Appreciating the Best of the French

Yesterday I went to a recital in my neighborhood which featured a Frenchwoman d’une certaine age, singing Piaf and other French favorites.

Having been born in Paris back in 1936, and grown up in a household where French was spoken and the records of Piaf and Trenet often played, I expected (and received) a strong shot of nostalgic pleasure attending her performance. However, I ended up receiving much more than I’d expected. The “esprit” in the songs, and the way they were delivered, helped me savor elements of Frenchness more deeply than ever.

Having just finished reading Tamim Ansary’s autobiographical book “West of Kabul and East of New York”, where he delves deeply into the attitudes of jihadist Muslims, and being aware of the turmoil currently peaking in France as part of the Charlie Hebdo killings, I was sensitized to particular aspects of some of the songs that were sung.

In particular, I was struck by the words of the narrator of the song “Speak to Me of Love”. She asks her lover to re-tell her tender things, and to say those wonderful words “I love you”. However, in the second stanza of the song, the narrator reveals that “dans le fond je n’en crois rien”. Basically, she doesn’t believe a word, but despite herself wants to believe them … so she entreats her lover to keep on talking.

For myself, those lyrics express an aspect of Frenchness that I admire and treasure. The ability to both deeply enjoy life and harbor no illusions about it, and then to declare that stance. That takes a Gallic sort of wisdom, courage, and eloquence. I purposely say Gallic, because although the French are as capable of committing atrocities as anyone else, at their best they exemplify the ideals and ideas of the Enlightenment as no others can. From Voltaire and his Candide, with it’s skeptic debunking of Panglossian optimism -to Camus and his editing and writing for the clarion of liberty “Combat” in Nazi-occupied Paris, the best of the French esprit has combined self-aware rejection of authoritarianism, appreciation of the free intellect and joie de vivre.

That spirit is part of Charlie Hebdo, and is now coming up against the forces of Islamic fundamentalist certainty and repression. But ironically enough, the French State is countering by attempting to force a kind secular conformity on its Muslim citizens. It is fighting fire with fire, and we can expect the conflagration to gain in intensity in the months to come.

Reminds me of the song that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. She knows that she questions and yet she goes on. One may be skeptical and yet not reject.

In the meanwhile, unlike Candide, it is not enough to respond to the folly and cruelties of the world by simply tending our gardens. Instead, we can remain aware of and treasure the values of Voltaire and the other founders of the Enlightenment and continue to appreciate the best in the French spirit. A votre santé!