Ideas in Action in France

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A polling station in Saint-Lizier, in southwestern France.  (Photos by J. Lajournade.)

“I like the idea of it, though,” my friend Bertrand said not too long ago.

He was responding to my offhand observation that the Centre Pompidou was ugly. Its inside-out factory look, now looking tired and dirty, was probably quite the thing 40 years ago. Today, not so much. Sure the collection is great, but the building is hideous. That didn’t matter to my friend. What the building meant to him signified something beyond what the Centre Pompidou actually is to me, a culturally significant eyesore.

In France, the idea of the thing is as important as or more important than the thing itself.

Take voting. I know quite a few people who, after reflecting on the choice of candidates, decided in these recent legislative elections, to “voter blanc,” to vote white, or to cast a blank ballot. “I couldn’t support either of the candidates,” my friend Jean told me. “But I wanted to make sure that I exercised my right to vote.” So he inserted a blank sheet into the blue envelope when he cast his ballot. Neither candidate got his vote. But he expressed his lack of interest in those candidates, while showing support for the system, by choosing not to choose.

This attitude puzzles me. But for the French voting “blanc” isn’t throwing away a vote.  It’s an action that carries weight. Even if that weight isn’t felt by the choice of a representative, but in the non-choice of two.

Version 3

Considering that your opinion has a palpable heft is a French trait. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone generally believes that his or her opinion is worth hearing. This is evident even on nationally televised talk shows, where people do just that: talk. The people they’re talking to might not listen, but they’re at least given the floor to say what they want. Invited experts – I’ve come to recognize the usual suspects – discuss a topic of the day, from various angles, and at length. This can come across as a lot of navel-gazing – and a lot of it certainly is – but it’s also refreshing to see people actually try to grapple with a subject than to shout bullet points at each other.

This also means that talking can replace actually doing things. Or that you “do” things by expressing your idea of them, as if thinking replaces action. Voting blank is an action, certainly – an idea in action – but what happens when some idiot is elected instead of someone disagreeable but less awful? You’d think that the people who didn’t vote (abstention levels have been high in the recent legislative elections) or who voted blank to protest the uninspiring candidates, would hardly be in a position to complain once the idiot was in office, thanks to their non-vote. This wouldn’t stop them. Complaining is another national trait. It’s more important to prove a point than to prevent a dope from holding office. An idea that you hold is more powerful than a person holding office.

I admire the love of ideas in France, especially the expressing of them. People take opinions seriously. And yet, sharply differing opinions aren’t grounds for banishment from your social circle. They’re opportunities for heated talk. I used to step in and ask friends in Paris to calm down if their discussions grew too animated and, to my eyes, angry. “We’re just talking,” they would say, looking at me like indulgent parents. I grew up not saying much at the dinner table, for fear of engaging too much with my father in one of his “moods,” and so never really grew comfortable with the lively interchange of points of view over a meal. And certainly not the French version, which to American eyes appears vicious, when it’s actually just passionate.

I might disagree with my friend Bertrand about the architecture of the Centre Pompidou, but I’m not likely to argue with him over his opinion of a building I find ugly and he finds interesting (or at least the idea of it interesting). As a pacifist who grew up wanting to avoid personal conflict, I wasn’t practiced in the art of expressing ideas. Nor did I believe my opinions really amounted to anything, especially if they drew attention to me. The French are different from how I was raised: they own their thoughts, and they’re proud to share them. And when a Frenchman says he voted blank to express his opinion about the sub-par candidates running for local or national office, his action might not have prevented someone ill-qualified from being elected, or it might have led to someone monstrous holding power. But that isn’t the point. The point is his opinion, not their being elected. And his opinion carries more weight than their candidacy.

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