16 Feb 2010

Is Cultural Nostalgia Utterly Charming?

By Alecia Simmonds
Australians didn't like it when Howard white-washed our national identity. Why, then, are so many of us ready to indulge a myopic francophilia, asks Alecia Simmonds

Francophilia is a devastating affliction, one which is both financially and conversationally crippling. Its symptoms can include gushing about the Parisian markets, reading whimsy about village bells and grumpy butchers, paying too much for French crockery and pouring feeble Australian dollars into cottages in Provence. White people are particularly susceptible.

In the satirical blog Stuff White People Like, Paris is listed as a "white spot", meaning "a place where white people like to be and be seen". The Paris flea market, the author tells us "contains many authentic treasures from Europe's past" and purchasing something there gives white people the opportunity to say to their friends: "Quelle Chance! I found it at the Paris flea market. Have you been? It's life changing. I swear I wish I could move to Paris."

At a time when some antipodeans are contemplating their next trip to Paris, and others are pretending that they like French cinema, and others again are placing tepid incarnations of A Year in Provence on their autumn reading list, we might ask ourselves: Why France? What is it that attracts us to Paris and Provence? Are we just pilgrims of nostalgia paying homage to a mythical white past?

Although France is home to Europe's biggest Muslim community with about five million people, mainly descendants of immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa, no candidates of African origin occupy any of the 577 seats in France's National Assembly. In 1994 the Government banned the Muslim headscarf in state schools and 10 years later it banned all "ostentatious" religious signs — including the headscarf — from public buildings.

In January this year Jean-François Copé, parliamentary leader of the ruling UMP party, submitted a draft law effectively banning the burqa in public. With only a few exceptions, like some religious festivals, the fine for wearing the burqa would be €750 (A$1150). Copé's move has broad parliamentary backing and indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last year that the burqa was "not welcome on French soil".

While we may furrow our collective brow at France's religious or ethnic intolerances, perhaps we Francophiles should consider how inclusive the France of our own imaginings actually is. How complicit are we in the white-washing of Paris? In travel memoirs, cookbooks, dieting guides and interior decorating manuals, France appears like an operatic hero: pale, voluptuous, lavish and sickly — perpetually bewailing its imminent death.

Take Mary Moody's celebrated documentary about a small village restaurant in the south west of France, Lunch with Madame Murat. Here we have curmudgeonly corpulent white French men with ruddy faces and expansive gestures waxing lyrical about Madame Murat's establishment because "you can still eat the same food as people did 50, 60 or 100 years ago."

Madame Murat herself tells us that "the recipes come unchanged from my Grandma or Mum". No cultural mixing here. This is authentic French cuisine, quarantined from the unsettling flavours of France's colonial past and yet, as Moody ominously predicts, times are changing. People don't cook like Madame Murat anymore. As the by-line to Moody's documentary states, "We are left with a sense of a disappearing France".

Moody is not alone. Almost every French cookbook begins without a moment of silence for the dying art of authentic French cooking while interior decorating manuals strive to recover the traditional France that is, like everything French, under threat. Ludovic Grandchamp's famous French decor shop, the Comptoir de Famille, boasts that "everything in my store reminds me of my parents' home" and "these things are now almost impossible to find."

Our relationship with France is too often one of either parasitic nostalgia for a pre-industrial provincial life or a fantasy of Paris as a white bourgeois theme park that we can play in over summer. Sarah Turnbull encounters a "claustrophobic knot of Eastern Europeans and Africans" at the outset of her bestseller Almost French — but they never get past customs. The rest of the book is a montage of the usual Paris-porn: serpentine boulevards, Haussmanian architectural splendour, culinary delights and middle-class white French people who stand in for "The French".

Isn't it odd that in a country where one in 10 people are non-white that we should so rarely encounter them in literature, interior design or cooking? The problem is that in romanticising traditional French cuisine and traditional French culture, we have created a cultural fossil and labelled it France. Unchanging, fragile and white, the fossil is threatened by the modern world and by cultural difference. While multicultural Australia can pride itself on its fusion cooking, French recipes must ideally remain unchanged for centuries. When we speak of "The French", we too often mean middle-class white French people — heirs to a particular French culture but not the only French culture. If we base the criterion for Frenchness on a delicate and unchanging tradition then we not only exclude migrants, we construct them as a threat.

