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Andrew Jack

Andrew Jack

Book Review: The French Exception



by John Sidgwick


LONDON, 7 December 2000 - Over the past half-dozen years or so, an expression has crept into the French language that sums up "all that is defiantly different about the country and its people and which sets it apart from its geographical peers and political allies". Such is the definition given by Andrew Jack of l'exception française (the French exception), the phrase which provides him with the title of his book where he seeks to analyse the present state of France with regard to itself and to the outside world.

France has been undergoing a prolonged period of doubt about itself. This seems quite astonishing to many visitors to the country who admire the sheer quality of life enjoyed by its inhabitants, including excellent urban and national transport systems, efficient health care and generally fine educational services - and this without mentioning all the traditional values of France in the field of gastronomy and tourism. Certainly, visitors from the United Kingdom, who labour under vastly inferior conditions on the above headings can be forgiven for being perplexed.

Andrew Jack gathered the material for his book during four years' reporting on France for the Financial Times between 1994 and 1998. The information came through many first-hand interviews with prominent individuals, and it was backed up by a wide variety of media reports and specialist publications. More importantly though, the author has the enviable gift of being able to stand just that bit aside and really see the wood in spite of the trees. For France is a country of many intellectual and cultural trees and the overall forest defies instant assessment. As Jack points out, "the problem with any generalization about France is that it is doomed to contradiction".

In The French Exception, Andrew Jack takes the reader through a modern panorama of what makes French people and French institutions tick. And sensibly, he launches at the outset into considerations about the French language. He pokes gentle fun at certain aspects of the work of the Académie Française, the institution created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 and charged with the task of giving "clear rules to our language and making it pure, eloquent and capable of handling the arts and sciences". The attempts of the Académie and of more-recently created bodies to resist the onslaughts of the English language seem doomed to failure if one is to judge by the enthusiasm of teenagers in France for English jargon in every field, and Jack asks the question if French ideas and culture might have been better preserved if attempts had been made to adapt the language in order to make it easier to learn.

With this backcloth of the language, Jack spends the rest of his book dealing with the contemporary social and economic factors which govern the French scene: the training and the almost over-riding role of senior civil servants, centralization as against recent attempts to decentralize, the remarkable achievements of French technology in the field of transport and public works, the shenanigans of French high finance and the generally submissive attitude of the French press in the face of political power.

The English edition of The French Exception was followed two months later by the publication of its translation into French in the autumn of 1999. Whereas in the United Kingdom, the book was received with polite acknowledgment, in France it gave rise to intense public interest. The French accord great attention to what others think about them, and provided that comment is securely-based from the intellectual point of view, they will happily argue the toss with charm and perception. This attitude contrasts strongly with that of the British public. In 1997, a young French academic, Isabelle Ayasch, who had been resident in Oxford University for three years, published a manual on contemporary Britain for the use of first-year university students in France. Some of her comments were critical but, as it happens, absolutely to the point. She was pilloried in the British press, not only in the tabloid newspapers but also in the broadsheets.

It has been said that if you want to understand a foreign country, you have to spend either a fortnight there or a lifetime. In The French Exception, on the strength of four years' residence in France, Andrew Jack has achieved the tour de force of producing one of the most useful and pertinent books on the country that has appeared in recent years. Given its highly-contemporary account of people and events, some aspects of the book's contents may date rather quickly. Politics and scandals move fast. Nevertheless, for any non-French person about to embark on work-residence (business, diplomatic service etc.) or even non-work residence in France, this is essential reading.

Given all this, it seems almost churlish to point out not so much a weakness in Jack's book as a lack of emphasis on a fundamental feature of the French scene which will continue to bedevil relations between France and the United Kingdom for years to come: agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Jack, of course, does deal with the subject but in my view, he does not cast enough light upon it.

