Tag Archives: France

Let Them Eat Cake!

The Opulence of Versaille

The Opulence of Versaille

I suspect that most of us have heard the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ and would hazard a good guess that we know who is supposed to have uttered those words. They have become famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, the Queen consort to Louis XVI, although the original French phrase ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’†, refers to brioche, an enriched bread made with flour, butter and eggs – but let’s not get into an argument about pastries!

A portrait of Marie Antoinette at VersailleIn the late 1700’s, Louis and Marie Antoinette lived in great opulence in the Palace of Versailles, just outside of Paris, whilst millions of ordinary Parisians, like the great majority of their countrymen at that time, were starving and destitute, and itching for revolution. The phrase has come to portray the ruling classes as insensitive, ill-informed and ignorant of just how dangerous it would be to hold on to attitudes such as these.

Whether Marie Antoinette actually had any sympathy for her unfortunate people – and it would appear she might have from a comment she DID make, “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness” – the French revolutionaries and history did not treat her so kindly and she felt the sharp bite of the guillotine blade in 1793.

Some 200 years later, and the poor and the destitute still roam the streets of Paris and still look for succour and relief from the more affluent.  On the Champs Elysees, one of Europe’s wealthiest shopping streets, the glittering facades of Mercedes Benz, Louis Vuitton and the House of Guerlain entice you to browse and exclaim at the prices. While just around the corner in the Avenue Montaigne and Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré the fashion houses such as Christian Dior, Chanel and Versace have no need to display price tags – because if you need to ask, ‘How much?’ you can’t afford it!

In amongst all of this showy extravagance, there are people who sit silently, holding up a paper cup in which there are a few small coins; their clothes more shabby chic than haute couture; or else they prostrate themselves, remaining motionless, their faces hidden. Yet they somehow blend into the scene,  almost invisible to the thousands of shoppers and tourists who manage to skillfully sidestep them without looking or pausing.

In 2011, these ‘delinquents’, as described by the French authorities, were controversially banned from approaching and ‘pestering’ people in several of the cities high profile areas but on a recent visit to the city, it was obvious that this was either being ignored or circumvented, and  I was presented with a moral dilemma that I hadn’t anticipated – to give or not to give?

Begging on the streets of Paris

Begging on the streets of Paris*

My initial reaction was that here were people in need, but at the same time I was aware of the stories of ‘professional beggars’ who made a good living scamming tourists. Indeed, the woman who dropped a ‘gold’ ring at my husband’s feet as we crossed a bridge over the Seine and exclaimed that it was our lucky day and perhaps we could reward her for pointing it out, got short shrift, especially when we observed her and her partner waiting to pull off the same trick on the next hapless tourist. There were also the youngsters, who thrust a clipboard under my nose near the Louvre on which there was a unnamed charitable petition sheet, which they urged me to sign and to donate €10 or €20 to help deaf-mute children, but which I regretfully declined,

At the same time there seemed to be so many that might legitimately be in need of assistance to simply afford their next meal while others might simply slip away at the end of the day and drive back home to their families in the suburbs – how was I to know which was which without being judgemental?

In the middle of these deliberations two bible verses came to mind,

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Matthew 5:42

and,

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7

It would of course be easy to not make any judgement at all and to give to each and every one, but realistically this wasn’t possible. Or to give to nobody, thus avoiding fear of discrimination, and also making me a miserable non-giver! In the end I came to a compromise, which wasn’t wholly satisfactory, but which I hoped meant that at least there was a fair chance that it benefited some – that is, I would keep the coins that we had gathered over the week in my pocket, and without checking would drop a handful into the proffered cups as they appeared, until my pocket was empty… as I said, an unsatisfactory compromise, because I knew I would be unable to use the coins once home, but it was a the option I went with

I am curious, therefore, as to what others feel or do in these situations. Perhaps you could let me know?

