I have spent time in France every year of my adult life since I was 18 years old. It took Covid to break the pattern and I hadn’t returned since 2019 – until last week, in the midst of the presidential campaign.
bsence is heart-pounding – and I really appreciated being able to travel to Paris and then on to Brittany without the bureaucracy of antigen testing, vaccination certificates, localization forms. But the absence also makes the observation sharper, and the changes that have taken place in French life have been striking.
It may seem trivial, but one of the most obvious was everyday food. It’s amazing how much French cuisine seems to have lost ground to the hamburger, pizza, Mexican churito, sushi bar and kebab. Take a seat at a train station and treat myself to a nice, traditional French lunch of steak and chips? I searched in vain. All ate international take away food.
And not only that: eat while standing! What has become of the French tradition that your digestion and – that sacred organ – the liver require you to sit comfortably at a table when you eat?
And the cafe. The dominant presence at Gare Montparnasse is now Starbucks. Pret A Manger – a franchise founded by Brits despite its French name – is not far behind, along with Costa. What? The French had the most famous cafes in the world – Cafe de la Paix, Les Deux-Magots, Cafe Flore, Au Vieux Colombier and so many more on the Left Bank, where writers from De Beauvoir to Hemingway wrote their immortal prose. The famous cafes still exist, but many of their smaller satellites have been overtaken by the big, globalized chains in a ‘McDonaldization’.
And one more thing: clothes. Isn’t France celebrated for its elegance, for having pioneered the world’s greatest couture, from Dior to Chanel, Balmain, Yves St. Laurent, Courreges, Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, Givenchy? The haute couture world is still here, and you still see the occasional break in style among those who stroll the boulevards, but the general standard of clothing just doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be.
The universal casual uniform has evidently taken over: the predictable jeans, scuffed sneakers, and unremarkable anoraks with hoodies have become the norm, along with those padded jackets that make anyone look less than exquisitely slim like the Michelin Man. The Parisian crowd seems no different from the crowd elsewhere: and sadly grubby in poorer parts of the capital.
All societies change over time, but French society strikes me as much less confident than it used to be: confidence, even arrogance, was the hallmark of the Parisian who perfected the inimitable shrug of contempt of je m’en fous – ” I don’t care.” Now the note seems more of a national fear. The bookstores are crammed with collective introspection, with titles like Freedom, Equality – Insecurity?, The French against themselves and Le Wakeism – is France contaminated?
A comprehensive study – an examination of France and the French, with research by pollster Harris Interactive – published by the magazine challenges, confirms these fears. Sixty percent of the French have “negative” feelings towards politicians and 31 percent say it is “not worth mentioning”. 46 percent say France is not functioning as a democracy, 47 percent believe France is “in decline,” and an alarming 72 percent fear France will lose its identity if Islam becomes the dominant religion.
The most honored values are “respect, freedom and family”. “Respect” is hugely, even needily, valued – 75pc put it high on their list of desirable traits. Many French people do not feel sufficiently respected personally.
When asked about their most common basic mood, 53 percent answered “fear” and 34 percent “anger”. On the plus side, the French trust science and the EU and want prosperity.
The presidential contest between Emmanuel Macron and Marine LePen is certainly symbolic of so much that defines France today: the shiny, tekky, European nation versus the anxious, needy, left-behind French who feel globalization has stolen their culture and immigration – 57 percent say there is too much – her identity threatened.
President Macron’s rather old-fashioned French self-confidence – he sees himself in a direct line with both Napoleon and de Gaulle – may inspire appreciation, but it also inspires irrational hatred. There’s even a book called: Macron – Why so much hate? (by Nicolas Domenach and Maurice Szafran). The authors conclude that his “princely” demeanor belittles the underachievers – that he “looks down on us.”
Despite all its problems, France remains a great country at the heart of European civilization and the only EU state capable of defending Europe militarily. It is important that it survives and thrives as a functioning democracy. And also as a functioning hub of French eating habits.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/liberty-equality-uncertainty-how-anxiety-has-replaced-french-self-confidence-41548347.html “Liberty, Equality, Uncertainty?” – How Fear Replaced French Confidence