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Modernity and Ideas: France and the Future

Centre Pompidou in Paris, France: Taken from S...

Centre Pompidou in Paris, France: Taken from Sacre Coeur Basilica on Montmartre at sunset in November. Note, in the background(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Riyadh: Tuesday 15th May 2012

In my last two posts I have looked at French attitudes to political ideas, in particular I have discussed French attitudes to sovereignty and republic and have sought to understand how, the French have sought to come to terms with the radical change in direction and the forces this unleashed in 1789.

In doing so I have looked at how the French have sought to adopt pragmatic and conservative solutions in order to maintain a level of continuity from generation to generation and from republican model to republican model (France embarked upon its 5th republican experiment in 1959). But this ignores the fact that Modern France has continued to evolve and modernize and indeed has frequently been at the very forefront of the modernizing forces which shape the modern world and modern Europe generally.

It seem’s therefore, that at the Heart of French society, there lies two parallel streams of thinking, One, radical and revisionist, constantly updating and reworking the meaning of State and Governance, the other more pragmatic and conservative; embodied by a desire to live peacefully under the rule of law, but also, willing where necessary to collud with, and accept loss of sovereignty to outside and sometimes malign influences in order to maintain the Status Quo. As we see clearly if French responses to Occupation, it is not enough to see these streams in terms of right and left. Few could argue that de Gaulle was a Conservative in instinct, yet, his instinct to reject compromise with the forces of Fascism flies in the face of the Conservative France created at Petain’s Vichy Court. Meanwhile the Communists took their lead from Moscow and did not initially oppose the Nazi’s at all, until with Operation Barbarossa, they were able to switch sides and came to form the most ruthless and active branch of French resistance during the occupation.

In my post, France: Power, Statehood and Ideas, I began with the vision of power and continuity given weighty corporeal form by the Civic Buildings in Paris’s heart. But the City of lights can be viewed from more than one perspective and one of its most dramatic is from the dome of the Basilique du Sacre Cur at Montmartre. Perched atop a hill overlooking the city the Sacre Cur is really a testament to forces of conservatism in as much as it was conceived as a permanent reminder to Parisians of the great evils which could be unleashed by revolution. It is not even especially modern in style, being, in the words of one guidebook, “a pastiche of the Byzantine Style.” As such, it seems a strange place to begin a post on French attitudes to modernity.

Yet, from its dome, Paris stretches out, uninterrupted across the valley. From here the famous land marks can all be seen. The Arc de Triumph, squat and solid against its Haussmann rooftops, Notre Dam, La Louvre, the Eglise du Dome, the Sorbonne and of course, the Eiffel Tower. Most impressive, to my mind, however, is the sheer continuity of architecture stretching from Montmartre to Montparnasse. The sheer scale of Barron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s project was staggering.

Yet, there are anomalies to this vista. The tower at Gare du Montparnasse stretches vertically out from the landscape in monochrome, featureless black. To the west, the business district offers a shiny sleek copse of skyscrapers to the Heavens. While, to the North the landscape rapidly gives way to a dystopian vision of utilitarian blandness which could belong to any city in Europe (a landscape, incidentally that the impressive bowl of the Stade de France cannot quite manage to soften). Two visions of modern France, however eclipse these.

The Pompidou Centre: I didn’t recognize it at first. From the Sacre Cur it barely resembles a building at all. Rather, from this distance it appears like a vast piece of scaffolding has been dropped into the centre of Paris and adorned with red white and blue tarpaulin. Its proportions are monstrous, its relationship with its surroundings is that of a usurper and its colours are tacky. But most inexcusable of all, this structure which had sought to impose itself as a statement of modernity in the heart of the city looked, well… temporary. I do not know of its merits as an art gallery. Neither do I know of its innovativeness or its mechanical and environmental efficiency. It may, have won design awards. It may be greatly loved. But in the context of the city, viewed as a whole, it was in my view, wrong. It looked as though, it would not be around for long.

Yet if I am proved wrong, it will not be the first time that the overtly modern has found a home within the French Capital. Lest we forge that The Eiffel Tower, itself was conceived as temporary and hated by many, upon its construction. It could be that Paris pulls off this trick with The Pompidou Centre. If it does, it is a recurring feature of French society. In one step it tears up the constitution and starts again and in another somehow accommodates the new and makes it at one with what went before. French Society has undergone many schisms and in doing so has perfected the nack of making this look effortless.

