I met Denis Poulot by the old lavoir as I ambled down to the Salle des Fetes. We’ve known each other for 24 years now; we’ve never been especially close but we share a relaxed camaraderie. We paused in our journeys to shake hands and exchange formalities, then carried on. Inevitably, this being Bastille Day, 14 July and we were both going to the ceremonial vin d’honneur, we chatted about Bastille Days past.
Denis drew up and looked into the distance. ‘It’s not the same any more.’
Molinot is a village deep in the Arriere Cote of Burgundy, has been a part of my life since 1993. In those days, the village was famous for the extravagance of its Bastille Day celebrations and people would come from miles away to enjoy them. Indeed, ours was so popular that many villages around had their celebrations on another day, since all the locals were at ours; and of course we reciprocated, making for a thoroughly convivial week.
My first Bastille Day
In 1994, on my first Bastille Day here, I was amazed. There were so many tricolours that you’d go dizzy. Then, on the evening of the 13th, there was a procession around the village, led by all the children, who carried red, white and blue lanterns. There were floats drawn by tractors and a brass band.
Bastille Day proper began at 11 in the morning, with a ceremony in front of the war memorial. In the afternoon, the children — assisted by enthusiastic adults — put on a grand spectacle, in which they performed dance routines to popular music In the evening there was a dinner-dance, animated by a traditional French accordion band.
I’d estimate that there were nearly 500 people at that one; the place was packed.
As Denis and I arrived at the celebrations on this Bastille Day 2017, I counted around 30 people; and eight of those were town councillors, so they had to be there. Our parade with lanterns, the night before, had numbered around the same. There was to be no spectacle, although the younger children did put on a couple of dances to delight the grandparents. There was no fanfare, and no bangers popping off like gunfire. It was a very quiet and polite gathering and somehow it didn’t seem very French at all.
When Emmanuel Macron, France’s recently-elected President said, during his campaign, ‘There is no such thing as French culture’, he was, in a way, right. The unique charm of the countryside, its idiosyncrasies, its failings and delights, which is the basis of French culture, is now all but erased.
A generation behind
Ever since I first came here, I have thought that France was, in many ways, a generation behind Britain. The farming practices that I had seen dying out during my youth in Scotland were still current here, 25 years later. Now the tractors are vast, shiny monsters and there are no peasants left. Everyone is an agri-businessman, like Denis, who has hugely enlarged his farm with financial help from the State and Europe.
‘Nobody wants to live the old way,’ he says. He’s right. The life of France’s small farmers was a grind, too harsh and far too badly paid for us, today.
De Gaulle said that France could not be governed, because it made 400 different cheeses.
The old solder did not mean it literally, of course; he was talking about cultural disparity. He was illustrating that regions as different as Burgundy, Brittany, Provence and Savioe could still be quintessentially French. That his nation had something that unified it; this was partly language but something else too, forged in the centuries of its history and in the hard life of the country folk.
Mahatma Ghandi said that if you want to know India, you must go to the villages. He was right. And if you wanted to know France, you had to go to the villages, too. It is here that the French character was defined: stubborn and contrarian. Where else could people be at the same time both revolutionary and conservative?
I once watched, amazed, as an academic friend pocketed a tin of tuna in a supermarket and coolly walked out without paying. Why would he have done such a thing? He was on the brink of tenure in his university; he would have thrown it all away, had he been caught.
When I asked, he smiled. ‘I did it for the Revolution,’ he said. ‘You’re too bourgeois.’ I refrained from pointing out that 1789 was a bourgeois revolution.
I could see how De Gaulle could become exasperated, trying to marshal a nation with a character like this. But without it, France is just a place where they speak French and make cheese.
Rural depopulation has been an issue here for decades. Molinot once numbered over 600 souls. Now there are less than four score. Speaking of souls, in 1993 there was a Mass, in the church across the road from my house, every Sunday, and on special days, more than one. Now, months go by and only a handful of people ever set foot in it.
Our village school used to be classe unique with one teacher looking after all ages of primary-age children. Then it was combined with Ivry, just to the east, one school taking the younger and the other the older children. Then we were combined again, with another village. Now Molinot’s school is only maternal and Primaries 1&2. The Mayor does not know how long even this can be sustained.
This depopulation is inevitable. As people seek better lives, they are unwilling to be slaves to a postage-stamp of ground, working their days for a pittance. They encourage their children to do better, to head for the towns, to have a career. And soon the family farm is sold to men like Denis, who agglomerate.
The inevitability of change — progress, if you prefer — should not blind us to the fact that so much has been lost. The countryside is the cauldron in which culture is simmered. In France, centuries in the pot led to a culture of stubborn determination and contrariness.
