Deux autres articles intéressants, l'un directement et l'autre indirectement, en rapport avec les attentats de la semaine dernière à Paris. Le premier est un reportage diffusé dans l'émission de la chaîne ABC, 7.30, dédié aux marches qui ont eu lieu en France en hommage aux victimes des attentats. Ce reportage comprends également une entrevue très intéressante avec l'Ambassadeur Français en Australie, Christophe Lecourtier, qui, de manière surprenante pour un ambassadeur, n'a pas peur de pointer du doigt ce qu'il faudrait faire pour stopper la montée des mouvements radicaux en France. Le second article est un chapitre appelé Is France an egalitarian society?, issu du livre affreusement intitulé mais extrêmement intéressant de Piu Marie Eatwell, They Eat Horses, Don't They?: The Truth about the French. Dans ce chapitre, Madame Eatwell fait l'analyse (du mythe ?) de l'égalitarisme en France.
Two more interesting items: one directly and the other indirectly related to last week's attacks in Paris. The first is a report dedicated to the marches which took place in France in honour of the victims broadcast by the ABC programme 7.30, which also includes a very interesting interview with the French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, who, oddly enough for an ambassador, does not shy away from stating what needs to be done in order to curb the rise of radicalist movements in France. The second item is a chapter by the title Is France an egalitarian society?, from the horrendously titled but very very interesting book by Piu Marie Eatwell, They Eat Horses, Don't They?: The Truth About the French. In this chapter, Madame Eatwell analyses (the myth of?) egalitarianism in France.
Is France is an egalitarian society?
We are used to thinking of the French as the ultimate egalitarian nation. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was the motto of the French Revolution of 1789: principles that had already been articulated by French thinkers who led the world in championing the freedom of the individual as the basis for running a state. Most famously, the Francophone Swiss Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, in his 1762 treatise The Social Contract:
'If we ask in what precisely consists the greatest good of all, which should be the end of every system of legislation, we shall find it reduces itself to two main objects, liberty and equality liberty, because all particular dependence means so much force taken from the body of the State and equality, because liberty cannot exist without it.'
Equality, for thinkers such as Rousseau and the leaders of the Revolution, was a counteracting force in the form of levelling laws imposed by the state to control the naturally selfish instincts of man; and ever since, the French have prided themselves on being (unlike the snobbish English) the nation of freethinking, banner-waving, street-marching brothers-in-arms. Although, looking at the enormous upheavals of recent French history, one could be forgiven for thinking that the path to equality has been far from clear-cut. In fact, it's hard to see why people have problems understanding modern French history. Monarchy, Revolution, Republic, Empire, Monarchy, Revolution, Monarchy, Revolution, Republic, Empire, Republic. Dead easy, really. Few are the European countries that have had as many changes of regime, in as short a time, as the French. And yet, if you look behind the ostensibly breathtaking transformations in the French political landscape, one feature remains constant as the northern star. And that is the centrality of the state.
L'état, cest moi ('I am the state'), the Roi Soleil ('Sun King') Louis XIV once famously said. Napoleon could have said as much. And in recent times, little has changed. The president of France - thanks to the powers conferred on him by the Fifth Republic established by General de Gaulle in October 1958 - is the most powerful political leader in the Western world. Unlike the parliamentary democracies of countries such as the UK - where a system of checks and balances, in theory at least, places some restraint on the untrammelled exercise of power by anyone individual - the French president reigns supreme. De Gaulle himself admitted as much, when he said to his minister of information, Alain Peyrefitte, that he had tried, in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, to create a 'synthesis between a monarchy and a republic'. 'What, a monarchic Republic?' Peyrefitte is said to have responded, astonished. 'No: replied de Gaulle, 'let's say rather a Republican monarchy'. Once every five years, the president of the French Republic is required to go out on the street and answer to the rabble. For the next 1,825 days, he can virtually do what he likes. (Although there is, occasionally, the inconvenience of cohabitation - that is, when the majority party in the French parliament is not the same party as the president's.) A French president in office is immune from legal or criminal proceedings: no Watergate can unseat him, nor Chappaquiddick submerge him. That this should be the case in a country famed for its Republican revolution, and of which the motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, is profoundly ironic. It is as though the French people have never quite got over guillotining their royal family in 1793, and instead insist on appointing a walking and talking shadow to pay homage to the regal ghosts of the past.
