believe they had invented it; later, Somerset Maugham held lugubrious court in his villa at Cap Ferrat; and Graham Greene denounced the local political mafia as he saw out his last years in one of the less fashionable towns of the coastline.

For all the rivalry from across the Channel and from the New World, France's food still sets the international benchmark (despite such aberrations as foie gras sushi). The world is ready to buy everrising prices for the great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, not to mention the export of 100 million bottles of champagne a year. Though it has become fashionable to decry the static nature of French cooking, the criticism is, for the most part, misplaced since it consists of taking France to task for not doing as others do -- which is rather like attacking Chinese cuisine for not including salade niçoise. Plain steak and chips may be the favourite national dish, and some foreign food entrepreneurs may have attracted the smart set in Paris, but, as we will see, the allegation that French chefs have become stultified and boring simply ignores the widest-ranging gastronomy on Earth, and one which has a completely different dimension to all the seared seabass with Thai spices on a bed of curried Californian lettuce. When a top French chef lays down his chopping-knife, it is news around the globe, and a guidebook noted as if with surprise that there was only one world-class table to be found between Bordeaux and Tours, a distance amounting to all of 350 kilometres. No other country has as many different cheeses or wines; not to mention a 100-kilogram pumpkin grown by a gardener east of Paris, a 16-foot-wide quiche made from 1,928 eggs and the world's longest tripe sausage -- all 150 feet of it. Champagne can legally come only from France. Smart eateries off the Champs-Élysées may adopt Americanised names, and you may stumble across a Tex-Mex restaurant on the Place de la Bastille, but a French name denotes quality eating around the globe: New York has Le Cirque, Los Angeles Ma Maison, London Le Gavroche and Tante Claire, and both Stockholm and Hanoi L'Opéra. Tokyo's Ginza shopping avenue is swamped with French outlets, and Japanese gourmets can spend a fortune eating the potato purée of three-star chef Joël Robuchon in a full-scale replica of a Loire Valley château constructed with stone imported from France. Across the sea from Japan, North Korea marked the elevation of a new Great Leader by ordering 66,000 bottles of French wine for the occasion, while China's biggest city has a Café de la Seine on the riverfront and a brasserie called Chamselisee (say it fast with a Shanghai accent and all becomes clear).

France may no longer produce the unchallenged leaders of world fashion -- its top couture houses employ British, Italian and Russian designers to give them that end-of-century edge -- but these designers still want to work for the top houses in what, for the global imagination, remains the city that epitomises high style. Boutiques from Oslo to Osaka call themselves by French names in the quest for smartness. Rag-trade workshops around the world stitch in 'Arc de Triomphe' or 'Tour Eiffel' labels. Paris still means fashion, even if the frocks are financed and dreamed up by people who can't speak to the limo driver on the way home. It was, after all, Christian Dior who invented international haute couture, and his successor, Yves Saint-Laurent, who carried on the tradition -- even if, as his lover and manager once said, he was born with a nervous breakdown.

The great figures of French history have a universal dimension. Make what you will of Napoléon -- a mountebank chancer or the ultimate meritocratic inspiration -- but the sheer scale of his achievements remains unequalled: commanding some of the greatest military victories the world has seen while reforming the legal code and the educational system, establishing a national police system, rebuilding his capital, encouraging arts and science, introducing the sugar beet to beat the British blockade, conducting tempestuous love affairs, and ruling an empire whose power stretched across a continent -- even if he only got a bargain basement price for Louisiana. Joan of Arc is the symbol of the defiant heroine, invoked to describe everybody from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma to Paula Jones. Marie Curie stands for the triumph of women in science. Brigitte Bardot is the most natural sex-symbol the cinema has known.

