Sunday, July 27, 2014

On watching the Tour de France

Around here, we have watched the Tour for several years now.  It's a cheap trip to France courtesy of photographers who have the equipment and skills to capture great shots.  This year however, there was something just off about the Tour.  They started it in Yorkshire—a part of the UK that was destroyed by Thatcherism in the 1980s.  They went through Sheffield—a city George Orwell once declared to be the ugliest town in the old world.  It hasn't improved much since 1936.  At least the Brits turned out in their thousands.  Getting three days of the Tour is a rare privilege and the citizens of Yorkshire took advantage.  A start in Cambridge was a reminder that England is at least concerned with the aesthetics of its great university town.  But soon the Tour was on the Continent with the prospect of those cute little French villages, the incredible farms, and the spectacular castles and churches those beautiful farms had helped finance.

Unfortunately for the first week, that didn't happen because the Tour officials decided that the Great War would be honored on the 100th anniversary of its beginning by routing the race through the areas where those savage battles had been fought.  Suddenly the race was several clicks out of kilter.  The few remaining castles and churches had been reconstructed since about 1930, the farmland looked damaged, and the woodlands had that everything-is-80-years-old look about them.

The race actually went through the land contested during the Battle of Verdun.  There they have built a huge white memorial building plus a graveyard with about 16,000 headstones—an impressive array until it is realized the Germans and French lost 700,000 casualties in the 300-day battle.  Because it was a battle fought with artillery, those 16,000 probably represented the few who weren't blown to bits and could be identified.  Nevermind—the Tour blew past the memorial and graveyard in a few seconds and disappeared into a woodland that had been planted on no man's land.  While the trees covered it, it was still no man's land—the race didn't get to the next town for what seemed a very long time.

Unlike the stages in UK, the French seemed disinterested in the Tour this year. Rural France grows ever more depopulated and the battlefield / trench-line areas probably never recovered from the damage of the Great War, but it seemed like there were miles of barricades set up by the organizers to control crowds that just never showed up.  Watching the Tour has always been a frivolous thing to do and this year, the French didn't seem like they were ready for frivolity.  Apparently, I was not the only one to notice—Der Spiegel posted a long piece about how this Tour seemed to demonstrate that France was now the new sick man of Europe.
A deep gloom appears to have taken hold in France. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the French are "pessimistic" about their country's future. "Viewed from the outside, France under François Hollande is like Cuba, only without the sun but with the extreme right," the newsweekly Le Point recently wrote. The country is "impoverished, over-indebted, divided, humbled and humiliated and finds itself in a pre-revolutionary situation in which anything seems possible."
I think the French have been correct to sit out this year's Tour (if that is in fact what they did). I think it was a huge mistake to involve the Tour with some of the saddest cemeteries on the planet.  There is a damn good argument to be made that humanity has never really recovered from the Great War.  Looking at the physical scars left behind in France showed that some of her wounds are still open.  It is actually quite astonishing that someone thought mixing the memories of the Great War and a bicycle race was a good idea.  I thought it amazingly tasteless.  It is especially tasteless if this decision was made as part of a larger project to rehabilitate the Great War's deservedly lousy reputation.  Anyone who tries to do THAT is clearly insane and genuinely evil.

And as for Spiegel's point about France being Europe's sick man, that's pretty easy to explain too.  France cannot fix her economy because she sold her ability to economically innovate for membership in the EU.  Mix the neoliberalism of Brussels / Frankfurt and Socialism as taught in a Écoles normales supérieures somewhere and you get a ridiculous creature like Hollande.  Because of the intellectual arrogance that comes standard with one of those elite French educations, fixing the economic problems could take some time—time the French really do not have.  I am old enough to remember when the French built amazing trains and did all the heavy lifting that got Concorde to fly.  I was once so impressed by French intellectualism I smoked Gauloises Bleus.  That the French gave up that amazing cultural energy for something as demented as neoliberalism is just tragic.

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