Just as the Sun King surrounded himself with a tight circle of lackeys, spies and sycophants to impose his laws on the land, so the French president has an army of executives - the hautes fonctionnaires or top civil servants in the administrative, financial and legislative departments of government - to administer his will. The tripartite structure of top civil servants, captains of industry, and - increasingly - bosses in the worlds of banking and commerce, form the technocracy that rules France. This haute bourgeoisie, or ruling class, remains aloof and hidden from the lives of ordinary French citizens. Most have been born into families that for years have occupied high functions in the civil service, industry or banking. As one French social scientist has observed, 'Birth remains in France one of the principal conditions of access to power'. Hot on the heels of a silver spoon comes a sterling education. Many of the nation's elect bypass the French state schools, attending instead private, Catholic schools or top Parisian lycees known for taking the cream of the crop. And after school comes the most elitist institution of all: the grande école. Originally founded by Napoleon to train up a select cadre of officers to carry out his commands, the French grandes écoles are a league of super-graduate schools that exist over and above the normal French universities. Specializing in different disciplines, each has connections with the sector for which it trains up recruits. Thus HEC Paris (Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris), the leading business school, has close links with the world of banking and finance; ENA (École Nationale d'Administration), the élite school for civil servants, virtually guarantees its graduates the highest positions in the French administration; and the École Polytechnique, the top French maths and engineering school, trains hundreds of technocrats. (The École Polytechnique, known simply as X, is the crème de la crème, a quasi-military establishment under the control of the French Defence Ministry.) Entry to the grandes écoles is by a competitive entry examination or concours, for which entrants are hot-housed in top preparatory schools called prépas (the leading prépas, naturally, have close connections with the top lycées or secondary schools). Fees, except for the business schools, are virtually nil, and in fact in some grandes écoles (École Polytechnique, ENA and the École Normale Supérieure), students are actually paid a salary of €2,000 a month. The grandes écoles receive much higher government funding than the universities - they get 30 per cent of the national budget, with only 4 per cent of the students. A study in 2008 found that of the 27 French bosses of the CAC 40 companies (i.e. the top 40 companies in France), 20 had graduated from just three of the top grandes écoles: ENA, the École Polytechnique, and HEC Paris.
Contemporaries at the grandes écoles hang out with each other, at work and play, for the rest of their lives. Though private social clubs were a British invention, the French have taken to them with an enthusiasm somewhat unbecoming a nation of Revolutionaries. The foremost private club - Le Siècle - was founded at the end of the Second World War, and counts among its members France's elite civil servants, businessmen, politicians, intellectuals, journalists and academics (some 40 per cent of the French government from the 1990s onwards, whether Socialist or conservative, have belonged to Le Siècle). The club organizes an apéritif and dinner on the last Wednesday of the month at the Automobile Club of France in the Place de la Concorde, where the happy few can rub shoulders and discuss world affairs in confidence. Most of the mandarins of Le Siècle are male, middle-aged, the sons of industry bosses, civil servants or financiers, and many of them are énarques (that is, graduates of ENA; the powerful clique that runs France's civil service is known as the énarchie). More exclusive, but with less political clout, is the Jockey Club de Paris, with splendid rooms at rue Rabelais, a club for aristocrats presided over by the Duc de Brissac.
