Losing La France Profonde
The French have an expression — “la France profonde” — to describe the deep sense of the nation that exists far from Paris, in the provincial towns and villages. No matter how much and how quickly things change in the big cities, the essence of the nation would always subsist in Deep France.
That is changing. Adam Nossiter of The New York Times writes about his visit to Albi, in France’s southwest, a small provincial city not far from Toulouse. It’s where the Albigensian heresy came from. Like so many other French provincial towns and small cities, Albi is dying. From the piece:
Keep walking, and you’ll find more vacant storefronts, scattered around the old center of this town dominated by its imposing 13th-century brick cathedral, one of France’s undisputed treasures. Tourist shops and chain clothing stores are open, but missing are the groceries, cafes and butcher shops that once bustled with life and for centuries defined small-town France.
Measuring change, and decay, is not easy in France, where beauty is just around the corner and life can seem unchanged over decades. But the decline evident in Albi is replicated in hundreds of other places. France is losing the core of its historic provincial towns — dense hubs of urbanity deep in the countryside where judges judged, Balzac set his novels, prefects issued edicts and citizens shopped for 50 cheeses.
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with [France’s political] anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness — tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Turn a corner in Albi, and you’ll pass the last school inside the historic center, abandoned a few years ago. Down another street is the last toy store, now closed, and around a corner is the last independent grocery store, also shuttered. Walk down the empty, narrow streets on some nights and the silence is so complete that you can hear your footsteps on the stones.
I arrived in Albi, population 49,000, on a Thursday evening, having driven in from Toulouse, an hour away. At the edge of town, I passed a giant shopping center, Les Portes d’Albi, where the parking lot was black with cars. In the Albi I had known before, people had lived in town above their stores. Centuries of accumulated living were packed inside the tree-shaded boulevards. Shopping was as much about sociability as about buying.
Before arriving, I picked up a government report, an autopsy of many French provincial capitals: Agen, Limoges, Bourges, Arras, Beziers, Auxerre, Vichy, Calais and others. In these old towns, many harder hit than Albi, the interplay of the human-scale architecture, weathered stone and brick, and public life had been one of the crucibles of French history and culture for centuries. Now they were endangered, as even the dry language of the report conveyed that an essential part of French life is disappearing.
“This phenomenon of the devitalization of the urban centers is worrisome,” the government report declared, “as the stores contribute so much to city life and largely fashion it.”
To him, Albi’s fate was a cultural misfortune. City leaders had poured money into a high-concept modernistic new culture center at the town’s edge. And the shopping mall had been built. Large grocery chains, called hypermarkets, had also been constructed outside the city, with free parking. It is not that Albi no longer had commerce, or activity. But the essence of the ancient city was being lost.
The rise of the shopping centers traced the sharp rise in living standards brought on by what the French call the Trentes Glorieuses, the 30 glorious years from 1945 to 1975. Growth was around 4 percent; purchasing power of the average worker’s salary rose 170 percent. The boost to consumer demand could not be met by the old center-city structure of small shops, small purchases. Malls and strip centers were born.
And so, the fates of the provincial cities were sealed. Read the whole thing.
This is a historic tragedy. “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” That was the first line of Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs. He concludes that first paragraph with, “France cannot be France without greatness.”
The idea of a nation cannot live if it remains an abstraction. This is why the provincial towns and cities have always been important, even if political, economic, and cultural power is centralized in Paris in more intense way than it is in the capitals of other nations. If a nation’s way of life dissolves, so does the nation’s idea of itself. And then what?
As an American, to visit a French provincial town or city is to see a way of life that is deeply enviable. Small shops, cafes, town squares, churches — the hustle and bustle of pedestrian life that one has not seen in the United States in decades, if one has seen it at all. It is vivacious, but it is also gentle. It is human, in a way that our built landscapes in America no longer are, and in most places never were.
As Nossiter said, the way of life in those cities and towns has been carried out according to that fashion for centuries. Until now. Notice what is killing it? Economics. Americans read about how economically backwards the French are, heavily subsidizing their farmers, and they sneer at this socialist inefficiency. I don’t know enough about France’s economy to say, but I do have French friends who say things have to change there on this front, because the economy is sclerotic, with a jungle-like tangle of regulations that strangle economic initiative in its crib. I’ll take them at their word on that.
Surely, though, it is a false choice between what France has now, and a total American-style liberalization of the market. Right? The changes in France’s consumer economy has caused and continues to cause the demise of its heartland, it appears. What will become of France if it loses these sacred secular places? What idea of France will the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Frenchmen alive today have of their country?
It’s not a question Americans think about much regarding ourselves. We are a people who cut ourselves off from history. Regarding the church, for example, many, perhaps even most, of us don’t think about our traditions and institutions in terms of stewardship. We think of them as we do consumers: where are we going to get the best deal to suit our needs? If we are worshiping in a 19th century neo-Gothic edifice or in an auditorium, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience, whether we “got anything out of it,” not the packaging. And this utilitarian approach is how we are about our towns and cities too.
But form matters. It shapes us in ways we usually don’t fully realize. A France whose character is shaped not by squares and cafes and town centers but by strip malls and shopping centers — that’s not France. In my city, there’s a big shopping center called “Towne Center,” the name of which is almost a cruel joke. Dévitalisation is Américanisation, the subjugation of culture to the market. If this is what France wants for itself, then France will have it. But at what cost?
As with the Trump phenomenon, those who support Marine Le Pen want to Make France Great Again. How could anyone object to that? But, as with the Trump phenomenon, is this only a futile, emotional gesture? Has globalization and related forms of economic modernization gone too far?
Can France be France without her provincial towns and villages? We may live to see that question answered, whether we like it or not. We are already living through that in America, and have been for a long time. Urbanization — the migration of peoples to big cities — is a global phenomenon. That’s where the jobs are. That’s where the life young people want is. Maybe it cannot be stopped or even controlled. If so, let’s not kid ourselves about what this means for the culture of a people and the soul of a nation. To lose Deep France is to lose depth, to live on the surface of things, malleable, impermanent, manipulable. This is a tragedy of historical dimensions — and not just for the French, but for all of us who love France, and indeed for all of us who love old places and old things in our own countries.