France Alive

A LITTLE before the collapse of France my host at dinner, a good soldier and a country squire, having listened to what I had to say of the French, replied as follows: ‘Well, I dunno. Sounds all right. Don’t pretend to know the chaps myself. But what I say is: “Never trust a Froggy.”’ For this phrase there is a precise translation: Perfide Albion. Among great sections of the two peoples mutual distrust is profound and hereditary, and this feeling was sharpened by events.

I have heard it said that France is decadent, that she is corrupt, that to the world of the future no good can come from her, that the British Empire and America can afford to do without her. I hold, on the contrary, that in spite of her faults and failures there is in her a unique element without which the energies and virtues of the Anglo-Saxon peoples cannot yield their full fruit. The question is not whether she let us down in the field or whether we have been guilty of error in the past. The question is not even of the ultimate strategic value of an AngloFrench alliance. We have to go much deeper and base our judgment, so far as we may, upon an estimate of human and spiritual values in the world that lies in wait for us.

How much of the old world, the old civilization as we have understood it, are we prepared to sacrifice? How much should we struggle to preserve? How much willingly cast away? What new things shall we patiently create? The answers to all these questions depend upon our scale of values. And if there is among us, allowing for the differences of sect, party, heredity, and temperament, a common ground in this matter, — if it be true, as I think it is, that the word ‘civilization’ is, indeed, a vital and visible flame which we are determined shall light the future, — then we have to ask ourselves whether it is not a flame which, if denied what the French have to give, will flicker and change color and burn sickly and at last go out.

Let us, first, ask what it is they have to give, and what are their unique qualities that none other can supply in the same measure and are complementary to our own. Then, considering civilization itself and what it is, and striving to look forward a little beyond the present ferment, let us see in what way these unique qualities of the French are necessary to the happiness of man and to the health and boldness and integrity of his spirit.


In his autobiography, written not long before his death, John Buchan said this: ‘It is when a people loses its self-confidence that it surrenders its soul to a dictator or oligarchy. In Mr. Walter Lippmann’s tremendous metaphor, it welcomes manacles to prevent its hands shaking.’ This might appear to apply to France, which shook and surrendered. But mark the word ‘soul’ — or, if it be too vague, too grandiloquent, in speaking of a nation, let us substitute for it the humbler word ‘mind.’ As the months pass, it becomes more and more clear that France is far from having surrendered her mind. Still she makes her criticism effective, for it was nothing but the latent strength of French opinion that drove out Laval. With a muzzled press, an occupied Paris, and a sorely embarrassed Vichy, with her democratic leaders in prison and her surviving power remote in Africa — that France, in these circumstances, still succeeded in making her criticism felt was a remarkable phenomenon of history, and will remain so, whatever the outcome.

But France never has surrendered her mind to a dictator, not even to Napoleon, and Napoleon had the wit not to ask it of her. He conscripted her body to his conquests, but never her mind to his obsessions. It is the special attribute of the French that they cannot be standardized. No one newspaper can tell them what to think: they have hundreds of little newspapers and are skeptical of them all. No one politician can command a hero-worshiping majority; for better and for worse they have hundreds of little politicians and distrust them all. No one general can dazzle them; they have hundreds of little generals and sack a dozen or two of them at the beginning of each war pour encourager les autres. Unfortunately on this occasion the purge was a trifle late.

‘A very unstable nation!’ my military host would retort. ‘Never trust a Froggy!’ And it would be foolish to deny that for many years the government of France and indeed her whole political machine have been dangerously unstable. The reason is an interesting one — not that the people are unstable; indeed, being more rooted in the land, they are perhaps more stable, as they are certainly more thrifty, than the English. The reason is, I think, that in France the machinery of republican government was dangerously geared. In England, as in France, Parliament has power to drive out a government, but an English Prime Minister has an opposite power to insist upon a dissolution and drive members back to take the verdict of their constituencies. And as governments do not like being driven from power, so also members do not like being driven back to their constituencies, where they may lose their seats, at some cost and inconvenience to themselves. Thus in England a balance has been established, and in America a different balance based upon a written constitution; governments fall, but not twice a week. In France the Chamber of Deputies has had overwhelming power; by a rash, heated, or irresponsible vote it could drive a government from office without any risk to its own comfort. The President of the Council could not insist upon a dissolution; the deputies could sit tight while the cards were reshuffled, and then, if it amused them, upset the table again. To my mind, and to the mind of many Frenchmen, this seemed a fatal constitutional defect.

