Wednesday 6 July 2016

Ramblings about France and Britain from habits to literature via Brexit

I guess that for some of you the life of The Little Family, Anne-Fleur's tears and my relations with Red Tape as a carer treated as a diary, have little or no interest. They are first written for another blog created to talk about these issues, and called "Lights and Shades". However, readers are more used to "Sketches and Vignettes" and I have come to re-post the entries of "Lights and Shades" here, where they are read, get comments and support - two things of which we are in awful need.

But I understand that they go across regular reading of bookish ramblings, therefore here is one of these musings.


I was rather dejected the other day about the number of British writers I do not know or I know badly. Then the Brexit and the discussions around it before and after the referendum reminded me that I was French. I was reminded of that fact rather coarsely and crudely, sometimes with a spat of xenophobia and parochialism that I had never encountered although I had had a taste of it before.

My "real"(non virtual) English friends criticize our bread consumption but do not understand that there are days when we drink no tea at all and prefer strong Italian coffee. I have heard them laugh at the French more than once but they will not hear a word against British people. The French are plunged too much in administration, regulations and rules. The French are lazy. The French are drunkards. The French are messy. It is too hot in France. The French do not drive on the good side of the road. The French do not eat at the right hours. The French are unruly. The French are not fair players. The French politics are far from being democratic and they had Bastille Day and a revolution where they cut off everybody’s heads. The French did not have an Empire (I do not speak of the Napoleonic Empire: this was bad and a heresy) or if they had one, they did not know how to manage it. The French have no decent literature: they do not have Shakespeare. Why do the French want to speak French now that English is the global language? Instead, "we, in this country..." England, sweet England, Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen.

I agreed to all this, drank tea at ungodly hours for a French woman; ate weird things at weird hours; dutifully found that British fashion was the best; froze in British houses in Spring and even during Summer with a smile; waved to the Queen and the Royal Family; enjoyed the rain; enjoyed queuing in the rain; appreciated cricket; went to Anglican services, RSPB, RHS, and other Rs meetings where tea-urns were hissing and spitting; listened to and admired the supremacy of the Empire; vowed that without Britain, France would have been destroyed during the two last WWs because the French are poor soldiers; admitted that France should have been under the domination of England, then Great Britain and the United Kingdom instead of winning the One Hundred Years War and trying afterwards to keep her independence and even to shine under some rulers, etc. 

But now I have decided to draw a line, at least, at writers, painters, musicians, artists.

France has a perfectly great literature with some geniuses. France has perfectly good painters, even geniuses. France has perfectly great musicians, even geniuses.

As to my reading British literature, I know at least as many writers as British citizens do, and probably more than many. I even know more obscure literati, literature movements and currents than the proverbial average man in the street.

And I know the same quantity of things about France and French things. At least.

So why should I complex? 

End of complex.


Let's ask the question the other way round. How many British people write their blogs in French, read in French, know French literature down to the equivalent of the poor D.S. Stevenson (I apologize to her fans and admirers) - and are not French Literature graduates or teachers/professors?

So why should I complex? 

End of complex.


And, talking of poor D.S. Stevenson and revived British authors, why are they so present in the current British literary landscape? As are costume dramas with great success: think Downton Abbey, think Cranford, think Lark Rise to Candleford, think Jane Austen's novels, think Poldark novels, think Charles Dickens' novels, etc.

There are mostly no costume dramas in France. We are overwhelmed by US and British crime series, full of blood and violence; we have our own crime and detective series, more and more full of blood and violence; we have series with a social message - politically correct: gay and lesbian tolerance, pro-step-families, host families for children with various problems, pro-single-parent families, against racism, against anti-semitism, against anti-Muslims (before ISIS, DAESH, terrorist attacks - but they are recycled as examples of vivre ensemble / living together); we have series where we are challenged to beat our breasts for our faults before, during and after WWI and WWII and the Indochina War and the Algerian War and wars that came as consequences of decolonization - in fact, we are becoming champions of asking for mercy and asking for forgiveness; we have some so-called humorous and family series. But we have no costume dramas.

