It’s Bastille Day: Time to think about all the things the French have got right
Every European has two homelands: the country he is born in, and France
Alpha jets fly over the Arc de Triomphe leaving a red, white and blue trail during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris. EPA/IAN LANGSDON
In this week when France celebrates Bastille Day, a day in history that ushered in a new European order, it is worth remembering the perhaps apocryphal words of the Chinese Communist leader Chou Enlai, who when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, answered: ‘It’s too soon to tell’. He was right. The recent disasters that have hit Europe, from the refugee crisis to Brexit and fundamentalist terrorism, can be seen as battles in a long war. And, as so often before, the front line in that war seems be in France, the heartland of Europe. As the French President prepares to visit Ireland, we should never lose sight of the simple truth that every European has two homelands: the country he is born in, and France.
It is not far-fetched to say that the whole notion of our modern European societies stems from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic reforms. Not just liberty, equality, and fraternity, but above all, the separation of Church and State. Napoleon introduced a religious tolerance never previously seen in Europe, but the price was that religion became a private matter. In recent years there has been much debate here in France about this principle of laicite and, indeed, many French commentators have pointed out that one positive thing emerging from the Charlie Hebdo massacre was that it has revealed just how deeply this principle is rooted in France, even, and especially, among the young. This is no surprise. But the threat to the French way of life is coming from many sides, not just Islamic fundamentalism. Articles regularly appear in the New York Times, backed up by mutterings in Brussels, that the French way of life has failed and is not economically sustainable.
I am writing this in a small, extremely remote French village, very much what the French call ‘La France Profonde’. Its lifestyle certainly could be the envy of Europe. Most of the villagers have small gardens and terraced orchards which produce large amounts of vegetables and fruit. Many people keep a few hens, and bees. Their houses are modest and unmortgaged. In some ways they replicate the subsistence farming lifestyle of their grandparents, the era before the first world war, when the population of the village was ten times greater than it is now. But there is one crucial difference. They have been the beneficiaries of the great social contract which transformed the life of Europeans in the second half of the twentieth century.
Many of these people spent their working lives in the service of the state, as nurses, teachers, postmen, civil servants in nearby towns. They did their jobs, paid their taxes, and retired at an age when they could still enjoy the fruits of their labour, with adequate and guaranteed pensions, not to mention free and excellent healthcare. This is why they, like so many people, voted for the social democratic parties of Europe, and continue to do so, electing Francois Hollande as a Socialist President. This is a political culture which includes the notion of quality of life.
Talking to the local people one thing becomes clear: these people are not willing to give up their lifestyle because an economist in Washington or Brussels says so. What the people of Europe understand, particularly the older ones, is the simple fact eloquently expressed by the French poet Rene Char: ‘Our inheritance was not willed to us.’ That is, every extra euro in the hourly rate of pay, every free hospital bed, every year reduction in the retirement age, had to be fought for - bitterly, extendedly and sometimes violently. It did not all take place through the ballot box or industrial action, as the monument in the village to the dead who fell in the two world wars constantly reminds us. The young Resistance fighters who fought and died in the surrounding wooded hillsides were not fighting for a return to the prewar status quo, any more than the huge Greek Resistance army which fought the occupying Germans. This social democratic base, this belief in a life of equality and dignity for all, which took shape over the last seventy years, but with its roots in 1789, and which I like to think of as the ‘L’Europe Profonde’, is still there. It looks like we will have to fight for it all over again in the coming years.
Michael O’Loughlin is a poet