De Gaulle's Celtic Twilight
TABLE TALK DENIS BROGAN
It is a relief to turn away from our local troubles to see them repeated in a possibly parodic form across the Channel. General de Gaulle has been received at Rennes with a mild demonstration of hostility to the triumphs of the Fifth Re- public. It is, of course, characteristic of the French that such rudeness to the Head of the State is natural. We cannot conceive anything of the kind in the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland (except, of course, in Northern Ireland). But both in France and in Great Britain (leaving Northern Ireland out) there are problems which student nonsense tends to conceal. The problems of Brittany are very like the problems of parts of Wales and of most of Scotland.
Brittany is naturally a poor province. Its soil is not very rich, its climate is harsh. Bretons have been emigrating for a very long time—I imagine from the time they emigrated from Great Britain to Little Britain. Some of the grievances of the Bretons can be reflected in other parts of our Celtic fringe. For example, I see that there are great schemes to use Brest as a great commercial westward-looking port. Brest is, of course, a bigger version of Milford Haven, and if Milford Haven has been saved, it has been saved by its development as an oil port, and by the help of Mr Desmond Donnelly, me. But I don't know that there is any parti- cular economic reason for establishing a great oil port in that picturesque and romantic city whose great literary hero is Chateaubriand. Alas,- for places like Brest old historic links mean very little; otherwise there would be no great oil port growing up at Bantry Bay. And I am afraid it must be said of Brittany, as it might be said of a great deal of Wales and Scot- land, that the laws of Nature and Nature's God have turned against them. Climate, resources, attractiveness to industry, all work against the Celtic fringe.
Brittany is perhaps worse off than Wales or
western Scotland. Although the coast is ex- tremely attractive, as a tourist region it suffers great competition from Normandy in the north and from the Atlantic beaches to the south. Rennes itself, the regional capital, is a rather dull eighteenth century city reconstructed after a disastrous fire. Eighteenth century cities in France are often extremely attractive: is there a more magnificent Atlantic city than Bordeaux (which has. of course, a great deal of its mediaeval history embedded in it still)? Is there a more attractive new city than Nancy, which rivals Edinburgh, Dublin, Karlsruhe, Turin among the attractive cities of the En- lightenment? And although the Breton onion boys still do a successful trade in Britain, and if Britain were in the Common Market a great deal of their early vegetables would threaten our own growers, it will take a great deal of artificial pumping in of resources to make Brit- tany as attractive as, let us say, Provence.
I think it is against this background that the protest of la Bretagne bretonnante should be assessed. The rigorous unanimity imposed by the Republic, une et indivisible, helped to des- troy the Celtic culture in Brittany, especially as a great part of la Bretagne bretonnante was Catholic, Royalist, reactionary, anti-Jacobin, etc. (For example, it was the Breton National, Guard who shot down a great many of the Com- munards in 1871. The fact that they were very blue-eyed was especially offensive to some of the literary spokesmen for the Commune.) More than that, the great investment of the Fourth Republic in the tidal power stations on the Rance has been extremely expensive, as General de Gaulle was unkind enough to point out. One would have more sympathy with the Breton nationalists if one of their leaders had not for a long time been running his campaign from Dublin. I have always disliked long- distance revolutionaries, and I often wonder, for example, why Mr Tariq Ali is not busy ex-
ploiting the revolutionary situation in Pakistan.- instead of in London.
But of course there are many more problems in France than the present problem of Brittany. It has been argued, and is being argued, that since the central government can make no more economic concessions than it made in the early summer of last year after the collapse of the student revolt and the relative success of the workers' revolt, there is no real solution. This assumes that the French workers are totally in- capable of doing simple sums. Some of them, including the Communist party, could see that inflation would in fact wipe out most of the gains, as no doubt it is doing. But it is true that the French have suffered for a long time from the illusion that governments can decree a level of production, a level of profit, and a level of wages. It is hardly necessary to say that illusions of this kind are unknown in Britain (where is the National Plan, by the way?). Inside the Common Market, the French economy has got to compete. It may be that the fight for the con- trol of Saint-Gobain is a great deal more im- portant than the political manifestoes of Nan- terre or anywhere else.
I have no doubt that the economic ideas of M Pompidou are clearer, and perhaps more relevant to the French situation, than those of General de Gaulle. On the other hand, the ideas of General de Gaulle are probably a great deal more relevant than the ideas of the demoralised and divided left. Indeed, I am not quite certain that the General's ideas of bringing the workers into close participation with the general eco- nomic mechanism is quite as foolish as it sounds. For the alienation of the French workers from the French state is one of the
great weaknesses of France and has been so since the Commune of 1871.
But there is another aspect of France which is very much neglected. There is the rapid growth in France of a new technocratic class. The old technocratic class, centred in the grandes ecoles, Polytechnique, Normale and Centrale, is very inadequate for the present problems of France, as Professor Gilpin of Princeton has pointed out in his very remarkable book on the state of French science and technology. There are a great many young technologists who are not 'X' (or Polytechniciens) but have lively ideas about the present and future of the French eco- nomy. These young people at Caderache, Pierre- latte, and other centres of advanced technology have very little to do, spiritually or otherwise, with the sociologists of Nanterre, and the Gaul- list idea of breaking up the outrageous cen- tralisation of the higher educational system may give these people a chance to improve the system and may also give them a chance to use their technical knowledge as it is used in the United States or in Germany.
It is not noted enough that a great deal of the hostility to the decentralisation of the French educational system which M Edgar Faure is carrying out with the General's support comes from the old Jacobin tradition. There must be no dissident groups of any kind tolerated by the Republic. Our hostility to such an idea has, of course, a certain amount of smugness about it. After all, as Matthew Arnold pointed out nearly a century ago, before you attack the French for having a system in which every boy is learning the same lesson at the same time, you might try to find out what the lesson is, and is it well taught. Nevertheless, I think there is no doubt
that the educational centralisation has been an immense handicap and the prestige of the grandes ecoles one of the greatest dangers to the intellectual and economic life of France. (Not enough people notice that in the great student revolution of last May the students of the grandes ecoles paid not the slightest attention to M Cohn-Bendit and his allies who so excited the hopes of the present leaders of revolution at the LSE.) I think the importance of the old school net- work of Polytechniciens is exaggerated. There are people who have done very well without being 'X.' After all, our old school tie people are not selected on the same grounds as Poly- techniciens. Blood counts for at least as much as brains and often runs counter to brains even in France. And there is a basic revolutionary force which is underestimated and whose im- pact we do not yet fully appreciate. France has now a young population. This has not happened for well over a century. Nobody knows what a young France is going to be like. It may, of course, wash away the whole Gaullist system. On the other hand, it may wash away a whole series of traditions of left-wing militancy which have very little to do with the realities of modern French life.
The recent elections to the councils of students in the universities suggest that, out- side Paris with its immense overplus of students indulging in general cultural activities, there are a great many hard-headed, if you like selfish and even greedy young Frenchmen and young Frenchwomen who see a new France full of an Americanised culture that M Sartre may despise but to which most Frenchmen pay the greatest flattery of imitation.