But the Third Republic is gone. It is unlikely to be revived in the same form, and we should commit a grave error if we were to confuse its accidental parliamentary instability with the outstanding merit of the French nation: its independence of mind, its contempt for ideas that have been mass-produced, its astonishing intellectual integrity. The English have, or believe they have, integrity of a different kind. Lord Baldwin would call it integrity of character, and perhaps he would be right. Certainly it springs rather from intuition than from reason and is collective rather than individual. The English are at their greatest when, in face of a national peril, they sink their differences and present to the world a stubborn, intuitive, and unquestioning will. Here they supply what France sometimes dangerously lacks. But the French quality is as valuable as the English and is complementary to it. In a world which from San Francisco to London, from London to Berlin, and from Berlin to Vladivostok and Tokyo, is yielding more and more to the mass production of thought, the unique power of the French to resist this process is without price. They are not a herd-people. Even during their own revolution they cut off the heads of their leaders with reasonable and impartial regularity.

This fierce reaction of the French against the drug-like influence of popular slogans is called ‘cynicism’ by their critics, and is, of course, unlikely to recommend them to those English, Americans, or Germans who take their opinion from headlines. To put the same idea more gently: the French intellectual integrity has in it an element of skepticism that sometimes offends our sentiment. But my case does not rest on sentimental appeal. I say only that, unless we have adopted the Nazi and Communist belief in mass thought, we are bound to recognize this power of the French to resist standardization, this respect of theirs for the liberties of the individual mind, as a contribution to civilized life that we cannot afford to do without.

The second outstanding and distinguishing quality of the French can best be described as their attitude towards life. Only a very superficial traveler, who has neither read the novels of François Mauriac nor had experience of the severe disciplines that the French impose upon themselves to safeguard the unit of the family, could suppose that the French are, as a nation, morally lax, and yet they share with the Chinese and the ancient Greeks the faculty, which has always marked the most enlightened civilizations, of regarding pleasure as part of the good life. The English and the Americans — perhaps because they have never fully assimilated their Puritanism — are always inclined to be morally suspicious of pleasure, and, above all, of its refinements. In speaking of innocent and guilty pleasures — a reasonable distinction if it is made by reason and not by prejudice — we have a habit of assuming that pleasure is guilty until it is proved innocent; the Chinese, the Greeks, and the French take an opposite view. We say — again reasonably — that pleasure in excess is bad; to which the French would reply: ‘Yes. We agree; but only because anything in excess is bad; not because pleasure in itself is bad or because abstinence from it is in itself virtuous.’

We have a habit — which again may be reasonable but is often confusing and even hypocritical in practice — of distinguishing between spiritual and material pleasures. Which is the pleasure of sunshine, of the smell of furze, of the warmth of earth when you lie on it, of a poem of Baudelaire or a quartet of Haydn? Are these spiritual or material? Are they not all in part sensuous? Are we, then, to pretend that sensuous pleasure may not be part of the good life? If we do, our position as inheritors of Greece and of the Renaissance is untenable. The contradiction arises from our strange habit of attaching evil moral overtones to good words. Two lines of Baudelaire provide an instance: —

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beautê,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

I remember an elaborate discussion with my French friends on the second line. There is no English equivalent for it, and can be none. Luxe cannot be translated by ‘luxury,’ nor volupté by ‘voluptuousness,’ because both French words, with nothing evil or reprehensible implicit in them, suggest a deliberate pleasure, while to Anglo-Saxons the idea of deliberate pleasure is immediately suspect. Why? Even we do not consider it more moral to gulp our wine than to sip it. The French extend this discretion towards other human pleasures. The consequence is that when one is happy in France one says that one feels an ambiance. To this ‘a sense of well-being’ is a very inadequate approximation. Ambiance is a mood without which there would have been no Theocritus, no Sappho, no Catullus, no Michael Angelo, no Shakespeare — a mood which we know but are shy of; a mood flatly opposed to the whole German Weltanschauung; a mood, necessary to civilization, that is part of France’s distinctive attitude towards life.

How shall we define that attitude? For, though an understanding of pleasure is a part of it, it is a part only. I have often wondered what precisely it is in France that so satisfies my reason and enchants my imagination, what it is that makes me admire and love her and feel that the pulse of civilization beats in her. And I believe the answer is best approached, not by rigid and objective definition, but by a series of indications.