It seems that we are not raised to be proud of our country as the Britons are raised to be proud of theirs. 

At the same time, we do not live in the past.

Our social structure has always been different from the British social structure. Before 1789, and before les Etats Généraux (not what is called elsewhere "the Bastille Day" - 14 juillet 1789), there were what were called three "States": Aristocracy, Clergy, and Tiers Etat (what remained). We all know that the guillotine worked a lot throughout the Révolution, until 1794 and Robespierre's death: that left a great void in the Aristocracy and the Clergy. But the Napoleonic period created a new aristocracy and so did all political regimes which succeeded in the 19th century - of course, they are too new to be the real aristocracy: what are two centuries and a half? A mere nothing. These people still smell of pushiness and upstart. We had to leave the system of "Etats" to adopt that of classes. But it came slowly. There was no pride in being in the bank or the trade. There were no great aristocratic landowners left. The Industrial Revolution came later than in the UK, among the convulsions of succeeding revolutions: 1815, 1830, 1848, 1851, 1871, 1875, all civil wars and international wars before the great trauma of WWI. The new élites were political, industrial, from the civil service and, later from "les Grandes Ecoles". There is nothing there to make anyone dream.

Our Empire was different from that established by the UK. We needed soil to grow and to take off part of the burden of too much population in poor regions. We never created much counters for trade and ports where our navy could stop en route to further territories. We sent settlers who took the soil from their owners. We did not let our colonies stay countries but we mostly annexed them to France as part of France, making them "départements". There always were frozen wars between indigenous peoples and settlers. And if the countries were annexed to France, the civil service and the civil servants were French of course.

These are two examples of the differences between the UK and France and perhaps the roots for the breast beating of the French. There is - excuse me to be so frank - no pride, no arrogance, and nowadays few regrets about our past. There is no regret for a lost Empire. There is no idyllic vision of a peaceful rural France, a pre-lapsarian France, a France where aristocrats were mooning between Paris and their country seat. Our only exaltation is that of Revolutions, perpetual search for freedom, the Republic, the surge of Labour, Socialists, the fights against the bourgeoisie. No hotbed for costume drama.

As there are few regrets for the past, there are few regrets for past writers who are considered as minor if they are not the monsters all know: Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, Sand Zola, Maupassant, the little Réaliste and Naturaliste schools, Proust, Gide, Colette, Romain Rolland, Martin-du-Gard, Cocteau, Mauriac, Vian, Sartre... I am talking of novelists only here, not of poets; otherwise there would be Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Hugo, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Aragon, Eluard, Prévert, Péguy... But who remembers today Maurois, Brasillac, Chardonne, Dorgelès, Bourget, Toulet, Morand... There is a line of political divide even among writers: some went too much in favour of conservatives. Their song of the French ground is now considered as the song of the Far Right, and this reminds us too much of Dreyfus, Collaboration, Vichy. Here we are again breast beating.

What about women in this list of writers? There is Simone de Beauvoir of whom I have not spoken. The others were authors for children and young ladies, like Charlotte M Yonge. Conservatism again. Then came the feminists. There are shelves of novels by feminist ladies that belonged to Mother. Are they any good? They were serving a cause and were relevant then. Today, they must go into limbo and wait for a possible revival. But it is too soon yet.


Going back to my initial question: 

And, talking of poor D.S. Stevenson and revived British authors, why are they so present in the current British literary landscape? As are costume dramas with great success: think Downton Abbey, think Cranford, think Lark Rise to Candleford, think Jane Austen's novels, think Poldark novels, think Charles Dickens' novels, etc.

I can answer in linking this with the Brexit commotion. The British past has nothing to do with the French past. The French do not turn that much to their past: they are aware of its flaws and do not dream it as something to come back to. There is only the temptation of the Far Right, with which almost all countries in the West are flirting. This is a Western temptation of "what was before that might be restored", a supposed greatness that never truly existed for all citizens of these countries. And, for me - but I am writing on my blog and therefore may say what I wish -, it is a danger.

