Our Man In Paris

Richard Maxwell



What is this thing called France?


The question about what lies at the mainland end of the Eurotunnel, or Chunnel as it's known in Britain, was first drawn to world attention by Julius Caesar, an experienced politician and military explorer who told everyone that it was Gaul and was divided into three parts. Today, thanks to the invention of graph paper, inflation and various forms of literacy, much the same geographical entity is divided into 22 Regions consisting of 95 departments and 36,627 communes containing 60 million people, most of whom are French and many of whom work, often for the government.

If you look at the map, France is a largish, flattish, mis-shapen rectangle stuck onto the western edge of Europe and known to its inhabitants as "le hexagone". It has a heaped up mountainous plateau called the Massif Central in the lower right hand corner, and a more disciplined, squared-off-looking neighbour called the Iberian Peninsular hanging off the bottom edge.

At the top is Belgium, on the right are Germany and Switzerland. In the top left corner is a fragment known as the Brittany Peninsular, after the inhabitants, who had migrated from Britain and viewed the arrival of the Francs with a certain distaste. For the rest, West of what is now France there is nothing but 3000 miles of Atlantic ocean before you get to America.

Geographically speaking, France is of course the largest country in Europe if you don't count Germany, from which she was only separated by accident. If you remember, when the Romans left Gaul, the Francs and other Germanic tribes including the Burgonds and various sorts of Goth started coming West because of population pressure from farther East (sounds familiar? Think of expanding Oriental markets and don't worry - yet). At about that time, around 496 AD, Clovis and the Francs had finally decided they were like splitting, man, from the other Germanic tribes and going to do their own thing. So after thumbing their noses at their numerous cousins, Clovis and his gang drifted westwards looking for somewhere to stay. The Gauls, matriarchal Celts to a man, had moved to Belgium when the Romans came, taking their entire cultural baggage with them except for the roughs for a cartoon strip about Asterix and seven words now found in today's French language. As a result, when Clovis and his band of brigands arrived in Reims, they found they had an entire cultural vacuum to fill, a mighty challenge for a gang of marauding illiterates. As printing hadn't yet been invented, Clovis decided that the politico-cultural thing to do was to trade in his old tribal gods for something that would look good in stained glass, like the latest Roman model of Christianity. So he told all his followers, mostly pagans and Arians - at that time the politically correct model - to fall in and get converted, one two, one two. In exchange for supporting the young Roman church he was crowned King of the Francs and had the guaranteed support of the Pope - probably the most favourable conversion rate ever known. The newly invented Frankish court - which remained largely nomadic until Charlemagne decided to settle in Aachen some 400 years later - subsequently pushed on westward. To their surprise, the Francs now found that everywhere they went was now France, at least while they were around. Of course, when they went away the country reverted to being mostly woods and forests or whatever it was before. Things proceeded like this for a while until suddenly, with a wild surmise, the westering Francs came to the wild Bay of Biscay and the bleak cliffs of Brittany, Finis Terre, the edge of everything. The known world was visibly ending beneath their feet, where could they go from here? America hadn't been invented yet and anyway most of them couldn't swim... Population pressure and race memories die hard, and the descendants of these navigationally disadvantaged protofrench people have never quite recovered from the shock. Which may be the reason the French are ever so slightly nervous about immigrants and people who don't parlez-vous, and keep talking about "l'exception française", especially with reference to television quotas. Ridiculous, really. After all, they're just a bunch of foreigners, aren't they?

Anyway, free capital movement and no border controls led to a great deal of exchange, not to say diplomatic intercourse, with Italy, Rome and so forth, and in the course of events the Francs spread south across the Loire. Here, discovering the ruins of Roman villas and other evidences of cultural hegemony, the Francs started believing that France was Latin, which of cause meant that they were too... This has been the source of much confusion, both linguistic and administrative, ever since. As things stand, the northern (or Franker) part of the country wants to adhere more closely to the German end of Europe, while the southern (or Latter) end would actually be happier as a wholely Mediterranean country, feeling that they already do very well out of the Deutschmark every summer, so why not leave well enough alone?

France is today celebrated for her cultural exception, a rule that says French cooking is Top, and that French films and television ought to be. As a result the country is well-equipped with gourmet oenophiles called Michelin because they don't like burnt rubber or Gault et Millault, who don't like it either. The problem is that while they are discerning a certain je ne sais quoi in the ambience generated around the camembert by the Puyseguin St Emilion, which might indeed be ascribed to the influence on the palate of the early-maturing merlot grape rather than that of the more rigorous and demanding cabernet franc, they are not going to bother to look at TR1, FR2, FR3, La Cinq, the M6, the M25, the A1 or even American re-runs, because by the time one has reached the plenitude of the cheese-board the papilles gustatives are perhaps a trifle fatiguées, hmmm?

