Is Cultural Nostalgia Utterly Charming?


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.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.