A Tour of France Examining the New Sick Man of Europe
The TV images of the Tour de France show an idyllic country, but behind the gloss is a nation where fears of decline are prompting people to vote for the far right. A trip along the route of the world's most famous cycling race reveals the deep uncertainty ailing the French.
There is a new word in the French language: La mannschaft. It's the term used to define everything that is enviable on the opposite bank of the Rhine River -- in other words, Germany's success. It's a success that is the product of the collective and is free of any of the egocentrics, self-deluded, bling-bling divas and "general director presidents," as the heads of French companies are called, that can make France so stuffy.
A week ago Monday, on Bastille Day, newspapers across France sighed that it wouldn't hurt if the country were a bit more like la mannschaft. Instead, unemployment is twice as high as it is in Germany, growth and investments have fallen far and former President Nicolas Sarkozy was recently detained for questioning by police at dawn. La mannschaft is the polar opposite of the other word currently in fashion in France: le malaise. A deep gloom appears to have taken hold in France. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the French are "pessimistic" about their country's future.
"Viewed from the outside, France under François Hollande is like Cuba, only without the sun but with the extreme right," the newsweekly Le Point recently wrote. The country is "impoverished, over-indebted, divided, humbled and humiliated and finds itself in a pre-revolutionary situation in which anything seems possible."
The only thing missing, it seems is the travel warning, because right at this moment, large numbers of vacationers from the rest of Europe are traveling in the country. Are these vacationers all francophone lemmings on their way to the cliff, blind to anything that doesn't involve a game of boule or finding a camping spot?
Something is adrift in France. Rarely has the public mood been this miserable and the sullenness as omnipresent as it has been this summer. A president currently resides in Elysée Palace who was mercilessly booed during the July 14th military parade. It doesn't seem possible for Hollande to get any less popular, and yet his popularity continues to fall from one low to the next.
But at least the country still has the Tour de France, the grand race that circles the country and serves as a prelude to the summer holiday season. Each year, it provides a long beloved view of a different, rural and idealized France -- one where local firehouses still host annual dances, where there's a memorial to those lost in the wars in front of every city hall and where the people know where they belong. But do they really?
This reporter recently traveled across France to take the country's pulse with the people on the ground. The route followed stayed true to the course of the 2014 Tour de France, taking in cities, towns and villages, and sought to observe signs of the crisis, decline, collective depression and other specters that are haunting Germany's most important neighbor.
Lille (km 710)
The first stage of the tour to take place in France (the first three are in Britain this year) ends at the periphery of Lille in Pierre Mauroy Stadium, a sparkling arena of glass, steel and concrete. The only person in sight is a guard. Lille is one of the few success stories in a French Socialism that is otherwise in a state of crisis. Local Mayor Martine Aubry even managed to get re-elected recently. The politician is the anchor of the Socialist Party's left wing. In contrast to the president, she is cherished by the party base. Aubry also happens to be the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, the father of currency union.
Although Lille has profited from Europe, Joël Leclerc has not. "Lille is for the rich," he says, noting that he doesn't even buy his coffee here. Leclerc is the sole security guard standing in front of Pierre Mauroy Stadium. He's the son of a miner and has a crew cut, as is common among members of the French Foreign Legion. He says he raised his children with a "good kick in the ass." Unlike Lille, he says the village of Avion where he lives isn't home to any "vermin," the highly disparaging term used by Sarkozy to describe the children of immigrants who rampaged through the streets of Paris' suburbs in 2005.
"We still have values here in the village," Leclerc says. He's the archetypical supporter of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party. Leclerc says he once had aspirations to become a member of the police force, but that he wasn't able to. "My father threw lumps of coal during the 1968 strikes at the CRS, the special police," he explains. "That's what people here in the village do. Avion has been communist for 200 years. People call it Little Russia. Me? Of course I'm a communist. A simple worker."