Now, most of my friends are interested in the revival of British or American writers who have been forgotten or left aside. I do not want to hurt them (even more as I share their enthusiasm in the re-discovery of these authors) but looking back to give a second life to these writers does participate of the mourning of the past. I find it, when it becomes almost obsessive, rather unhealthy.

Unless it serves as a ground to build a future.

P.S. Of course, I count on my readers’ sense of humour: a lot of what is written here about non-French people (as well as things and issues) is done tongue in cheek



  1. I shall have to read this properly tomorrow - but surely, no-one likes queuing in the rain, and only the most avid actually appreciate cricket? Most British people don't give a damn, so there's really no need :-)

    1. Don't forget the post scriptum: most of what is written about non French people, things and issues is written tongue in cheek! Although, Bob and Pam have not always been very fair to the French... And the Brexit made me think about various issues that were floating in my mind. There are real cultural differences between France and Britain. Some come from class structure, history, geography, geopolitics. I chose a short way otherwise it would have been a very long essay.
      The last drop came when I read that the British were not European because the British Isles did not belong to Europe. They were out of the continent. I answered that in this case, Iceland, Ireland, Sicily, Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Malta, etc. were not European either. And I decided to write something. Half humorous.

  2. "What is 250 years" - if you're American or Canadian - it could be everything.

    Did your Maman read things like Monique Wittig - to name one of the post Beauvoir authors... and Francoise Sagan? [there was a history book of Sagan's I read - about the French revolution - as well as one about a cruise].

    And the descriptions of French TV and media today.

    Thinking of THE SPIRAL in particular. And MARSEILLE on Netflix with Gerard Depardieu as the Mayor.

    I think about 5 British people write their blogs in French. :-)

    This is a nice and relaxing post.

    What about J Tati? I love what he did with the early Modern.

    "There was no pride in being in the bank or the trade. There were no great aristocratic landowners left. The Industrial Revolution came later than in the UK, among the convulsions of succeeding revolutions: 1815, 1830, 1848, 1851, 1871, 1875, all civil wars and international wars before the great trauma of WWI. The new élites were political, industrial, from the civil service and, later from "les Grandes Ecoles". There is nothing there to make anyone dream."

    Charlotte Bronte in SHIRLEY has you thinking "Yeah, Belgian and French history from that time was actually really cool".

    And I'd like to say differently about the banks. Sure 1980-2011 was a run of bad luck [because of Jerome and Societe Generale]. And it's really cool to be sponsored by a bank - safe hands - in the Tour de France.

    Why was the Napoleonic Empire bad and a heresy, in your opinion? Or is a British opinion you parodied and represented?

    And there's Moliere; Racine ... French drama from then to now is not to be beat ... for example Anilouh and their Antigone. "The spring is wound up tight".

    1. My family was already here a thousand years ago. So, a 250 year old aristocrat is an upstart! And the specificity of Europe is age. We find pre-historic artifacts going up the hill to the Old Castle. I remember the first time I went to the US, I went to Jamestown and Williamsburg and found them so new and young... All is relative of course.
      Mother read Sagan for light reading. She loved Marguerite Yourcenar, Elisabeth Badinter. She read in English. She was part British.
      I have never seen the TV programmes you mention; I did not even know they existed. We do not subscribe for paying TV. We have the free public channels and find them enough. Netflix is slowly coming to France.
      Jacques Tati is a genius for the cinema. Other directors are great. As to the banks and being a banker, it was not glamorous when in the 19th century or the first half of the 20th. Attitudes changed afterwards. But it is not this latter past that is evoked by the British costume dramas and the British supposed golden age.
      Molière, Corneille, Racine, Giraudoux, Anouilh, Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, etc. were out of my scope as I was talking about novelists and with a stylistic manoeuvre a little of poets.
      I parodied the British opinion and representation when I talked of the Empire (Napoleon). We needed a way out of the mess left by the end of the Revolution and there was the temptation of an authoritarian regime prepared by the Directoire and the Consulat. The French go from Revolutions to Revolutions with authoritarian powers in between. And sometimes a Republic that becomes corrupt and leads to a new Revolution...
      Thank you for reading my posts so closely. This one was some sort of answer to the discussions leading to the Brexit but I wanted it "tongue in cheek" and both funny and serious at the same time. Blogging is also a way to learn to write, practicing various styles. I have always wanted to be a writer - although I have not the talent for it -; writing is also a way to put things dear to my heart further and to see them in another light. A kind of therapy.