France fascinates, irritates and intrigues. It has a unique capacity to be brilliant one moment, self-destructive the next. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its global dealings, particularly when it is pursuing selfish interests under cover of higher principles. As a nation which thinks of itself alone as having proclaimed a universal message -- liberty, equality and fraternity -- it can only be deeply resentful that the American model of democracy and markets has stolen the show. Its great solo artist of international politics of the post-war era, Charles de Gaulle, didn't give a damn who he annoyed in expressing his 'certain view of France' on the world stage. His country must be 'dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny', and had no value, particularly in the eyes of Frenchmen, without a world responsibility. Others might use less sonorous words, but if anybody expressed France's view of itself, it was the man who saved his nation's honour twice in a lifetime.

The tone was set in 1940, when he insisted on his Free French command in London being the only Allied European force not to be integrated under the British. For the next four years, he struck a belligerently autonomous pose, even if his Free French crusade depended on the readiness of his allies to continue fighting. In 1945, he tried to make London choose between Paris and Washington, with predictable results. For more than a decade of the Cold War from 1958, Gaullist Paris presumed to act as a bridge between East and West and denounced the division of Europe, if only because it had been enshrined at the Yalta summit of 1945, to which De Gaulle had not been invited. It insisted on freedom to target friend and foe alike with its nuclear force. In 1963, France vetoed Britain's entry into the European Common Market for the first time, mocking poor Prime Minister Macmillan from across the Channel and acting, in the eyes of London, with almost unbelievable rudeness. A little later, the President simply left the French chair at Common Market meetings empty for months when he didn't like the way the embryonic Community was going.

Independence from Washington has been a constant theme, from De Gaulle's withdrawal from Nato's integrated military structure and his attacks on the Vietnam war to more recent differences over Iraq and support for an exchange rate regime to contain the dollar. But there was also solidarity, from backing for Kennedy over Berlin and the Cuban missile crisis to the current project for a joint US-French mission to Mars -- not to mention the Foreign Minister's dismissal of the Clinton impeachment as a backward step for democracy. Cutting corners is no problem when the occasion demands it. On a visit to French Canada, De Gaulle told his hosts at Montreal city hall he would like to address the crowd outside. They pointed out that this was impossible because no equipment was available. So De Gaulle's bodyguard sidled out to the balcony to set up a microphone without consulting anybody. That enabled the General to stride outside and set off a storm with his headline-grabbing declaration: 'Vive le Québec Libre' ('Long live Free Quebec'). Very French.

Under Presidents of right and left alike, the Gaullist heritage has been an enduring element in France's relations with the rest of the world. The repertoire has always gone much further than simply asserting independence from Washington, vital though that is. In a single press conference, the founder of the Fifth Republic managed to dismiss Britain's application to join the Common Market, support a return to the Gold Standard, criticise the Israelis as 'an elite people, self-confident and dominating', and refer to Quebec as a sovereign state. Three decades later, France was, at one point, simultaneously trying to set a line of its own over who should become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations (Paris insisted on a French-speaker), who should command the southern flank of the Nato alliance (Paris insisted on a French general), over Central Africa (France insisted it should make Western policy), the Middle East (which Paris insisted must be less of a US domain) and US-led international embargoes (which France insisted it had every right to break without endangering international solidarity). Paris led Western dissent from US plans to attack Iraq at the beginning of 1998. Britain's Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, called it the odd man out in Europe on the issue, but the President's standing jumped in the opinion polls. At the same time, not content with having a French civil servant reorganising Asian economies at the head of the International Monetary Fund, it engaged in simultaneous lobbying to get its men installed as head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and, even more important, to run the European Central Bank. Asked if this wasn't a bit rich, the Finance Minister responded that he was the kind of man who liked to have a cheese course as well as dessert.

Coherence, or rather lack of it, is not a problem. The first President of the left caused concern in Washington by taking Communists into his government, but then gave determined backing to American missile policy in Europe. His successor from the right cancelled summit meetings with some of France's closest partners for alleged lack of solidarity with Paris, but then announced a major reorganisation of the armed forces which affected its allies without prior consultation. And, all the time, linguistically and philosophically the French obfuscate behind a thicket of subjunctives and conditional tenses. They can be 'masters of splendid ambiguity' as Britain's former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, noted. Margaret Thatcher wrote -- in evident exasperation -- of a President 'speaking in paragraphs of perfectly crafted prose which seemed to brook no interruption', while US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalled the inscrutable comment of a French diplomat about the interaction of the various European organisations: 'It will work in practice, yes. But will it work in theory?'

