Freezing Spring Brings a Breath of Fresh Air


Well, after a month of May when it seemed to rain without cease and which was colder than some Decembers I’ve known here, at last we seem to have a hope of Spring’s arrival. Probably because of the dreadful weather (one does not move to France to live in a downpour) I have been thinking a lot about the famous spring and summer of 1944, which was also cold, wet and miserable.

It makes a pleasant change from being reminded that climate change is really beginning to bite.

It’s hard to believe that D-Day, which took place on the 6th of June 1944, was really 69 years ago, and fewer and fewer of those who were there are still with us. I can remember when I first came to this village, 20 years ago, and we still had First War ancien combattants; but the grim reaper has cruelly thinned the ranks. Now even the survivors of Hitler’s war are all gone, and the grand old men who turn out on the two occasions when their efforts are remembered, Armistice Day and VE Day, are those who fought in Vietnam and Algeria. This past VE Day, May the 8th—one of the few days in this month when it did not rain—was a pleasant reunion, but a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

(As I write, a sudden spring hailstorm is finishing off the devastation of my baby lettuces begun by the resident slugs…of which more later.)

Anyway, 69 years ago, the weather was as bad as this, and over a million boys younger than my own sons waited in camps all over the south of England, preparing for the great offensive that would breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and liberate the continent. None of them could know whether they would live to tell the tale, or leave their bones a-mouldering under the sod of a foreign land. Many paid the ultimate price. Their sacrifice, and the determination of those who came after that no such thing would ever have to happen again, laid the foundation of the Europe that we know and should be proud of, today.

That is because Europe, for all its failings, and there are many, has delivered on its promise: peace and prosperity.

It is there that I want to turn to next, for despite all the bickering with the neighbours, France remains, for me, the quintessentially European nation.

There has been a small triumph, this week, for the principles of egalité and fraternité that lie at the heart of the European project, principles that are fundamental of course, to France itself. For yesterday, in Montpelier in Provence, something happened that proved that the President, Francois Hollande, will actually deliver on at least some of his promises, despite the fall-out. Vincent Autin, 40, and Bruno Boileau, 30, became the first men to legally marry each other in a ceremony solemnised by the Republic of France itself.

While the media has made much of the police presence, which was discreet but substantial, it was there as a precaution, to prevent any demonstration from spoiling the happy couple’s big moment. In the end, those who are against the new law that permitted it, stayed away in their droves, and left the happy couple and their five hundred guests in peace.

There were some very ugly incidents in the run-up to the final vote in the French Assembly last month, which permitted Vincent and Bruno to tie the knot yesterday. Town centres were trashed by mobs who had been bussed across the country and whipped up by a dark coalition of right-wing political and religious influences, and there were several vicious beatings of allegedly homosexual men. However, resistance to the idea was vastly overplayed by a media hungry for copy.

In the cafes of French towns and cities, always the most accurate barometer of public opinion here, the issue was well down the schedule. It was, for example, far below the emerging scandals of politicians’ secret foreign bank accounts, or Gerard Depardieu’s disgraceful rejection of his homeland in favour of Russia, for reason of tax avoidance. Yet, France, historically, is the ‘first daughter of the Catholic Church’, and that organism remains implacably, and volubly, opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage. French men are well known for their machismo, too, especially southerners, and you could hardly get more southern than Montpelier.

So how could something so potentially divisive, and which was worked up by pundits and politicians alike as a major schism, have turned out to be such a damp squib? Well, the times they have a-changed; the Right is out of fashion after the excesses of Sarko, and France is, after all, a proudly secular state. Even devout Catholics have reservations about the church involving itself directly in politics.

Furthermore, although the French can be irritatingly formalist and unbending about due process, this is because underneath their skins they are deeply committed to Reason. They may lack the passionate fire of the Spanish or the poetic nature of the Italians; instead, French people, famous for their sang froid, will always prefer the solution that is most reasonable. Most people here, like the citizens of Montpelier yesterday, were ‘largely indifferent’.

They didn’t really care whether homosexual, lesbian or transgendered people could marry, but thought it was only fair that they should be allowed to. They believed that both the Church and the far Right, in opposing the same-sex marriage law, and in attempting to stir up public opinion, were being fundamentally unreasonable, and so, duly rejected their case. The considerable majority in favour of the new law in the French Assembly seemed to me to be a much more accurate reflection of public opinion than some polls, which suggested a smaller margin.

I say well done; it will make many people very happy, and hurt no-one. And congratulations, also, to Vincent and Bruno, who will forever be the very first.

I did promise you an update on the lettuces. Usually, you see, by this time, my courtyard garden is full of lizards who live amongst the stones of the walls. They do a very good job of scoffing the slugs, and more power to them. Unfortunately, this spring has been so cold that my little reptilian friends have been hiding and the slimy lettuce-munching molluscs have stolen a march on them in the war of the jardin potager. We look forward to days of drier and warmer weather for many reasons, here in Burgundy.

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