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June 06, 2008

Vive Ma France: Lincoln Allison on the otherness of his France

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - the author of The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy - explores the otherness of his France.

An introspective question: why is my heart always so madly light and gay as we swing round the Calais ring roads and head down the A16 or the A26? This is normally done to the sound of old chansons, starting with Chales Trenet's La Mer, but, Lord knows, the place is ugly enough with its chemical factories and warehouses and tacky retail outlets. When it stops being ugly it is just plain - the vasty fields of France.

Of course, the response is Pavlovian in nature: beyond the familiar mediocrity of the Pas de Calais lie more exotic landscapes and hundreds of cheeses and appellations controllés. But I think there are at least three other factors which attract the English to France. The first is the one which attracts them anywhere and is a bit of a myth in the French case: the weather. I'm writing these lines in Languedoc where it has been raining for ten days with no sign of stopping. In any case, I am very weather-tolerant - capable of enjoying all weathers as a Lancastrian should be.

The second factor is space. In the frustrated world of Middle England France represents the possibility of the coveted detached house with "room for a pony", the fantasy of the small vineyard and the piste or the beach within an hour's drive.

This fantasy comes in two different forms - the complete move and the second home - but in one form or the other it is part of the English middle-class cultural condition. A MORI poll three years ago showed 52% of the English wanting to emigrate with France the most popular single destination; in my experience most of the people who have this fantasy regard the French language and culture as an obstacle rather than an attraction. And it isn't really my own condition. Like Henry V I love every village of France and I don't want to own any of it or attach myself to anywhere in particular. My home in France is the forest clearing and the pique-nique. Though I do love the space as manifest by the straight, empty road through the forest.

But the third factor does affect me personally. To use a generally irritating contemporary usage, it is the complex otherness of France which is so good. The immediate sensation is of a liberating irresponsibility: you see an ugly development, a rash of graffiti, the ridiculously over-developed coastline or you discover a regulation which seems absurd even by the standards of regulations and you do not think,

Who is responsible for this? . . . . Disgraceful . . . Something must be done . . .
You just think,
What an interesting manifestation of French culture
because the chances are that it doesn't affect you personally. Despite long and loud protestations of the positive relation between liberty and responsibility by some ethical thinkers there is a very basic and irrefutable sense in which liberty consists precisely of irresponsibility. Even as you swing down the A16 this comes to you immediately because, although you can be fined for speeding in France there are no transferable points. A Europoints system is being discussed, of course. Slowly, I hope.

For someone of my generation it is a familiar otherness. As it happens my father was fluent in French, enough so to be a simultaneous translator at the Parliament of Europe. He studied at the University of Grenoble. At school I studied French and in geography we specialised in France. European History turned out to be all about Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV and the revocation of the aforesaid edict, etc. France was never another country, it was the other country. When I finally saw it, in my teens, I looked at everything with dropped jaw: they really did actually speak the language you had done exams in and drove on the right and ate sticks of bread that went stale almost immediately. It was like a great epic work of fiction come to life.

It was and is also like an unpredictable blend of the looking glass world and the ordinary world. You can take a set of statistics about France and England and they look pretty similar countries: same sort of levels of standard of living, aggregate population, car ownership, life expectancy, electoral turnout etc. But take another set and it can look the opposite place: land ownership, number of constitutions and governments, social and political structure of cities, attitudes to development and conservation . . . You look at France and it looks like England: then you screw your eyes shut and open them again and it looks like the place through the looking glass. In English hotels it has traditionally said:

IN THE EVENT OF FIRE SHOUT "FIRE"
But in France it has said
EN CAS D’INCENDIE NE CRIEZ PAS "AU FEU"
This ability of France to be both familiar and exotic persists even when you have been there a hundred times, as I have, and is complemented by its diversity: there is some part of France which resembles every country in Europe. I have been at my very happiest in France and also my closest to death; this was on the Mt. Blanc while attending a "reading party" at the Chalet des Anglais which was part-owned by my college.

Psychologically, personally, France is like Next Door. When I was a child I loved going Next Door. Less was expected of you there, criticism was more restrained and it was more interesting than Our House. Anyway, they had a telly. France has got a good deal more than a telly to lure you next door: my favourite two statistics about the country are:

1. The area of forest in France is greater than the entire area of England and Wales combined

2. The length of the Champagne cellars under the city of Epernay exceeds 100 kilometres.

It became easy for the English to like a kind of caricature of France in the nineteenth century. The demographic and economic decline of France was starkly clarified by the six-week defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Thereafter, the young, educated English could patronise the French. (The second song on our chansons collection is Piaf's Milord which is about an English aristo in love with a French prostitute.) How many came back from the Third Republic saying,

Those Froggies may not be a Great Power anymore, but, by God, they know how to live
Thus the caricature of the French (even visible in modern English advertising). Les singes de capitulation qui mangent du fromage, but they get more sex and better food than we do. And they have been getting these things ever since they discovered that invading Russia was a very silly idea.

An important element of the land of the exotic other is the language. I get enormous pleasure from the French language - from merry quips with the baker and to watching the kind of quiz shows I'd never watch in English; also the flowery introductions to Schubert on the Musique station and reading the sporting press. I am particularly fond of the pedagogic lecturettes for tourists and the statements of the attractions of a forthcoming town which you get on brown notices by the autoroute:
NULLEVILLE . . . . SON HISTOIRE . . . . SA CATHEDRALE . . . . SES 37 RESTAURANTS
Which seems to me to be saying, how the fuck can you just drive past?

But having said all that and given my background I am crap at French. While I was writing this essay the young gardener of the house we are staying in knocked on the door to ask if he should mow the lawn if and when it stopped raining. When I failed to pick up on an important word he started to speak English. The gardener!

Humiliating, though I suppose he wanted to practice. But I have an excuse. I have worked (in the sense of giving papers or lectures or researching or attending meetings) in about three dozen countries, including France, and I have never had to speak French except at a couple of European events where sessions took place in French despite the protests of the Scandinavians et al. French is a luxury language doomed to its fate by the events of 1763 or 1815 (mainly the former, in my view). I have considered a three months total immersion which would make me a lot less crap at French, but it would be as an end-in-itself. There would be no instrumental value.

Sometimes I just want to be in France. I am like the autobiographical American in Hemingway's Fiesta (aka The Sun Also Rises) who drives across the Pyrenees to get away from the maddening passions and obscurities of the English and the Spanish and to be among rational people. In many circumstances - such as looking for accommodation - the French are the easiest people in the world to deal with. They give you what you want, immediately and efficiently, or they pronounce themselves desolé and offer helpful suggestions. They don’t cheat like the Italians or grovel and gush like the Americans or enjoy being difficult like the Russians. And even if, as I sadly believe, the French culinary tradition is in decline, they will still generally serve you a decent meal with style.

Finally, however, I must be absolutely clear about which France I am talking about. My France is la France profonde, a bastion of rugby and la petite commerce; it believes in Travaille, Famille, Région. It is not to be confused with the France of l'etat, of Paris of trade unions, politics and intellectuals. (Nobody should have let loose a bunch of poseurs and peasants on dangerous concepts like Liberté and Egalité.) I know my France as a traveller and a customer; my handful of experiences of dealing with the French on matters of work are that they often cease to be charming and efficient and become snotty and annoying.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.


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