Do you remember that when Victor Hugo died France accorded him the greatest funeral ever given to a Frenchman? Now Victor Hugo was a poet, not a king or a politician or a film star — and we have not yet offered to Byron a place in Westminster Abbey. . . .

Another indication — this time a personal one. In the third month of the war the Admiralty sent me to Paris. I was attached to the staff of British Naval Liaison in the French Admiralty, whose executive departments had moved out of the Ministry of Marine to a group of wooden huts near the Château of Maintenon. Here sometimes I would keep a night watch. In the morning, a little before breakfast time, while I was waiting for my relief, there would often come a knock at the door and a French sailor or marine or a little group of them would appear carrying French translations of books of mine. And they were not ‘ fans.’ They had not come to stare or ask for autographs. They had come to discuss highly technical points of method and construction, and soon, because all French criticism is comparative and is based on the masters, we were discussing Balzac and Stendhal, and I was learning from them. They were plain seamen in one of the most efficient navies in the world. I believe there is no other country where the same thing could happen; and I take it to be evidence, not indeed of an artistic discernment in the French higher than that of other peoples, but of the simple fact that they have taken art in their stride — they will discuss it as freely and as unself-consciously as food or children or the weather, for they regard it as a part of life. To them, to be an artist or a man of science is not to be a freak — something to be laughed at or stared at or worshiped; to them an artist is, like a peasant, natural and necessary, and that is the civilized view to take.

I will not claim that France is preëminent as a nation of artists or of scientists. Nothing is to be gained by conducting such a discussion as this on the basis of selecting two rival cricket teams. If I were to speak of the Impressionist painters, or of Gide and Claudel or of the acting of Jouvet, or of the plays of Lenormand and Giraudoux, it would be legitimate to retort with Shaw and Augustus John. By that means it is impossible to reach a conclusion of any value. But there is this to be remembered: that, though other nations may claim to excel France in poetry or painting or music or scientific research, it is to France that artists and men of science go to learn — not necessarily in the academic sense of learning how to practise their art or their science, but to learn how to live as scientists and artists. Foreigners go to Oxford or Yale or Heidelberg or Rome to study particular subjects; they go to the Sorbonne for the same reason; but they go to Paris because her cafes, her studios, her great houses, her humblest lodgings are a university of life in which there are no pedagogues.

We Anglo-Saxons have done our best to anglicize Paris, and north of the river we have to some extent succeeded. Montmartre was vulgarized long ago; the Place Pigalle was changed; so the intelligent French moved to Montparnasse, and though Montparnasse, in its turn, began to suffer the invasions of the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, the intelligent French survived. In the Rue Bonaparte, in the square of St. Germain des Prés, in the He St. Louis, in the whole neighborhood of Notre Dame, and in districts much poorer than any of these, they continued to think and work and talk of the things of the mind. In a sense the French are more insular than ourselves; they seldom travel for pleasure, partly because other countries have worse wine and worse food at greater cost, but chiefly because they have no need to travel. Europe and the world come to them. ‘There are two principal universities: Oxford and Cambridge,’ said the American guidebook. ‘If your time is short, omit Cambridge.’ In the same way a European traveler may omit Berlin or Rome or Budapest, but not Paris. Everything — ideas, men, revolutions, all the agonies and ecstasies of mankind — flows into France and is changed and is given to the world again. She is the heart that pumps the blood of civilization.


Those who contend that France is valueless to us and that we should do well to allow her to perish as an independent nation generally base their opinion on economic arguments. They consider man not as an individual but as a unit in an economic mass, and they think of this war and the last as being primarily economic struggles. This was truer of the last war than of the present, but I suggest it is only very thinly true of either. The present ferment of the world is a ferment of ideas not primarily or chiefly economic. For long it was genuinely believed to be economic at root; it was considered to be a struggle of the world to create a new economic system which should make natural wealth more available to mankind and distribute it more justly. That our economic system is open to criticism none can deny; that great injustices spring from it is plain; but that ordinary men think in terms of economics and interpret their history and destiny in those terms is, I believe, a profound delusion. Men and women are rasher, more passionate, more wildly hopeful, more private, more human than the economists dream of. What the English will live and die for is not a trade bund or a tariff barrier, but the shape of a nose, the light of an eye, the lilt of a song, the name, the smell, the habit, the pride and beauty of England. The Germans too are fighting, not for economic advantage, but because they are a great, a war-loving, and a proud people, who, having made the last war and lost it, are determined to make good that loss, and, being hero-worshipers, are hypnotized by the habit, the name, the power of Hitler.

