France and me: The most rewarding relationship of my life

In his 1872 poetry collection The Terrible Year, the great French writer Victor Hugo wrote, “Je voudrais n’être pas Français pour pouvoir dire/ Que je te choisis, France. ”

“I wish I could not be French so that I could say/ I choose you, France.”

Hugo meant those words as a statement of solidarity with his wounded country, after its defeat at the hands of Prussia and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune.

I felt something similar during the wave of jihadist attacks that killed close to 250 people in France in 2015 and 2016.

I am happy that I was able to fulfil Hugo’s wish by “choosing France”. I was born and raised in southern California, and became a naturalised French citizen last April 11th.

When I received the good news earlier this year, a friend joked that changing one’s nationality was as dramatic as a sex-change operation. This July 14th, I will celebrate my first Bastille Day as citoyenne Marlowe.

Like most love affairs, my involvement with France has been at times irrational, mysterious and unpredictable. It has been marked by euphoric highs and despairing lows; I dare say it has been the most rewarding relationship of my life.

I was five-years-old when I first learned of the existance of a wonderful, far-away place called Paris. France has exerted an almost gravitational pull over me ever since.

Few things are worse than a journalist who repeats the same old stories, so forgive me for retelling the one about my mother’s tourist trinkets. It amazes me that something so seemingly insignificant changed the course of my life.

Early in my childhood, my recently widowed mother returned from a tour of Europe and the Middle East with a blue and white plastic Air France bag stuffed with souvenirs.

Children are highly impressionable, and Mom probably told me I would like Paris. When I became fixated with a tiny bronze replica of the Eiffel Tower and a silk scarf emblazoned with the monuments of Paris, I could not have imagined that I would spend so much of my life learning about France.

For the eight years I worked as a journalist in the Arab world, I felt most at home in Lebanon and Algeria, because of the imprint France left there. Conversely, my experience in former French colonies made it easier for me to cover rioting in the French banlieues.

I returned to the US to cover Barack Obama’s first term for The Irish Times. During that stay, I realised that the sheer sum of experience and friendships I had built up in Paris had forged a sense of belonging. I learned how habit anchors one to a place.

In 2013, I moved back to Paris, for the sixth and last time.

‘Beauty more than bread’

I was 19 when I first arrived in Paris, carrying a rucksack and a rail pass. That autumn, I enrolled in the Sorbonne’s year-long French civilisation course for foreigners.

That first year in Paris was the best year of my life. Everything was new. I chose a flamboyant professor who wore designer clothes and drenched herself in Guerlain perfume to supervise my thesis on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Her husband had lost a leg in the liberation of Paris. When they invited me to a restaurant, her whippet hound sat with us at table.

I lived rent free in a sixth-floor garret behind the National Assembly, in exchange for English lessons for the doctors’ children on the third floor.

In France, as in Ireland, history is inescapable

The children’s father subscribed to the communist daily l’Humanité, mainly to needle the aristocrats who lived on the floor beneath him. I watched television with the Spanish maid and her west Indian boyfriend who lived next door to me in the top floor servants’ quarters. This upstairs-downstairs experience was a good introduction to the stratification of French society.

A highly developed aesthetic sense is one of the things that drew me to France. As T.E. Lawrence wrote, “The human soul needs beauty more than bread.”

At the Sorbonne and in all the decades that have followed, my life has been enriched immeasurably by Chopin, Balzac, Proust, Apollinaire. I cannot imagine life without Manet, Monet, Berthe Morisot.

When I was growing up in the US, meals were viewed as a practical necessity. The French speak of les arts de la table, the arts of the table. France has taught me that food and wine and the conviviality of shared meals are among life’s great pleasures.

A study published by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development last year showed the French spend more time at table than any other nationality: two hours and 13 minutes daily on average. That is more than double the US average of one hour and two minutes.

The French official who presided over my naturalisation ceremony in April quoted Albert Camus: “The French language is my country.”

An endless delight in the power and possibilities of words is, I believe, one of many things that France and Ireland, my other adopted country, have in common.

But while the Irish play with language in an irreverent, Joycean fashion, the French approach their’s gingerly, as if handling fine china.

‘This admirable revolution is not finished’

In France, as in Ireland, history is inescapable. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

The French continue to dispute their own history. My friendship with an ageing academician, now deceased, was irreparably damaged when he objected to an article I wrote about French misdeeds in Algeria. He never accepted the loss of the colony, which had been considered an integral part of France.

