Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is ancient France fucking off?

Readers who know French will have understood that my title is an awkward attempt to translate our fear that « la France d’autrefois fout le camp ». The concept of a legendary France has always been fuzzy but nevertheless perfectly real... at least in my mind. And the rhetorical question behind the present blog post might be rephrased as follows: Are there alarming signs, at the present moment, suggesting that the France of our dreams might be receding inexorably into the world of dreams?

Let’s leave aside Vercingétorix… who didn’t necessarily correspond to my idea of a typical Frenchman.


And Joan of Arc, too… who wasn’t exactly a typical Gallic female. (Many modern French women often find that English gentlemen can be charming.)


My legendary France might be thought of as starting with Denis Diderot [1713-1784], the brilliant instigator (with d'Alembert) of the Encyclopédie, which was intended to encompass all human knowledge of “sciences, arts and crafts”. To my modest mind, Diderot was one of the greatest intellects that the planet Earth has ever known.


His fabulous novel Jacques le Fataliste remains an astounding literary creation. Recommended to me enthusiastically long ago—for reasons that I was incapable of understanding at that time—by a lovely young student at the Sorbonne, Christine, who would become the mother of our children, this primordial work of Diderot happens to be my current bedside book.


Jumping shamelessly over countless scientists, philosophers and artists, I would next name Louis Pasteur [1822-1895] as a symbol of my legendary France.


He would be followed, soon after, by a woman who (like many famous French people) wasn’t even born in France: Marie Curie [1867-1934].


In the contemporary era, it’s not surprising that I’ve always been captivated by the spiritual presence of Charles de Gaulle [1890-1970]. Besides, his widespread arms inspired the gadget that enabled me to uncork countless bottles of wine throughout my early years in Paris.


Today, a trivial news item makes me think that all that gigantic intellectual heritage of France might be disappearing down the kitchen sink like dishwater. Let me explain.

Many of my Australian readers are familiar with the embarrassingly-stupid story of the railroad from Sydney to Melbourne, culminating in a notorious break-of-gauge singularity at Albury, on the frontier between the rival states of New South Wales and Victoria.


Insofar as the adjacent states failed to agree on a a standard common gauge, passengers have to descend from one train and get up into another. This innocent-looking country platform is in fact a monument to human stupidity, to the apparent impossibility of ever seeking agreement on simple issues.

For ages, I was convinced that nonsense of that deplorable kind could never occur in my hallowed France, where everything was conducted under the metrical auspices of René Descartes [1596-1650] for the mathematics and Napoléon Bonaparte [1769-1821] for the creation and enforcement of laws.

Well, my dear old France has just become involved in an astronomical fuckup. The dumb bastards in charge of French railways have recently ordered 50 million euros of rolling stock that’s slightly too wide for some 1300 stations! They simply forgot to take out a tape and get down on their hands and knees to measure the existing reality. So, more millions will have to be spent in shaving off the excess width of countless existing train platforms.

Once upon a time, this kind of error would have been unthinkable in France. Something has obviously changed... for the worse. Between now and the delivery of this rolling stock, certain human heads will surely roll. But this will not erase the nasty conclusion that my beloved ancient version of an eternal France—superbly philosophical and mathematical—would appear to be simply fucking off before our sad eyes.

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