'The French are by nature inclined to bully the weak and to fear the strong. Although they are boastful and vainglorious, as soon as an enterprise becomes difficult they abandon it; they are better at starting things than following them through.' That was the judgement of Marquis Tseng, the Chinese minister in Europe, who negotiated with the French over Vietnam in 1881. Echoing the familiar description of the French cavalry as being magnificent when it advances but ragged in retreat, this is a verdict which many, including some friends of France, would regard as an apposite piece of Oriental wisdom. But when I put the notion to a French professor, she gave me a Gallic response from a 1930s film: 'The locomotive of your ignorance runs on the rails of my indifference.' Et schlack -- so there!

The international self-confidence is not hard to understand. All over the world, traces of France pop up. Archaeologists reckon that the greatest symbol of Britain's prehistoric past, the stone circle at Stonehenge, was probably the work of invaders from Brittany. The remains of a tenth-century monastery transposed from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrénées-Orientales department stand above the Hudson River in New York; down below, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, and the televisual Friends have a poster of a park in northern Paris on their wall. Frederick the Great named his palace in Potsdam Sanssouci, and his successors called their supreme military medal Pour le mérite. The French architect Joseph Ramée was the progenitor of the American campus plan with the Union College of Schenectady. Bonaparte 'discovered' Egypt's ancient civilisation for the outside world, and a French team freed the Sphinx from the sand. Louisiana is home to half a million Cajuns descended from French settlers who were ethnically cleansed from their Acadia in Nova Scotia by the British, and who keep the language of the Hexagon alive on the bayous 250 years later. Lenin had a French mistress; Japan has its version of the Eiffel Tower; and a reproduction of the Alsatian town of Colmar is being built above the tropical forests of Malaysia. The most expensive hotel suite in Korea is modelled after the Palace of Versailles. An Indochinese sect counts Louis Pasteur and Victor Hugo among its saints, and Cambodians smoke cigarettes named after the actor Alain Delon. Schools on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand learn to play pétanque, and Madame Mao (somehow Mrs Mao doesn't sound right) plotted the Cultural Revolution from a villa modeled on a Louis XIII manor house in Shanghai. As for the classic Coca-Cola bottle and the Lucky Strike packet, a Frenchman redesigned them both.

Bitter opposition to France's nuclear tests in 1995 did not cause the Australian Prime Minister to abandon his hobby of collecting French clocks, or stop a Japanese firm tripling its orders of Beaujolais Nouveau. The head of one of the world's largest media and entertainment companies keeps a copy of the Albert Camus novel L'Étranger in his office in New York. In the 1960s, an aged African dictator tried to get his country turned into a department of France. Another African President called Charles de Gaulle 'papa', and the leaders of the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte announced that they wanted to become part of France 'like the department of the Lozère'. Duke Ellington defined himself as a drinker of Beaujolais; James Dean found solace in Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince; and Ella Fitzgerald was once spotted reading a book by Jean-Paul Sartre in her dressing-room.

This country invented the pressure cooker, the sewing machine and the non-stick flying pan which gave Ronald Reagan his Teflon nickname. French surgeons conducted the world's first graft of a hand in the autumn of 1998 just as Paris put into service the first major underground railway line without drivers or conductors. Voltaire dreamed up Candide and Panglosse, and Beaumarchais provided Mozart with Figaro. Ferdinand de Lesseps would have added Panama to his canal-building triumph at Suez if the terrain in Central America and corruption in Paris had not interceded. In more relaxed mode, the Club Méditerranée set the model for informal, all-inclusive holiday resorts, and it was a Parisian who commercialised the bikini swimsuit, employing a nude dancer to show it off after the regular models refused to wear it. Frenchmen invented the first non-iron pure cotton shirt, and have developed a year-round oyster that defies months without an 'r'. A muddy spring in the south discovered by Hannibal in 218 BC and rediscovered by a crippled Englishman twenty-one centuries later has become synonymous with fizzy water in countries where 'eau' means nothing.

