Wednesday, April 06, 2005

France and ourselves

I am far from sharing the aversion to France that is rampant in America today. Some are going so far as to empty out bottles of French wine onto the ground. Don’t do that. Give them to me, and I’ll be certain to pour them down the drain--not!

Of course distrust of France goes back a long way in our country. When I first traveled to Europe in 1957, I talked to some ordinary GIs in Germany, who identified with the Germans as "our kind of people." By contrast the French were, in their view, shifty and unstable. Foreign policy differences--as recently over Iraq--have also proved an obstacle to understanding. As with our dynamic of love/dislike of England, feelings about France tell us something about the culture wars in our own country. Chablis and Brie may still be the thing at social gatherings on the two Coasts, but they don’t cut it in the heartland.

In the course of many trips to France I have found the French more reserved than some peoples, but consistently correct in their behavior. They are not enthusiastic about my mangled pronunciation of their language, but I am not so keen on it either. In these trips I had specific, sometimes all-consuming goals that drove me to special efforts at seeing buildings and works of art, touring the extraordinarily varied countryside, consuming good food, and (being the person I am) buying books. However exigent, I could always satisfy my needs. Subjective though it may be, that is my definition of a good country.

To be sure, the French have their problems. Most stem from the gap between the image that they would like to project--a relic of former great-power status--and the reality, which is much less grand and comforting. To be sure, the French have made extraordinary progress during the trente glorieuses (1945-75), when they came abreast of the other leading Western nations. Now that things are better for them, they are also taking a more realistic view of their capacities to act on the world stage.

However, a certain weariness, even in the view of some decadence, set in after the loss of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Above all, this malaise was conditioned by the low birthrate. After World War II, this problem was offset, but not sufficiently, and to keep its industries humming France had to permit large-scale Muslim immigration, yielding the social discord that has ensued. Today low birthrates are the rule throughout Western Europe. These population deficits probably doom the aspirations of the European Union to become a superpower.

Let me just mention one economic indicator. For a long time, French books were not very well made. The paper was poor, and the texts marred by typos and lack of an index. Foreign names were habitually misspelled. Today French books are better produced, ours less well—-so I suppose that we now have a level playing field. In keeping with this new equality, French books are no longer cheap.

These technical difficulties in book production have been unsettling, especially to a bibliophile like myself. The books are vehicles of the highest importance. It is my belief (shared, e.g., by many Italian and Latin American intellectuals) that French literature offers the only fully rounded achievement that can compete with the ancient Greek and Latin authors. Again and again, even when I should be doing other things, I go back to the original texts of the Arthurian cycle; of Rabelais and Montaigne; Pascal and Molière; Diderot and Voltaire; Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert—not to omit the moderns Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Proust, and Céline. This treasure house is inexhaustible. I am less keen on the contemporary gurus Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Yet they do not loom as large as they once did.

Of course there is a great world beyond books. Even today the specter of 1940, the Fall of France, hangs over the country. In six weeks, during May and June of 1940, Hitler’s armies rolled over France. For foreigners, and perhaps for the French themselves, this long-ago event is a haunting reminder of inadequacy. But should it be? A recent book by Ernest May shows that the French and German armies were almost equal in equipment, leadership, and morale in 1940. As Ernest May argues in a recent revisionist book, the battle could have gone the other way.

It may have been turned by what at first seemed a piece of luck for France and her allies. In January 1940, a German plane got lost in the fog and went down near Mecheln (Malines) in Belgium. It contained the plans for invasion, which were almost the same as those of the Schlieffen plan of 1940, that is to push straight across Belgium and then come down on France from the north. Once Hitler learned that the plans had been found, he was forced to adopt a risky new scheme. This involved an invasion further south through the Ardennes. First there was an almost trackless forest, then the cliffs of the Meuse channel. Such an invasion route was viewed very improbable, so that when it came the French thought it was just a feint. German troups poured in through the Sedan gap, and soon it was all over. (See the stimulating, if sometimes inconclusive analysis in Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford University Press, 2003.)

Many would disagree, but it does seem that the accident of one downed plane in Belgium played a decisive role in what was to come. What appeared to be an advantage to the allies, turned out to be the reverse.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the French had expected a long war. Although they were better prepared for fighting than many thought, they recognized that the advantages of the German war machine could only be worn down over time. Their strategists foresaw that it would take years for the economic superiority of the allies, especially of Britain and her empire, and the United States, to achieve victory. De Gaulle recognized this, brilliantly improvising with limited means. And victory was achieved, after five horrendous years. In the upshot France has emerged a strong modern nation, something that could not be said of the period 1870-1939. So perhaps the French won their war after all. And not just over their occupiers, but over their internal deficiencies.