I'm not suggesting that we need to see disgruntled black youth hurling Molotov cocktails at the bourgeoisie in every memoir of the south of France. Nor am I suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with duck confit, foie gras or crème brûlée. Quite the opposite. It is simply that our stubborn refusal to recognise the economic variation and ethnic diversity of France has political implications. Not only do we risk viewing migrants as strangers in their own homes, we leave ourselves ill-equipped to comprehend the complexities of contemporary French life.

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Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 14:57

I can take them or leave them. Keeping religion off the streets and restricting it to houses of worship is fine by me but blowing up boats in NZ is not.

Are there any rules stopping a non French born person running for parliament? If not then the large minority groups should get their acts together and vote a dark face in.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 15:12

Well you might like to reconsider whether there's "anything inherently wrong" with force-feeding geese to liver bursting point to produce foie gras?

Jean-Philippe D...
Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 15:42

interesting performative contradiction, Alecia: you blame your compatriots for creating a white-washed version of contemporary French culture, but the only things you mention are the fossilised cliches. What are the complexities of contemporary French life? Not its idiosyncratic secularism, obviously. No need to try and understand a "complex" culture here. So what then? We don't know. All we know is what we already know.

Why don't you tell us a bit more about the music played in the charts, the food "white" French people actually eat, the books they read, the films they watch, and so on. As you say, the reality might be a bit more complex than we think. Indeed, those horrible supremacists might turn out to have strange cosmopolitan tastes, what with all these books, tunes, tastes, films from around the world they seem to be enjoying. But we wouldn't know it from your article.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 15:50

Au contraire! While not a great Francophile, especially when it comes to romantic comedy or deconstructionalism - I have noticed Frenchpersons of North African origins featuring positively in French movies, as far back as Iffany in La Bete, more recently in a beauty about food (mainly couscous) as it happens and I think there's one on now.

And I can't get enough of radical secularism/anti- clericalism, it is a French tradition forged in experience and well worth maintaining.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 16:41

dWell said, stevek11! Two Frenchpersons of Algerian origin whom I admire enormously are the man who led France to victory in the 1998 Soccer World Cup, Zinedine Zidane, who for many months afterwards was a national hero, and the lovely lass who was a runner up in the "Nouvelle Star" TV contest a year or two back, Amel Bent (I encourage readers to seek out, on YouTube, her moving rendition of Michel Jonasz's 1975 classic "Les Vacances au bord de la mer" and listen also to the judges' warm appreciation of it). In any case, surely for most of us these days "The French" are on our doorstep among the wonderfully multicultural societies of French Polynesia and New Caledonia rather than in Europe.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 17:33

Alecia Simmons has either not lived in France or she is doing a job on the French. Parisians and the French in general are a hospitable, sophisticated and tolerant society. They are not stuck in the past but they know the value of the heritage they have. And they market it effectively just as Australia tries to market some of our natural endowments. Some "rich white" people from other countries may be caught up in the nostalgia of cute villages and traditional cuisine but this is not a legitimate basis for criticism nor does not have a big impact on French society. Like most western nations, the French do have concerns about the way their society is developing - characterised particularly by migration from North Africa and Eastern Europe. The very fact that they have significant immigration from these places is, however, an indication of their willingness to accept change, so long as it does not set aside French values and laws. One long-standing characteristic of French society is concern about the influence of religion on secular society, which in today's terms, causes debate about things like burqa wearing.

Alicia should show some tolerance and inventiveness by finding something else to write about, rather than this confection about the French.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 17:46

Look! Over there! Squirrel! (It'll only make sense if you've seen the movie 'Up'.)

Yes the French debate over what one religion chooses to wear versus what other religions think people should wear is insane. But of course, Australia is free of all hypocrisy, so we are entitled to point the finger at the French.