Nicéphore Niepce invented photography in Burgundy, and, if they cannot claim the first motor-car, French manufacturers did make two landmark vehicles. In 1955 Citroën unveiled its DS (the initials sound like the French word for 'goddess') with front-wheel drive, disc brakes, spaceship looks and self-levelling suspension. Seven years earlier, the same firm had turned out one of the world's most practical conveyances, the Deux Chevaux, on the specification of being able to transport 2 people and 50 kilos of potatoes at 60 kilometres an hour on no more than 3 litres of petrol per 100 kilometres -- the ability to carry eggs over a ploughed field without cracking them and to leave enough room for hats to be worn inside were added later. Despite their flapping canvas roofs and self-motivated folding windows, they were wonderful cars. A friend of ours had a thirty-year-old 2CV which had been driven to Kenya and back; it still sat for a week in the snow at Orléans railway station and started with one turn of the ignition -- or three, at most. But the coming of the motorway and the desire for a car in which you could sit in comfort meant the end of Deux Chevaux production -- in France, at least. Some years after manufacture stopped in France, Chrysler had one of the cars shipped across the Atlantic, took it to bits and used it as the model for a people's car for China, India and South America, made of plastic. A Citroën spokesman agreed that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.

The Lumière brothers made the first moving picture. Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis regularly figures high in lists of the best films ever made. One French author provided the inspiration for both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes; two others served up the plot for Vertigo, and films noirs have become a Hollywood genre. French films have been a highly fruitful pillaging ground for a string of Hollywood vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Steve Martin and others. 'Another week, another Hollywood remake of a French movie,' as the New Yorker remarked. Although patriotic French cinéastes decry the process and insist that Trois Hommes et un Couffin is far superior to Three Men and a Baby, the studio bosses may not always be wrong in their remaking frenzy. French directors and actors do not, as a rule, work well in Hollywood. In France, Disney's cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a major hit, while France's biggest-ever home-grown success, Les Visiteurs, grossed just $36,732 across the Atlantic.

A pair of Frenchmen created two of the world's longest-running musicals; Claude François, a French singer who subsequently electrocuted himself in his bath, was responsible for the music of 'My Way', while another, Sacha Distel, co-wrote that alternative saloon singer's anthem, 'The Good Life'. Though linguistic backwoodsmen in Paris are up in arms about the spread of the English language, French terms still permeate the globe: if anybody sat down to calculate whether more words of French origin are used in English than vice-versa, French would come off much better than its fearful defenders might think. Chic, after all, is smarter than smart. Faute de mieux, invitations in London or Hong Kong come marked RSVP or Pour Mémoire. Generals have aides de camp, newspapers call their foreign offices bureaux and America's greatest artistic gift to the world probably takes its name from the use of the chattering verb jaser by Creole speakers in New Orleans. Louis Pasteur, Joseph Guillotin and the Marquis de Sade bestowed their names on posterity. The caped cloaks of the Limousin region of France provided the synonym for motorcars with hoods. Extreme patriots and opponents of women's rights take their label from an enthusiastic Napoleonic veteran, Nicolas Chauvin. Gymnasts somersault more easily thanks to the garment invented by the trapeze artist, Jules Léotard. Disciplinarians should flick their whips towards Colonel Martinet for the strict order he imposed on Louis XIV's infantry. Napoléon's name, albeit bereft of the acute accent, was used by Conan Doyle to describe his master criminal, and by the US Secret Service as its code-name for Frank Sinatra. The extremely grand Vicomte de Turenne, on the other hand, might be less than charmed to know that, outside the history class, his name is perpetuated by his habit of using his helmet as a soup bowl.

