So now we know. Emmanuel Macron, just like Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, has come to realise that France might just be ungovernable. During an official visit to Denmark, he told his hosts that “Gauls” – i.e. the French – were constitutionally “resistant to change”. What he meant, even if he later dismissed his remark as a joke, was that his fellow citizens only voted for reform on the strict understanding that nothing would change as a result. He contrasted this stubborness, verging on lesè-majesté, with the acceptance by the “Lutheran” Danes of a flexible labour market that enabled their government to provide rationally funded support for the young, the elderly, the sick and the unemployed. He could have added that Danes, unlike a majority of the French, are agreed on radical policies that safeguard the environment, but that would have required him to discuss the fact that his own ecology minister, Nicolas Hulot, had just resigned, on television, after complaining that when it came to climate change his boss was all talk and no trousers.
Meanwhile, coincidence or not? In the same week that Macron was reported to have indicated support for a generous Brexit that keeps Britain closely tied to Europe, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, announced that he was ready to offer the UK a better deal on trade than had ever been offered to any third country.
Barnier may be an old-lag “European,” who wakes up each morning to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, but he has Made in France stamped down the length of his body like the resort’s name in a stick of seaside rock. So if he has suddenly mellowed and warmed to the idea of a fuzzy Brexit, you can be pretty sure that Macron has something to do with it. Maybe Theresa May’s visit last month to the President’s Mediterranean retreat, which you may remember produced not an iota of news at the time, has borne fruit after all.
What any of this conciliatory talk means in practice remains to be seen. The PM and Philip Hammond – to say nothing of the hapless David Davis [who he? – Ed.] – might jump at a possible resuscitation of Canada plus-plus-plus. But Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, one imagines, would rather be keelhauled by French fishermen than accept any deal with Brussels that is not accompanied by an olfactory expulsion in the general direction of Calais.
Speaking of Gauls reminds me that in Brittany, where my wife and I have lived since leaving New York in 2015, not everyone regards themselves as French, or at least French first. Like the Welsh, the Bretons, some three million strong, see themselves as remnants of the Celtic, or Gaulish, culture that once dominated western Europe, making them in some unexplained way more “authentic” and more deserving than the majority population. How deep their authenticity goes is endlessly debated. A little more than skin-deep, I would say, but not so far-reaching that they are ready to reject subsidies from Paris. The language, closely related to Welsh, is spoken mainly by the elderly and hardly anyone seems truly to want independence. There is just one Breton nationalist in the Assemblée Nationale and only four in the Breton regional parliament. If it wasn’t for the flag, traditional dancing – still taught in schools – and the sad omnipresence of the Breton crêpe, I could almost imagine I was living in France.
So what is it that unites France, other than football and the Marseillaise? I am often struck when I travel around what news organisations here routinely call the Hexagon by the sheer ubiquity of trees. They are everywhere, from individual oaks, beeches and chestnuts, and roads lined with birches or cypresses, to mature woods and vast forests. The Spanish are said to have cut down most of their native trees to make timbers for the Armada, accounting, apparently, for the aridity of the central plain. But the French have managed to hold on to theirs. Part of the reason, in times past, was the fact that the king (any king) and his courtiers spent most of their time hunting, not across open country, like cavalry, but among trees, which required both an abundance of animals, wild boar and deer especially, and the space necessary for them to grow and multiply. All around Paris there were, and remain, forests – Fontainebleau, Chantilly and Compiègne, but also Bondy, Verrière, Saint-Cloud and Saint Germain-en-Laye.
Much the same is true throughout the country. If you glance at any map of France, you will see the green domaines clearly marked, occupying 53,000 square miles, an area, as it happens, slightly larger than England. In Brittany, there are woods everywhere, including the magical Forêt de Brocéliande – now known prosaically as the Forêt de Paimpont – legendary home of Merlin, Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake. The forests are worked, but It doesn’t seem to matter how many trees are harvested for timber or for use in wood-burning stoves. More are being planted all the time. France without its trees would be a much sadder place. But you don’t have to worry, they are in good hands – a bit like Normandy’s scallops. Britain should take note.