    2. Yay! I read Youcenar this 2014. Granddad was very fond of her. It was the Mirror and the Faces or something like this.

      So there's France 1, 2, 3, 4 and Canal would be a paying station.

      Glad that that was a parody.

      And that writing is a way to put things to your heart out of your heart.

      THE SIMS WORLD ADVENTURES is good for getting this sense of old France to modern day people. Especially as the quest element of the game involves 2500-year-old artefacts in caves and underground.

      Elisabeth Badinter - so cool. I have more recently read her polemic.

      Caught the poets in the manoeuvre.

      Napoleon as a way out. And History Revolutions covers this - if you pick the right revolutions with historical analysis as a contemporary did - she worked just as hard on China and Russia as France.

  3. "Our Empire was different from that established by the UK. We needed soil to grow and to take off part of the burden of too much population in poor regions. We never created much counters for trade and ports where our navy could stop en route to further territories. We sent settlers who took the soil from their owners. We did not let our colonies stay countries but we mostly annexed them to France as part of France, making them "départements". There always were frozen wars between indigenous peoples and settlers. And if the countries were annexed to France, the civil service and the civil servants were French of course."

    eg. Pondicherry in India and New Caledonia; Vanuatu; French Polynesia [the people have turned an election or two]; Kiribas...

    Almost as far-flung as the Netherlands. Spain tended to stay close - Portugal had lots of far-flung colonies.

    And if people dream [of les Grandes Ecoles and the civil service] it tends to be a sweat-and-hair-shirt dream.

    1. Pondichéry, etc. were the names of the five counters we had in India, that were left to us by the UK. They were exceptions in our colonial system. Otherwise we took possession of the lands without regard for the natives and we did not make any step towards teaching them administration and civil service. This is why their independence wars or the decolonization wars were so bloody and followed by so many ugly consequences - and brest beating. No golden age there.
      And our élites were not glamorous as they were presented in Downton Abbey or other costume dramas. Nobody will dream about a banker, someone in trade or a civil servant. Although you can belong to the aristocracy and be a banker or in trade or in industry today (but this is not a costume drama and it is not the past). In the past equivalent to what I describe as the pre-lapsarian UK, the French might be aristocrats and civil servants if it was diplomacy. Or the MOD.

    2. I know - "diplomatic cousins" or "defensive cousins" - this is a larger part of a "family romance" or "urban meets provincial meets rural meets cute".

      Black times for Algeria and the rest in particular. Noir temps. And all that in the 1960s. Thinking of Cameroon too.

      "Five counters". Yes. Colonialism is like chess or chequers!

  4. Yes, I gathered that it was funny before you told us so! Your list, the image of you sitting there politely listening to the devastating catalogue of things that were "wrong" about the French, according to the British way of thinking, had me in fits of laughter. I promise you, you could sell that as a top flight magazine article! I think I have heard of every one of those breathtakingly awful xenophobic prejudices (and admittedly even held a few myself). But the image of a French woman regurgitating them all at one go, with humour and a jaundiced eye, was delicious! As you probably know, I'm a huge Anglophile, who knows disgracefully little about France - which is why I am extremely glad to be learning about it and the "real" French way of life, from you, who takes the trouble to explain everything patiently in good English. I don't think you need worry about changes of subject - it's interesting to read the whole topical stew, with reflections on French life, English books, and social problems too. I have not been indifferent to your current situation with The Little Family, only at an absolute loss for any solution, largely because the French government system of taking care of its disabled (or not) is a different animal from the American system, and I have no clue what to suggest. Personally if I were in your situation, I can only imagine that I would not look to the government for deliverance. That seems futile, and also like a complete giving up of control; also, I can't contemplate the horror of depending on them for the rest of one's life. If I woke up in your life (and able to speak French!), I'd probably try to sell the house, move to a town where I could find some sort of work - anything, from answering telephones to teaching English - take a flat with the girls, and count on the little I earned together with their government stipends, to get by. The point would be that if I provided for myself I'd have some individual future, would not be in the position of sacrificing my whole life, and yet could carry out my responsibility to the girls by hiring a daily companion for them out of their stipend. That's how I'd try to approach it, but there may be very many objections from your point of view, that I can't even imagine. So that's why I feel I can't make any useful suggestions at all, though I do hope that your own ingenuity will find a workable solution for you. I do believe it will.