But it is clear that the Pompidou Centre intended to make an impact. I am therefore given to wonder whether its intended impact was to be a talking point, in which case it succeeds, or whether its intent was to help modernize Paris itself, in which case I remain to be convinced.

The southern Arrondissements: I had heard of Paris’s vast modern suburban expansion beyond the traditional city. I had heard of the ethnic and religious minorities who were settled there. I had seen the television reports of rioting a few years ago and read the commentaries of  journalists and politicians, examining the stark combination of poverty of ambition, opportunity and complete religious or cultural integration which had led to these outer suburbs being deemed no-go areas. Now here it was. Impressive in its own way, a vast concrete wall of tower blocks shielding Paris from the land to its south. Like the Pompidou Centre it seemed to taunt and subvert the rest of the city; a sort of discordant jeer to the symphony of traditional Paris. Unlike the Pompidou Centre, the tower blocks of the southern arrondissements are not intended to form a part of the Parisian centre. Deliberately excluded at the margins, the concrete brutalist towers seem almost to reflect the isolation and marginalisation of their residents.

But unlike the Pompidou Centre, these Paris suburbs have an air of degraded permanence about them. It is easy to imaging the Pompidou being torn down and replaced by something more conservative. The scale of the southern suburbs prevents this, however. Like it or not, High rise Paris is here for the foreseeable future.

So what does this tell us of Modern France? Or at least, what can it tell us that we do not know? For clearly there are tensions that arise between not only the architectural styles but between the people who live in them. There are ethnic tensions and religious ones that are well documented. So France is not perfect. So what?

Well firstly, Paris is not unique in the French context, let alone in Europe. Across French cities, an underclass of young  jobless males (Mostly of Algerian Decent) have failed to integrate or find work which would help to bind them to the French collective ideal. Moreover, in a vicious cycle, as these young men are seen more and more in terms of a racial underclass, so their chances of social mobility decrease. In turn this fuels prejudice and ultimately conflict as the disenfranchised seek solitude in peer groups open to extremist solutions, and the threatened majority find a mouth piece in politicians willing to preach the language of exclusion. Le Front National poled well in the first round of the presidential campaign and, as far as I could see, Paris seems to sense an impending crisis.

Certainly race appears to be as big an issue for many Parisians as the Global economic Downturn; a fact that seems unsurprising, given the dramatic way in which a 23-year-old loner and petty criminal, Mohamed Merah, shocked France by attacking a Jewish School before dying in an apparent hail of bullets, following a protracted siege of his home. My impression is that the shocking reality of this young mans brutality and hatred added a new and powerful awareness of race, terrorism and class to the Presidential campaign and it appears to have given a boost to the far right and left respectively, polarizing French society in the process.

Paradoxically, given the election of a progressive, in François Hollande, as president, the election struck me as, if anything, a shift to a more conservative economic and social policy. It was Sarkozy who represented the break with the past in 2007, ushering in an era which was supposed to embrace Anglo-Saxon Economics and revised employment legislation designed to make France more competitive. The failure of the Anglo-Saxon Financial Model the following year and the loss of France’s AAA Credit Rating have put paid to that vision but this time, the choice was between a vision of France, seeking to undergo painful but necessary transformation, and one which promised economic stimuli (essentially old-fashioned pump priming). Faced with this vision of 1981 style Thatcherism or 1971 Style Keynesianism, the French have opted for less castor oil and more motor oil.

But the Merah incident appeared to be more raw in people’s minds last week, than the economic debate. My sense is that the French saw the Economic crisis as a long-term problem but one which would effectively resolve itself. Merah showed that such apathy, is dangerous as it exposes a generation of young Frenchmen to a future without productiveness, optimism or any sence of inclusion. A Gallic shrug will not suffice this time.

Yet just a generation ago, France was at the forefront of radicalism. In 1967, the Keynesian economic settlement which formed the basis of the lefts radical departure this time round, appeared to be essentially conservative. This year would see the fall of general de Galle amid strikes and riots fueled by economics, job losses and growing crises in Algeria and Vietnam. It is the Student protests that we remember from the summer of love, however.