Then of course there are the police, one of the few domains in which successive governments have encouraged active competition among official and unofficial organisations, although no-one is sure that the consumer benefits from improved service as a result. Many of them are in uniform although few today look like Louis Jouvet or even Jean Gabin. However, the average tourist is not likely to run across them very often. France is in fact a perfectly delightful country for tourists, somewhat less so for would-be settlers and perfectly unbearable for the native inhabitants - in France as elsewhere, organised administrative intrusion can have all the subtlety of a pair of Doc Martins work boots and can be as restrictively pedantic as Stalin’s governess. Progress takes many forms, as the bureaucrat said to the citizen. Here I should say that kindly, understanding and helpful civil servants are in fact as numerous as the pit-bull variety, and which you come across is largely a matter of luck. There also exists a category of cultured, très civilisé and courteous senior administrators. These arch-smoothies are smooth enough not to mingle with foreign riff-raff unless it's somebody's cousin. Rather like Britain, really. And in between them and the rest of us there is a great gulf fixed, but of course, if you do know someone who knows the minister, then all paths are smoothed and doors open. Very like many other countries. And like many other cultures, the inhabitants of France don't make a habit of speaking foreign languages, although they do seem to have largely the same everyday problems and possibilities as everyone else. The real difference lies in the way the two cultures tackle them. This is known as the excéption française (see above).

The thing about the French is that they have all been taught that France is the centre of the Universe - and of course Paris is the centre of France. Neither statement is accurate, but this is an old tradition that dates back to Louis XIV, who decided that France was going to be Top Nation, which it was for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period France invented such Cultural Topness as Bordeaux (wine) and Paris (courtiers, couturiers, coiffeurs), D'Artagnan (musketeers) and Voltaire (Enlightenment). Unfortunately they didn't know when to stop, and went on to invent Revolution (roulette) and Guillotines, at which point France lost its head completely and stopped being Top, or even having one. This opened the way for the School Bully (Napoleon), who started thinking he was Julius Caesar making a come-back, and threw his armies all over the place. He also decreed that everyone should now drive on the Right and put all the laws into his Code, which nobody was allowed to understand except lawyers who all went to the Bar, which was very strictly licensed. Napoleon might indeed be seen as the first attempt since Charlemagne at a European Union, and most of the Reigning Heads of the period in fact decided they would rather allow Napoleon to call himself Emperor and go on reigning. This might have worked but for one thing: Napoleon didn't have the right bootmaker, being seen everywhere in white breeches and polished black half-boots. Naturally the Duke of Wellington soon put paid to that and made him wear green rubber ones like everyone else.

Somewhere in the middle of the 19th century Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of Paris who was always trying to keep order among the lower classes, discovered there was a traffic problem and called in a number of architects (about two) who carved marvellous great avenues everywhere that would give a good field of fire in case of Revolution. This was about a hundred years too late to have any real effect, but at least they had someone to blame for the shortage of accommodation, or haussing problem as it was known. You could even say that he was the grandfather of today's problem suburbs, which he created by demolishing much of central Paris.

In general, France today has a temperate climate, plenty of open space outside the towns, an international reputation for cultural excellence and being logical. Unfortunately logic doesn't help them understand why everyone doesn't want to let them run Europe - after all, they have the best bureaucrats and the hardest Francs...

Well... those whose memory extends back a paragraph or two will no doubt recall that after Napoleon changed his boots he said "Able was I ere I saw Elba" and took early retirement, thus starting the Mediterranean tourist industry (note: this was the only economically memorable palindrome before the arrival of George Soros). France then underwent a period of restoration and rapid industrial expansion, leading to canals, railways, comparatively fast foods and Alexander Dumas (note: this is the only French author who is the same in both singular and plural). Paris became the Ville Lumière, with restaurants, Folies Bergères and a marvellous export trade in chefs, can-can dancers and beautiful women such as La Belle Epoque, who had a great influence on European politics and Edward VII. France thus became Top Nation for Rest and Recreation, a reputation which resulted in three attempted takeovers by the descendants of Clovis's cousins, who still remembered that he had been very rude when he left and thought it about time to remind him that the family hadn't been pleased.

This answers the question about what lies on the other side of the Chunnel (see above) and brings the rest of us back to 1998 and all that. Try a slice of France sometime - it grows on you, like ripe Camembert, and is the perfect accompaniment to a good red Bordeaux...