Leclerc remains loyal to the communists for the same reason that most of his colleagues have since begun voting for Front National -- out of tradition, patriotism and the desire for order. He says his father once lived in Poland, somewhere near Katowice, but, no, he didn't work in the mines there. The place had a different name. He had to stay there for three years. Then, without any special emphasis, he says the name: "Auschwitz."
Arras (km 865.5)
Back when the Tour de France was created, French unity was anything but a given. It was a time when Bretonnians, Occitans and Alsatians, but also monarchists and Catholics all seemed to have problems with the words that are today posted on every town hall: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," liberty, equality and fraternity.
The race was intended to be a celebration of the country's beauty. People used the landscape as a stage to celebrate their country. It was a chance for "La France profonde" -- deep France, the real France far away from Paris -- to shine. It was all about the periphery of the country, the Café du Commerce that seemed to be located in every town or faded posters advertising aperitifs like Dubonnet.
Essentially, it is this France where much of the current discontent is coming from. "Revolution is stewing at the edge of France, away from the major cities," French social geographer Christophe Guilluy recently wrote. These areas are home to 60 percent of the French population and 80 percent of those who might be described as the "little man": laborers, pensioners, the middle class -- people who in general harbor the strongest fears of decline. It is here that voter turnout was poor during the communal elections in March. And it is here where Le Pen did particularly well.
Somme is a countryside filled with former mines and battlefields. There are flat fields and sugar beets for as far as the eye can see. The French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre was born and raised here before going to Paris to help the virtuous rise to power, using the guillotine where necessary.
Raffi Ashkar holds a pair of scissors in his right hand. He runs a shoe repair and key making shop in Rue Robespierre across the street from the former Jacobin's home. Ashkar says every era needs a revolution. The question is what kind of revolution? Ashkar, who is of Lebanese origin, is every bit a member of the middle class, or Third Estate as the French called it during the revolution of the late 1700s.
"I understand the French," he says. "There are no values any more. Family and friendship? Each is out for his or her self. Everyone is egotistical. That's why many vote for Le Pen -- out of sheer hopelessness. As long as you behave, the people here are likeable. Unfortunately, there are a lot of foreigners who don't understand that. They have no respect. Let's just take the example of football. Why don't all the players (on the French national team) sing the national anthem? That bothers me. I work here, I earn my money here, and this is my country. Voilà, that's all."
Valmy (km 1,160)
Stacks of books at a local bookstore in Valmy are dedicated to a new genre in French literature: the downfall. It includes titles like "Reinventing France," "France, a Peculiar Bankruptcy," "If We Only Wanted To, "When France Wakes Up," "A Dangerous Game in the Elysée," "Fellow French, Are You Ready for the Next Revolution?" "France, A Challenge, " and many, many more.
Around two dozen such titles were published last month alone. They always seem to have the same central message as well -- that things can't continue as they are and that France is in decline. It seems like the term "déclinisme" has already emerged as its own school of thought.
The Tour de France detours here around the industrial wastelands and decommissioned blast furnaces of northern Lorraine. Instead, on the route between Reims and Verdun, you see a windmill set on a hill surrounded by canons and heroic statues. This is the site of the birth of the nation. The fact that the cannons placed are emblazoned with "Made in Manchester" -- and that it was German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who retroactively identified the Battle of Valmy as an historical turning point -- doesn't detract from the place's symbolism.
During the Cannonade of Valmy in September 1792, the Revolutionary Army halted a Prussian army that had rushed to the aid of the French monarchy. It marked the first time that the French chanted "Vive la nation!" The notion of the nation, as the central point of reference for all French, had replaced that of God and the king. They persevered as well, using team spirit akin to that of la mannschaft.
The term "nation" has been invoked here incessantly ever since -- mostly, unfortunately, to animate the people to charge into bayonettes, grenades, mustard gas and all manner of projectiles. After leaving Valmy, the Tour de France route passes through the battlefields of the last century, those of World War I and II.
- Part 1: Examining the New Sick Man of Europe
- Part 2: 'An Excessively Glorified Past that Won't Go Away'
- Part 3: An Open Wound that Never Healed