Opinion: To Understand France's Crisis, You Must First Understand Its Cheese

The crisis in France is a byproduct of thousand-year old rivalries in an ancient and fragmented land, writes a leading Arab expert on WENA affairs.

Karl Sharro is a Lebanese expert analyst on WENA (Western Europe and North American) affairs. As protests engulfed France in recent weeks, BuzzFeed Opinion dispatched him to Paris to interpret the events in this mysterious and ancient land of contradictions.

Paris, December 2018

As I board the train from London’s St. Pancras station to Paris, I feel apprehensive. There was talk of the Lebanese Foreign Ministry issuing a travel warning to certain parts of France because of the deteriorating security situation. The gilets jaunes movement had been growing over the past few weeks and clashes with les flics had become a common occurrence across the Gallic republic. Paris, the city once known as "the Beirut of Western Europe" because of its beauty, was now a danger zone.

How did we get here? Barely 18 months ago, a young reformer president was elected in this long-troubled part of Europe — the république is in its fifth incarnation lest we forget — promising to overhaul his country’s economy and politics and overcome the social division that have plagued the nation since Roman times. Emmanuel Macron faced a tough challenge, but few people expected an eruption of this magnitude. While it’s tempting to attribute these demonstrations to certain unpopular policies, the truth is they stem from a deeper malaise within France. The nation’s complex history and geography provide better answers.

Macron’s approval ratings had been on the decline almost since he took office. But this on its own doesn’t explain the roots of the current crisis, as the success of French presidents is typically measured by their unpopularity. Politicians in France assume that being liked means that they are not doing their job properly. French leaders rarely court the sort of public admiration that is typical of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts on both sides of the Atlantic. This is often mistaken for arrogance by people who are not familiar with the French culture, but in fact it is a highly prized quality that exudes a sense of purpose and determination.

As one of the Arab world’s leading experts on the WENA, I knew that the roots of this budding Gallic revolution lie deep in history and a culture that is misunderstood by outsiders. I came to Paris on a mission to find out the real story.

As I step out of Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest railway station, I remember what the celebrated sociologist Michel Passpartout once said to me in a bar in Montmartre. “France is like a Rubik’s cube whose parts don’t quite fit together,” he told me. “From the outside it might look like the pieces are lined neatly, but inside they are misshapen and don’t match. At the center is Paris, holding everything together. Hold it too softly, and the pieces fall apart. Push too hard and the pieces break. This is France!"

Passpartout provided me with the key for understanding the crisis now engulfing France, as the gilets jaunes take to the streets week after week. France, the irregular hexagon, is a puzzle. It’s a puzzle made up of regions that don’t fit together, forced together first by ambitious royals and later by republic after republic extending Paris’s dominance over an unwilling campagne, an uncooperative périphérie. The stiches holding France together are now coming undone. Those ancient fissures are becoming visible cracks.

I decide to have a coffee at one of the many cafés trottoir that line the streets of Paris before I resume my expedition. The waiter is visibly angry, so I engage him in conversation. Fortunately, he is able to confirm all my theories about the gilets jaunes instantly. There is anger about the dominance of Paris and its relationship to other French regions. He himself comes from the countryside but was forced to move here for work. No, this is not only about taxes — it’s much more than that. This country has been divided for centuries.

When you think of France, you think of fine cheeses and wines. Ironically — tragically, perhaps — it’s those cheeses and wines that explain the roots of France’s divisions. As the old French saying goes: "The people who make the cheese are not the ones who eat it." The origins of the saying have been lost in time, but it’s thought to refer to the tension between the peasantry who produce but can’t afford their products and the bourgeoisie who produce nothing but consume the variety of French delicacies made in the countryside.

A French cheeseboard with several types of cheese is the perfect representation of the nation. Different parts that have never truly come together, as you know if you tried to mix a Camembert and a Roquefort. And at the center is Paris, the dominant baguette as it is referred to derogatorily. There are many fault lines in this nation, but none are stronger than those between the countryside and the city. At heart, this is a philosophical dispute, as all French disagreements are. It is a clash between the rustic and the Cartesian worldviews — the former has existed for centuries, the latter imposed after the 1789 revolution in the name of the Enlightenment.

A few weeks ago, a quirky story hit the news. The way the kilogram is defined was about to be changed. It will no longer be based on the ingot called "Le Grand K," which is locked away in a safe in Paris. Few people made the connection between this story and the gilets jaunes protests that followed almost immediately. Outside France, this was treated as novel little scientific story. But in the French countryside, this had the effect of dismantling the order that Paris represented almost immediately. The authority of the Cartesian order emanating from the center was beginning to crumble, like an aging French cheese.

The protesters I talked to were keen to emphasize this message. As we traded tips for avoiding the effects of tear gas, they talked about their hopes and fears candidly. “We work very hard for Parisian elites to get an expensive education at our expense, then write books that nobody understands.” Recalling my years of struggle with French theory, I was sympathetic. There was Pierre, the young student from Brittany hoping to find a local job one day. There was Carole from the Aquitaine region who wanted to start her own farm. Margeaux came from the region near Marseille and resented the intrusion of the state into her life and culture.

As seasoned observers of the West like myself have become accustomed to in recent years, there is a tendency in Western culture to blame events on external actors and complex conspiracy theories. This strange trait can come as a shock to more rational Middle Eastern observers, but it is quite common across the WENA region, on the streets and in the media. Soon after the protests took off, some attributed them to a changing Facebook algorithm, and others argued they were caused by Russian agitation and propaganda.

I ask the protestors what they think of those explanations, and they all laugh at the suggestion that it was Facebook or Russian propaganda that brought them out on the streets. "Putin was personally here yesterday, he gave me 50 euros," one of them jokes. "If journalists want to find out the truth, they should talk to us," says another.

I bid them farewell and head back to the train station. As I wait in the lounge, I think of what the future holds for this beautiful but divided country, caught within the tentacles of age-old antagonisms and mutual distrust between city and countryside. The thought reminds me that I should buy some of the exquisite French cheese before my train departs.

Karl Sharro is the author of And Then God Created the Middle East and Said "Let There Be Breaking News."

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