Is France a Hypochondriac?

photo: parvis trocadero, milane

Utterly ordinary 'streetlife' in Paris.

Is It True What They Say About Paris?

Paris:- Friday, 1. February 2002:- Across the channel on the smallish offshore island called Britain one of the occasional activities of its press is to wonder about the state of the French. This is not actually unusual, because there is little distance separating the two cultures except for the Révolution, Napoléon, two world wars and the channel.

On slow news days, Britain's more serious papers may take the opportunity to wonder about the French - which is about what France's more serious papers do every day - wonder about the French.

While French newspapers simply don't understand their subject - 'Who the Hell Are We Anyway?' - Britain's thoughtful journals try to dream up answers.

This of course can lead to, 'Is It True? and Alan 'Is It True' Pavlik is on a constant lookoutphoto: avenue leclerc, metro exit for this, partly because he lives in Hollywood where truth is a rare commodity and mainly because it is unnecessary except in the earthquake season.

Some more utterly unexciting 'streetlife' in Paris last week.

Last week he sent me an incredible article from a very respectable British newspaper. On one hand the piece suggested that the French have some totally irrational fears pretty much all of the time, and on the other hand the same piece seemed to suggest this is a totally perfect attitude to have for facing our 'chaotic world.'

Having opposing ideas like this within one article might make it seem an unlikely candidate for a 'Is It True?' analysis because it has to be one or the other, but what if both are wrong?

For example, the article says the French 'enjoy' their real and imaginary illnesses, and will pay 'any amount' for relief. This is only semi-true and it can be attested by the recent strikes of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, who are locked in a bitter struggle with France's health insurance organization - for higher pay and a reduction of working hours.

So far, the 'Sécu' has agreed to an increase of 1euro 3 sign for the consultation fee, while the doctors are demanding a 2.50euro 3 sign increase.

Some doctors are now charging 18.50euro 3 sign and others have simply changed their rates to what they seek - which is 20euro 3 sign.

Apparently patients are willingly paying either amount, because they think they are sick. They do so, knowing they may not get reimbursed by the 'Sécu,' and their doctor may be sanctioned. People who are ill and the people who treat them are not afraid of 'big brother.'

Meanwhile, TV-news recently showed patients arriving at French hospitals from Britain, because they got tired of waiting years for treatment and operations. Have they contracted France's hypochondria?

The article then goes on to state that 'Le Grand Peur' - the Big Fear - was a 'key event' in France's history. I have managed to track down this phrase in my dictionary. It is described as a collective rural inquietude that swept France in early 1789 - the year of the Révolution.

However, the phrase does not appear in the indexes of my copies of two works by serious French historians. One does mention it almost in passing as the effect of the total collapse of the feudal system, caused by widespread peasant refusal to support it. The 'panic' was irrational - the privileges, tithes and feudal rights that were abolished by the vote of deputies on 4. August 1789 - had already been lost.

As far as the peasantry was concerned, feudalism, prohibition and taxes came to an end forever that summer. 'Le Grand Peur' has been overblown - it was not and is not a permanent condition of French life. It makes no difference if the news media peddles it daily.

What Louis XVI was surprised and dismayed to learn, successive governments have had tophoto: boulangerie, notre dame des champs re-learn. In France you can govern from the centre, but enforcing edicts from the centre is more problematic. You can almost hear France say, 'Who fears Paris?'

Quite a number of plain but old buildings are kept in Paris so that visitors will have something different from Copenhagen to look at.

The British piece then ties 'Le Grand Peur' to this year's elections and to an unnamed exhibition at the Royal Academy, featuring Paris' past glories in the world of visual arts, and to its more recent faded intellectual glories of post-'68 philosophy - all in somewhat of a muddle - with a link between philosophical support for Anglo-US 'liberal economics,' and the Dreyfus affair, as an example of principle against entrenched powers.

The next couple of paragraphs then juxtapose Voltaire and Diderot, add Stalin, mention structuralism's inanities and wind up with the French and English sharing a 'talent for nostalgia' for a 'recreated La Vie en Rose.'

Brassaï, the immigrant Hungarian photographer, 'fixed' the 1930s image of Paris - which was 'already in decline.'

Without doubt, the 'aggressively protruding Gauloises from the lower lips of the working-class' were 'in decline' 65 years ago in anticipation of the portable telephone boom, just around time's corner.

Reaching even further back, Baron Haussmann is drafted into the piece to conjure order out of anarchy by creating free-fire zones to intimidate the Parisians - who cleverly used Montmartre's heights in 1871 instead of the wide boulevards.

Finally, 'Le Grand Peur' leads up to Paris being devoid of 'real street life,' fit for daytime promenades in a 'beautiful museum,' and if done by night, then only with 'ghosts and a terrible silence' for company. The Paris of the 'petits gens' exists only in Les Misérables.

In one incredible somersault, the past French worry about a declining population, leads to the reason for the rural charm of Peter Mayle's 'idyll' in Provence - the countryside is simply short of Frenchmen. Even Paris is reported suffering from this lack.

Because - the piece continues - Paris 'married its age' and the result was the elimination of Les Halles food market - and - the Marais' end 'as a place of social mixture.'

There's more of this, but the gist of it is a call for a return of the age of 'Les Misérables,' with the filth and misery, the danger and the stink, the sickness and disease, dire poverty and gilded palaces, the 'Droit de Seigneur' - with the corpses left rotting on the gallows at Montfaucon - as possible attraction for visitors?

The problem seems to be that Paris has 'married its age.' That this cannot be entirely agreeable to every one of its 25 million visitors is obvious, but the vast majority are not complaining, including those who somehow find the Marais to be not deserted.

For all of its tidy faults, Paris is still real. There are enough of the museum pieces scattered around, outside the museums, to give the visitors who look carefully some impression of a Paris that was.

Perhaps Paris worst fault these days is that there is not an awful lot to complain about. If it is not as orderly as many Scandinavian cities, it is not as dull either.

But, the British piece cannot leave 'Le Grand Peur' alone. Now that the city has voted to change the governing power from 'a decadent Gaullism' there may be more to fear from the Socialists, Communists and Greens - the city is now finding itself 'threatened by a wider and stronger force, one even more careless in the abuse of its hegemonic power.'

As a final point, it turns out that all is not lost because the French can actually use their innate 'Grand Peur' to defend themselves, and all of western civilization, from the overpowering influence of culture made in the United States - which is, I suppose, the 'hegemonic power' mentioned above.

This will be done, according to the article, by the very same people who unleashed the 'Grandphoto: chess players, luxembourg Peur' - the ordinary Joes on the street, who are the living antithesis of all cultural and government-approved French aspirations.

More Parisians, who are supposed to be home watching rugby on TV.

It is not true that there is any 'Grand Peur' here. It is not true that the Marais is devoid of social life. It is not true that every French person, except members of the government, is a potential Astérix or José Bové. It is not true that Paris is as clean and tidy as Copenhagen.

It may be true that the French and English share a 'talent for nostalgia' for a 'recreated La Vie en Rose' - but my impression is that the French are more than a bit skeptical about this because 'La Vie en Rose' is probably an English concept, somewhat like Peter Mayle's Provence - which everybody says has been ruined by too much 'Vie' and too much 'Rose' and not enough parking places.

I'll give credit were where it's due by revealing that the piece this is based on comes from The Guardian's issue of Thursday, 24. January. It was written by Hywel Williams.

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