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This editorial was the introductory essay in an issue of the fine, thought-provoking literary magazine Granta. Though it appeared in the autumn 1997 issue, the references made to society and politics remain very much similar today. (Though the unemployment rate in France, for one thing, has fallen.) The essay as it appears here is an edited version of the original.
IAN JACK was the editor of Granta from 1995 to 2008. He edited London's Independent on Sunday from 1991 to 1995, and currently he writes a weekly column for the Guardian. Jack has also served as a foreign correspondent in South Asia and is the author of The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain (Jonathan Cape, 2009).
The first man to fly solo across the Atlantic and the hero of his age, Charles Lindbergh, saw France from the air on May 21, 1927. He had been flying for more than thirty hours and seen nothing but ocean since he left New York, and now the green fields and woods of Normandy were below him. Journey's end! Time for a bite! He took a sandwich from its wrapper and stretched to throw the wrapper from the cockpit. Then he looked down and decided that just wouldn't do. "My first act," Lindbergh said to himself, "will not be to sully such a beautiful garden." His American waste paper remained in the aircraft—scrunched, one assumes, in a ball at his feet.
The French writer Jean-Marie Domenach, who died this summer, tells this story in his last book: Regarder la France: essai sur le malaise français. It is for Domenach yet another small stone in a large mountain of anecdotal evidence gathered to demonstrate the singularity of France as a state, a people, a culture and (in this case) a landscape. But, as Domenach's subtitle indicates, all isn't well with this singularity. The fields that Lindbergh flew over are larger now, the roads straighter and wider, the peasants (should Lindbergh have spotted any, bending their backs in this beautiful garden) dramatically fewer. All of these changes have happened to most other western countries as agriculture has adopted new machines and new techniques to plough out hedges and plough in chemical fertilizers, to relegate agricultural labourers to models in museums of folklore. But in none of these other countries (even England, where the countryside supplies a large part of the national idea) would rural transformation be seen as such a blow to the nation's identity. There would be nostalgia, of course, and ecological concern. In France, things go much further. Implied in Domenach's story is the notion that, had Lindbergh been flying over some other, less top-quality country (Portugal, say, or Belgium), he might have nonchalantly tossed the paper into the windstream and had a good spit at the same time. But, as General and President Charles de Gaulle was fond of saying, France is . . . France. Even Lindbergh, high up in his frail aeroplane, and with a hundred other things to worry about, could see the specialness of the place and respect it.
Nobody doubts that France is special; certainly not the French. It is the largest, though not the most populous country, in Europe, and was once the most powerful. Its linguistic unity and its natural boundaries—France can be seen as a hexagonal fortress with sea on three sides and mountains on two—have given it a clearer identity, a less contested nationalism, than most countries which share a continent. Its history is alive with symbols, events, heroes and slogans which have not been shuttered in to the cobwebbed past—which form part of France's grand and still unfolding story, as the French tell it to themselves. France sees itself as the birthplace of modern ideas and modern politics. The words of the American constitution are fine, but a snappier political credo than "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" has still to be invented. The terms "Left" and "Right" as in left-wing and right-wing come from the seating arrangements in the National Assembly of 1789, when the pro-revolutionaries took the benches on the left side of the chamber. When Britain was manufacturing industrial and necessarily temporary objects, France was taking the lead in creating enduring, and now universal, abstractions. These ideals, which have dignified humankind, form part of France's claim to its status as a universal nation. Add them to a cultural preeminence which has lasted through most of the last and the present century—think of the French novel and French painting in the nineteenth, French film in the twentieth—and a way of living notorious for its discriminating pleasure in philosophy, love, food, drink and fashion, and France's claim to be the global model for civilization can seem unanswerable. "Ah, the French," as the maxim goes on the northbound Channel ferry and the jet heading west to North America, "they know how to live!"
The paradox is that, while France has thought of itself as a tutor to the world, it has never really believed that it can be imitated. France is distinctive. It may believe, as the USA affects to believe (or simply assumes), that it is a country with values which can be franchised anywhere; but unlike perfumes, croissants and fizzy water—unlike, in fact, the Statue of Liberty—some items are not for export. There is the French soul; there is an even mistier item, la France profonde. Here normal rules do not apply. Sooner or later, in almost every area of human activity, one comes across the phrase: l'exception française. Exceptionally, France has retained several parts of its empire with little sense of post-imperial shame. Exceptionally, in the 1990s it began again to explode nuclear devices under one of these old outposts (when on British television a French government spokesman was asked why, if these tests were so safe, they were not conducted under French waters rather than in the far-away Pacific, he replied: "But Tahiti is France"). Exceptionally, it still regards French as the near-rival to English as the triumphant world language, when nearly four times as many people speak English (and three times as many use Spanish, and twice as many Bengali—or Arabic). Exceptionally, it is the most anti-American country in western (or for that matter eastern) Europe.