This earned the French small farmers the derision of the British Media, who considered the system ‘inefficient’ and ‘uneconomic’. Well, those who said that should be happy, for France is a nation of almost-empty villages now. The stoic countrymen have all but gone and the countryside is no longer the wet-nurse of French culture. It has lost its political clout, too.
The Great Bastille Days
During the time of the great Molinot Bastille Days, there was always a theme. Around this, the villagers built the floats, the dances, the decorations. The theme of our very first, in 1994, was Europe. The great European dream had just begun and the Euro was a distant menace. Someone found out that, on the Mercator Projection at least, Molinot was at the precise centre of Europe, as it then was. Even the most sceptical of the horny-handed ones was proud of that, though it were sheer chance.
Something similar is in the French emotional response to Europe. No matter how awful Europe is and how badly it behaves, one must always be seen to be a good European.
After all, the logic goes, France is at the heart of Europe. It was our idea. If we were not here, then it could not exist. How could we betray our own? To have voted Le Pen would have been a disgrace, in that light. Voting Macron saved the honour of the nation.
Macron may be a last roll of the dice. It remains to be seen if he is the hero who can revitalise France and give it the sense of direction that it so badly needs. He will have his work cut out, as De Gaulle did. Yet people here, apparently of all political persuasions, seem prepared to give him a chance. There is a real sense, talking to them, that he could not do worse than his predecessors, and who knows? Perhaps he will do well.
The French, especially the rural ones, are phlegmatic and rarely enthusiastic. ‘Oh, bah,’ the upturned hands, downturned lip and shrugged shoulders are about as impassioned a declaration of confidence as Macron is likely to get; but still, he is getting that, round here at least.
France has been frightened and its confidence is badly shaken. The economic crash of 2008 and the subsequent austerity, took a terrible toll here. Unemployment is high and property prices have fallen. Macron benefited from the nervousness this caused.
France was invaded and bled dry by its neighbour, Germany, three times between 1879 and 1940. It rose to the challenge of these invasions and the routing of its armed forces. It endured through the years of the Occupation. It survived the cathartic loss of empire that followed. Whereas Britain had the sea to protect it, the French had only their fortitude and that stubborn, contrarian nature.
Can France retain its uniqueness, its sense of identity, in an enlarged yet increasingly centralising Europe, especially now that the perennial sceptic across La Manche has stated its intention to leave and haul up the drawbridge? Who now will stand with it to temper German hegemony?
When I first came here, military service was obligatory and, afterwards, most of the veterans joined the volunteer fire brigade. On Bastille Day, they would all wear their uniforms, the buttons brightly polished, the creases neatly pressed. This was part of being French. Of being a Molinard.
The fire brigade is long since disbanded, the uniforms hung up; and even of tricolours there were precious few at the fete, this year. The lanterns used in the parade, once in national red, white and blue, were ordinary party lanterns with floral designs. There was nothing to distinguish this, the most French day of days, from a garden fete in England.
Is It Over For France?
Have the French lost sight of who they are? Whither now? Are the glory days finally over?
I hope not. France was the cradle of modern Europe; its culture, which has spread across the world, owes mightily to French thinkers and artists. Without France, Europe would not be what it is and, like it or lump it, neither would Britain. The Revolution of 1789, which Bastille Day celebrates, inspired Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, William Morris and others. The compromise which established the polity of the United Kingdom, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, was inspired in part by that revolution and by the reaction to it. Without France, for good or ill, there would be no EU.
European culture, which owes so much to France, has achieved more, in the 600 or so years since the Renaissance, than any other, ever.
Which culture is bringing clean water to African villages? If distant aliens listen, which culture will they hear? Who developed the vaccines and public health practices that have saved so many ? If climate change is bringing catastrophe, who has the tools to tackle it? I could go on and on. Our culture is a precious jewel. Are we to allow the lights to go out on it, as they have in so many villages like Molinot?
Ils ne passeront pas.
I am optimistic, for our culture believes in positivity. Diminished though they may be, the Molinards’ rendition of La Marseillaise, after the ceremony at the War memorial, still brought a lump to my throat. These people will endure. And for that, we should all be grateful, for in their doggedness, they are an example.
If these rugged country folk can stand, then we too can fight the relentless destruction of our heritage, birthright and culture by the smarming Left and its Marxist fellow-travellers. Ils ne passeront pas.
Vive la Revolution!
Rod Fleming immortalised Molinot as P’tit Moulin in his French Onion Soup! series of memoirs of life in France.