France is burning - or is it? Truly a tale of a country of two halves
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (July 2nd 2023)
The newspapers are full of photos of France aflame... yet in La France Profonde tout est tranquille... but here's why we should all be worried
Well here I am deep in La France Profonde where I have been for ten days – quite a bizarre experience when every British newspaper is flashing front pages saying ‘France in flames, Macron sends in the riot police’ when the only thing disturbing the deep peace of the garden from which I write this to you (the view from my desk is below) is a squally Mistral wind, a black ant on my keyboard and the cicadas chirping in the olive trees. The lavender is zingingly purple, the oak trees super-green and the sky blue with those scudding clouds Van Gogh captured so well with those little vortexes curling in on themselves.
It’s not just peaceful here in the garden, either. I’ve just come back from market day at the local town where ‘bio’ aubergines, lettuces and tomatoes are selling like hot cakes along with virgin olive oil (50 Euros a tin!!) and small quiches for 8 Euros. The cost of living is sky rocketing not just in England but here in France too. A baguette and a small loaf in the local boulangerie cost nearly 10 Euros… that’s steep even by London prices.
There just seems to be an ever-growing chasm in our societies between the haves and the have-nots.
I’m not going all Marie Antoinette on you; I know France has deep and entrenched social problems. Driving out of Marseille you see the mighty grim tower blocks which have been abandoned by the French police and are ruled by drug gangs with Kalashnikovs. It’s the same in Paris, outside the central area with its swanky appartments, galleries and restaurants is a ring of inner city deprivation, the banlieue, taking in places like Nanterre where that poor 17 year old was shot dead by French police – and he is by no means the only one.
Yet the ‘civil war’ described in the press today seemed a long way away in the extremely bouji Provencal town we frequented this morning. Tellingly, perhaps, we did not see a single brown or black face in the thousands-strong throng at the Sunday Market . Lots of tres bronzees posh sounding ‘rosbif’ on holiday in their expensive linen shifts and 100 euro woven baskets, making a Year in Provence their reality in their Tesla or mighty BMW 4×4. And loads of prosperous older French couples, too, ‘mince and soigne’ as they say here (slim and sleek) if a bit grizzled, mostly on expensive bicycles or walking briskly up picture-perfect country lanes between olive groves and lavender fields; Mont Ventoux in the distance, Baunes de Venise up the road – this place reeks of the good life.
I was going to write all sunnily for you about how these good French bergers are enjoying their Third Quarter – that new bit of the 100 year Life between 50 and 80 where if we are lucky (and rich) we get to swan around living our best years, the longevity bonus for lucky boomers. And it’s not just in France, either, it’s a similar scene in the smarter bits of England – I reckon Provence is a bit like the Cotswolds but with better weather and nicer food, you don’t see many brown faces around Moreton in Marsh or Daylesford either. And it’s in America too – Marin county, or the Hamptons, or Chianti-shire or Umbria, all of us lucky devils enjoying a prosperous, cultured elite life insulated from the toll we are taking on the world. I know how massively privileged I am and feel incredibly grateful to be so. But we can’t just live in our ivory towers, thinking we deserve all the good stuff. I can understand how massively frustrating and wrong it must seem if you are a young north African-heritage kid sitting in your grim Marseille tower block, surrounded by 70% youth unemployment (excellent article on that link), with no chance of bettering yourself because the system is totally stacked against anyone with an Arab name or your postcode. And how much more infuriating when constantly on your mobile phone and TV, and also in the harbour right in front of you, are rich white people glugging cold champers on their yachts. If it was me I’d be rioting too – fire-bombing everything I could in a pure volley of rage at the unfairness of the world.
Andrew Hussey author of The French Intifada: The Long war between France and its Arabs, writes, “What is most disturbing about these riots is the sheer scale of it all: the violence is not just contained to the banlieues of the big cities but is everywhere, including picturesque towns.. in my neighbourhood there are burned out cars and motorcycles, a smashed up Chinese restaurant… but most of the violence has been aimed at any public institution that belongs to the French republic, police stations, town halls, tax offices schools…”
There is a deep sense that France is just not working for a large chunk of its more disenfranchised citizens and they are not just going to shut up and go on taking it. It’s strange and chastening to be sitting 45 minutes up the motorway in bucolic bliss knowing Marseille is aflame. And where are the French politicians? Well scary members of the Front National like Marie Le Pen are saying I told you so, while Emanuelle Macron, that once centrist hope (like Tony Blair before him, ‘he was the future once’,) with impeccably terrible timing was snapped hanging out with Elton John just after Nahel Merzouk was shot last week and Paris was teeming with rioting youth. Rarely has a leader seemed so out of step with his subjects…
I know that usually these newsletters are more personal – I’d written something different for you today about the new old age… but sometimes the personal becomes political.
