How to Get France Wrong

Ways Out of the Cul de Sac

Guilty as charged : Damien Tarel, currently serving four months for slapping the president.

A while back, before I was deep into an unplanned but pleasureable summer slackfest, I made a spin around the net to Eurozine, an on-line magazine I sometimes read. An essay by one of their writers struck me as such a perfect version of the current Anglo-Academic take on France, that I wrote in, saying I wanted a debate. Eurozine responded kindly but nothing came of it. I’d tried to tone it down for the gentlefolk but evidently I remain a brute at heart. I went back over the piece to find my sins, and threw in a few more. The original article is here, and concerns the now-famous, now-forgotten incident this summer when a citizen slapped the president at a public event. 

In my typical lazyboy fashion, the final paras of this piece have been completely rewritten since it appeared a few days ago. Give it a spin.

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As a regular reader of Eurozine, I cannot be the only one who found Hannah Leffingwell’s piece about the infamous Gifle dans l’Hermitage to be a confusing voyage to a universe which happens to have the same name as the country I live in : France. While it would be quite a task to unpack all of her academic certainties in one go, I’d like to give readers a different perspective, one that might induce a few sobering questions rather than the usual rant and cant about the Baddies.

Before we go anywhere, a word about me. I too am an immigrant, for many years completely paperless and dependent on under-the-table manual labor to survive. A white American, in France : hold the astonishment, it does happen. I’m familiar with immigrant communities in a way opinionators may not be. No, I’m not leveraging my experience in order to tell you rotten things about exiles and immigrants. And while none of my experience exempts me from criticism, you might want to hold the denunciations on Twitter until you get to the end of the piece. If you can resist the temptation.

We cannot live in fantasyland and unfortunately, that’s where Leffingwell parks her car. From the first paragraph on, she employs all the current clichés, some of them about France’s agnostic republic (laïcité). To wit: « Citizenship had nothing to do with one’s adhesion to the Rights of Man, and everything to do with the color of one’s skin. »

Tell that bit about the Rights of Man to the many political exiles who’ve come here from across the world, from Aime Cesaire to Angela Davis – to pluck two radicals out of the hat. Or for that matter, my friend the Tibetan vélo-taxi driver, who sought political refuge and got it on the second try. Do you think the citation above would align with James Baldwin’s or Richard Wright’s feelings about France ? Of course, they were born before claiming victim status became ever so chic.

Beyond gross factual errors about the recent elections, where the right overall and Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale in particular took a drubbing, Leffingwell presumes to speak for the entire nation when she blesses us with her insight that France’s « civic ideal, championed by those on the left and right alike, is of a color-blind society, » a pure Anglo generality that wouldn’t survive five minutes on the street. France is changing, yes there are racists, and yes, we are all drawn into a discussion about accommodating differences we are just figuring out how to formulate. It won’t be easy but France takes the time to talk. Endlessly, sometimes without ever agreeing on anything. That’s the essence of the diplomatic life.

And that is where Leffingwell really stumbles. With the people, them. You know, those ploucs in the provinces who don’t believe as we do. Who, for a wide variety of reasons find their country changing in all sorts of directions which give them pause.

I’ve written about him before but let’s bring our slap-happy gent in the Drôme back into focus : Damien Tarel, unemployed, resident of Tain l’Hermitage (6,000+ inhabitants), who waited quietly outside the local auditorium where President Macron was engaged in one of his endless talking tours of the countryside. Killing time, he had nothing to say to a reporter and evidently, no clear plan of action. Yet when Macron bounded across the parvis and stuck out his hand, Tarel launched his famous thwap thwap in reply, the slap heard, and enjoyed, all over France. (For once, the country was united while the political class, right, left and center, were aghast. They never saw it coming.) Did Damien know why he did it ? He managed to shout  “Montjoie ! Saint Denis ! à bas la macronie.”  What a field day the press had with those royalist slogans. Macronie, however, is a staple of the left newspapers; it’s short for the Macron regime, the mindset of its ministers and courtiers. Burbling into the spotlight that has already forgotten him, Tarel said he is an extreme rightwing patriot who supports … the Gilets Jaunes.

Too much, cries our censorious academic. They discard the Macronie and Gilets Jaunes notes, and find Damien T. wholly unbearable. But there he is, and you couldn’t find a better representative for the mental state of France right now : all over the political map.

Leffingwell won’t have any of it. Damien, she notes, «dresses in medieval armor regularly, and is the leader of a local club where that is normal. Damien even enjoys partaking in the occasional sword fight.» Quelle horreur ! He has a life. Unemployed, he even has what the Better Sort consider unacceptable amusements. He organizes medieval pageantry ! Quite obviously, the libertés our writer wants for the immigrant do not apply to the French themselves. 

Any other readers out there gobsmacked ? Medieval pageantry. Is this the enemy ?

If there’s one thing that unites the disparate ones who live outside what I call the Equation it’s their perception of the Ruling Class – with their courtiers, media clowns and pretenders to the throne – as a kind of alien host who don’t live on the other side of town anymore but on another planet. Social contracts perish like dinosaurs in the heat, everything’s fluid, open to debate – except, of course, the political class in place for all eternity, the universities and media who issue bulletins on the latest morality, and the corporations, endlessly carving human beings into inert lumps of clay sitting in cubicles. Our error is in being duped into staring at the shiny images of our rulers in their rise and fall. We should turn around. There’s a lot to see, and the differences, as Gertrude Stein said, are spreading. The bien pensant dismissed the Gilets Jaunes when they first appeared as hicks and reactionaries but they proved to be far different, and canny enough to evade political hustlers of all kinds. Whether there’s life in the movement after Covid is another question. The conditions in the country that spawned them have not changed in any real way.      

Leffingwell and others make it an article of faith that the French left must unite before the 2022 presidential election. This is so unlikely as to be improbable and what’s the point ? Another nice centrist left, another wrapper with nothing inside ? The left in this country has schismism in its DNA. The battle over small differences by those out of power is eternal. Jean-Luc Melénchon of La France Insoumise glowers on the horizon like a figure out of Goya. Why not a smash-up, let the chips fall where they may ? If it’s entertaining enough, it might lure people away from the medieval pageants. But first things first. The left needs to talk to the unaffiliated, the displaced, the opposed. It can’t just take positions. The Greens always sound nice, and are seen for what they are, a suburban cult.

Leffingwell ends her essay by giving orders. «The left better arm itself with a strong, unifying idea that will carry it to victory.» That’s her military metaphor. Unfortunately, her reader is left in the dark as to what this idea might be.

James Graham lives works and writes in France. His new novel is le Plouc de Paris.