This year is the centenary year of the Entente Cordiale, and I intend to celebrate it by buying a house in France (the acte authentique, the final signing, takes place later this month) and, in the not very distant future, by living there. Whether this will improve Anglo–French relations remains to be seen.
France is no terrestrial paradise, but I know from experience of living abroad that other country’s blemishes do not affect you in the same way as your own country’s blemishes, which weigh heavily on your soul. You can observe the failings of foreign politicians with amusement and the intractability of foreign social problems with detachment. It is only when living abroad that Dr Johnson’s dictum that public affairs vex no man, comes true — at least for me.
Is France in better shape than Britain? Its countryside is emptier, which for someone like me, who has had enough of crowds in general and people in particular to last him a lifetime, is good enough. I know it is a high-tax economy — bureaucratic and sclerotic in many respects — but at least the people seem to get something in return for their taxes. France’s infrastructure, public transport and healthcare are far better than Britain’s. It would be nice if we in Britain got something — anything — tolerably decent in return for our taxes, but with the increasing moral and intellectual corruption of our public services that I have seen over the years, and the unimpeded advance of wilful administrative incompetence into every nook and cranny of public life, I do not think that there is any prospect of that.
France has social problems that are nearly as great as ours. Although one looks in vain in the centre of Paris or other cities for the brutal and brutalised faces that one sees everywhere in Britain, and that are now the defining national characteristic of the British, France has a substantial underclass too. Whether by accident or design, France has opted for the South African solution to the problem: geographical isolation. It confines its underclass in satellite cities around major conurbations that can be sealed off by a single tank and by halting a few trains. If push ever came to shove, and there was a social explosion, I have little doubt that the Declaration of the Rights of Man would have little influence on the French official response. As the South Africans used to say before they discovered morality, ‘They will only foul their own nest.’ And certainly such an explosion is not impossible: I recently visited the housing estates that ring Paris, and the alienation and hatred I found there exceeded by far anything I have ever encountered in this country. It was extremely frightening.
But, for all that, France still seems to me a more civilised country than Britain. It is less dominated by mass distraction (known here as popular culture, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four as prolefeed) than Britain is. France’s mass distraction is amateurishly produced in comparison with the cynical slickness of its Anglo–American equivalent, and this really is a case of the worse the better. There are no tabloid newspapers in France to compare with ours, and while the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro carries a burden of ideological disapproval and even subtle insult (it means, among other things, savage economic liberalism), there is nothing to compare with the vulgar ignorant abuse of the French to be found in our red-top newspapers, produced for the masses by people who ought to (and in fact do) know better. French newspaper readership is the lowest in the Western world, and while I suppose it is possible to discuss whether this is a good or a bad thing, I personally find it a relief.
There is as yet among the young of France no cult of mass public drunkenness, as there is in Britain, no ideological triumph of vulgarity that subdues the political elite into insincere, but nevertheless damaging, acquiescence, as in Britain. There is still a residue of respect for high culture in France. Not long ago, I went to an exhibition in Paris of Ecuadorean baroque religious sculpture, and discovered that the introduction to the catalogue was written by none other than Jacques Chirac (or at least he had appended his name thereto). Would Mr Blair dare do such a thing? In France, an association with Ecuadorean baroque sculpture would only improve — admittedly to a small extent — the President’s political standing; in Britain, it would harm the Prime Minister’s image, and cast damaging doubts upon his sexuality.
Is it better to have phoney cultivation in charge than militant philistinism? (Does anyone really believe the disgraceful old cynic Mr Chirac, and could anyone not laugh when he writes of these admittedly beautiful works, ‘The marvellous sculptures gathered here, works of anonymous artists or artists with entries in the great book of History such as Bernardo de Legarda and Manuel Chili ‘Caspicara’, move us by their humanity, their tenderness, the extreme softness of their expression’?) No doubt the philistinism of Mr Blair is entirely sincere, unlike his other shifting passions, but for myself I prefer phoney cultivation. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, an insight we owe to that great dissector of the human soul, the French writer of maxims, La Rochefoucauld, then phoney cultivation is the tribute that barbarism pays to civilisation. But at least it knows what civilisation is, knowledge that has been lacking among British government ministers for quite a long time.