Sitting here in France I am filled with a deep sense of fear and foreboding. As the cost of living crisis bites, as the climate crisis becomes more entrenched (if you read the latest reports we are already well beyond 1.5 degrees of warming and heading for two degrees which means heatwaves, flooding, climate chaos is happening folks, not just something in the future… not that Rishi Sunak is doing anything about it. ) Not to mention rents and mortgages soaring higher; I’ve been haunted by a mum on Radio 4 saying that her son had just finished his A levels but that her finances were so squeezed she couldn’t even buy him a pizza to celebrate…. I feel a vortex of different pressures all building up; maybe it’s my 30 years watching the News cycle, old antennae die hard… but it’s difficult to see how any of this ends well.
I suppose the point of this article is just to say that it is very easy when we are the lucky ones, sitting in our lovely gardens eating nice food, insulated from most of the bad stuff out there, to just shrug it off, to think about our own becoming and not fret too much about the rest of the world. But I just have a strong sense that that won’t wash for too much longer. That our current rotten system is coming apart at the seams, that a world where some of us have so much and others have so little is just not sustainable, particularly when competition for resources of all kinds is ramping up…. Energy now, water tomorrow, habitable land after that. And it us, the richest people in the world who are gobbling up most of its resources.
Maybe we will be lucky – maybe the system won’t collapse until we are done, but what then? What kind of a world and legacy are we leaving for our children… surely we have a responsibility to try and fix it? To make things better while we are here.
I’m sorry I know that’s depressing, but I think it behoves all of us to try and do what we can, whether that’s lobbying our MPs on climate matters, or trying to do what we can on a personal front to level things up by giving someone who wouldn’t usually have a chance a job, or calling out the bad stuff when we see it.
On that front – I’m delighted that the Sun has been appropriately chastised on the Megan Markle Clarkson column and made to apologise for misogyny and poor standards (you can read the full IPSO judgement here . Though I do find it depressing that it was on the watch of a female editor – Victoria Newton – that Clarkson’s egregious column was run… then again it is Suella Braverman who has thankfully just been thwarted in sending refugees from the UK to Rwanda… I’ve argued for some time that it is often the women who are least likely to change the status quo who get given the top jobs. I call it Cressida Dick syndrome after the woman in charge of the Met Police when Sarah Everard was murdered; pinkwashing, using a female boss as camouflage for ongoing misogyny..
Anyway, here to cheer you up, perhaps, is a surprisingly good article about how French women go on having sex and feeling entitled to sexual pleasure into old age while many English and American women don’t – the reason? Because sex and pleasure are seen as normal for older women here in France and that is the story told about it and therefore what women do, whereas in more Anglo Saxon cultures it isn’t. So there’s one piece of good news from France at least! (That link has a free share token on it so hopefully you can read it without the paywall).
Anyway, I’ll stop being grumpy and get back to writing my book which is why I am out in France in the first place.
I’m back in England for our Noon Retreat at Wasing on Saturday July 8th (can’t wait to see you all…) and Paid Subscribers, there is a very special Noon Circle coming up on July 18th at the flat in Soho. We’ll be joined in person by Sally Jackson, brilliant divorce coach, and on line by our brand new Noon Advisory Board member Sandra Davis, partner at Mishcon de Reya and Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, as well as Jerry Hall’s (very Succession) – who will be sharing her 30 years of experience of divorce with all you lovely Queenagers. Particularly her tips on what (not) to do if it is something you are contemplating.
If you’d like to come then sign up to become a Paid Subscriber to this newsletter. Paid up Queenagers get free books for the Noon Book Club, sent to you by Harper Collins, a monthly invite to an in person Noon Circle, invitations to hear me speak at exclusive events, and discounts to all our Noon retreats etc. All for £6 a month.
Lots of love
By Eleanor Mills