Let us agree that France, like so many cultures, gives us so much to adore. And equally, it leaves much to be desired. But at least it is a country of spirited, if divided opinion. While pockets of French denounce the burqua and other religious/spiritual differences, it is also the country which produced CICNS - http://www.sectes-infos.net/CICNS3.htm

CICNS is an organisation which rigorously defends the rights of all individuals to pursue their spiritual beliefs without persecution (something Australia sadly lacks - our only 'freedom of belief' groups seem to be in fact, run by church groups). So imperfect they may be, but at least they're passionate!

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 19:42

Talk about cultural cringe!
IF we lived in Pommy Land, just across the waters from France, and now you can pop over there for sunday lunch, I suppose the place would be front and centre in your thinking. Well, if you were of the class who could afford it.
I for one live in Australia, a bloody long way from France, with some very nasty memories of them entering into our area to blow up islands with Nuclear weapons, blow up ships in NZ harbours, irradiate a few thousand islanders who are still trying to get some recognition from La belle France.
I remember their various Presidents over the years saying things that made me want to spew.
I adore NOTHING about France.
About the closest I have ever been to appreciating the French was the fact that they visited Australia's shores...then LEFT! I much appreciated those places when I visited some of them on the Southern coast of Aussie. Their unpronounceable names still cling to them, to remind us that the Poms only made it by default.
We could so easily have been speaking French....or Portuguese, or Indonesian, or Dutch, all of them (with the possible exception of the Indos), like the Poms, invaders from Northern climes.
I still say we live in this region. Lets keep our interests a bit closer to home, hey!
What really worries me is the fact that with Global Warming, and consequent altering Sea Currents, the North is going to be covered in Ice very soon, and all those funny speakers will be heading this way, BY BOAT!!!! You hear that, Liberals!! You hear that, all you Global Warming Deniers.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 19:52

I think the author has quite a cliched view of France, where the popular culture, including film and music, is far more diverse than this article would have us believe. It's also not just 'disgruntled black youth' who riot. I think you'll find it's a fine French tradition going back to the Revolution and beyond.

Also, to be fair, it was not just Muslim symbols that have been long banned from public schools, but also Jewish, Christian and other religious symbols. This is part of France's secular public culture and the debate is far more complex than simply being about oppressing Muslim minorities, as much as such prejudice does exist, as it does in Australia.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 20:18

Thank goodness someone has elucidated this view. Thank you, Alecia, Graeme F, Doolittle and Dazza.
My experiences of life in France, staying with both relatives and in-laws (on separate occasions, fortunately) yielded both parochial attitudes towards 'foreigners' and wonderful, uniquely French occasions.
Contrast there is, in reality: from all the discarded needles and Coke cans at Sacre Coeur just before first light when the street cleaners were wearily starting, to the rolled hay and social hauteur at Le Chaumet, to the hot nights in Berre L'Etang while Liberation celebrations continued. Not to mention the outstanding work, based in France, that has been released to the world from North African musicians/artistes.

The Francophilia I found most disturbing was that in Australia. The sheer fawning over the notion of Paris, of France, of French (traditional) food and practices... Give over! I found almost none of the Australian fawners had any time for the complex reality that is contemporary France.

I poured many of my "feeble Australian dollars" into an old wooden church in the Australian bush, while living there too. Pleased to say, I've recently found it's still standing and is now a sought-after gallery space, as opposed to ending up a haystack as so many of these stunning, simple, hardwood buildings have. You can enjoy these intensive cultural 'renovation' experiences in Australia, you know.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 21:19

Personally, I find Francophobia to be annoyingly Anglophone.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. thomasee73
Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 00:40



Rudi Von Bismark
Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 07:42

The burqa ban isn't about lack of tolerance, it is about secularism (and feminism) and the same ban applies to overtly religious paraphernalia such as crosses in state schools. And you don't have to look far in french literature, film, food or sport to find evidence of its multiculturalism. By all means scratch beneath the surface, but why not consider the french colonial past; the vichy regime; the closure of the refugee camp in Calais; unemployment amongst ethnic minorities and so on rather than an parody of "french culture".