In filmdom, even producers like to be called auteurs. Gourmets eat in restaurants, tourists buy souvenirs, bourgeois folk gather at table for dinner, and may make a rendezvous at a café afterwards. Negligees and culottes may no longer be in style, but women wear brassieres everywhere except in France itself (where they prefer the soutien-gorge). Hotel concierges and waiters the world over address women as Madame. The French are even credited with things to which they would never wish to lay claim: French toast or the goo called French dressing across the Atlantic. As for French beans and French kisses, even the most ardent disciple of M. Chauvin would hardly pretend that they were exclusively national property.

At first sight, there seems to be no end to the aura created by this nation, no reason to doubt its claims to enduring greatness. So long, that is, as you do not look too carefully in the mirror, or stray too close to the brink of the apparently settled plateau of national existence. Keep to the surface, and everything seems in order. Lift the curtain, and things become very different. 'Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise,' as the butler told his employer over the telephone in a famous French comedy song. The château and the stables are burning down, your favourite mare is dead, your husband has killed himself, but, apart from that, everything's all right, Ma'am: tout va très bien, tout ... va ... très ... bien.


The song has been highly apposite because this has been high-anxiety time in the Hexagon. After laying out all those reasons for pride, just consider the contrasts between the message from the top of the lighthouse and the reality below, between the glossy image and what people actually see when they glance into the national mirror.

France has a barometer of the national mood which swung from pessimism to optimism for the first time for a dozen years after the World Cup win. Spending on drugs to soothe the nervous system is 50 per cent higher than in Britain and twice that in Italy. The number of workers subject to the strains of 'just in time' production has doubled in ten years. In one supermarket studied by sociologists, 42 per cent of the check-out cashiers took sleeping pills -- two-thirds of them were aged under thirty. At a plant in Brittany which put together fashion goods for top Paris houses, the manager paced the floor with a stopwatch shouting at the seamstresses that they were 'bitches, tarts, pries of shit'; he was only dismissed when the company's financial fortunes dipped.

A barometer of public opinion shows that people regard eleven of the years between 1980 and 1995 as having been 'bad times'. In surveys between 1973 and 1990, only 12-13 per cent of the French said they were 'very satisfied' with their lives, compared to more than 30 per cent in Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The magazine Le Nouvel Observateur reported in 1992 that a help-line in Paris was getting 15,000 distress calls a year. Polls in the mid-1990s showed a steady 55 per cent expressing pessimism about the future. The suicide rate is among the highest in developed nations: more than 150,000 French people try to kill themselves each year, and 12,000 succeed -- an increase of 50 per cent in two decades. In Paris, 500 police officers had to be put on light duties because of their mental condition in 1996. A quarter of the population lives alone, double the figure of thirty years ago. Six million people are reckoned to suffer from excess noise.

National spirits rose after an initially more easy-going Socialist government replaced hair-shirt Gaullism in 1997, but there was a big legacy of depression to deal with. One survey in the mid-1990s reported that 45 per cent of the French could see themselves falling into clinical depression. Hard times breed introspection, and a growing selfishness. More and more people admit to sympathy with racism -- a European poll at the end of 1997 showed the French classing themselves as the second most racist people in Europe, topped only by Belgium. After falling for three years, crime rose in 1998, with minors accounting for 20 per cent of offences. France has 70 per cent more murders than Britain -- a quarter are unsolved despite the country's 255,000 police. Fear of a breakdown of law and order is gaining ground and support for the return of capital punishment is increasing. The criminal justice system is in crisis and enjoys low public esteem. A poll for L'Express showed that only a fifth of those questioned believed justice was independent. The prison population has risen from 30,000 to 51,000 since 1975, and 40 per cent of those in jail are awaiting trial. Crimes committed by minors have soared: even offences by children aged thirteen or under have risen by 57 per cent in ten years. The traditional belief that child abuse was an Anglo-Saxon vice was blown apart when police rounded up 600 suspects in 1997 in an investigation into paedophilia. Polls show anxiety levels about drugs at more than 90 per cent. Scare rumours, often involving tales of outrages by immigrants, whip round the country. The National Front pries up votes in areas which hardly see a dark face and where crime is low. Once a haven for those seeking political asylum, France now has some of the tightest controls in Europe, taking in only a quarter of the refugees it had accepted at the start of the 1990s. While proclaiming their attachment to justice and the rights of man, Gaullist and Socialist governments alike took their time allowing French soldiers who served in Bosnia to testify at war crimes tribunals.

