Published on December 23rd, 2014 | by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry17
The possibility of a French Renaissance?
“Too much light dazzles us ; too much distance or too much proximity impedes vision “
Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts.
Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance…
Those of you living overseas carry a dual idea of our French culture. The one you brought along with your luggage, your memories, your lifestory, your relationship with the mothertongue, your culture, and the one you mirror to the rest of the world away from home. For many of you, the Frenchness you embody will be the only interface with French culture which others will be exposed to. I loved playing the role of cultural ambassador for the twenty years I spent away from home.
This idea of France we carry is often timeless, unreachable deep within us. Each trip back to France reassures us of the fact that everything we love about our dear country is not about to change even slightly – actually we hope this will never change. For example, this shabby-looking antique store we discover in the middle of nowhere, enabling us to experience a voyage through the reassuring past. There is always the possibility of discovering a unique object, a one-of-a-kind find. This possibility fuels our curiosity to venture off the beaten path. Deep inside, we secretly hope “this” will not be on-line anytime soon – unlike everything else. This is something to be concerned about in France too, we tend to virtualize antique hunting and browsing. This is part of a truly French irreplacable pleasure.
And then you have the XIIth Century inn that will never need a website, where Balzac used to take his meals in Saché (Touraine), or that other old stagecoach stop, perfectly nestled in a charming valley, where they boast their custard sauce is made with twelve eggyolks–hatched on the very same day mind you, and of course, unpasteurized… Since when are those nonsensical sanitary inspections are going to try to mess with our hens and chickens! Can’t Brussels mind their own business? We like France to be slightly impure, non-pasteurized, not processable and even a little bit behind, while embracing the green makeover in progress of our industrial suburbs looking positively rejuvenated.
Deep down, we long to savor the succulent nectar of our country, and we are adamant about not touching anything that could alter it. Here we are pressing the nostalgia button: cafés, terrasses where people chat trying to reinvent the world, those senior citizens playing pétanque, those intellectual debates about ranking figures of speech and screening through the syntax of political speeches for hours to better extract what intention was hiding behind the use of the subjunctive, or the meaning behind how many times the president uses the first person singular personal pronoun. This leaves our mindful observers dreaming, dumbfounded at time, exasperated most of the time. Only in France…
Are things as bad as we think they are?
What truly matters for us is the unsaid. What we would like to say, what we would have liked to say, what we should have said, what we do not want to say, what people don’t want us to say, and what we simply cannot say. We like to beat around the bush. As soon as you turn the TV on in France, animated and elitist debates are on just about any subject, and despite what the French have to say about the sorry state of the language – because they also complain domestically about the decline of the quality of their French – people, on the average, still express themselves in good French. Some will mourn the fact that the use of the subjunctive is dwindling, or that the agreement with the past participle is no longer made. One needs to admit that the language we speak evolves. English is making a discrete percolation and the French language actually accommodates the newcomers very well. “To be under control”, ‘to support’, as in being supportive, “an evidence” as in a proof, “versatile” as in multitasking, which used to be negative in French, has become positive in recent times. Even ” to deliver ” has resumed its original French etymology (it usually means to free), but the new use as in delivery is now common. Finally, the adverb “définitivement”, which meant for ever, has now aquired its English meaning as in certainly, most definitely, as an American certitude.
In a country where conversations evolve heavily around food, one can watch a plethora of programs pertaining to gastronomy where everybody truly wants to become a cordon-bleu. Entertainment showcases popular French songs whose attributes are: beautiful lyrics, the ability to create a small 3 minute miracle with a melody, and telling us a story that means something to us and creates a world in itself. The French repertoire is built-in in each of us. We hum the same chorus lyrics. As a matter of fact, French songs have never been so popular. A new generation of singers, eager to sing meaningful content, is actually revisiting the repertoire. Maurice Chevalier is cool, Charles Aznavour despite being 90, is younger than ever, Bécaud, Barbara and Nougaro are in, as for Charles Trénet, he is timelessly inspiring. Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance…
The two million French living abroad are a tremendous resource to tap into for ideas, energy, and potentially new blood for our old country, where aging institutions that smell of mothballs inherited from the past are holding us back. There may be mentalities that need some dusting. Just as if they had outgrown their outfits. One has to bear in mind that the French who left and remained abroad did so because they could not fit in France. A hostile entrepreneurial environment for many of them, elitist education that left many out of the educational system- feeling like they would never make it, or a simple desire to see elsewhere. This is not new, the hemorrhage has been oozing for decades.