The elderly President de Gaulle could not pretend to understand the Paris Student riots of that year. The city of love was demanding free love with the catalyst for the riots, an unfulfilled demand to end sex segregation in French Universities. Briefly, 1967 gave hope to Communists and Anarchists, hippies, beatniks and Bob Dylan. France was not alone in its radicalism but it was at the forefront, trumping London and San Francisco in its demands, its scale and its results. De Gaulle saw that his time was coming to an end. Indirectly, at least, 1967 ended an era in France.

Paris saw riots too in 1848, triggering revolutions across the continent. These were mostly unsuccessful but they had profound effects in unlikely places. The aftermath of 1848 saw increasing moves in Britain for acceleration in Parliamentary reform, both in terms of increasing the franchise and devolving power to Ireland. Neither would happen immediately, but 1848 helped remind a new generation of politicians, among them William Gladstone, of the dangers of revolution.

Even more importantly, two academics were watching closely the reasons and results of 1848 and drew lessons which would ultimately inform Das Capital and the Communist Manifesto. In just 69 years, the world would see its first Communist State.

Yet, France has countered this radical streak with a profoundly anti-modern and evolutionary pace of social change. France lagged behind Britain in abolishing slavery or prison colonies. Despite its historically strong Communist Party and radical leftist tradition, it has elected fewer socialists to power than Britain and has tended to back away from them very quickly, having done so. It gave French workers their first weeks paid holiday in 1935, around the same time as Britain, and for all the impact of the French Revolution on the world, French women such as Madame Guillotine would need to wait 156 years to be able to actively participate in the democratic process (Fully 17 years after British women first obtained this right). While it has tended to work fewer hours than Britain, it works longer hours than Spain or Italy and has been slower to embrace a service economy or to privatize industry.

And outside the cities, French life has changed still more slowly. It is still relatively uncommon to commute long distances as has become normal in Britain, and despite the presence of the vast Carrefore supermarket chain rivaling Americas Wal-Mart and Britain’s Tesco for global preeminence, France retains a disproportionately large number of independent grocers, butchers and patisseries.

So is the French experience really one of the triumph of conservatism over progressivism? Well possibly. But Modern France, remains a diverse place despite the deeply centralizing instincts of its state infrastructure. Culturally speaking, the regions of Provence in the south, and Artois in the north remain profoundly different culturally and despite the efforts of the State for two centuries, to unify the French language, regional accents and colloquialisms thrive.

Moreover, there are signs that France is slowly coming to terms with its post-colonial status (again, a process that can be seen in parallel to that of Britain). In rejoining NATO and signing a bilateral military treaty with Britain, France is tacitly acknowledging that the costs of maintaining a substantive individual strike capability is prohibitive. France has long sought to present itself as an exception: a country to follow: perhaps even a rival vision (if not a rival power) to the United States.  Proud of its cultural achievements and civilization, France has sought to use the EU as a means of bolstering its power projection by demonstrating leadership and dynamism in a local context. The signs are, however, that France is slowly waking up to its declining status.

There remains deep divide over whether economic stimuli can provide a swifter or more profound economic recovery than debt repayment and cuts to public services, attempted by Sarkozy. In either case, it seems likely to be a margin call with real recovery taking a generation, at least. The lesson from the Great depression appears to be that neither economic stimulus, nor austerity truly work very effectively. Ultimately the massive collective industrial will required of a War, dwarfed the impact made by Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt combined.

Assuming therefore, that economic downturn is likely to be greatly longer in Europe than first envisaged, it is likely that we will see a different outlook, emerging from it than that which entered it. There are already signs that the young will emerge as a more ruthless breed, inheriting the responsibilities of their parents but not the opportunities or rewards. But as France ages, it may be that the problems posed by immigration need to be confronted in a more dramatic way and it may be that their children in turn find themselves in a Europe, ethnically and culturally altered from that of us, their grandparents.

Yet it is far from clear whether France possesses the self-assurance to overcome its ethnic and economic divisions and high unemployment rates, to embrace this next era as one of progressive modernity in which she has historically had a leadership role, or whether her experiences as a post colonial power still coming to terms with its economic and social problems will leave her diminished, her glories surviving as those of Lisbon or Rome or Venice survive; as forgotten dreams in sun-kissed streets.

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