BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
As I write this piece from Biarritz on the French Atlantic coast, the September sun is shining and waves are crashing down onto the beach in front of the Hotel de la Plage. A dozen or so surfers attempt to gain traction from the occasionally useable waves. The terrace cafe in which I am sitting is much quieter than a month ago, although tourists still visit. The smell of sea air, espressos and cigarettes is pleasant. The sound of French music star David Guetta blaring on the radio, less so. I would prefer to hear something more French – cornier. Perhaps even some Yves Montand or Johnny Hallyday.
I am sitting here with my Chinese client. He likes to meet in France, where he owns a holiday home in nearby Aquitaine. He grows his own wine there, which he openly admits tastes like industrial vinegar but perhaps one day will pass itself off as salad vinaigrette. He is permanently on his phone, which has a dreadful ring and sounds not unlike Guetta’s latest hit. He smokes cigarettes like I take in breaths of air.
No-one I have talked to here seems enamoured by Monsieur Macron. His popularity is in sharp decline. Talk of a Front National victory next time round is growing even now, so soon after Macron’s recent victoire. The Republicans seem to be enjoying Macron’s poor showing and complain that no-one listened when they described him as a vacuous mule. Mention Fillon to them and their brows furrow, out comes another cigarette and conversation soon switches to Trump and Anglo-Saxon woes.
I have noticed in my travels that people from countries with memories of better days harbour resentments that feed on bitter experience. So it is with my Chinese client, who is in his sixties and has only a recent memory of Chinese success. He seems to have found himself caught up in a campaign to justify his past, to reassert dignity and salve past wounds. The difference between him and the French I have met this trip is that now he can look to the future with justified optimism, while the French – with their empty factories and mounting tumbleweed – seem to always default to their Gallic shrug, reminiscing about the 1990’s when they had one of the highest standards of living in the world, with income a quarter higher than that of old rival Great Britain.
My Chinese client’s eyes illuminated last night in the Breton crepe restaurant, La Crepe Dentelle, a few streets from here on Boulevard de la Marne, as he and I drank cider from a Breton mug, which he noticed was made in China. Nothing was more distressing for him in his earlier years to read Western criticism of his beloved land, which had been the most populous and richest of empires a thousand years ago. He even felt embarrassed by the myths and propagandas that were perpetuated by his government about Chinese superiority and intimidating Western criticisms. He was one who facepalmed when his leaders pretended Chinese regression did not exist and told people to look elsewhere.
My client talks now of the battle of transmission – in his past the transmission of trade and ideas was all one way to China from America and Europe and watching Japan’s success was especially painful. Now the direction of transmission has partly reversed and, he thinks, China’s showering of its products on Western lands will continue to be irrepressible. He talks of playing the long game. The Chinese, he says, see a century as a short space of time and cannot understand Western politicians’ news cycle headline hunting.
Meanwhile, the French are essentially Western. They are open about their decline. They are not in hiding. That does not mean they are happy about it. They are openly irritated. Unlike the Chinese, they have not succumbed to defensive scholarship or propaganda. Perhaps, there is just about the energy here to come again.
There is a genuine love of the British here, despite the recent rhetoric, which has hardly waned with the Brexit decision. Some of the young seem to have swallowed the Remainer myth that Brexit will spark a flood of jobs and business to Paris and Frankfurt. The wiser heads see little change and once more the Gallic shrug appears. Most seem unmoved. Some see bravery in the referendum decision and wish they could have a similar vote.
The dirigisme and étatisme is increasingly detested here by all sides – by the Republicans and even, bizarrely, by the far Left of Jean-Luc Melenchon. The upsurge in terrorism has rocked the foundations of this old land – still one of the most beautiful places to visit, a work of natural and man-made art, a tourist paradise. While in the 1990’s the French dismissed Anglo-Saxon advice with “Get lost. We don’t need any lessons from you, with your crime, racial antagonisms, imperfect assimilation and love of survival-of-the-fittest free markets”, now there seems to be a far deeper bond between the French and Anglo Saxons. Perhaps because of new invaders – like my client and those prepared to run over babies in Nice – but more due to a sense of loss of power, I feel.
The philosophy cafes exist here. The French do tend to think too much. Then again, a land like this of such beauty still has its cheese, its wine, its fabrics, mountains and beaches. Those surfers out there are likely a mix of socialists, Republicans, Macron voters and FN’ers and right now all they care about is the next wave.
I must return to my client. His phone has, for once, fallen silent.
11 a.m. My Chinaman has a penchant for Chartreuse. There is no escape.