And of course we like the middle-class, white bits of france: they're the nice, privileged, luxurious bits! We don't celebrate the nasty, poor, deprived parts of any other culture do we?

Anyway, everyone knows the french have the best wine, food, accent and various other things. All the women are effortlessly gorgeous. They have "philosophers". You can rhyme "couchez avec moi" with "ce soir"! And where else could Carla Bruni be the first lady? And where else could Sarko end up with Carla?


Dr Dog
Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 09:53

The French stole my passport.

Also Paris is a hollow, somehow plastic, rendition of a city that may have been great years ago. Funny that they rejected EuroDisney only to turn their capital into a giant Parisian themed fun park for fat people wearing shorts and talking too loud. If I were French I would be a rude, boorish arse as well, just to avoid talking to the tourists.

I took a train outside the old city and it looked and sounded just like Auburn. What a breath of fresh air.

Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 17:17

Francophillia is not a dreaded afflction, Alecia, it is an acquired condition that amongst many things reflects good taste and intellectual vigour.
The French are an amalgamation of disparate tribes, like any vibrant, modern, industrialised nation and they depend upon tourism, and the exportation of their culture and importation of other cultures to thrive.
Just because they don't want to let go of their fine cultural and secular heritage, does not mean they are not attuned to the reality of their present cultural and religious diversity.
You only see the clinging on to of the Christian, mono-cultural Old France, but others will only see the inclusion of a colonial past with other immigrant religions and cultures, as a part of the more multi-cultural, New France.

Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 17:20

Who are all these supposed legions of white people who go to France a dozen times a year? I don't know any of them. I don't know anyone who's been to France even once. Are you just talking about the trendy uppercrust? They hardly represent the Australian people as a whole! Everyone *I* know still has the traditional English loathing of France.

Posted Thursday, February 18, 2010 - 16:47

Alecia - What France has is a robust, almost militant republicanism, born from the ashes of the revolutionary and napoleonic ages and intensively nurtured over the last 200 odd years. The banning of the burqa is so often mistakenly seen as a gesture of intolerence, it is in fact a reaffirmation of France's cultural attitude towards liberty and equaliy which strictly believes men and women are equal, should be treated as equal and should be seen as equal by the broader society. The essay above is a somewhat reductionist assessment of the way in which Australians interact with French culture. While it is no doubt easy to assume that Aussies see both French culture and indeed french history through the narrow and commercialised window of contemporary Paris, such an assumption does a disservice to the intellect of the average Aussie, to the newest generations of French migrants who have made their stories both engaging and accesible, and to the enduring legacy of French historians, philosophers and writers who have struggled to paint an alternative picture of France. The 'white people' who travel from Australia to engage with the French 'white people' of your essay are representative of a class of society that can be found in literally any country on earth - those who are oblivious to the rich diversity existing in France and determined only to smoke, shop and visit patiseries. Your essay, above all, lacks relevance - I simply don't know many people who view France is such a simplistic way.

Posted Sunday, February 28, 2010 - 04:19

What a ridiculous piece. Have you ever actually been to France?
France is definitely a more racist country than the UK, but in comparison to Australia it's a paragon of virtue. And as someone else has pointed out, the banning of religious items and clothing in the classroom and elsewhere applies to ALL religions - not just Islam. Unlike other countries, France doesn't just pretend to be a secular republic, it puts its money where its mouth is.
"While multicultural Australia can pride itself on its fusion cooking, French recipes must ideally remain unchanged for centuries."
Listen, the only reason Australia embraced fusion cooking was because it had no cuisine of its own in the first place (and no, I don't consider meat pies or meat and three veg a cuisine).
There seems to be an underlying theme here that Australia is some sort of cosmopolitan multicultural idyll. I used to hear that a lot when I was growing up there and it's only when I moved away that I realised what a load of phooey that is. As lovely as Australia is, cosmopolitan it is not.