Our rigid labor legislation is no longer adapted to today’s reality ; our confiscatory taxation system is stifling. In short, you and I already know about this. The French are aware of it, as they are reminded on a daily basis by the media hammering this subject over and over again through myriads of debates. To add insult to injury, expatriates keep telling them how miserable the French business environment is, this is of course pouring oil on fire-fueling tensions between those who stayed and those who left instead of moping about the system. As for the surreal, daring idea of wanting to start a company in France, it has almost become an oxymoron. Do you really know what you are getting into? Are out of your mind?
You know that France is the place to go spend a vacation, possibly to retire, but positively not the place to conduct business, much less to earn money. These clichés feed the loop conversations the overseas-French get cooped up in. Alas, this subject is going nowhere.
Of course, far be it from me to elaborate on this matter and delve into the reasons why our economy is what it is. Our growth inexistant. No need to ventilate our domestic social issues either. You probably know everything there is to know. Please, let’s not dwell on this.
“Declinism” aggravates it all, undermining whatever little optimism is left among those who still dare hope for the better, usually considered as idealists–at best–, sweet dreamers, wishful thinkers, people in denial, or worse, as simple minds. As you know, in France, in order to look intelligent, one needs to be pessimistic, a frowning eyebrow doomster, and a killjoy attitude is de rigueur. Since you are constantly judged by your intellect first, it justifies the predominance of pessimists in France. This is not new and is not going to change anytime soon. Voltaire versus Leibniz in their times…
The right distance
Personally, I have gotten tired of constant negativity and have taken a holiday from this pointless ranting after some thirty years. Complaining does nothing else but reinforce tensions and gaps amongst our fellow citizens who see France from the outside, and have the whole picture, a clear vision of what would be gained to be changed within, while those who are inside, clearly lack the right distance to be able to tell what needs to be changed and what should not change at all.
What both parties actually share is complaining. If we keep on lamenting collectively, there is very little chance to make any progress as a nation. We end up moping around to no avail. What if we decided to move from ranting, to enjoying being French? This would be a radically new and promising dynamic. The mere possibility of celebrating being French would truly be a godsend, an opportunity to allow a cultural renaissance. It would be a genuine French project.
It would boil down to a clean slate, getting rid of what is useless and parasiting our collective energy, to only concentrate on what we share, what works, what we want to share as intangible, national heritage. Everything that makes us French by culture, through the language, our priorities, our sense of history, aesthetics, our way of life, and what we fight for with such passion. Whether we live in France or away. What truly matters for most of us–beyond our political bipartisanism, our lifestyles, our regional identities, our exceptions, might actually be the only trump card left to us if we want to revel being French.
Become an honored prophet in your own country
“Most French explorers have been solitary men, abandoned to their own resources; only rarely has the government or some company employed or assisted them. Englishmen, Americans, Germans, Spaniards and Portuguese have accomplished, with the support of the national will, what in our case impoverished individuals have attempted in vain. […] in the vast expanses of America, to the benefit of the United States and Great Britain, which I dreamt of making in order to extend the possessions of my native land. If I had succeeded, I would have had the honour of giving French names to unknown regions, of endowing my country with a colony on the Pacific Ocean, taking the rich fur trade from a rival power, and preventing that rival from opening up a shorter route to the Indies, by putting France herself in possession of that route.” Chateaubriand, Memoirs.
I make the wish that among the two-million-French-citizens-living-overseas who-love-their-country-and-want-to-be-part-of-the-solution, be finally heard loud and clear for good, and start making a difference. They truly are, even more passionately attached to our country as distance has aggravated their nostalgic vibrations. French singer icon long time California resident, Michel Polnareff ‘s lyrics, in his now classic : Letter to France, is a good example of a declaration of love. I may be wrong, but I feel that any French living away from home, is capable of becoming emotional when awakened by the reminiscence of tastes, music, visions of countryside, landscapes, smells of the territory, toned-down conversations, a church or a forlorn chateau ruins, a poplar-tree-lined road, cafés terrasses, village squares suffused with linden tree fragrance, dirt roads leading nowhere. All these details found speckled across our land.
