Bastille Day is a big French national holiday. It commemorates the rebellion in Paris on July 14, 1789, when a mob of citizens threw open the gates of the hated Bastille prison, and released a rather disappointing total of seven political prisoners. This was the beginning of the French revolution, and the beginning of modern France. This mid-July weekend is the peak time for vacation traffic. From then until the end of August, the south of France is absolutely full, standing room only. It’s not a bad time to leave for a trip to Sweden.
I’ve often felt that the French really enjoyed their revolution, chaotic and anarchic though it was. They have never quite got over it. You can tell by the way they drive and park that the spirit of anarchy is not dead. Evading government regulations is practically a patriotic duty. And there’s a fierce patriotism that appears on occasions like Bastille Day that makes a foreigner feel just a bit out of place.
At the end of our year in France it seemed almost like home. The village streets, the stores, the cafés, the people, and the cats had become part of our daily lives, although we never figured out more than a fraction of what was going on. Even the opening and closing times of Monsieur Vidal’s general store remained a mystery to the very end. Our neighbors were entirely welcoming, strangers were friendly and helpful, we never felt rejected.
French popular culture was and is obsessed with American themes. Even the distinguished newspaper Le Monde crams its pages with reviews of American novels, movies and art. That’s why French journalists and intellectuals agonize over the problem of foreign influence, and the question of French identity.
In my opinion, they have plenty of identity, almost too much. Nobody can be French like the French, or remind you so often that you are not French, which they see as a misfortune rather than a fault. But there are some disturbing trends. It’s not just movies and MacDonalds, but the fact that the most deeply valued part of France, the French heartland or la France profonde, has become part of the global real estate marketplace.
It’s a pattern repeated all over Europe in attractive villages. Newcomers buy and refurbish the romantic old village houses. The original inhabitants, especially the young ones, want nothing more than to move out to a nice villa in the suburbs, or to the nearby city. These migrations create what I call the anachronistic village: church bells and satellite dishes, traditional families living in poverty right next to wealthy professionals from Paris, Berlin, and New York. If you look into the street level windows of the medieval houses you might see an old lady knitting in her rocking chair. But you are just as likely to see the glowing icon of Windows 8.
In places like Provence, some of the prettier villages have been more or less completely colonized by outsiders. Ancient stone houses built by and for peasants have acquired proper plumbing, air conditioning, and high-speed Internet connections. The paradoxes multiply.
Where does this leave traditional French culture? The answer seems to be: fighting an energetic rearguard action, and winning, at least some of the time. The drama of our previous year in France was a David and Goliath battle between the village wine growers and the Californian wine giant Mondavi. This village was chosen by Mondavi for the production of a new prestige wine, requiring a big investment. The locals had mixed feelings about this. But it seemed to be a done deal, until the municipal elections in spring. The old socialist mayor was thrown out of office, and the new communist mayor cancelled the project, claiming that small farmers couldn’t survive this kind of competition, and adding that he “Would never accept the presence a big multinational” in his community. So, for the moment, the menace of global capitalism was rolled back, at least in that village.
It wasn’t quite a new French revolution, but it was definitely in the same rebellious tradition. I don’t think we need to worry that our temporary presence has polluted the pure stream of French culture. French culture can take care of itself.
Copyright: David Bouchier