France Decapitated, Roger Cohen

“France is a Modern Country”

LONDON, July 8, 2014 — The Tour de France bicycle race kicked off in England this year, in Yorkshire to be precise, and ended its third stage on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace. Next pigs will fly.

In fact they’ve already flown, given that this quintessentially French event has started in Britain once before, but still it must be asked if anything is sacred anymore. Perhaps the horse racing at Ascot will soon move to Toulouse.

I was in Paris last week. It was beautiful. Tourists lolled on the bridges enjoying picnics of cheese, baguettes and bad red wine. They were happy. The weather was perfect. The French were grumpy, of course. I did not notice any grumbling about the weird displacement of the Tour across the Channel, but encountered complaints over just about everything else.

A former conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been hauled into police custody for 15 hours for questioning over alleged corruption. The current Socialist president, François Hollande, had plumbed new depths of unpopularity. The presidency of the Fifth Republic, once the apex of ceremonial glory and near-monarchical power, had all the luster of a damp rag.

That the French are unhappy has become a commonplace. A nation that loves ideas is living in an ideological void. If that void is filled by anyone it is the rightist leader Marine Le Pen with her cleverly dosed venom about Europe, immigrants, crime, globalization and the other supposed culprits behind French national decline.

Unemployment in France is at about double the German level. Growth is at zero. Investment is at new lows. If the European economy is stirring, the French has shown an exceptional capacity to resist signs of life.

Manuel Valls, the centrist prime minister hated by many in his own Socialist Party, is trying to cut public-sector spending, loosen labor-market laws, slash payroll taxes, and generally spur job creation and growth by liberalizing a state-heavy economy. Many have tried before him. Many have failed. Such reform in France is a Sisyphean task.

France is a modern country as well as a beautiful one. Its attributes, from its health system to its rail system (when not on strike), are well known. But the French dislike modernity. They mistrust modernity. That is the nub of the problem. They dislike and mistrust it for two reasons. Modernity has redefined space and relegated the state. This is intolerable.

The redefinition of space has involved the technology-driven elimination of distance. As Michel Serres, a prominent French philosopher, put it in a lecture last year at the Sorbonne on the digital world, “Boeing shortens distances; new technologies annul them.”

This is troubling in France because nowhere else is the particularity of place and the singularity of a person’s attachment to it more important. That bond is expressed in the word “terroir,” at once the land, its special characteristics, the nature of its soil, its climate, and the unique human relationship to it. A great Burgundy and an indifferent one may come from properties a hundred yards apart. The soil is not the same, nor the slope of the land. Distance matters. Yet modernity has contempt for it. It even places the Tour de France in England. As Serres put it, “We live in a new space.”

Humanity has also changed its relationship to the state. The French place deep faith in the state. It is the righter of wrongs, the mediator of human affairs, the source of social justice, the object of duty, and the repository of power. The very word deregulation is odious to the French.
But technology has shifted power from the state to stateless individuals living in a borderless cyberworld. An e-mail address is now more important and more relevant to the conduct of existence than a physical address. A revolution in communication is underway, not seen since the invention of the printing press, but it is not a French revolution. It is in fact an anti-French revolution. It challenges fundamental French values, the French sense of self, and the French attachment to the state.

Valls, the prime minister, appears to be confronting French labor unions in his efforts at reform. What he is really facing is a fundamental objection to modernity.

Serres, in his lecture, tells the story of Saint Denis, the Christian martyr decapitated around 250 A.D. Denis is said to have picked up his head and walked several kilometers preaching a sermon. Serres objected as a child, when his mother told him the story, that Denis could not possibly have found his head without his eyes. She rebuked him for failing to understand miracles.

Today, Serres says, everyone’s head is on the table in the form of their computers. “You have been decapitated!” he tells his French audience.

That is often how the French feel. I fear there is not much to be done about it, short of miracles.

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