Like nearly every American not named Steve Bannon, I am relieved that Emmanuel Macron did better than Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election and, as I write, is expected to win the second. That prospect has gone some way in relieving my astonishment over identity politics à la française. If America’s identity politics in November seemed to boil down to white resentment and an apparent nostalgia for coal mines, Le Pen’s campaign to make France great again has been similarly peculiar.
During the 1960s, when I lived in France for a year, French identity was not an issue. I never had any trouble knowing who was French and who was not. I was not. But I tried. I learned how to pee in one of those holes in the ground that passed as a toilet. I was happy to let shopkeepers archly tutor my vocabulary and grammar (my Chicago-shaped accent was clearly beyond redemption). The bakery, the milk store, the butcher, the charcuterie, and the blanchisserie were veritable Berlitz classes. I learned to greet with appropriate deference and politesse their proprietors as well as my neighbors and the man who ran water down the curb and swept it twice a day. He, of course, was Arab—i.e., not French. Like me. Identity was never in doubt.
So I was surprised to find Roger Cohen of the New York Times reporting that the French were now in a veritable stew (probably boeuf bourguignon), suffering “from cultural and civilizational insecurity.” The villains: immigrants; open borders; the euro; and the EU’s heavy-handed regulations. At the heart of these complaints are the charming French villages “stripped of life,” as one of Cohen’s interlocutors puts it. “Small stores had been replaced by huge ‘hypermarkets’ on the outskirts of town. Human contact was almost forgotten. ‘In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,’ he said. Old people without cars were treated like human refuse.”
I wondered: Did this sense of loss include nostalgia for those holes in the ground I remember from my limber youth? Had the three-hour lunch and naptime that closed those charming small stores and other machines of commerce gone the way of the “Deux Chevaux,” Citroen’s 2CV—a masterpiece of automotive minimalism and environmental low-impact, lacking only in comfort, speed, and safety? Haven’t laundromats finally replaced the blanchisseries that needed a week to wash and dry (and fold origami-like) the family clothes? With standard-sized refrigerators now a staple of the French kitchen, has weekly, instead of daily, shopping cast a shadow on domestic cuisine? In my time, there were no “hypermarkets” anywhere; small stores dotted the urban landscape no less than the villages.