'There is too much violence in our country, too much insecurity -- in schools, on public transport, in the streets,' the President of the Republic declared in his New Year message for 1998. 'Every day new limits are broken beyond which our society will disintegrate.' The news broadcasts that night echoed his concern. In France's Euro-city of Strasbourg, rioting youths set alight fifty-three vehicles, smashed twenty-one telephone boxes, damaged thirty-two bus shelters and threw fire-bombs at three schools. In Mulhouse in the east, Saint-Etienne in the centre and Perpignan in the south-west, youths set cars on fire and destroyed telephone booths and bus shelters. Seventy vehicles were reported to have been set alight in the suburbs round Paris. A year later, fresh outbreaks of violence marked the end of 1998, and the Interior Minister was moved to speak of establishing special detention centres for young delinquents and of suspending welfare payments to their families.

As the Chirac presidency got into its stride after 1995, one former member of right-wing governments compared the national disenchantment with the ruling elite to the run-up to the revolution of 1789. A one-time Interior Minister saw a country on the eve of revolt, while another former senior minister spoke of a pre-Fascist climate fanned by scandal, unemployment and alienation between the people and the power structure. Bookshops were full of volumes enquiring into what was wrong with the country. An apocalyptic essay on the coming elimination of the working man by a woman writer better known for her romantic novels sold 350,000 copies in a year. News weeklies reported how the best and brightest of the nation's youth were fleeing the constipated world of French business; a former presidential adviser, Jacques Attali, warned that in today's mobile world, 'Hotel France could find itself empty'. The title of a book by the head of France's Institute of Demography asked simply, Will France Disappear? while an annual social analysis identified 'a collective depression, an angst and a refusal to change'. A Gaullist deputy wrote of a national nervous breakdown, and a leading political commentator, Jean-Marie Domanech, depicted France as resembling a more successful Soviet Union, prisoner to grand plans that never work but which draw attention away from current difficulties -- and which end up sinking its people into a mass version of Madame Bovary's dreamy self-deception.

The election of a left-wing government in the summer of 1997 lightened the national mood. The impact was compounded by the World Cup victory and a cyclical European economic upturn. It was all very encouraging, particularly since the unfolding comfort blanket meant that basic problems could be avoided, for the time being at least. The future remained more problematic.


Self-confident as they like to appear, the French have increasingly fallen back on artificial comforts. They imbibe more alcohol than any other people in Western Europe: 2 million of them are estimated to be completely alcohol-dependent, and between 30,000 and 60,000 die each year from drink-related illnesses. One-third of the population soothes itself with nicotine. Between 1 and 2 million are thought to use cannabis on a regular basis -- one report estimated that as many as 7 million people had tried marijuana at least once while the number of people picked up for drugs offences has doubled in five years. On a different drugs front, the Tour de France bicycle race was tarnished in 1998 by a string of doping scandals.

Medical spending has shot up, and not simply as a result of the cost of new equipment. The French still keep a close watch on the state of their livers and worry about being caught in a draught, but nobody seems to have a common cold any more; they suffer instead from the much more serious-sounding rhino-laryngite. France has more psychiatrists than any other European country, four times as many now as in 1980. The number of people working in the health sector doubled between 1970 and 1988 and pharmacists grow rich on the endless prescriptions with which doctors soothe the national hypochondria. In some prisons, half the inmates are on pills. A study published in 1998 put the number of overweight people at 16 million -- blaming stress and psychological problems as well as fast food and lack of exercise.

