Over the bank holiday week-end I took a couple of days off and went to France.
France has always to me been a paradox. Some of its most glorious years were under absolute Kings. The best architecture and culture of the past is Catholic and autocratic. The language and behaviour of more recent times is revolutionary, but a revolution which led at the turn of the nineteenth century to a tyranny and an unsuccessful attempt to dominate Europe by force of arms, rather than to a democracy on American lines. They nurtured Napoleon, where the US revolution created the Declaration of Independence, and a succession of great early elected Presidents. As a result there is always a kind of schizophrenia at the heart of French cities and in their approach to their varied and erratic past. There is no single story with the power of the UK’s gradual and occasionally turbulent road to universal suffrage, democratic rights and doughty independence (prior to 1972). There is no matching moral strength by the French revolution to compare to the American.
I was surprised at how much was on show of a more recent sad chapter in French history. The country which until Mr Hollande has done so much to cosy up to Germany and seek a joint control of the EU with them is still very conscious in Reims where I stayed of the two dreadful wars of the last century. Reims has a main road studded with posts to commemorate the progress of the advancing armies of liberation in 1945. The room where the German surrender was signed is understandably kept as a time capsule. The Resistance has their own museum. The blank plain glass of many of the upper nave windows of the cathedral is a reminder of the dangerous shelling of the First World War. It is not possible to be in Reims and to forget. The champagne makers tell visitors of how they blocked up parts of their fine cellars to prevent the German army pillaging all their best stock.
On the continent I understand the deep wish not to experience another western European war. This is a sentiment many of us share, though without that same immediate horror that comes from a past occupation still evident in the popular memory. It is still difficult to grasp why they think their new German friends might one day have any further warlike plans, or why being in the same currency as them helps in some way. The great news after 1945 is Germany did change profoundly for the better. With or without EU integration, Germany is not going to invade France again.
The other pleasant surprise was to see how friendly and understanding the French restauranteurs and shopkeepers are to their English guests, readily supplying any lack in British school french with their own well meant heavily accented English. In Reims they value the trade with the Brits, and have that special link thanks to the heroic efforts of our parents and grandparents in 1939-45.
The danger now for France is the damage the Euro project is doing to the economies of its members. Far from being a unifying project, bringing prosperity and harmony, it is becoming the opposite. It is fuelling disputes about to proceed from here. It is producing very different answers to its common troubles, with two Euros in circulation so far, the Cyprus Euro and the normal Euro, and worries over who else might face the Cyprus or the Greek treatment.