Many – perhaps most – of the anxieties tormenting France at the moment are not specific to France. The waves of unsolicited migration, the sense that democratic political processes are losing their capacity to foster social justice and harmony, the fear that education systems are failing in their aspiration to provide opportunities for individuals or a sound basis for future socio-economic development, the even greater fear that there will not be adequate means to cope with the ageing of the population: these, along with the imponderables of climate change, are issues shared across Europe, the United States, Australia, and beyond.
That the French are particularly morose about their capacity to deal with them is however undeniable. Our friends come from a wide variety of backgrounds and political persuasions: none of them has expressed any form of hope for getting out of the present impasse. Curiously, they refer more often to 'the French' than to 'us': 'The French,' they will say, 'can't institute a single reform without half the population immediately mounting a violent protest.' Or 'The French constantly speak of the need for change, but they can't abide it.' This strategy of deflecting responsibility may be what allows people to get on with living their daily lives with such style and good humour, but it also suggests a gallop towards the cliff-edge. There is general acceptance that the safety-net system is too generous. The son of friends of ours is grateful to have found a new job, but his take-home pay is less than half the unemployment benefits he was getting. Many politicians are also public servants and have the right to return to their positions if they lose their seats. The abuse of such perks is widely recognised, but nobody wants to give them up.
With a president whose popularity ratings vacillate between twelve and seventeen per cent, and no saviour in the wings, France's habitual passion for politics seems to be decidedly jaded. One couple we know are faithful Hollande supporters and blame his ratings on a ruthless, destructive opposition and a relentless, irresponsible press. But the fact is that the Socialist Party has lost half its membership since Hollande's election in 2013. Not all of the defectors have rushed to the Front National, but there is a palpable retreat from leftist optimism.
France in the spring has always been a time for social unrest. Some claim that levels of disaffection may have risen high enough to produce a new 1968. That remains to be seen, but since March the nightly protests at the Place de la République – under the aegis of a movement calling itself Nuit Debout (Night for Taking a Stand) – have generated a fair amount of noise and violence. Frequent conflict between police and demonstrators has led to multiple arrests and a number of injuries, despite the banning of alcohol and glass bottles (which get thrown at the police); police vehicles, and a few others, have been burnt; shops have been vandalised. There are the usual (probably accurate) assertions of ' professional' agitators among the crowds. There was the scandal caused by the ejection from the Nuit Debout forum of the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, judged to have sold out.
At the heart of the disturbance was the drafting of a new labour law aimed at reducing France's ten per cent unemployment rate. Introduced under some pressure from the European Union by the Industrial Affairs Minister, Myriam El Khomri, the law would constrain some precious workers' benefits, including a reduction of certain overtime allowances. Unsurprisingly, the union movements flatly rejected any such proposal, accusing the government of betraying its socialist principles. They were joined by large numbers of young people, and perhaps as many as a million demonstrated in March against the law. The arctic cold spell of mid-April drove numbers sharply down, but not before the government had already made several key concessions, including reducing from twenty-five to eighteen the age at which people can have access to social security allowances. More taxes will have to be invented to pay for that.
Some of our friends divert themselves by expressing their thoughts about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; a little irony about the Great Transatlantic Power is never misplaced, especially with the threat of a trade agreement that many see as America's way of undermining the European Project. As for Brexit, it would appear that about half the French would welcome it, on the grounds that the British never really wanted to be in Europe and have done nothing but complain since they joined.
Gloom notwithstanding, the return of sunshine has restored the springtime beauty of Paris. The parks and gardens are magnificent with the green and red of chestnut trees in bloom and new leaf, the flowerbeds filled with the brilliant colours and textures of tulips, daffodils, and peonies. Everything is meticulously and lovingly maintained. Métros and buses are crowded. There are hordes of tourists. The pétanque courts are full of players. Museums and galleries overflow with visitors. We visited an extraordinary contemporary Chinese art exhibition at the new Louis Vuitton exhibition space in the Bois de Boulogne, wondering who other than Daniel Buren would have the chutzpah to clad a Frank Gehry building in coloured plastic sails. In the Luxembourg Gardens, I found myself reconnecting with the poet Verlaine, remembering his words as I observed the suggestive forms emerging from the stone beneath his carved head: 'Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant / D'une femme inconnue, et que j'aime, et qui m'aime / Et qui n'est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la meme / Ni tout à fait une autre, et m'aime et me comprend.' It is surely the romantic in me that links that mysterious woman to France.
At the river end of the rue de Seine, in a lovely little garden, a bust of Montesquieu and a full-scale statue of Voltaire survey the world. I position myself at the point where the gazes meet – that of the man who understood that cultural differences must be celebrated and respected but can only be so in a world governed by the rule of law; and that of the radical sceptic sure that all would never be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It is the perfect spot to feel the heartbeat of this centuries-old civilisation.
That heart has been beating especially warmly for Australia this past little while, which has witnessed an unprecedented alignment of signs of friendship and co-operation that touch on both past and future. We have seen our governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, enacting the first Australian state visit to France. Paired Australian and French flags danced down the Champs-Elysées, and outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Quai d'Orsay and at the National Parliament.
The day after Anzac Day, Cosgrove oversaw the signature, in the splendid salons of the French Ministry of Culture, of a cooperation agreement between Australia's and France's National Archives. David Fricker, the Australian president of the International Council on Archives, delivered, in elegant French, a compelling apologia for paying closer attention to our shared histories and our common experiences of imagination, discovery, and memory. The French responded not only in words, but by showing some of their rarest archival treasures, documents and maps that had seldom previously left the vaults. The agreement, among many other things, will facilitate ongoing seminars and exchanges.
The following morning, at the Australian Embassy, during the opening of an exhibition based on illustrative materials from the Baudin expedition (which will tour Australia during the next two years), Cosgrove decorated Tina Arena as a member of the Order of Australia, paying homage to her success as a musician, her philanthropic commitments, and her importance as an connector between Australian and French cultures.
The governor-general seemed pretty sure that the announcement during his visit of the Australian decision to award its multi-billion dollar submarine contract to France was a coincidence. He learned of it as he was preparing to leave the area of Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme – the town that 'never forgets Australia' – where he had attended the Anzac Day dawn ceremony for the centenary of the arrival of Australia's soldiers on the Western Front in World War I. The service was well reported in the French news, but it was the submarines that dominated the media, as much because of the economic boost that the contract would bring as because of shared strategic programs. It is unlikely to lift France from its current funk.