Though the Pope attracted a million young Catholics from all over the world to a mass at Longchamp racecourse in 1997, seeking comfort in orthodox religion does not seem a popular remedy. While four-fifths of the French have been baptised, only 17.5 per cent are counted as practising Catholics; infant baptisms have fallen from 92 per cent of babies to 58 per cent in the last forty years, and only half the French get married in church today compared to 77 per cent four decades ago. In the mid-1980s there were 40,000 Catholic priests; ten years later, there were 22,500. But 40,000 just happens to be the estimated number of people now offering a different kind of pastoral care as psychiatrists, psychologists and other 'psys'.

The French pride themselves on being pioneers of rational thought and Cartesian logic, but only one-third of them disagree with the proposition that success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside an individual's control. The national on-line data system, Minitel, offers hundreds of services providing astrology, tarot readings and other guides to the future. A survey by a government organisation reports that just over half the French believe in healing through the laying-on of hands, one-third think dreams predict the future and a quarter are prepared to put their faith in soothsayers and palm-readers. The main monthly astrology magazine reports that readers used to write in with queries about love, but now ask about unemployment. Demand has been rising for the services of the eighty exorcists recognised by the Catholic Church. Cults thrive, with police registering between 150 and 170 main sects and 800 satellites, ranging from a well-behaved Japanese group in a château outside Paris to the Solar Temples on the Swiss border, where forty-eight people died in a mass suicide and killings in 1994.

There are, it must be said, plenty of precedents. An early article of faith among French Christians was that a martyr executed in Paris walked ten kilometres to his burial ground in the suburbs with his severed head in his hands. In the fourth century, St Martin of Tours avoided being crushed by a falling tree by making the sign of the cross, and Simplicius, the Bishop of Autun in Burgundy, used the same device to root local oxen to the ground, thereby converting four hundred awed locals to Christianity. Joan of Arc was guided by voices from above. The repeatedly rediscovered French seer known as Nostradamus is said by his true believers to have predicted the death of Elizabeth I, the execution of Charles I, the French Revolution, the rise of Hitler and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Several royals fell for charlatans -- even the great unifying king, Louis XI, spent his last years listening to a guru in a cave outside his château on a hill above Tours. Bonaparte said that he took counsel on important decisions from a 'little red man'. Christian Dior depended on a clairvoyant up to the day he ignored her advice and went on a slimming cure in Italy to render himself more attractive to his boyfriend, only to collapse and die in the process. More recently, France's leading astrologer drew up charts for President Mitterrand on his political opponents.

Despite all this supernatural assistance, doubt is everywhere. Successive governments have worried about one of the most basic elements of all in national life -- the number of people living in France. If it were as densely populated as England, France would have three times as many inhabitants as the 58 million who actually live in the Hexagon. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, France had a population two and a half times that of Britain; today, the two nations are about equal. There are many explanations for this, ranging from the idealisation of a small family nurtured by that seminal reactionary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to the huge death-toll of the First World War. The French, according to a recent survey, have intercourse more often than any other people on Earth and their governments have traditionally awarded large payments to couples who procreate -- still, the population remains obstinately low.

Even as solid a national institution as the country's ninety-five thermal resorts, with their baths of mud- and mineral-enriched waters, has been pronounced by a minister to be 'in a state of crisis'. And the French snob's bedside book, the Bottin Mondain, which lists 44,000 of the social elite, has felt the need to include a section on table manners. So what have things come to when high society needs to be told not to eat foie gras with a knife?



Continues...


Excerpted from France on the Brink by Jonathan Fenby Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Fenby. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2000

    Informative, but only if you are already informed

    This book seems aimed at people who already know a good deal about France, and is not so helpful to those of us who have a recently developed interest in learning more about the country. The author writes in a style that assumes the reader is up to date on French current events. For example, in writing about the highways in Paris, he refers to the 'world's most famous automobile collision'. I was able to guess that he was referring to the death of Princess Diana, but there were many such references that left me baffled. Such as, who is he talking about when he mentions 'the pretender to the throne'? It's also worth noting that the author is writing about France from a British point of view, with a pecular style of British writing. That made it all the more difficult for this American to enjoy reading 'France on the Brink'.

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