Nearly all of these exceptions flow from what is now the greatest exception of all: the power of the French state to regulate, subsidize, satisfy and inspire the lives and ambitions of France's fifty-eight million citizens. The urge to standardize and centralize in France predates the Revolution, but it was the precepts of the Revolution, later codified by Napoleon, which allowed French citizens to feel that they played equal parts in a grand and unifying design. There would be standard courts dispensing standard law, standard schools teaching the same French history, standard forms of local administration sitting in headquarters with Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité standardly engraved in their stone. The language would be standard despite its many regional variants, the measurements (metres, litres, kilos) also. All standards would be set by the government in Paris. The state interfered but it also sheltered, and it became one of the glories of France, inseparable from the idea of the French way of life. Today France employs five million civil servants (proportionately five times as many as the USA) and industries run by the state comprise more than a third of the French economy.
The state, then, matters in France as it does in few other countries. It has never been, unlike in Britain or the USA, the bogey of the tax-paying middle classes. For one thing, it keeps a large part of the middle class in work; more than half the families in France depend on income from the state. For another, its regulations and subsidies have sustained the attractive variousnesses of France, which still produces four hundred (or a thousand; the boast varies) different kinds of cheese, and where a town of one thousand seven hundred people can contain (this is a real but typical example, from Beaujolais) three bakeries, a butcher, two grocers, a pharmacy, a jeweller's, two clothes shops, a flower shop, two hardware stores, a newsagent, two garages, several bars, two hotels and two restaurants, one of which is mentioned honourably in the Michelin guide. In Britain and North America, supermarkets and shopping malls would have closed most of them, while politicians spoke airily about the free market's great virtue of consumer choice.
But—reenter le malaise français—unemployment runs at 12.5 percent (double the British figure) and the centralized political and bureaucratic elites of Paris have become deeply unpopular and sometimes corrupt. And the nation state is now retreating throughout the world as a custodian of economies and cultures, abandoning its old remits to the capricious pressures of the global market. France has many phrases for this phenomenon—le capitalisme sauvage, le capitalisme dur (hard), le capitalisme Anglo-Saxon—and most of them could be heard in the elections of June this year, when France ditched its right-wing government and replaced it with an alliance of Socialists and Communists. On the face of it, the Left had capitalized on France's prevailing moods of sinistrose (dismalness) and morosité (gloom) by promising that the two great forces for change in French life could be resisted: that France needn't bow to Chinese wage rates or cut its public spending so that it could qualify for membership of the European Monetary Union. The Left pledged that it would create seven hundred thousand jobs, half of them funded by the state, and cut the statutory working week from forty to thirty-five hours with no reduction in earnings. In Britain, where Mrs. Thatcher expunged socialism from the politics of her Labour successors, there was mockery and also half a cheer.
France was being exceptional once again, struggling to preserve its cherished ideas of Frenchness. To the rest of the world, which has accepted globalism as an inevitability, the way things are and will be, it seemed as though its fourth-largest economy had recoiled in the face of modernity; that Fortress France was pulling up the drawbridge.
Where does French writing stand in all this The awkward truth here is that, outside France and small pockets of Francophilia, hardly anyone knows. Name six living French novelists. Name six contemporary French novels. The French, of course, blame this neglect on Anglo-Saxon ignorance and hostility, but the truth (our truth, at least) is that, in literature, France pulled up the drawbridge long ago. Saul Bellow, writing in Granta in 1984, remembered how Paris had been the capital of international culture before the Second World War and how, on his first visit in 1948, the city had still seemed "one of the permanent settings, a theatre if you like, where the greatest problems of existence might be represented." Thirty years later that feeling had gone. "Marxism, Euro-communism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism could not restore the potency of French civilization," Bellow wrote. "Sorry about that."
Today in France there are arguments about the purpose of writing and a movement to put the world back into the book; it hasn't escaped the French that the failure of French writing to sell abroad may have, to put it strictly in terms of the market, more to do with the producer than the consumer. Today a younger generation of writers is emerging which is more willing to look outward again. Many of these writers come from present or former French territories outside Europe, or are the children of migrants from those places. What their writing has in common is the desire to dramatize the deed rather than the thought, the story above the idea.
They reflect a France that is richer and more complicated than the beleaguered monolith of newspaper headlines, and which cannot be accommodated by old ideas of Frenchness, no matter what its government may say or do. France, we should never forget, has the largest Muslim community in Europe, between three and five million people, and Europe's largest Jewish community (about seven hundred thousand people) outside Russia. A third of France's population has ancestry from outside its borders.
Beneath the crust of its mythology, France has already changed. Why otherwise would Jean-Marie Le Pen and his anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-American party, the National Front, exist And why in June would they have won 15 percent of the vote The real challenge to France is not the Anglo-Saxon world. It is to find a new and more plural identity, freed from the burden of glorious memory.
Posted September 28, 2014