On a similar note, because unfortunately it is often the appearance of the person that goes towards our decision-making as to who we might help, this experiment, filmed on the streets of Paris reveals some interesting but not unsurprising attitudes. Please be aware that some of the comments made on this YouTube video are quite forthright: Les Poids des Apparences/The Importance of Appearances Experiment

† The phrase was actually recorded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Book 6 of his autobiography ‘Confessions’, which was written around 1765-67 when Marie Antoinette was nine or eleven years of age. The biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser believes it relates to Maria Theresa the wife of Louis XIV, but who the ‘great princess’ was, “who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat pastry!” no-one can be absolutely sure.

*Neither of these photographs were taken by myself but are of genuine people in need on the streets

Le Weekend!

A weekend among friends at Le Verger

A weekend among friends at Le Verger

For a people who are fiercely protective of their language, it always makes me smile that the French have accepted ‘le weekend’ to describe a short sojourn in France – which is precisely what I and a dozen of our friends have just done in a small town called Wambercourt. It was a weekend of much good food and good company and a chance to see a small part of France that I hadn’t visited before.

As always on these short breaks there were a few places and moments that you know will either stick in your memory long after the meals and after dinner chat have been forgotten or will have affected a response in you and these are the things I share with you now.

Le Blockhaus, Eperlecques
‘Let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance’ Proverbs 1:5

Le Blockhaus

Le Blockhaus

Some building just overwhelm you with their sheer size and structure; such was Le Blockhaus. Originally part of Nazi Germany’s plan to facilitate launching V2 rockets during World War II, it now stands as a reminder of the best of scientific discovery and the worst of war. Scientific knowledge that could have enabled travel out into space, turned to building missiles that instead of piercing the blackness of space in discovery would pierce the hearts of the unseen enemy

It’s cavernous, concrete shell built through the efforts of forced labour from nearby concentration camps, where prisoners: overworked, underfed and medically unfit, were transported daily to and fro in cattle trucks – some not taking the return journey as they had accidentally slipped into the concrete pouring moulds and were thus entombed forever as part of the structure. Why then should these monuments be allowed to remain?

'Lest we forget'

‘Lest we forget’

A really good question, which the museum actually managed to answer very well – “If we cover over our mistakes, our children will go on to repeat those mistakes through lack of knowledge. By bringing our mistakes to their attention they will learn and never have to repeat them!

It never actually got into full production, mainly due to the many bombing attempts to destroy the building – attempts which failed, except to make a slight indentation in the roof, but one of which succeeded in creating a huge bomb crater a few feet from the side of the bunker which set off an earthquake and thus made them query their own safety, sitting as they did on a large stock of liquid oxygen compression tanks!

Remembering in Wambercourt

Not too far away are the great memorials of Thiepval and Vimy Ridge and it’s hard to drive anywhere without coming across a beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. In the more peaceful countryside of Wambercourt, reminders of war are not quite so obvious. Yet even here, as in most of Northern France, people’s lives are still touched by things of the past. The opening lines of Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier‘ remind us of this fact, ‘If I should die, think only this of me; that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England

A reminder of 'a foreign field'

A reminder of ‘a foreign field’

Within this small country church are the graves of three Allied airmen, Charles de Vic Halkett, James Harley Easton and Alec Victor Jacobs, who had set off from their airfield at Wattisham, Suffolk on the night of the 9th September 1940 and who didn’t make it back; but who now are still remembered in a well maintained and respected ‘corner of a foreign field

Wambercourt today
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:8

Yet life moves on and the peaceful countryside proved to be a wonderful place in which to wander on a mild, sunshiny Sunday morning walk. Climbing up high above the village, the view over the wooded valley was dotted with several similar spires of neighbouring churches. As in an English multi-benefice, not every one was open for worship,  but it seems that people’s faith remains strong and obvious – not least in the presence of Christ on the Cross, hanging on a wall in a garden near to the bridge crossing…

Christ near the bridge, Wambercourt

Christ near the bridge, Wambercourt

… a reminder to us all to travel safely.