That’s what a rather good piece in this week’s TIME magazine, on the French campaign re the EU constitutional vote this Sunday, called that aspect of French psychology which projects a self-image of a small, proud, gallant, quarrelsome and , besieged people fighting with their wits against a big, sophisticated but trickable enemy. (Piece not available online) That deft little bon mot very much resonated with me, as someone who is both an insider–from origin–and outsider–because I live in Australia now–to France. It expresses very well the often frustrating–to foreigners–contradictions in the French character, as well as chiming with French self-image. What to foreigners often looks like rudeness, arrogance, self-centredness and grandiloquence, is, in France, regarded as ‘l’esprit gaulois’, going right back to those actual (not cartoon!) Gauls whom every French child, regardless of ethnic origin, is taught to regard as their direct ancestors. France, a highly self-confident nation sure of its civilising mission in the world (no prizes for guessing who, despite appearances, it closely ressembles in this) is, however, at the moment not at all a happy nation, and in fact could be in a state of what you might call national depression, popularised in the press as ‘la Sinistrose’. There’s many reasons for the attack of sinistrose, chief among them the leaden weight of the Government, led by the discredited Chirac, who is perceived as hanging grimly on to power because he doesn’t want to be indicted for corruption(you can’t impeach a serving President, in France). Then there’s high unemployment, a sense that creativity and dynamism are lacking in French business, science and culture, fury about rising prices, blamed by many on the euro, and general anger about a great many social problems. Now there’s yet another thing to stress about–or rather, the return of a traditional stress factor: and that’s Britain.
It’s back to the future, and the traditional sense of grievance, a feeling that Britain has somehow trumped the French in every way, socially, economically, politically, culturally, internationally. In the earlier, halycon days of the EU, that feeling had been put on hold for a while, as France, leading motor of the Union, could look across the Channel and feel pleasantly superior to Britain in just about every way that counted, but especially quality of life. Even after Britain joined, France could still comfortably bask in its pretension of being Numero Un, at least for a while. When Britain refused to join the euro zone, many people in France were delighted, hoping the Brits would be taught a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
Lots of people in France now, furious beyond measure that their Government ‘deluded’ them into voting Oui for the euro, are now prepared to give them a stinging slap. They are also expressing schizophrenic attitudes towards Britain, saying in the same breath that ‘we should take a leaf out of Britain’s book’ and equally expressing huge suspicion of Britain’s future role in a constitution-bound EU. Will the treaty make the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and their ‘minions’ (the ‘new’ or eastern Europeans) more powerful? Or will rejecting it do so? Caught between two irreconciliable paradoxes, retreating behind barricades of Gallic bluster, pride and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite your face, the Asterix nation desperately tries to think of ways of outwitting its foes whilst not being sure exactly who they are. The Chirac Government’s desperate pleas and avalanche of ham-fisted, highhanded ‘Yes’ exhortations and lack of trust of its own toey population (there is practically no time given to the No case, and masses of info for the Yes case) look almost calculated to help push along the Nos. In vain do they trumpet the idea that in fact the treaty will give France much more power in the EU than it currently has; very few believe them. The French are fed up. They are bursting with the need to sally forth and really kick some Roman really hard where it hurts. Whether it will ping back to hurt them as well, or whether it’ll all end happily with a good banquet and sing-song is another matter.
(By the way, on a personal note: as a French national, I’m entitled to vote but as I can’t get down to Sydney(there is no provision for postal votes in this referendum, you have to vote at the Consulate in person), I can’t. But I’m fairly sure I’d vote No–not, I think–or hope!–because of an Asterix complex, but because I think that the EU as a political entity operating as one entity, under this constitution, is an unrealisable concept. This is a continent that has no shared language, for a start, and its shared history is, shall we say, rather dodgy. It seems to me to be also flying in the face of more recent history, which is for big supra-national entities to break up rather than form. It would be a mess. The EU is a great idea, but this mammoth avatar is not. Reading the huge treaty document, it’s hard to avoid the image of some enormous, useless, expensive Gulliver pinned down by millions of threads).