On my visit to Paris to cover the second round of the Presidential election I stayed in an apartment just around the corner from the Metro station ‘Crimée’, consecrated in 1910 to commemorate the Crimean War a couple of stops away from Metro ‘Stalingrad’. It takes just a few minutes to cross from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The terminus of the line is station ‘8 Mai 1945’ (Victory in Europe day). By contrast, in London, tube stops are generally named after the part of London they happen to be in: Aldgate station is found in Aldgate, East London. Aldgate was built on the site of a gate in the old city’s wall. Old Street got its name from a Roman road which ran out to Colchester. Bank station serves the Bank of England.
Sometimes I think there really is something to the cliché that the English are a fundamentally empirical people, who prefer the simple, quiet life, while Continentals live in elegant abstractions. We have to see things to believe them; the French see what they want to believe.
For the motion: Isn’t a pint of beer just right while a half-litre is too small and a litre too big? Who actually knows how long a metre is?
Against the motion: Of course, France’s story takes in great historical transformations, but it also includes powerful continuities. The Revolutionary project and the modern secular state co-exist with other forms of national belonging, including an older Catholic France, which shows its face in moments of crisis. When Notre-Dame went up in flames in 2019, this sacred heart of French Catholicism, home to the nation’s most revered relic, the Crown of Thorns, an object of veneration for close to sixteen centuries, all of France wept.
According to the nineteenth century historian Ernest Renan’s famous formulation, a nation’s soul is made up of two halves: ‘a rich legacy of memories’ and ‘present-day consent, the desire to live together’. I would add that one of the special qualities of French life, indeed one of its most magical qualities, is the creative friction at work in the national spirit. The Republic had to be built. But then it had to be preserved. The second project inevitably rubs up against the spirit of the first. A new society cannot have its foundations in the rubble of the old — it is a society that must keep running just to stand still.
France’s dramatic turning points have left foreign observers spellbound. After the events of 1789 and then the Terror, and after ’68 and the Barricades, who could deny that the world could never return to the way it had been before? Since the Revolution, in times of crisis, Republican France has had severe difficulties both at home and abroad, but it has always risen to the challenge.
Since Charles de Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic (a political system which justifies the commonly used phrase ‘elected dictatorship’ because of the power invested in the figure of the Presidency), French society is perceived to have become increasingly ossified. Its revolutionary left and patrician right alike both lionise and defend to the hilt a small ‘c’ conservative social settlement which appears more suitable for the twentieth century than the twenty-first.
In 2017, the French found themselves at another turning point. They elected a creature of the French establishment who nonetheless promised to rip up its rules. Emmanuel Macron advertised his plans to transform France into a ‘start-up’ nation. He destroyed the traditional forces of the country’s political centre to win the Presidency. And yet his message to the French was hardly novel: we have to change to preserve the country we love, he told them.
Five years on, the jury is still out. Unemployment is down, and it is pretty widely accepted that Macron has done a fairly good job in helping France to negotiate some of the harsher headwinds that have buffeted western democracies in recent years. In his second term, his new mandate gives him an opportunity to make the kind of fundamental changes he promised in 2017.
And yet, many fear that if the French system cannot be saved by putting one of its very brightest and best qualified graduates in power for a decade, then it cannot be saved at all. And if so, the French will have to begin their story all over again. They will have to exchange their old memories for present hope, and the detritus of the past for a brighter future.