The French haute bourgeoisie - many of whom claim noble origins - are obsessed with distinguishing themselves from the newly and flashily rich. In fact, there is no greater social disgrace than being considered a parvenu. (Interestingly and perhaps not accidentally, the principal terms used in English to designate the newly and vulgarly rich are of French origin - parvenu, arriviste and nouveau riche.) It is as a result of this fanatical concern for demarcating old from new money, distinguishing the breadth of one's bank balance from the length of one's pedigree, that the bourgeois French obsession with the rules of politesse and savoir-vivre arises; and it is in the haute bourgeois desire to set themselves apart from the vulgar arriviste that the principles of discretion in dress, the choice of sober colours, the rejection of flashy designer labels and jewellery, take root. The big and vulgar noises in France - actors, celebrities and football stars - are listed in Who's Who in France (published since 1953), just as in the British version. The haute bourgeoisie, however, have their own directory - Le Bottin mondain - which lists precisely no French footballers, none of the best-paid French actors or singers, and only one top-selling French essayist. Instead, it features the handful of grandes familles françaises who form the inner circles of the Parisian élite.
To the average Frenchman, or indeed foreigner, nothing is more evocative of an aristocratic past than a name that includes the illustrious particule (i.e. the appellation de in a person's surname, as in Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais); and nowhere is the allure of the particule so strong as in the land of ardent Revolutionaries. There are, in fact, so many fausses particules adopted by members of the French bourgeoisie in a bid to ennoble themselves that there is a counter-directory of fake nobility to name and shame them: the hefty tome Le Similinobiliaire francais, by Pierre- Marie Dioudonnat, which lists all the faux noble particules and patronyms adopted by members of the bourgeoisie. The book caused a storm of protest on publication in 2002. Famous faux noble name-holders of bourgeois origin include: General Charles de Gaulle; the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin; the one-time French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing; and even the great nineteenth-century novelist Honore (de) Balzac, whose humblyborn father added the particule to his name when he climbed the social ladder.
The paradoxical devotion of the French to two conflicting principles - equality and privilege - inevitably generates a vast amount of cant and hypocrisy. It is also another reason for the excessive tact and discretion of that secretive, low-lying and hunted animal – the French haute bourgeoisie. After all, heads once rolled in France as a result of the overweening display of wealth and privilege. The impossible predicament of the prosperous in France was aptly expressed by the Franco-Italian actor Fabrice Luchini, when he observed, shrugging his shoulders in despair: 'I don't have any gloating passion for money; at 58 years old, I am only beginning to learn how to profit from it. I am an insomniac, I don't derive pleasure from anything, but I don't have the right to complain because there are other people whose houses are being razed. So I shut my mouth. Either one keeps one's privileges and shuts up, or one gives it all to Emmaus.'
The latest round of bourgeois-bashing in France following the election of the Socialist François Hollande as president in 2012 triggered a flood of wealthy tax exiles from the country, most famously the noisy departure of former national treasure Gerard Depardieu, an exodus which has caused a certain amount of soul-searching. The agony of self-doubt was exacerbated by a particularly mordant attack on the Gallic attitude to wealth by another national hero, the French pop singer Johnny Hallyday, in his best-selling 2013 autobiography. (Halliday said: 'I have always asked myself why, in the USA, if you have a flashy car people smile and say "that's great", while in France they treat you like a thief. It's a sordid mentality.') Is it true, the French ask themselves, that they hate the well-oft? If so, does such venom against the privileged sit well with a nation that prides itself on being the world's self-appointed arbiter of luxury and refined taste, and which indeed lives in no small part off the trade in luxury goods? Right now, the French appear in grave danger of biting the very hand that feeds them.
Not that the French would ever openly admit that they were elitist, or money-grabbing, or insecure about wealth, or anything like that, of course. Discussing money is simply... well, too vulgar. Popular demagogues such as the left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon and even François Hollande have made a great show of denigrating the filthy rich and their 'dirty' money (although Hollande himself is an énarque, and Mélenchon owns both a Paris apartment and a country pad, so neither seem to have missed out entirely on the much-denigrated privileges in life). 'The French have a horror of "inequality': but they adore privilege. And often,"inequality" is the name you give to the privileges of another', the French comedienne and actress Anne Roumanoff has wisely said. But shhh, we are encroaching now on private matters. None of that is relevant. Let's return to the public mantra: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité... and, above all, the greatest Gallic virtue of them all: discretion.
They Eat Horses, Don't They?: The Truth About the French - Piu Marie Eatwell (Head of Zeus; 2013)
It's been some time coming but the French Centre now has a Blog. Le voilà!