The English, so another Frenchman once observed, take their pleasures sadly. If only that were so: those were the good old days. It used to be the case that you realised the futility of life when you watched the English enjoying themselves, but now it is far worse and more depressing than that; they take their pleasures noisily, offensively, brutally, antisocially. They can’t enjoy themselves without screaming, baring their teeth, hitting each other over the head with broken bottles, eructating and vomiting. You see none of this in France, at least on a mass scale, which is what counts in determining the quality of life. Furthermore, I doubt that many French patients address their doctor by the equivalent of ‘mate’, as young British patients now do. The mere usage of Madame and Monsieur makes France a more polite country than Britain, despite its (in my experience undeserved) reputation for rudeness.
Of course, everything is going to the dogs in France as well as in Britain — at my age, you can expect nothing else; such expectations are genetically hard-wired into the aging human brain — but more slowly and gracefully. The charm of France will see me out, but their education system is falling to bits, their educationists are making the same wicked mistakes as our own, young Frenchmen can’t write or spell their own language properly, and crime is rising, so that the statistics, always doubtful, suggest that their crime rate is 80 per cent of ours — that is to say abominably high. Administrative incompetence, indifference and cruelty are not confined to this side of the Channel: for example, not long ago I read a book by a prison doctor in France which, if a true reflection of what goes on in Paris’s largest prison, La Sante, puts all prison abuses in Britain in the shade.
And yet there is more to a civilisation than the sum of its problems — at least, if it has any charms. Try as I might, however, I can see little charm to life in Britain, even if its vaunted economic recovery were not, as it clearly is, a house of cards. The British strike me as frivolous without gaiety and earnest without seriousness, which is why Mr Blair is
so apt a leader for them. They have all but lost their saving grace (and a very great saving grace it was), their ironical humour. Of course, there is a deal of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said, and even in its sense of humour, and I am talking in generalities. The British sense of humour is still superior to the French. But I think that only a few years ago the British would have guffawed the half-absurd, half-sinister caesaropapism of the British government to scorn. Give Britain a few more years, and no one will laugh: people will scream when they’re happy and shake their fists when they’re angry, which they will be most of the time.
I am not starry-eyed about France, and I know that it has many skeletons in its cupboard (the latest to emerge is the treatment of the Harkis, the Algerians who sided with the French during the war of independence and moved to France when it was over). But the fact is the French are a great nation, and they have contributed disproportionately to every field of higher human endeavour, from mathematics to literature, from art to physics and medicine. Much more than the British, they retain a respect for the civilisation they have wrought, and if at times their pride is irritating and absurd, and Paris is not the centre of the world because nowhere is the centre of the world, it is better than the loss of spirit one sees in Britain, whose self-doubt is an ideological pretext for mental laziness and excruciating bad taste.
The difference between Britain and France is to be seen in the difference between this year’s winners of the Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt. The winner of the Goncourt was an undistinguished work, to say the least, that won’t be read in 100 weeks, let alone years, but it was written by a man with at least some semblance of culture. The Booker Prize winner was a work of unutterably tedious nastiness and vulgarity, written by a man with no discernible literary talent whose vulgarity of mind was deep and thoroughgoing, to judge by the interviews he gave after the award. It was symptomatic of the state of our country that the judges, all of them upper-middle-class, and one of them a distinguished professor of English, could not see the terrible meretriciousness of the book they chose, that manifested itself even in its first sentence, and grew worse as the first paragraph progressed. Any kind of mediocrity would have been preferable, but they were probably scared not to side with vulgarity. Fear of appearing elitist in this country is now greater than any desire to preserve civilisation.
The French are some years behind us in the race to cultural oblivion. No doubt they will catch up with us in the end, but I hope not to see it in my rural fastness. For the moment, they still order things better there.