Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rural roots

Once, when I was chatting about family-history research with my father-in-law Jacques Mafart, he told me that such investigations would inevitably be dull and fruitless in the case of his ancestors. "Although I don't have many facts concerning my early ancestors in Brittany, I'm fairly sure they were all members of ancient Breton farming families who rarely moved far away from the villages where they grew up." As an Australian, whose ancestors had left the Old World and sailed out to the Antipodes (just as I had made the reverse trip—in largely more comfortable conditions—in 1962), I wasn't accustomed to the notion of ancestors remaining fixed in the same place and leading the same kind of agricultural existence for generation after generation. I was conditioned into considering that ancestors were primarily, if not necessarily, pioneers who spent their time jumping from one spot on the globe to another, and changing constantly their lifestyles. To put it bluntly, in spite of all my personal family-history research, I had never really learned the profound everyday sense of the concept of roots. Rural roots...

Napoleon Bonaparte described England (borrowing an expression invented by the Scottish economist Adam Smith) as a nation of shopkeepers. I don't know if anybody got around to making such a sweeping generalization, but France might have been described, at that time, as a nation of farmers.

Today, as you cross the French countryside in high-speed trains that are a modern marvel of engineering, you can still see to what extent France has remained a great agricultural nation. Rural France is a vast patchwork quilt of pastures, fields, woods and vineyards, crossed by a dense networks of highways, roads, lanes and tracks. Seen from the windows of a train, the French countryside is a splendid visual poem, evolving subtly at all times of the year. Personally, whenever I travel by train in France, I never bother to bring along something to read, because it's always an intense visual pleasure for me to spend my time watching the magnificent landscapes. The various buildings on each farm property, even when glimpsed fleetingly for a few seconds, tell stories. You obtain at a glance a train's-eye view of what kind of a family it is: their basic agricultural activities, their relative prosperity or poverty, the nature and state of their residence, their life style...

With roots like that, it's hardly surprising that one of the biggest happenings of the year in Paris is the agricultural show.

For politicians, it's a must to show up and be photographed at the Paris agricultural show... otherwise they run the risk of losing the support of the vast hordes of electors with rural roots, including those who still live on the land. In years to come, no doubt, politicians will find it more worthwhile, from an efficiency viewpoint, to be seen at technology shows. For the moment, though, it still pays to drop in to the biggest farm in France. Jacques Chirac—seen here in 1975, when he was the prime minister—played a major role in elevating this annual visit to the rank of a sacred ritual.

Charles de Gaulle had evoked jokingly the difficulties of governing correctly and calmly a nation that produces 246 varieties of cheese. Chirac, on the other hand, took pleasure in taking the reins of a nation with countless varieties of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, etc. Young people laughed at Chirac when he referred to a computer mouse (apparently an unknown item in his personal environment) by the rural term designating a field mouse. But everybody forgave the French president for not being a computer geek. On the other hand, people would have been discouraged without the reassuring image of Chirac fondling farm animals, and chatting with rural folk as if he were one of them... which he was, in a way.

For Nicolas Sarkozy, the obligation of visiting the agricultural show, and trying to caress tenderly the nose of a cow as if it were a woman, is a cross he must bear.

The president knows full well that nobody in France is likely to imagine their president as a rural lad, so he doesn't have to take himself too seriously... which is fine for everybody, since the phenomenon of Sarko taking himself seriously is even more unpleasant than stepping into fresh cow shit.


  1. These last two pictures are just wonderful - they really show the difference (personality) between the two presidents:
    Chirac looks/smiles at the cow, Sarkozy looks/smiles at the camera.

    I don't know if you came across this
    , it is worth having a look at it.

  2. Unless you're genuinely fond of cows (like Chirac), it's not easy to find yourself at close quarters, face-to-face, with such a massive beast. A newcomer imagines readily that the animal might suddenly give him a big sloppy lick on the lips. Sarkozy is grinning like a child who exclaims with pride: "Look, Mummy, I'm touching the cow on the face." As you point out, Sarko's "Mummy" at that instant is in fact a photographer.

  3. Yes, I always found Jacques Chirac, a cultivated and charming man, avuncular and relaxing like a well-worn pair of good-quality leather slippers.

    Sadly in truth he didn't really do anything did he?

    On the other hand, at least he looked presidential, whereas the current incumbent, energetic as he is, rather resembles a fast-talking slightly dodgy used-car dealer.