I make a wish that their constructive criticism about our country generate goodwill colaboration. It goes without saying that new ideas will come from those who left to create and generate wealth elsewhere. It is about time to listen to them. Chateaubriand brought this matter up in his own days…
I make a wish that one day, the 80-million-French-who-did-not-leave-the homeland, become curious, open-minded, come out of their denial and resistance and decide to listen to their fellowcitizens from abroad. I wish they would not take for constant criticism, any remark coming from overseas. I wish they accepted the idea that change in France is not necessarily equivalent to jeopardizing France. Conversely, change would actually enable our country to ensure its sustainability at a time when our citizens feel so deeply insecure about themselves. After all, don’t we have everything we need to succeed?
What if all that malaise was all about a misunderstanding on common grounds, made out of deeply bruised esteem? The French are overly sensitive, proud and arrogant, they do carry with them a complex history, an implicit culture too complex to be made explicit. Would it not make sense to be in touch with our ambivalent feelings in order to go deeper and investigate what’s really wrong with us? Couldn’t we get our act together to establish a common diagnosis and muster our energy to improve our collective fate? Let’s come out of this dichotomy that prevents us from moving on! Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get down to work to find solutions together since our land of plenty ranks as one of the most pessimistic countries in the world. It is also one of the most anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug consumers, yet they boast a strong birth rate… This too is part of the French paradox, hence the impatience, the nerve-wracking, teeth grinding, the frustration and anger. Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance…
Bet on Great Expectations
Times do change. However, the ambivalence weighs heavily. People who stayed in the homeland will be jealous of your material success because they will automatically believe you are wealthy. They will blame you for having escaped the French burdensome tax load, for living under fantasized coconut trees, and for having become completely ignorant because you forgot about being French and because you make unforgivable mistakes. Here we go, I had to put it bluntly. I am only saying out loud what people think of you deep inside. What is actually held against expatriates is that they escaped the homeland– which boils down to the same thing as betraying it. They can rest assured they will pay a high price for this treason every single time they come back. For example, they will be ridiculed for not knowing the latest about France. How come you don’t know such and such? You still wear this? This is the equivalent to social suicide and an aesthetic faux pas… The French are very gifted when it comes to ridicule, with an almost innate sense of the pique seasonned with contempt to ostracize the one who comes from outside the clan and may present delete s a threat to the established equilibrium.
In short, expect to be put on the grill should you decide to move back for good. You will have to re-learn everything. It is amazing how fast one loses the code about how to live the French way. However, things do improve over time. Your fear to become one of them will keep you alert and on the lookout for a few years. This is part of the normal reentry process. Is it curable? Yes… Thanks to your American half, for those who have become American, you will feel somewhat protected at least for a while… Most reassuring… You will oscillate between Great Expectations and Lost Illusions.
So, how to contribute if people back home feel jealous, envious, if they ostracize you, believe you are privileged because you escaped the latest natural disasters, strikes, demonstrations, and months of endless discussion on how to reshape the territory and the possible threat of abolishing the sacred départements? Of course, those little regional preoccupations that make headlines in France may seem futile from Dallas or Shanghai. And the monopoly of arrogant thinking which is still the prerogative of Paris over the rest of the country, has truly become unbearable. Nobody is being fooled by this anymore.
How to contribute when we feel ourselves ambivalent between rage, bitterness, a feeling of being rejected, natural anger towards a country that did not want us, and torn apart by a strong desire to make a difference? Our bond to France comes from the gut. The French are deeply attached to their country because we are fundamentally a bonding culture.
It is in the air
What if I told you that things are slowly but surely changing in France so that a renaissance might actually take place? If I told you that the French genious is very present, alive, and well? In times of sustainable development, disgust for waste, shareability, local production and consumption, craving for meaningful life, of quality over quantity, and demand of citizen participation in good governance, there seems to be the possibility for real change in France and the genuine desire to be happy and to be French that may become a reality. Is France in the process of regaining the energy it should have had all along? It is always in hard times that the beautiful rebel recovers her glory. Mum’s the word! I did not tell you this… they would call me an overly optimistic dreamer.