France split between tears and laughter

CHARLES ROBERTS It is, by any measure, a startling headline: "The French laugh. France weeps". According to a new report, my adopted neighbours are both rejoicing and weeping over the future of their country.


It is, by any measure, a startling headline: "The French laugh. France weeps". According to a new report, my adopted neighbours are both rejoicing and weeping over the future of their country.

A major supplement in the top-drawer Paris business magazine Challenges has offered this brilliant picture of a France seemingly in turmoil.

I say "seemingly" because if one thing is clear in this inquiry, it is the lack of accord between its writers. Some seek (perhaps defending the country's reputation) to sound a positive note. More use a probing knife. However, the general prognosis is not good.

The public is equally divided. The magazine has since run a poll to see reactions to its report. It found 72pc of voters were unhappy, collectively, about the findings. But polled as individuals, 84pc were content. That is, polled in a crowd, unhappiness reigned. Chat to the public confidentially, and a majority chorused "aye". But why is there pessimism?

It was as if the inquiry had taken place at one of the darkest moments in French history. "From where," queries one of the contributors to the supplement, "comes this schizophrenia among the French?"

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The Challenges document suggests that France is terrified about the destiny of Europe, and about the future of the celebrated social model that has guided the country since the middle of the last century.

It highlights France's fear that the world which she lit in the past, through her language, culture and prominence, is becoming increasingly global (a concept universally detested within France), liberal and . . . Anglo-Saxon.

In fact, that decline owes much less to the national economy than to the nation's spirit. Economically, France happens to be ahead in many areas, not least in her productivity, which is much higher than Britain's.

Against that background, optimists insist, France could and should become once again The Country of Light.

Philippe Sollers, a principal contributor to the enquiry, finds on one side a profound crisis of identity in France - a sense of "decline, apocalypse, general failure" - and on the other side, pious hopes and pride in being French.

In the response of the general public to the report, he finds a weariness. "The French have just forgotten that they live incredibly better lives than preceding generations. But how to transmit that, if one has a fear of his past?"

In the event, he declares, one comes back always to history - and nearer than one thinks. Like May 29 last year, the historic day when France said 'No' to the proposed European constitution.

"Europe is the grandeur of France, one of its lights, as is Christianity. Now there are no longer lights. Nor is there Christianity. May 29 was a cultural tragedy."

Over the top, perhaps. Alain Mine, another contributor, remains calm: "There's no point in getting desperate. Our country has already experienced this kind of crisis."

Often, one might say - from the defeat of Bonapartism, the Paris siege by the Prussians in 1870, the horrors of two world wars and the loss by the French of the fort of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. During the recent episode of race-related rioting in the French suburbs - which continued for a fortnight - he claims that for between 24 and 48 hours, the country was actually out of control.

"Imagine what would have happened if Raffarin and Douste-Blazy . . ." (the then PM and the present minister of foreign affairs, neither men of tough and positive action)

". . . had had the management of the affair, rather than our improbable but tremendously efficient couple?" (prime minister de Villepin, and internal affairs minister Nicolas Sarkozy).

What indeed? But as I look through my window at a vista of winter-naked trees, I and thousands like me in rural France are wondering if it ever really happened. We were, and are, still able to bask in the quietness of our retreats, secure in the knowledge that serious crime hereabouts is rare.

Yet that still leaves a certain haziness over France's future at home, in Europe and abroad. I turned, as I often do, to a French woman of rare instinct whose judgment I've come to trust. I quoted to her a few viewpoints from the Challenges report, and awaited her response.

There was a brief silence. Then an elegant forefinger with a carmined nail was extended steeply downwards, with all the finality of a Roman emperor giving judgment.

Time will tell.