‘Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France.’ Thus de Gaulle, in one of the greatest first sentences of the 20th century, and he spoke for many humbler Frenchmen — or rather, as ‘humble Frenchmen’ is an oxymoron, let us say many other Frenchmen.
This is a strange country, inscrutable to its own inhabitants, let alone to foreigners. Whereas we British usually manage to rub along, disguising our intellectual laziness as Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, the brittle, insecure, self-obsessed French elite takes itself desperately seriously. Every Frenchman who is recovering from a good dinner convinces himself that he is suffering from a ‘crise de foie’. In politics, the word crise is used equally promiscuously; so much so, that it often creates a crisis. In strained conversational exchanges, the French political and social haut-monde strives to maintain two irreconcilable positions: that this is the best society on earth, and that it is in a terrible state of chassis.
At the level of daily life, it seems hard to find evidence for the latter proposition. Tocqueville said that no one who had not been a pre-revolutionary French aristocrat could understand ‘la douceur de la vie’. Every day he is refuted by millions of French citizens, who would be justified in believing that when it comes to quality of life ‘they order ...this matter better in France’. One can see why most of the French middle class is happy in its own skin.
Yet it is equally easy to understand why the thinking class is anxious. Above the level of countryside, culture and cuisine, France has two great problems: its past and its future. The past is one of instability restrained by authoritarianism, and of military failure exacerbated by moral collapse. 1789, 1799, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1940, 1959, 1968: there were at least eight revolutions, insurrections or coups in less than 200 years. It is easy to see why this bred such mutual distrust between government and the governed. In order to inspire national unity, the government stresses the symbols of Frenchness: the tricolor, Bastille Day, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. That all seems to work, until the mob takes to the streets. The history of modern France is proof of the dictum that a written constitution, being on paper, is easy to tear up.
There is a further contrast between Britain and France. In retrospect, it is surprising that we adjusted so easily to the passing of imperial glory. The withdrawal from empire and the loss of superpower status, dramatised by Suez, was followed by two decades of almost constant economic crisis. Yet our national self-confidence was shaken, not subverted. It was different in France, partly because Algeria was more traumatic than any of our end-of-empire experiences, and partly because of the legacy of Sedan, Verdun and Vichy. After Suez, we tried to find consolation in a junior partnership with the United States. The special relationship has been a contentious one, with regular debates as to whether or not it was in Britain’s interests. But no one could deny that it exists. That is not true of France’s post-Suez attempt to find an alternative route to la gloire.
For 40 years the French tried to run Europe with the Germans as their junior partner: a French jockey on a German horse. Others saw it as two neurotic nations trying to make love on a psychiatrist’s couch. Whatever the metaphor, it is no longer applicable. German politics is moving into a post war-guilt phase. Germany is ready to climb off the couch, while enlargement has changed the EU radically and irrevocably.
The late Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador who was unwise enough to confide his views on Israel to Barbara Amiel, used to insist that enlargement would never happen. He spoke for many French foreign policy makers, who feared the consequences, for obvious reasons. The French could not hope to run an enlarged Europe. But Mr Bernard and his colleagues lost that battle, because the Germans were set on enlargement. The horse threw its rider.
As a result, the French are complaining about délocalisation: the export of French manufacturing jobs to the more competitive nations of the East. Most people one talks to will accept that this is due to over-regulation and especially to the 35-hour working week. There is widespread agreement that something ought to be done, and an equally widespread belief that nothing will. That brings us to a more immediate explanation for French pessimism: the interminable decomposition of Jacques Chirac’s Presidency. Mr Chirac has been in the