I recently watched a documentary on the British Manor House culture of the Belle Edwardian époque. This time of our history fascinates me. As I was watching certain contrasts between English and French cultures began to whirl around in my mind.
In England, as we know, social strata were quite definitive right up until the First World War. For the French, it is generally believed that a similar social division ended with the French Revolution of 1789; that being the upper classes of the monarchy, aristocracy and clergy in contrast to the lower classes of laborers. It has been argued that the Revolution ended this divide in France on a systemic level, and the Social Revolution of 1968 on a social level. I’m not quite so sure.
For those of you who may not be aware, the French went through a major social evolution in the late 1960s. May 1968 marks the beginning of what many consider the French Social State. The Enlightenment principles of the Revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity or Solidarity - were concretely put into systematic function after the manifestations and general social upheaval of 1968. What started out as a student protest, changed the face of France forever.
For more info on the French 1968 social change, I point you toward this article.
But when you look carefully at the fabric of French society, you see that although politicians and unions give lip service to social solidarity, the foundations of this country are wearing away at their seams. Pulled in a hundred directions at once, confronted by immigration, decolonization, social inequality (or can we call it difference?), overburdened state funded programs, France is not a rosy example of former social class divisions. And I venture to argue that Britain isn’t either; the difference is they don’t pretend to be.
But my point is not a political one. In fact, my own experiences of growing up with a working single mom who labored double time to keep her and I afloat lead me to believe that a healthy society needs to embrace difference among its people’s ambitions and efforts. Not everybody wants the same thing out of life and not everyone is willing to meet the same challenges to achieve what they want.
The French don’t seem to think that way.
The French still see the world through a lens of haves and have-nots. And here I generalize. They see the rich and they see the working. Somehow, it doesn’t seem as obvious to them as it does to me that a so-called have-not can work and strive to achieve the same as the so-called haves even if the latter have it easier along the way. Somehow it seems more logical to the French that opportunities be provided, obstacles removed, the path of life paved. Sometimes when this type of discussion comes up, I feel like saying, “Who ever told you that life was going to be fair? You should find that person and get your money back!” But I hold my tongue. That sort of talk doesn’t go over well in France.
The truth is: The history of mankind has never known a time without distinctions among people. We’ve always had leaders and followers, pioneers and home dwellers, risk-takers and those more prudent. But its only in the last 100 years that we’ve begun to think that regardless of these differences we are entitled to sameness…
To bring this around to where I began, French nobility still exists. They still have blood Royals and dukes and counts and lords. The manor houses of England are the country chateaux of France. The difference is that with the British monarchy still intact, the British seem more reverent of an English lord than the French are to their own noblesse. The French aristocracy are made to feel burdened by their lineage. They do not speak of it but among themselves.
It’s interestingly this certain shyness the French have about their family heritage, if they happen to descend from these upper echelons of society. As a new comer to this entire old-world of aristocracy, I think it is sort of a shame that 1000s of years of family history are hidden or discussed only in very private circles because other members of the society have other family lineages, different family stories.
My father-in-law once told me that you can tell a true French nobleman by the signet ring on his finger, the ‘de’ in his last name, his old beat up car and his refusal to discuss his family in public.
I wouldn’t want my children to be jealous of someone who has a distinguished family history. I myself don’t. My father comes from a long line of masons reaching back as far as we can find. They weren’t lords of the land or counts or related to royal blood lines like my belle-famille. But shouldn’t that make it all the more interesting? I’m not convinced that teaching children the virtues of sameness is the right message. People aren’t the same. We never have been.
The artificial ascension barriers of pre-Revolution France did indeed need to be broken down. Certainly. In my perfect world, people should be able to achieve what they work for and those who don’t wish to should not be given permission to hold others back. In this respect, have we gone too far?
Food for thought.