Ah la Belle France, country of elegance and culture, unparalleled seat of learning and wisdom, founder of human rights and inventors of the modern world. That’s the myth we’re supposed to believe anyway, but the reality of French taste and discernment in all things uplifting is, well, not quite the same as the myth.
Unlike many countries, who only have one, France has two yearly polls that give them the chance to choose their favorite personality. Called the ‘Journal du Dimanche’ poll
, after the name of the paper that commissions it from poll specialists IFOP, its conclusions make the headlines in all the national papers bar none. Debate on the results is highly engaged and passions run high. It is not a show-business poll, as it was designed to pick those Frenchmen and women who have offered, or who offer, positive inspiration and example. From all walks of life
So who are France’s favorite inspiring personalities today?
Top of the list comes a total has been in the person of Yannick Noah, an ex-tennis player who almost made it big but failed just as he was hitting his peak. He is now a fourth-rate and cringingly bad singer who can’t get a note right even over the staggeringly simple and childishly constructed songs he sings. He has unbelievably won the last six editions. Very odd for a Frenchman who pays his taxes in Switzerland and spends the vast majority of his time at his pad in California. This isn’t mentioned on his highly PR’d Wikipedia page of course, nor is the fact that he regularly slams France and the French when speaking to any US regional paper which is hard up enough to have to interview him.
Next up is Zinedine Zidane. He is the current world head-butt champion, having deservedly won his title after a sumptuous performance in a World Cup Football final in which he floored an Italian defender with a magnificent full-frontal chest head-butt
, got sent off ignominiously and watched his team – weakened as it was by his absence – lose the match on TV from the dressing rooms. I can’t quite figure out why he came second, although I do know that it wasn’t for setting an example to young boys who aspire to become professional footballers.
Third place went to world-class slapstick comedian Mimi Mathy who..oh, you’ve never heard of her? OK, on to fourth place then, where Dany Boon, the actor or singer (he doesn’t seem to know which) best known for…Yes, agreed, this is boring, so I’ll move on.
What is striking about the results, and highly revealing in terms of France’s current intellectual stagnation, is the composition of the Top 50. There are 36 people from the entertainment business (almost all actors, singers or comedians) of whom only about half a dozen are even remotely known outside of France, which is a measure of their (total lack of) talent of course, as almost all French entertainers dream of the Anglo-Saxon Eldorado and do their best via agents to land the coveted plane ticket to London or Hollywood.
Next come six TV presenters, three of whom present news, one photographer (a mistake?) five sportsmen, all of them in, or almost in, the ‘ex’ category and one of whom was charged recently with sleeping with an underage prostitute
, and finally two politicians. Just two, one of whom is up to his neck in corruption lawsuits. In other words, legal chameleon of the year Jacques Chirac.
Entertainers, ex-sportsmen, TV hacks and that’s about it. It’s sad to discover that when I go out into the streets, these are the people whom the people I see look up to, admire, identify with.
It is interesting to note that there are hardly any politicians, and the two that are there have more or less retired from politics. Diplomats and peace-negotiators are conspicuously absent.
There is not one explorer – space or otherwise – or philanthropist. No successful heads of successful and innovative businesses – Internet or other - no thinkers or challenging journalists or opinion makers and breakers, no scientists, researchers or inventors. No creators. None. In the country which gave us Zola and Hugo, there isn’t even one writer. You won’t find anyone to pick up the flame of painters like Van Gogh or Gauguin, no sculptors or creative artists of any kind whatsoever. Not even an architect or fashion designer. And the most glaring lack of all is that of people linked to the culinary arts. In a country which three years ago tried (and failed) to get its cuisine classified as UNESCO World Patrimony, there isn’t a chef to be seen.
A look at past results puts it all into perspective. The French used to vote for people like ex-resistance fighters, politicians who changed things, writers who challenged things, even philosophers. Artists were common and so where explorers and those who worked for the common good. Where are they all today?
What we are looking at now is a sad and sorry-looking bland collection of for the most part dog-eared entertainers who are past their prime and spend half their time being interviewed by the prime-time TV hosts that are also voted for in order to help pay their taxes. Sporting heroes who aren’t. Has-beens and wannabees.
There are reasons which help explain all this of course, reasons moreover which are not unique to France. The current crop of politicians, artists, movers-and-shakers and others who are supposed to inspire their country is poor.
The truth is that the French have no real alternative choice. The problem with France though - and what lays it open to criticism - is that it has always held itself to be a cut above the others in terms of inspiring and world-changing personalities and ideas, so the reality and obvious discrepancy between word and deed is so much harder to bear.
If this is the best that France has to offer itself in terms of icons, then it’s high time that France began to rethink its identity, which is beginning to look more and more as if it is dumbly centered upon mind-numbing TV banality than on anything more substantial.
In other words, if this is France at its best, if this is what the French most admire, give me America – the country they love to look down upon with lofty and aggressive condescension as “having no culture” – anytime.