In 1987, the historian Suzanne Citron published The National Myth; the History of France Revisited. Citron reviewed shameful episodes that are often glossed over, from Louis XIV’s Code Noir, which organised slavery, to the bloody repression of the Paris Commune, mutinies in the first World War, collaboration by the second World War Vichy regime, and the use of torture in Algeria.

The 1789 revolution resonated through all the street demonstrations I have covered over nearly 20 years as Paris Correspondent for The Irish Times. I suspect that countries, like individuals, are doomed to endlessly repeat the same behaviour.

In 1978, the historian François Furet attempted to introduce a more nuanced understanding of the revolution in Penser La Révolution Française. “The revolution is over,” wrote Furet, contradicting first World War leader Georges Clémenceau who famously said, “This admirable revolution is not finished.”

Lara Marlowe was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2006 for her contribution to Franco-Irish relations.
Lara Marlowe was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2006 for her contribution to Franco-Irish relations.

Furet distinguished between the “bourgeois” revolution of 1789, and the terror and despotism that followed. The right to vote had replaced the need for insurrection, he wrote. Furet’s critics accused him of veering to the right, of seeking to destroy the heritage of the left, and – quelle horreur! – of being pro-American.

The gilets jaunes or yellow vests movement that shook Emmanuel Macron’s presidency last autumn, winter and spring, modelled itself on the 1789 revolution. Demonstrators filed cahiers de doléances or registries of grievances, as their revolutionary forbears did. They attacked symbols of privilege and authority, and even guillotined Macron in effigy.

The hated elite

When I write of my love for French culture, I am conscious of the danger of appearing to perpetuate a myth, the illusion of La France éternelle as a place of refinement, intellect and beauty. Some argue that it no longer exists, or that it survives only in museums.

I almost hesitate to mention Proust, Apollinaire and the Impressionists, for fear they mark me as a member of the hated elite. The long-simmering resentment directed at those who have benefitted from education bubbled to the surface with the gilets jaunes.

The 30 per cent of the French population who hold university degrees comprise 80 per cent of President Emmanuel Macron’s supporters. This elite has virtually seceded, living in affluent neighbourhoods in big cities, sending their children to private schools and in many cases moving abroad to avoid taxation.

The French intellectual Raphael Glucksmann, who led the Socialist list in the May EU elections, told Arte television: “When I go to New York or Berlin, I feel more at home culturally than when I go to Picardy. And that is the problem.”

During my summer holiday, I read the political scientist and pollster Jérôme Fourquet’s new book, The French Archipelago; Birth of a Multiple and Divided Nation.

Fourquet describes contemporary France as atomised, Balkanised, disaggregated, dislocated, fragmented.

France has usually feared diversity as a source of disunity and instability

The opposition between conservative Catholicism and what Fourquet calls “the red church” – communism – has structured French society for much of the last two centuries. During the more than 40 years I have known France, both collapsed.

The presence of the Catholic Church “gave a meaning to disbelief, atheism and secularism”, demographer Emmanuel Todd wrote in his 2008 book After Democracy. “The disappearance of this point of reference destroyed the entire ideological organisation of France.”

France has usually feared diversity as a source of disunity and instability. The public-school system was intended to inculcate the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité and secularism. Exceptions, such as the desire to speak a regional language or express religious belief, have not been tolerated.

Immigration has become a major catalyst since the early 1980s, when the children of north African Arab immigrants staged the March for Equality and Against Racism, also known as the Marche des beurs. (“Beur” is French slang for “Arab”). Then Arabs who were brought to France to work in terrible conditions in automobile factories went on strike.

The backlash against the march and the strikes brought Jean-Marie Le Pen Front National to the fore. The FN made its first big breakthrough in the June 1984 European elections.

Other landmark events that transformed French politics and society were the sense of betrayal when the No vote in the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty was not respected; three weeks of rioting in the banlieues in the autum of 2005; the 2008 financial crisis and the jihadist attacks of 2015 and 2016.

‘All my life, I have held a certain idea of France’

Macron’s election in May 2017 demonstrated just how much France has changed, with the demise of the neo-Gaullist and socialist political families that had dominated France since 1958.

