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Cohen: France is one of the world’s most creative societies. So what ails it?

Cohen: France is one of the world’s most creative societies. So what ails it?

PARIS – “Is Paris burning?” Adolf Hitler, in high anger, is said to have asked his chief of staff on Aug. 24, 1944.

With the Allies approaching Paris, Hitler had ordered his commanding general to blow up the city. The general refused. Paris was saved.

In its long history, Paris has seen war, protest and revolution. After the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and with the continuing demonstrations of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), a visitor finds Paris in the midst of a different kind of unrest.

And while the wringing of hands and tugging of forelocks was going on before the conflagration at Notre-Dame, in this country that fire has become a metaphor for just about anything.

To some, it reflects the decline of Christianity in France. Or, the erosion of professional standards that let such an accident happen. Or, the frugality of the state that did not give Notre-Dame enough money. Take your pick. The French would not be the only people to look for lessons in the diminution of a cherished national symbol, but they do it with rarefied angst, shaped by deep thinkers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

While the wringing of hands and tugging of forelocks was going on before the conflagration at Notre-Dame, in this country that fire has become a metaphor for just about anything.

Beyond Notre-Dame, there is a larger conversation over the yellow vests. They have been protesting, sometimes violently, for 23 consecutive weeks.

They appear on Saturdays around the country, blocking traffic, destroying property. While they are leaderless, with anarchists and nihilists among them, they have forced concessions from President Emmanuel Macron, who has earnestly tried to begin a national conversation.

Indeed, since the winter, Macron has held town halls and solicited some two million written responses. He asked his compatriots: “What ails France? What to do about it?”

He has now offered an answer. He is cutting taxes for the middle class, promising smaller class sizes in schools, exploring how to make the French work longer and harder (without raising the retirement age of 62 or extending the work week), and musing about proportional representation. Generally, he wants to make the system fairer and more productive.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been consulting across France on how to ‘fix’ the country’s woes.

Christophe Ena /

AP

Perhaps he will – though the predictable response from critics is that this is not enough. Then again, in France, it is never enough – which makes political, social and economic change so difficult.

Still, France remains one of the world’s most creative and successful societies. It is why this is the most visited country in the world. We like what we find here.

Much of this country works well. Its roads, primary and secondary, are excellent. Its air service, supported by a muscular aerospace industry, is good. And its trains are the best in the world, lacing the country with lightning-fast inter-city service.

Doctors are affordable and prescription drugs are cheap. Schools make demands (penmanship) and universities have expectations (students cannot miss classes) unknown in other countries.

The quality of food – well beyond the starred Michelin restaurants, in school cafeterias, village cafés and military canteens – is an old preoccupation. It’s unsurprising to find a farmer’s market in a busy train station.

And standards matter around food. Fewer French eating bread is crisis enough to compel Christophe Vasseur, a successful entrepreneur, to open an academy to train bakers in the traditional way, using traditional ingredients.

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris: Now it’s a metaphor for everything.

Cities are remaking themselves. The energy in Bordeaux, Avignon, Toulouse and Lyon, among others, reflects investments in transit, libraries and in environmental awareness. Could you imagine this kind of commitment in Canada? Could you imagine this level of ambition? France has both.

France is acutely aware of its problems. Unemployment is high. Anti-Semitism is frightening, driving out Jews. Immigrants, particularly visible minorities, are often poor and marginalized in grim suburbs. Racism is rising.

Terrorism makes Paris anxious. Guards now watch shops, restaurants and banks, but also schools, such as Sciences Po. After liberté, égalité, fraternité, the new clarion call in France is sécurité.

In rebuilding Notre-Dame and responding to the yellow vests, France is entering another round of critical self-analysis. It has been here before; this is what it means to be French.

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Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.