    1. I never thought you read my blog! This is a surprise, indeed, and a very good one!
      Thank you for your laugh when reading this post. I was a Brit-maniac until the Brexit: the discussions before it brought out the worst off many people. Fortunately, not from all my close virtual and non-virtual friends and family.
      I had never thought a post like this could be sold as an article magazine. That would be a way to stay at home with The Little Family and earn some money.
      There is nothing any of you can do for The Little Family but read the blog and show by some means that you have read it. My ambition is to bring our situation and situations of other carers under the limelights of the press and the politics now that we enter the Presidential campaign. The more I am read and the more widely, the more it gives wight to what I say.
      You are right: the French and the American systems are different.
      I cannot sell the house (some legal problems there: it is a family house hundreds of years old with land around; I am not allowed to sell and I do not to whom I would be able to sell!).
      Not selling the house, there is no money to buy a flat in town. And going to work for myself, I would have to pay for a companion for The Girls WITH permission from the Court and from the finance administrator. They would refuse it, being too expensive and would organize putting The Girls in specialized institutions - the fact we wish to avoid.
      I do not want the solution suggested by my GP: asking to be recognized as mentally disabled / handicapped because I suffered from depression.
      The only way is to find how to earn money while staying at home and caring for The Girls. And to have a legal status as carer with remuneration / stipend. Which takes me back to blog, politics and press.
      We have won the first step: clearing the garden and scouring the house, having repairs made by plumber and to the car, getting someone to do the shopping or help doing the weekly cleaning up and tidying. More suggestions to come next Tuesday.
      I do not know if my "own ingenuity will find a workable solution" but I am slow and stubborn. So, perhaps it will...
      Meanwhile, thank you for reading, commenting and for your compliments: they have a lot of value coming from you.

    2. Slow and stubborn helps. Then you can anticipate and predict and to a measure control.

      And yes, the French aristocratic land system. Try making a costume drama about THAT!

      Diana: I read your blog too, especially the latest one on visiting Cambridge.

      #Elysee2017 we will have to keep our eyes on. I think of the world of production and business management. Politics is a form of stage management, yes?

  5. The British are nostalgic for some imagined golden age when the peasants knew their place andwe actually had a place in the world - Brexit is a large part of this nostalgia.

    1. Absolutely my point. But I could not say it crudely. I have been somewhat of an Anglo/Brit-maniac those past years but discourse held by friends and family makes it more and more difficult. The Brexit was the drop too much.
      The French are full of defects and make errors They are no saints. Until now, they have been busy breast beating: they were still under the trauma of their own attitudes during and after WWII and the following wars in Indochina and Algeria. Nowadays, I am scared of the slow upstanding of the Front National and of racist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, etc., stances.
      The French could well turn back to their old demons but not for want of a Golden Age.

    2. About the Front National:

      this has been a fear for me since 2002 [and indeed since the 1997 cohabitation - 2002 made it more concrete and more real - especially when it came to local government and young Marine].

      Isn't 1/6 of the French population Muslim? At least?

      [Actually 5-10 percent if we are to believe Wiki].

      Just saw an awesome Japanese story about Muslim fashioneers in Japan. A woman in Iran started a hairdressing and general beauty and fashion service. Japanese election is also on the 10th July.

      [I could say more about the "old days" of Japan and Japonisme. Contemporary Japan and its government fascinates me now].

      "Discourse by friends and family makes it more difficult".

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