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Le French bashing has spread to France. Are things really that bad?

Jonathan Meades thinks it’s rash to judge an entire country by the comings and goings of the rancorous former First Bimbo

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

The French for French-bashing is le French bashing. This verbally costive nation is at it once again, torpidly borrowing an approximately English expression rather than coining its own. Such bashing is not an exclusively Anglo-Saxon practice. There is indigenous bashing. At least there is Éric Zemmour, whose salutary Le Suicide français was published a couple of months ago. Its very first sentence declares that France is the sick man of Europe — which prompted Manuel Valls, little Hollande’s prime minister this week and a man who is not growing into that poisoned office, to take the bait, exhibit a preposterously thin skin and denounce the book twice in a few days.

This is not to suggest that M. Zemmour — a tireless stirrer, an exhilarating hater, a man for whom giving offence is a duty — is necessarily on the money about everything. His exhaustive trawl through France’s maladies and imaginary maladies is more notable for its provenance than for its originality. What distinguishes it is that it comes from within the Hexagon. It is Made in France. Elsewhere — in America, Germany, England, even Italy — such a gleefully gloomy discourse is la pensée unique (consensual non-think — the French do have an expression for this).

Like some pamphleteering guerrilla, M. Zemmour prosecutes ad hominem attacks on the Chest-Waxer-Supreme Bernard-Henri Lévy, the sinister Mitterrand, the comical stage villain Jean-Noël Guérini, the folksy green agitator José Bové (‘a useful idiot’). He cites popular singers as gauges of mores —a disputable strategy at best. He castigates what George Walden has characterised as the elitism of the anti-elites. The anti-racist, anti-homophobe, anti-islamophobe, anti-fascist establishment may be a sitting duck but that doesn’t deter M. Zemmour from giving it both barrels. He is scornfully contemptuous of the many fellow travellers who (still) seek to mitigate the exterminatory crimes of the left.

Can a great country really have descended to the level that a cosmopolitan band of bashers and M. Zemmour insistently claim it has? He rues Paris’s status as — sloppy but useful epithet — a ‘world city’ and the consequent chasm between it and the rest of France. However, the political and social life of the de facto secessionist capital seems to be all that he knows. And, like France’s critics from without, he insouciantly makes it stand for the entire country.

Zemmour’s work apart, Paris’s most shrilly mediated cultural events this autumn (‘prestigious’, ‘landmark’, ‘world-class’) were the reopening, after five years, of the Musée Picasso in the Marais and, eclipsing it, the launch of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne. This latter is yet another of Frank Gehry’s exercises in outsize origami. Post-industrial rustbucket cities on autopilot call for architects such as Gehry, Foster, Koolhaas, Calatrava to design them out of trouble. Bilbao is obviously the most celebrated case, and the most successful. That it was perhaps uniquely successful is a matter no one stops to ponder. Its example has been promiscuously followed across the world.

But Paris is not a post-industrial rustbucket. By stooping to apply an unproven remedy deemed appropriate to Metz, Walsall, Salford and Liège, it demeans itself. Far from being some sort of solution to Paris’s malaise — can there be any city in the world that less needs another gallery or museum? — it is a symptom of the city’s nervy lack of confidence.

The building is in flagrant breach of the strict planning prescriptions formerly applied in the area. But then Bernard Arnault, its instigator, is the richest man in France — a ‘philanthropist’, a friend of presidents, a witness at Sarkozy’s second marriage. Little Hollande got the tone spot on when he described this masterwork as ‘a cloud of culture in the Parisian sky’. The contorted piles of vitrous bling rise high above the trees. The very myopic may just about discern a vague correspondence with Charles Letrosne’s similarly incongruous Grand Rocher at Vincennes zoo on the other side of Paris. Just about…

It is a vanity project, so is evidently obliged to be ostentatious. Its connection to Paris, which is mostly characterised by architectural reticence and courteous homogeneity, is tenuous. It might be in any city where a member of the Croesus community could get away with it and invite the titans Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld to the opening. No one has even bothered to attach to it the routinely mendacious claim that this fabulously spendthrift toy will incite that most elusive of elixirs, ‘regeneration’. It won’t. A transsexual hooker working the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne will still have to blow 140 johns per week for 500 years to earn the €130 million that this clumsy boast cost. It is rash to judge an entire country by the comings, goings and hothouse gossip of le microcosme, by tax dodgers and rich men’s follies, by ze people (slebs) such as the rancorous former First Bimbo and, on the other hand, across the ring road, the tooled-up rabble battalions of Seine-St-Denis.

Forty years ago the young Michel Sardou sang of metropolitan snobbery towards la brousse: ‘il y a Paris/ mais la France est aussi un pays/ Où il y a quand même pas cinquante millions d’abrutis [morons]’. Today that snobbery has been replaced by defensive anxiety.

Jonathan Meades’s most recent book is An Encyclopedia of Myself

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