Case of the peasant leader, José Bové

Ever since the United Kingdom gained membership of the EEC as it then was, successive British governments have covertly cherished the hope that they would in the end achieve, if not the complete destruction of the CAP, at least its emasculation. It should have dawned upon them by now that there was never the slightest possibility of this and that there is even less chance of it now. But quite manifestly, it has not yet dawned upon them. French officials will readily say in private that the CAP is wasteful and that they have grave misgivings about the financial consequences of further enlargement of the Community so far as agriculture is concerned. Nevertheless, political considerations will always carry the day. Even though French farmers now account for little more than 3 per cent of the working population (at the time of the creation of the CAP, the figure was 15 per cent), their political clout has hardly diminished, essentially because they carry public sympathy. Jack does quote the case of the peasant leader, José Bové who sprang into prominence in 1999 on account of his literally violent opposition to the presence of the McDonald's fast-food chain in France. He is now a national hero. And his ascension has been accompanied by increased awareness on the part of the French population of what can be called their specificity. Never has French regionalism been so strongly felt or asserted. France is a strongly unified country, yet within that unity, there is far greater diversity than in the monotonous similarity between virtually all the regions of the United Kingdom.

Put in a nutshell, there is not the slightest possibility that a French government will allow European Community considerations to interfere with the country's national interest so far as agriculture is concerned. It will preach to others the need for "l'esprit communautaire" (Community loyalty) - always provided that it is practised by others. A recent example of France's hard line has been its continued refusal, in spite of EC rulings, threats and long-drawn-out counter measures, to respect a demand that it should accept imports of beef from the United Kingdom, France simply will not budge. More generally, however often the sheer waste and fraud that is rife in the CAP is brought to light, French governments, whatever their political colour, will be blind and deaf to arguments; moreover, confident in the sheer inadequacy of the creaking mechanisms of EC enforcement, they will be happy to spin matters out over as many years as it takes.

It should always be remembered that at the time of the creation of the EEC, in which the United Kingdom foolishly declined to take part, the French were still smarting under a double blow to their national pride: in 1940, their country bowed down in front of the German invader; even worse, the arch-rival, the United Kingdom did not bow down. This attitude explains in part the background to a trivial incident in the run-up to the United Kingdom's negotiations to join the EEC in the early 70's when a bemused UK official heard a member of the French Agricultural Minister's private office declare to him: "But you do not understand a fundamental fact about the European Economic Community. The European Economic Community is France - enlarged."

Wonderful country, pity about the people

Anglo-French rivalry is a fact of life. Andrew Jack covers this with delicate and affectionate footwork, pointing out that it is to be regretted that whereas the French always have a sort of grudging admiration for things British, the British themselves seem quite actively to dislike the French and all their works. Yes, they will gladly go on holiday in France, appreciate the splendid variety of the countryside and the generally high quality of life they find there - food and all the rest of it. But in the background there is always the detestable attitude summed up in the expression: "Wonderful country, pity about the people".

"There is no escaping the fact that France is an excellently-organized country. The social institutions, education policy, public transport and health services are far ahead of what is on offer in the United Kingdom, and a basic reproach that could be levelled against a succession of United Kingdom governments is that virtually nothing has been done since the 1960s to raise the general quality of life to the level enjoyed by the citizens of other European countries, in particular those in France. There has been much harping on about what might be called "the UK exception", without it ever being properly spelled out that the exception is the maintenance of the high standard of living enjoyed by a fraction of the population, the wealthy, who can do without good public services (they can afford private education for their children, private health care etc.) and are protected from the painfully-high levels of taxation inflicted on their wealthy neighbours on the other side of the English Channel.

During the course of very nearly fifty years of living in France, essentially in Paris but also in the provinces, I have often heard British and American visitors say something like, "OK, it's all very fine. These people have a high standard of living. But how long can they keep it up? After all, something's got to give. It's all just too good." There is a whiff of this in one of Jack's concluding remarks: "The real question is not whether France can adapt and modernize, but rather whether it can do so quickly and fundamentally enough". My own guess is that given the remarkably solid bases of its institutions and way of life, France will continue to perplex analysts and economists from abroad to the lasting benefit of its citizens.

The French Exception

The French Exception
By Andrew Jack
First published in the UK by Profile Books, London, 1999
First paperback edition, London 2000
available from Amazon.co.uk and quality booksellers everywhere.




John Sidgwick was for many years Agricultural Attaché at the British Embassy, Paris. He currently writes on music and culture in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com

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