BARBARIANS AT THE GATE
The France Nobody (in America) Wants to Know
Enough fantasies about France and the French. The protests and riots expose a dark, complex history of rural poverty and anger.
NICE, France – Many American friends truly believe I live in an elegant paradise called France where the women are chic, the men seductive, no one eats junk food and we spend our time sipping rosé in cafés and making love in fields of lavender.
I don’t blame them. France didn’t become the number one tourist destination in the world for nothing. It’s a brand right up there with Jesus Christ and the Beatles, burnished by experts ever since Louis XIV turned his father’s chateau into the Palace of Versailles in 1682.
Modern France, in many ways, was invented by a brilliant cabal of Parisian elites in the 1600s and 1700s. That as late as 1800 France was overwhelmingly comprised of desperately poor peasants who spoke different dialects and did not even understand French has become a minor detail of history.
Like any master of branding and PR, France has managed to convince the world – especially Americans – that this once-agrarian country dominated by non-French speaking peasants is now arguably the planet’s most superior culture.
Reams of precious books in recent years by American and English authors who fetishize the romance of Paris or portray rural villagers as colorful curmudgeons with hearts of gold has only fueled this fantasy.
Foreigners figured out decades before Hemingway and Fitzgerald that moving here meant they could reinvent themselves and acquire a patina of sophistication. Expats have always been the biggest enablers of the idea of French supremacy. In that crowd, which includes me, telling certain truths about France is the last taboo. It might wreck your book deal.
So how to explain what's happening now in Paris and the provinces? The outside world is witnessing nightmarish images of a defaced Arc de Triomphe and the intractability and brutality of the Yellow Vests or gilets jaunes, if they see them interviewed on TV. More violence is expected Saturday despite recent government concessions.
“I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of a coup d’etat right now,” a worried friend texted me from Paris Thursday night. “It feels like it could happen because the Yellow Vests came out of nowhere. I was not aware that old people are starving, according to their representatives on TV. Another guy said he would like to see more than just slices of ham in his fridge.”
This is not the France of song and story – or certainly Natalie Portman’s new Miss Dior commercial.
Muslim-related terrorism is one thing. So are the traditional union-led train or airline strikes. But watching middle-aged, mainly white French people rising up in a leaderless, countrywide revolt that may or may not have anything to do with higher fuel taxes and an allegedly high cost of living is something else altogether. Even the French TV talking heads are confused. None of this was hinted at in, say, A Moveable Feast or A Year in Provence.
Better to read eye-opening social histories like Graham Robb’s excellent The Discovery of France or Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France to understand the ancestors of some of the Yellow Vests.
“There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that vast parts of 19th century France were inhabited by savages: poor, backward, wild,” writes Weber.
Many were “barbarians” who lived like “troglodytes who sleep near the fire in their huts on stalks of briar like cats on wood shavings” well into the 1870s.
Many French friends of mine don't know much about Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire's famous report in 1794 on the "medieval ignorance" of rural France and how people living within three miles of each other spoke a dialect the other wouldn’t understand.
But they are aware of the long simmering tension and resentment between Paris and the provinces. Among other things, Paris officials brutally extinguished France's many languages which were derided as patois at the time. Children were shamed in school if they spoke it.
If you live in France, you’re familiar with people like Xavier Mathieu, the fiery union activist-turned-actor who lit into anchorwoman Ruth Elkrief Wednesday night during a heated debate on the Yellow Vests on BFM-TV.
Enraged by what he called her classist “contempt” of him, he barked at Elkrief that he had actually “lived the life” of the downtrodden gilets jaunes, refused her entreaties to let others on the panel talk and looked as if he might take a swing at someone.
Elkrief, somewhat like President Emmanuel Macron who caved into the Yellow Vests’ demands this week, backed down in the face of Mathieu’s fury but even that didn’t appease him.
Frenchmen like Mathieu are more representative of complicated, cantankerous France than the glamorous, sexy image long exported abroad.
Sites like TripAdvisor are awash in comments from tourists about the French and how to handle them, as if there were a mysterious code to crack.
Timid posts from those who wonder why the French don’t always seem so friendly are slammed by outraged Francophiles. They insist that if you speak the language, or at least make an effort, you’ll find that the French are lovely, kind people with whom you may have lasting friendships, unlike superficial North Americans.
Maybe. But what many post-writers don’t seem to get is the French don’t care about tourists coming to their defense. These are not codependent people pleasers. They take pride in their stubbornness. They delight in saying “Non!”
This is, after all, the same country where the people go berserk if you don’t say “Bonjour” when entering a store and “Au revoir” when you leave – but think nothing of almost running you over on the street without a word of apology.
“The French understand two things,” says my American friend Andrew who’s lived in Paris for 20 years. “Dominance and submission. They’re not interested in some sort of Anglo-Saxon win-win.”
Where that leaves President Macron, the Yellow Vests and the residents and tourists in Paris this Saturday is as hard to predict as the unpredictable French themselves.
Last weekend, some Parisian women who were threatened while they sat in cars by masked men wielding axes, slipped their diamond rings off their fingers and into their mouths for safekeeping until the men took off.
As Saturday looms, they’re stocking up on food and planning to nail their steel volets to their window frames to keep the rioters and casseurs out.
No one understands the end game. Or what the solution could be.
“There is no solution,” my hairdresser Marianne told me very somberly earlier this week. “This is not about a gas tax. And not everybody is starving. Many of them are on welfare.The system in France is very complex. On one hand they hit you with all sorts of social charges, but if you complain, they’ll gladly give you welfare money. The only way to change France and move it forward is to re-start at zero and install a dictator who can get stuff accomplished.”
And of course, then there would be an uprising against the tyrant.