“They are the true face of France”

by Natacha Polony, France

For his book “Le Peuple de la frontière”, [The people at the border] journalist Gérald Andrieu has met ordinary people – in fact those who, on the occasion of the presidential election, were demanded to make a decision without that one ever seemed to be really interested in them.
“I care no longer to climb. This imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delight for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me.”*
This sentence summarises the intellectual and moral development of Jack London, an autodidact, who became a socialist by sharing the misery of the people. This quotation is in the front matter of a book that teaches us what journalism should be. Gérald Andrieu1 has chosen the most radical way: going to meet the people – in the sociological as well as in the political sense of this term. Common people, but above all the components of the political entity called France. He, who had reported on presidential campaigns, as political journalists do, by following the candidate from the train station to the airport, from the summit to the ballroom, he turned his attention to those who were called upon to vote, while noone seemed to pay real attention to them. Two thousand kilometres of walking from Dunkirk [North Sea] to Menton [Mediterranean Sea] along the French eastern border lodging at the inhabitants during the six-month of the presidential campaign. His disturbing report is, in all modesty, a lesson for everyone who is active in journalism or in politics, without ever seeking to meet the citizens in their diversity, in their distress and in their beauty.
One is seized by emotions, sometimes shedding tears, while reading the story of these accidental encounters in human fraternity. It are the poor who are capable to give everything. Like Charlotte, an unemployed mother who meets the journalist and proudly invites him to her home to have him try her sauerkraut. Sixty kilometres forth and back, as she brings him back to their meeting point. There are people, too, who carry their suffering with dignity, without self-pity, and without blames. The former workers of the Cellatex SA spinning mill in Givet in the Ardennes, who in 2000 poured acid into a stream, to get heard at last.
Cellatex SA was a textile factory struck with full force by the effects of free trade, by the interdiction of protective tariffs in 1994 by the WTO. There are also the former workers who became sick or workers who wake up in the middle of the night, because they have the three-by-eight-hour-shift rhythm still in them. Or the employees of Fessenheim, the oldest nuclear power plant in France. Gérald Andrieu cites the statistics that every politician has on his desk: 500 service providers, 800 employees with their families – 5200 potentially affected people. “Numbers, clouds of numbers. But I,” he writes, “see faces around me.” Rarely do politicians and journalists perceive these faces. Rarely do they encounter France so closely. Because you need time for that, and that special benevolence – so different from the proclaimed benevolence in an election campaign in order to galavanise a persuaded electorate to embody the good. A benevolence that forbids you to judge when the words are sounding the anger and the urge to overturn the table. Despite of some of his interlocutors’ willingness to make statements that would be criticized by “moral” media (because on this trip migrants and borders are also mentioned), Gérald Andrieu confirms that he has nowhere met that “encapsulated” France, that editorial offices like to design and to describe, but simply “physically, economically, and in their identity unsettled” French people.

Cannon fodder in the economic war

“I must warn our president,” writes Andrieu, “that France of the ‘rien-du-tout’ [of the ‘insignificant’ – a term used by Emmanuel Macron, translator’s note], of the negligible and the neglected people has not waited for him. […] Is Macron a committed ‘European’? He has no other choice but to be convincing, because these ‘rien-du-tout’ often feel that they are only needed as cannon fodder for an industrial, commercial and financial war, against which today’s Europe does not protect them, or worse, which is stoked up by it (today’s Europe). Instead of more mobility and flexibility – which both are already too well known by the border crossers, whom I met on my way – they want some protection and economic security.” Every person facing public elections or assuming the right to propagate political ideas, ought to love with all his heart these many faces in unsecured and often difficult life situations. He ought to be moved by their fears, but also by their generosity and their dignity. He would also have to be ready to meet them.
On his return, Gérald Andrieu said that he had encountered another, very tangible and perceptible border. Namely when he met fellow journalists asking him: “What do the inhabitants on the French borders say about Macron?” After the answer: “Nothing, they do not speak of him”, they were completely disturbed. – Two worlds and an alienation from those who are also citizens and who should be considered by every democrat as an important part of the political community. And then there are those journalist colleagues who read the book and call it “maurrassien”2 because it describes landscapes and speaks of France and the French.
To perceive them. To like them. Is that so difficult?    •

*    Jack London, “What Life Means to Me” from “Revolution” full quotation: “I care no longer to climb. This imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delight for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we’ll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we’ll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble and alive.” [translator’s note]

1    Andrieu, Gérald. Le Peuple de la frontière. Editions du Cerf, October 2017. Gérald Andrieu is an independent journalist, was editor-in-chief of the magazine Marianne, is co-author of the book “Bienvenue dans le pire des Mondes. Le triomphe du soft totalitarisme. “(Editions Plon, Paris 2016)
2     In today’s France, a very negative adjective. After Charles Maurras (1868–1952), French writer and nationalist (“right-wing extremist”) political publicist. [translator’s note]

Source: Le Figaro from 14.10.2017

(Translation: Current Concerns)

The de-industrialisation destroys social life of communities

Figarovox: Your walk was also a journey through the France of small shops and closed factories. Is de-industrialisation a big problem?

Gérald Andrieu: The land I crossed seemed to me to be exhausted, destroyed by years of laisser-faire: factory closures, closures of small shops in city centers. And when faced with a recent event of this kind, such as the merger of Alstom with Siemens, one has to assume that the current directorate, like the earlier ones, will hardly pay attention to the consequences for the population. Nevertheless, the factories and the industry – it is idiotic to have to remember – structure the regions and the local life. There you meet, there you exchange ideas, you help and support each other, you fight, if necessary, side by side. One often speaks of “community”. One way to implement it would be to maintain the jobs in those areas; even though the new state leadership may find a factory very old-fashioned compared to the start-ups they dream of so much! Now, if I mention the social cohesion formed by the factories, the companies and the public services, it is because in the France that I crossed, many communities have become sleeping communities. You live far away from your place of work. Every morning you get in the car to drive 30, 40, 50 kilometers to the grafting. In the evening you come home without meeting your neighbour. Sometimes you do not even know their name. And the shopping centers where you stop on your way home are not the places to make new relationships ...”

Source: Excerpt from an interview of 6 October 2017 with Gérald Andrieuby Alexandre Devecchio for “Figarovox”.

(Translation Current Concerns)