By way of an aside, I wouldn't want anyone to think that I've been too absorbed with stuffing myself with seafood, walking on the beach and photographing snails over the last week to have had any awareness of or opinion on events in the country I'm living in.
Until I can vote in that country, where we live, where I work and where we pay all our taxes, I will always feel a less involved outsider, which is not to say I don't understand that what happens in the national life will nevertheless have a bearing on me, even in this peaceful and peacable backwater I am blessed, lucky and happy enough to call home. Being such a political outsider has advantages: I don't feel quite so obliged to express, conceal or even have an opinion, I less afraid to ask questions and have things explained to me, or to question why other people hold the opinions they do. Appearing ignorant is more permissable.
I don't particularly relish the prospect of living in a country whose leader is held either in fear and loathing or in a fawning and self-abasing admiration for their strength/ruthlessness. I've done that before and I didn't like it then. Ugly and aggressive rhetoric and posturing and actions make for ugly and aggressive reactions, which appear to justify each other endlessly. I could go on but I see little point; it's not what I do here.
I am not certain, though, that the appeal was altogether and only to xenophobia and masochism, but possibly to something closer to a better nature; the desire to be able to work one's way out of the moroseness and haemorrhage of morale that seemed to have gripped the country. I have come to the conclusion, contrary to received ideas and the way I might have been heard banging on about the matter in moments of frustration in the past, that in general, French people are responsible, sober, undemanding and very hard-working, with an admirable capacity for counting their blessings. They just don't tear around chasing their own arses, going nowhere fast, making a lot of noise and heat and very little light, burning vast quantities of fossil fuels in activity of ultimately dubious usefulness, living ludicrous distances from their place of work, putting themselves in hock for ever and ever on their homes, bragging on about their wonderful work ethic and how stressed they are and how they've got no time for anything, drinking themselves stupid in the name of having fun, etc etc. ( yes, I know, it's all right for me, believe me, I never cease to appreciate just how all right...). Or at least not as much, not yet. But they do often feel constrained and frustrated by restrictive policies, practices and attitudes, and a dead weight of intransigent bureaucracy. Time will tell if the possibly good intention of wishing to change that will be really a paving slab on the road to hell, the bargain just made a Faustian one.
Others have spoken from different angles more eloquently on the matter than I can, Lesley, Jonathan and Jean to name but three. And though I am a little wary of extrapolating on the state of the nation from local anecdote, I found the article below moving and apposite; I wanted simply to supply a link to it, but it appears not to be due to be published on the website, so I am very grateful to Michael Taylor, the author, and French News, for their generous permission in allowing me to post it. It was written on the eve of the election, with, in my opinion, wit, compassion and lightness of touch; I only wish I could have written it.
Which way will the vote swing?
Hergé, the 'father' of the Tintin comic strips, was born 100 years ago this month. Though he pioneered a characteristically 20th-century art form, he sometimes fell back on devices invented in that first age of storytelling in picture sequences: the Middle Ages. When one of his characters struggles against temptation, an angel in a nightgown and a devil wielding a pitchfork appear in the space above his head, wrangling like a pair of irate cabdrivers, urging him to yield to, or triumph over, his worst instincts.
These first days of May, as French voters prepare to cast the final vote for their next president, I think of these quaint (but really momentous) little crises of conscience. Not that either of the two candidates in the second round represents a dramatic choice between good and evil, or even, as some of my French friends tell me, worse and less worse. Simply, like most presidential races in these troubled times, the disappointing, lacklustre course à la presidentielle has brought out both the best (a little of it, anyway) and the worst (abundantly) of this admirable and maddening nation. There have been noble declarations about more democracy, greater equality and a reasonable and reasonably generous pride in being French in a world that is fast forgetting the value of reason. But we have also been subjected to the rank belches of the tight-lipped, clenched-jaw kinds of nationalism and national selfishness. To put it in simple terms, as Hergé might have done, it’s been a struggle between the devil of not giving a damn about the next man – especially if he’s not a born Frenchman – and the angel of feeling that we humans are all in the same boat together, lifeboat earth, as it was once fashionable to call it.
In a sense, the hamlet where we live, a cluster of half-a dozen foyers, or hearths, set among fields and woods in a not especially prosperous (though compared to the Darfur incredibly green and bounteous) corner of rural France, is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. It’s a little universe of its own, morally divided, like a fairytale kingdom, between two old men, two grandfathers haloed by the dimming aura of their former stature. Off a sandy lane to the east lives Monsieur Moreau (it is significant that we never think of him by his first name), a podgy, gimp-legged 70-something-year-old who I’ve never seen wearing anything other than his military-looking hunting outfit. His co-patriarch, so to speak, is Albert’s father, Papi Pierre, whose realm is his kitchen, sweltering in winter, cool and dark in summer, and its adjoining vegetable patch on the western side of our hameau.
Both men survived a war, though not the same war, and both are given to reminisce about their times under the bombs, as they were the most eventful years in their otherwise tranquil rural existences. Monsieur Moreau, who is the younger of the two, served under the French flag in Algeria when Algeria was still a French colony and it was the metropolitan soldiers’ job to suppress the Algerians’ struggle for independence. Whatever action Monsieur Moreau saw there (he is vague on this point, either because he spent much of his time in barracks or because it was mostly shameful), his stint south of the Mediterranean has left him with the mentality of a guard dog. This is especially true where foreigners are concerned. My wife and I are all right, at least provisionally, but then we’re a shade lighter than he is, we probably pay more taxes and we’re able to exchange greetings and pleasantries in his own singsong accents.
Albert’s father, on the other hand, was one of the millions of Frenchmen shipped to Nazi Germany to toil as forced labourers – in other words as slaves. One would understand it if he harboured anti-German sentiments, or even anti-British ones, for he lost the hearing in one ear when a RAF bomb struck a direct hit on the factory where he was working in Berlin. Nevertheless, he is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met and perhaps the only one who seems incapable of bearing a grudge against anyone or anything (including the illness which took his wife from him almost 30 years ago). The morning after the first US missiles struck Baghdad in 2003, he came over to our house to apologise for being angry with the Americans. "It’s just that seeing the strikes on the news reminded me of those times." There was no need to ask him what he meant by "those times". "The reason I’m for Europe," he said on the eve of the European referendum (about which he had many reservations but for which he nevertheless voted), "is because I do not want my son or his children or anyone to live through those times again. Not here, ever."
The cherry tree in Monsieur Moreau’s garden has blossomed beautifully this year and the young cherries have formed, green and as hard as the stones inside them. When they ripen, as they soon shall, Monsieur Moreau will station himself in a white plastic armchair in the shade of the tree. He will be wearing his khaki gear and will be holding his shotgun at the ready, and any thrush hardy or hungry enough to venture near it will get, as he puts it with relish, "a taste of lead".
Papi Pierrot, who is half if not three-quarters deaf, will be too far off to notice. He will potter around between the spring onions and lettuce of his potager, his neatly laid-out kitchen garden, which he shares with a trio of cats and a large brown rabbit that escaped from its hutch a couple of weeks ago. Papi Pierrot, who speaks to the creature in patois, claims it is impossible to catch it, but I suspect that he hasn’t the heart to force it back into captivity.
© Michael Taylor, first published in French News, May 2007