The fault of the Treaty of Versailles was not only that its economic clauses were impracticable in the sense intended by Mr. Keynes’s criticism, but that its economic emphasis mistook the nature of the problem. The attempted cure failed because the psychological diagnosis was wrong. Gradually it became clear that, though the economic struggle was genuine and important, another struggle underlay it — a struggle between two ways of life of which economic differences were only a part. What people in Germany were thinking of was not the increase or the redistribution of wealth, but the exaltation of the state over the individual. They were looking not for new markets but for a new god. In consequence, what we are now fighting is not basically an economic war but a modern version of the former wars of religion. The struggle is between two differing ideas of the nature and duty of man — two differing ideas of what civilization is and ought to become; and in that struggle, because we and the French take complementary views of civilization, France is necessary to us and necessary to civilization.

In times of great stress there is a tendency in all of us to do one of two things — either to live from hand to mouth, feeling that to make any plan is a waste of time, or to rush in with desperate remedies and ill-considered schemes for an instant remodeling of the world. Of the two, those who live from hand to mouth and are not overeager to write to the papers about their war aims or their peace aims are greatly to be preferred. The ardent and urgent remodelers are dangerous not because they are necessarily wrong in principle but because they are impatient and sentimentally grandiose, because they fail, as they failed at Geneva, to take account of the slowness of mankind to accept a new idea embodied in a new self-discipline. However fast mechanized divisions may move, the history of ideas is always slow.

That is the more reason for our trying to take, if we can, a very long view of the future and to get clear in our minds, not the frontiers, the disarmament clauses, the leagues and federations which may or may not spring from the next series of peace treaties, but the nature of the world towards which these treaties shall be one of many steppingstones.

What are we ultimately driving at?

To such a question there are a thousand answers, but there are probably very few answers to be given by anyone of English or of French blood that would not include the word ‘civilization,’ or at any rate the idea of it. We differ — and we ought to differ, or we should be Nazis ourselves — about the direction in which civilization should, in our opinion, develop. We differ, too, in the meanings we severally attach to the idea of vitality, of growth, of something springlike in civilization. But I think it is reasonable to say that nearly all of us, if we look imaginatively into the distant future of the world, seek there, not something that has no roots in the past, — for such a thing is historically impossible, — but a developed and vitalized form of civilization as we now understand it.

How developed? How vitalized? Never mind: for a moment leave that to the legitimate controversy of Left and Right. We are trying to look forward, not to the failure or triumph of any party, but to the destiny of mankind; we are trying to regard the distant future with the same eye, the same awareness of the splendor and suffering of humanity, with which a historian who, like Hardy, is also a poet regards the past. Through our vision the stream of civilization runs perpetually, an inheritance and a guide. It runs through the vision of the French.

It does not run through the vision of the Germans — and I mean the German people, not their present rulers only — because they have deliberately rejected it. For them the world begins tomorrow; Hitler created it in six campaigns and was restless in the seventh. It is the meaningless and stupid jargon of war to say that the Germans are a nation of barbarians. They are nothing of the kind. It happens that they are now ruled by a group of men who are, for the most part, without breeding or tradition, but that does not prevent their being still a people with their roots in the genius of Goethe and Beethoven. But let us not deceive ourselves. They are something more dangerous to us than a barbarous people. They are a people who have adopted a way of life different from ours. I am not a moralist, and I will not take it upon myself to speak of the forces of good and evil, or indulge in the habit of treating the deity as an ally. But this I know: that no change of regime in Germany will entitle us to put down our guard. The German people have rejected the fundamental ideas upon which is based our view of civilization, our hope for mankind.

What are those ideas? First, the idea of proportion and balance, of ‘nothing too much,’ which we inherit from the Greeks and to which totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Communist, is by definition opposed. Second, the idea of variety as distinct from that of standardization. Third, the idea that civilization is a living, flexible, and breathing organism that takes in and gives out. Fourth, that it is, or dreams of becoming, universal by acceptance and not by conquest. To all these principles Germany is opposed; to all of them France adheres. That is the nature of the conflict; that is the nature of the alliance. ‘Si nous nous divisons le monde est perdu.’