13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 16


George Walden laments that the French have surrendered their moral exceptionalism to Anglo-Saxon pietism

EVERYONE is getting France wrong. Contrary to appearances, its behaviour is not going from bad to worse: from its poli- tics to its economics to its infamous sexual moeurs, the country is in the throes of a virtuous revolution. Do not be fooled by the final spasms of outrageous conduct as a hitherto delinquent nation is slowly sedated into Anglo-Saxon moral worth. Try as they might to struggle against their better nature, aspire as they do towards one last moment of inglorious isolation, gradually, soul by soul, the country is slouching towards normality.

Forget the inevitable contagion of nau- seous fast food, remember the popularity of the nauseously inoffensive Mickey Mouse in France's Disneyland, and all he stands for. Intimations of meritorious con- duct are unmistakable, the path to virtue ineluctable. The resignation last week of the finance minister, Dominique Strauss- Kahn, over the trousering by his party of a paltry 600,000 francs, unthinkable a decade ago (the resignation, not the trousering), is only the latest example of this creeping Jesus attitude. Under the Mitterrand regime, Strauss-Kahn would have pleaded for more prestigious pilfer- ings to be taken into account to preserve his honour, and remained in office. Now he just resigns. The contamination of the French by our obsession with hygienic pol- itics has led to slush-fund managers and sewage-farmers being put under the public microscope, like so many bacteria on sup- purating cheeses, also now in question.

This new puritanism, this scarlet letter approach to public life, extends to interna- tional affairs. Remember how France bowed its head, unprotesting, at the demise of Mme Cresson, gracefully for- bearing to push her as the woman to clean up the new Commission? Remember the selfish and thoroughly responsible attitude of the French in Bosnia and Kosovo? How soon before France stops playing footsie with Saddam Hussein?

Domestically, selflessness and quietism rule. Think of the sanitisation of Paris, with its green-liveried environmental flunkies at the service of visiting humanity, or of the sporting reduction of French working time to 35 hours a week, so as to give the rest of us a chance to catch up on our productivity. Even the reduction of VAT on house repairs from 20 per cent to 5 per cent, seemingly unimportant, repre- sents a giant cultural shift, and will hasten the appearance of a nation of placid, house-proud bricoleurs, much on the English model, assuming of course that anyone in either country paid the VAT beforehand. And who among the seven million Brits who make the annual pilgrim- age to fraternise with their freres can have failed to note that, as in Britain again, the demise of French agriculture goes hand in hand with the rise of gardening as a hobby, and of English-style villes en Fleur? On top of that, health consciousness is spreading. Our dream of a pasteurised Frenchman of wimpish disposition cultivating his garden and odd-jobbing about the house, taking a glass and a half of organic wine with a moderate supper, cooked by himself, could one day be a reality.

True, Mitterrand's former foreign minis- ter, Roland Dumas, remains president of the Conseil Constitutionnel despite his alleged implication in corruption to the tune of 40 million francs. But the drop to 600,000 is significant and at least the French press is talking about these things now. And think of the exemplary value of leaving this representative of the ancien regime stuck in such an exposed position, like a head on a pike, a memento of the old, corrupt France for all to mock.

Even women are wriggling restlessly in their bonds, partly for effect, partly in a genuine attempt to make French males feel as inadequate as the rest of us; while

Actual4,, we usually take the ferry.'

in a Diana-esque,Billary-esque gesture the love-child of President Mitterrand is put on public display, alongside the heads on pikes, for all the world to point contrasts and draw conclusions. Note, too, the rise of the formidable (but not formidable) Mar- tine Aubry, an imposingly virtuous citizen and potential presidential candidate who looks as if, should there be any branding of scarlet letters on male flesh to be done, she will do it herself.

A survey of national attitudes in Le Monde last summer confirmed that the seepage of Anglo-Saxon pietisms into French life has become a flood. So sancti- monious were the responses that they could have featured in the correspondence columns of the Independent or the New York Times. No, they were against the peine de mort, even for innocent people, and yes, they thought racist attitudes intolerable, even towards Belgians. Rousseau himself would have slurped tears of happiness. Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains of civic, sexual and environmental virtue, and this time with no let-out clause for l'exception flaw:Use.

But what of the rash of violent, nihilistic novels, and the new French pornographic films? Quibbles of this kind miss the point. In the first place, the sadistic novels and voyeuristic films are increasingly produced by women, so they must come from the heart and count as art. In the second, such degeneracy is the natural counterpart of puritanism, and therefore proof of France's new morality. A drop of vinegar is essential to bring out the savour of the oil of inno- cence, so we should not be surprised if France's new rectitude is accompanied, Protestant-style, by a penchant for murder- ous violence and prurient itch. Refused his rightful knockabout and debauchery in his home, Mickey Mouse Man must find them elsewhere.

Like some insidious cult, Anglo-Saxon attitudes are gaining converts in the most unlikely place. Since the French naturally tend to extremes, they seem likely to out- north us all, so the prospect is of a nation of 58 million civic-minded, pornography- ridden, depressive Swedish moralists. The de-Frenchifying of the French means that Eurosceptics must look to their arguments. No longer shall we be able to say that we cannot federalise with the French since we favour a Europe of nation states which glory in their distinction. No more can we claim that integration is imposed by an elite, since it is happening from below. All we can say is that there is no point in forc- ing the pace since, a couple of historical quirks such as the national tongue aside, we shall soon be indistinguishable. Cultural convergence does the work of many a mis- begotten treaty, and in a France doomed to acculturation how can we continue to hate our semblables, our freres? Soon the only field of competition will be in puritan hypocrisy. There we have a head start, though perhaps not for long.