The confrontation between Macron and Marine Le Pen, whose party has changed its name from Front National to Rassemblement National or National Rally, exemplifies the transformation of French politics. This new fault line between liberal democrats and populist nationalists is the result of globalisation.

The far right see immigration as concomitant to globalisation. In 2016, 18.8 per cent of infants born in France were given Arab Muslim first names. If present trends continue, Fourquet predicts, the percentage of the French population originating in the Arab Muslim world will reach 20 to 25 per cent.

“French society has become de facto a multi-cultural society,” Fourquet writes. “And our country will never again know the situation of ethnic and cultural homogeneity that prevailed until the end of the 1970s. This is without contest a major change, and doubtless the princicpal cause of the metamorphosis that has taken place before our eyes and which already has profound consequences.”

While Arabs and Africans have become a significant minority, comparable to Hispanics in the US, they are nowhere near “replacing” whites, as the far right alleges.

Lara Marlowe: ‘France must regain its reputation as the cradle of the Enlightenment and earn a new status as a country to be emulated, as the necessary country. Photograph: Bernard Benant
Lara Marlowe: ‘France must regain its reputation as the cradle of the Enlightenment and earn a new status as a country to be emulated, as the necessary country. Photograph: Bernard Benant

Macron has managed to reassert French influence abroad despite internal discord. His belief in French exceptionalism follows the tradition of Gen Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic and doubtless the greatest French man of the 20th century.

“All my life, I have held a certain idea of France,” de Gaulle wrote at the beginning of his Mémoires de Guerre, first published in 1954. “To my mind, France cannot be France without grandeur.”

Macron has arguably, as the New York Times reported from Davos in January 2018, “laid claim to the mantle of leader of the free world”.

With the UK wallowing in Brexit, Angela Merkel on her way out and Donald Trump in the White House, Macron has assumed that position almost by default.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright used to call the US “the necessary country”.

Today, Macron’s audacity in upbraiding Trump over his disregard for international law, and his willingness to defy nationalist populists in Europe, make France, not the US, the necessary country.

Macron has shown great energy and initiative in his quest for a “European renaissance”. It was Macron who found the magical formula to unblock stale-mated negotiations over top EU posts at the beginning of July. He ended three days of squabbling by proposing that German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen lead the commission, and that IMF director Christine Lagarde head the European Central Bank.

Macron has challenged Trump on climate change, most recently at the G20 summit in Tokyo. And he struggles to salvage the Iran nuclear accord, conferring with President Hassan Rohani for over an hour on the telephone on July 6th. If those efforts bear no fruit, it is because extraterritorial US laws punish European banks and companies that trade with Tehran.

In response to the gilets jaunes crisis, Macron admitted that there had been “blind spots” in his policies and promised “to place man more at the heart of our project than we have done. Our project must be more just, more human, if it is to unite us in the face of great changes.”

The word liberal has become ‘the supreme insult’

The word “de-globalisation” has begun to appear in intellectual discourse, the idea that it might be possible to put the genie back in the bottle. And there are signs that the French business community is beginning to realise that the unbridled greed of recent decades is self-defeating.

Maurice Lévy,chairman of the advisory board of the communications giant Publicis, wrote in Le Monde on July 1st that the very word “liberal” has become “the supreme insult” because of the perception that “the liberal has no heart, no understanding of society, no compassion for the weakest. He is motivated solely by the desire to enrich himself and to help the richest.”

Macron had promised to combine social protection with economic reform during his presidential campaign. But he has been unable to shed the nickname “president of the rich”.

Macron now shows signs of having heard the cri de coeur of the losers in French society. If he cannot satisfy them, Marine Le Pen and her brand of populist nationalism could come to power.

Macron was inspired in the past by the Scandinavian experience. But the Nordics too have seen the rise of populist nationalist parties.

On the eve of my first Bastille Day as a French citizen, I want to be hopeful. I want to believe it will be possible to foster a more efficient and competitive French economy while promoting social justice.

If Macron can square that circle, France will regain its reputation as the cradle of the Enlightenment and earn a new status as a country to be emulated, as the necessary country.

Lara Marlowe will deliver a lecture on “My France” at the government guest house at Farmleigh on Saturday July 13th at 3pm. Tickets are free but must be pre-booked at http://farmleigh.ie/event/lara-marlowe-my-france/