Fighting old battles

Oh, to be in England now that May is here. Instead we are in France, gloomy and grey, with cloud close to ground level and a fire burning in the grate, while Britain basks in the sun. It is not supposed to be this way round.  

Other things are not supposed to be this way round either. Our neighbour, Jaquy, greeted our arrival by wanting to talk about the new royal baby, Prince Louis. It is currently her main topic of conversation. We told her that the name was chosen to celebrate the Entente Cordiale and to mitigate Brexit, in homage to 19 French kings. She doesn’t believe us.

In 2011, Jaquy found it incomprehensible that I should choose to paint the house rather than watch the last royal wedding. She was glued to it, and had a choice of three channels to watch it on. On 19 May, she will no doubt be glued to the next one. We no longer have a house to paint, but will still find something else to do. I am an enthusiastic monarchist, but I can think of better ways to pass an afternoon than to watch yet more royal flummery on TV. So, you might think, would the French. But you would be wrong.

France’s reputation is that of a staunchly republican country and, paradoxically, of a staunchly Catholic one. Two conflicting elements of the legacy of the French Revolution have been welded improbably together into its current identity. Neither part is entirely accurate. Many French are indeed convinced republicans, but many – like Jaquy – remain closet monarchists. Many French – again like Jaquy – are indeed devoted Catholics, but many are vehemently anti-clerical.

The two things tend to go together, as they did in 1789. If you were against the monarchy then, you were probably against the Church; if you were a royalist, you were probably in favour of the Church. All these years later, the two things still largely go together, and they also largely – but not entirely – translate into political allegiances. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that France is still split down the middle, along the same lines as during the Revolution.

The divisions play out in thousands of small towns and villages across the country. Primary schools can be either secular or religious, and often both co-exist in the same place. The same thing happens in England, of course, but there the choice is notional for most people, and where there is a religious element it is downplayed. Not in France. Here, whether you send your child to a Church school or a secular school is a declaration.

The French State is secular. The official celebrations of a new head of state have no religious component. Church weddings have no legal validity; all ceremonies are civil ceremonies. Yet bank holidays, proclaimed by the State, are mostly religious – Easter and Christmas of course, but this month will see bank holidays on 10 May (Ascension Day) and 21 May (Pentecost).

(I have written before of the French practice of ‘faire le pont’ – whereby, if a bank holiday falls on a Tuesday, for example, many French people will take the Monday off as well to ‘make the bridge’ between the Sunday and the Tuesday. This past week has seen a spectacular triple pont. Monday was the bridge between Sunday and the VE Day bank holiday on Tuesday. Wednesday was the bridge between VE Day and Ascension Day on Thursday. Friday was the bridge between Ascension Day and the weekend. Little work will have got done in France this week.)

So, while 1789 produced a winner, it did not settle the issues in the minds of the French people. Historic events of seismic importance are regarded as decisive and, in retrospect, as having been one-sided in their effect: not only the French Revolution, but the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution and now, perhaps, Brexit. Yet, in another sense, they were all indecisive. None of them commanded anything like unanimous support within the countries that engendered them. Most of them, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, were “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. The winners won. The course of history was diverted. But those on the wrong side of history did not change their opinions, and nor have their descendants.

One hundred, two hundred years on, old battles are still being fought. In France, that is apparent simply by being here. In America, it is apparent from reading the news, especially at the moment. It is even more apparent if one has spent any amount of time in the former Confederate states. The legacy of slavery, and of the war, has affected almost every part of Southern attitudes. The idea of a separation between the Northern and Southern states is nearly as powerful today as in 1861, even if it exists only in the mind. The Civil War resolved where power lay in America, but it has never resolved the issues.

And the same will almost certainly prove true with Brexit. Again, and whatever it may appear, this is not a new argument, but merely the latest manifestation of an eternal one: to what extent should Britain engage with continental Europe? We have answered that question in different ways over the centuries, none of them entirely satisfactory. Engagement with Europe has produced endless battles, physical and metaphorical. Detachment has always proved impossible in the long run. Nothing has been resolved before, and nothing will have been resolved this time, however it ends up.

The decisive moments of history produce shifts in power. They never resolve the arguments. We are condemned to fight old battles for eternity.