The Observer

Just How Eternal Is la France Eternelle?

News that the cheese-mad French now eat more mozzarella than camembert is as symbolic as it is surprising.
© Hervé Pinel

Though anecdotal, the recent announcement from a Normandy cheesemakers’ union comes at a time of deep introspection about a changing national identity, where what constitutes the “eternity” of France is hotly debated. And as a crucial presidential election campaign gets underway, the issue is widening an already deep socio-political divide.

Several substantive contributions to the debate have been made in recent months. Arguably the most significant is a new book, La France sous nos yeux (“France before our eyes”), which examines trends in French society over the past four decades. Avoiding the glum décliniste view that France is inevitably going to les chiens, the authors – a political scientist and a journalist – take a forensic look at a broad range of factors, from demographic patterns to religious beliefs, that changed deeply between the 1980s and the late 2010s. They conduct their analysis from what they call a “human-scale” perspective, looking not only at economic data but also at outlier phenomena such as sales of swimming pools and demand for shish kebabs. The social and societal changes are plain to see, yet many people are apparently unaware of them – hence the book’s title.

One of the most significant trends is the transition to a consumption-based economy, prompted by the demise of French industry. Where once the roads teemed with trucks carrying raw materials to factories, those same trucks now deliver a motley assortment of goods to gargantuan shopping centers and e-commerce warehouses. The educated urban middle classes have their own modes of consumption, while the lifestyle of blue-collar workers is based on the house-car-supermarket trifecta. A similar gap is evident in the jobs market, between high-skilled professionals and low-skilled service jobs – what the authors call le larbinat (roughly “flunky-tariat”). This polarization is reflected starkly in the country’s territorial makeup, as upper-income groups gravitate to towns and cities within easy reach of the capital abord high-speed trains, while suburbs are torn between ghettoization and gentrification as a result of all this economic displacement.

The book’s leitmotif is la France d’après, or “France afterwards,” the country as she is now, after deindustrialization, after the reconfiguration of the class structure, after the city-ward exodus of rural populations. One of the most striking changes is the transformation of leisure activities. In the Loire Valley, for example, the biggest attraction today is not the necklace of elegant châteaux for which the region is world-renowned, but a parc zoologique (“zoo park”) full of pandas, tigers, and gorillas. More tellingly, the most visited tourist destination in the whole of France (and Europe) is the Disneyland Paris theme park, located just 25 miles from the venerable City of Light. The venue has become a secular pilgrimage destination: Two thirds of the entire French population have made the journey once or more, a figure that rises to a staggering 75% for the under-35s. According to the authors, the park’s inauguration in April 1992 was a symbolic inflection point: It happened just two weeks after the Renault auto factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, once a showcase of French industry and labor relations, shuttered for good. (Incidentally, at the height of the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations in 2019, a group of local protesters chose to blockade Disneyland rather than their town hall.)

© Hervé Pinel

The rise of the House of Disney is just one part of the broader Americanization process that began in the 1950s in France but gathered steamroller momentum between the 1980s and the 2010s: The authors cite a potpourri of factors – Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, blockbuster movies, country music, and pole dancing (the non-erotic variant) – that have altered the warp and weft of everyday life. Of course, this being the era of globalization, other cultural artefacts have been embraced to varying degrees. From Japanese manga to Turkish shish kebabs, from hookah lounges to la street food – the list is long and growing.

Another area of profound sociological and cultural change is religion. France used to be known as la fille aînée de l’Eglise, or the eldest daughter of the Roman Catholic Church. But, as the current pope said jokingly a few years ago, she is “a very unfaithful daughter.” The Catholic faith is no longer a structural pillar of French society: The number of baptisms has plummeted, church attendance is constantly dwindling, and many places of worship are empty or in bad repair. Anecdotally, the church spire once visible from the hill sloping towards my Burgundy village is now hidden behind a huge, flashy sign for a new supermarket. The French, especially millennials and Gen-Zers, are turning to so-called “alternative spiritualities,” including paganism and shamanism. At the same time, Islam has become the nation’s second largest religion, and is increasingly present in the national conversation as Muslims are called upon to embrace “French values,” implying none-too-subtly that they are not fully French.

Of course, other countries have seen similar evolutions: As early as the 1990s, the American political scientist Robert D. Putnam was surveying the decline of communities and social capital in the U.S. (also focusing on anecdotal evidence like the fact that more and more people were going bowling alone rather than in organized leagues). But we are talking about Eternal France. Do these fundamental changes spell the end of a certain idea of the country, as pessimists believe? Were things really better before, as doom-mongers on the far- and not-so-far right proclaim? The authors of La France sous nos yeux conclude that levels of affluence and well-being have increased quite spectacularly, though unevenly, across society in the past forty years. Taking a broader view, though, the mood of pessimism comes rushing back as people ponder bigger questions, such as their collective future.

What to conclude? Maybe an outside voice is needed. As Laurence Wylie and his co-authors observe in Les Français: “Change is a constant. But there are also things that remain deeply rooted in French society, a society in which the French must constantly seek ways to combine their past with their future.” Or, as one American folk singer put it succinctly: “The good old days are good and gone now. That’s why they’re good, because they’re gone.” One way or another, the message is clear.

Article published in the December 20221 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.