When I moved to France 6 years ago after 7 years of living in China, I got to know a young Chinese woman who managed the Louis Vuitton branch on the ground floor of Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Married to a Frenchman and having lived here many years, she recounted to me how Chinese customers would come into the store and order 10 or even 20 luxury handbags in one go. This contradicted Louis Vuitton’s policy of allowing no more than 2 handbag purchases per client.
Anyone who has visited Galeries Lafayettes and its neighbour Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann, will know that it has become somewhat of a mecca for Chinese tourists, shopping for high end luxury goods. Such is the predominance of the Chinese customer that even surrounding shops in the neighbouring streets have Chinese-speaking sales people to deal with the huge influx of tourists. This story that my friend recounted highlighted for me stark differences in the two cultures. One that placed a premium on rarity and exclusivity; the other, on a desire for abundance and the belief that money can buy anything. Critically, it seemed to be a lens through which we could look at France (and, by extension, China)’s role in the world.
I was born and brought up in Hong Kong of white British parents and French had been my second language. Like many Brits, we visited France on summer holidays. As someone working in the arts, France had always stood out to me as a beacon of cultural sophistication, beauty and elegance, a leader in the values of the Englightenment, democracy and renaissance thinking, sitting on the right side of European values that had had such a profound impact on the world. I loved the language, the food, the architecture and the quality of life and I made an intentional choice to live here after 20 years of living in Asia.
Chinese consumers, too, value the French aesthetic, the exclusivity and high standards of excellence and the elusive air of style that has made France, and continues to make France, the pinnacle of sophistication around the world. France is the number one tourist destination for Chinese tourists and scenes of Parisian monuments are sought after in every Chinese young couple’s wedding album. Despite efforts to replicate French chateaux and vineyards across China, France seems to have something that no amount of Chinese-generated wealth can ever buy. And, it is my belief, that the future of France relies on understanding this nuance and innovating on French greatness.
My first few years of living in Paris were bliss. Catapulted out of polluted and frantic Beijing, Paris was a relative oasis of calm and sophistication. Weekends were spent roaming the streets of the city, reading in cafes and soaking up the atmosphere of the world’s most beautiful city. I had ignored the warning voices of my well-travelled, liberal thinking friends (many of whom were French themselves) that I would find it hard to adapt to the famed arrogance of the Parisians, the bureaucracy and ossification of thinking, and the extreme lack of entrepreneurial activity and capacity for global leadership that was becoming the hallmark of contemporary France.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, I started to see their point. Terrorism is always wrong. But I most certainly did not feel ‘Je suis Charlie’. To me, there was no place for a culture that mocked others in today’s world. Gone was the self-reflection and ‘enlightened’ thinking that had supposedly been a part of France’s legacy to the world. I was ashamed of France and its apparent lack of tolerance for others. Hardly enlightened thinking. Satire has a place only in so far as it speaks truth to power and holds up a standard of the highest human behaviour. And France’s self-righteous indignation and refusal to reflect on the cracks in society that lead to such events began to highlight the outdatedness of a country that was incapable of truly taking leadership in the world as it had once been able to do.
I have never understood nationalism. Brought up across different continents, languages and cultures, speaking four languages myself and now learning a fifth, I have always been a passionate advocate for a world that strips us of our narrow identities as defined by the place of our birth or citizenship of our parents, and enjoyed the spiritual freedom that comes from identifying ourselves first and foremost as human beings. The fear and retrenchment that are characterising Western politics right now – and, indeed, the upcoming French election – is shaming the legacies of the values that Western culture has brought to our world.
Yet, ironically, France was the birth place of those Enlightenment values. Liberté, égalité, fraternité – liberty, freedom, brotherhood – are three of the highest ideals of Western culture and have been foundational to democracy. A democracy that is now under threat across much of the Western world. What would it mean for France to reclaim that moral leadership and be a beacon of hope in our troubled world?
If France is to reclaim its strength, both inside the country and as the world leader it is capable of being, it needs to develop a higher-order thinking that refuses to sit on remants of greatness past and can confidently move forward into the 21st century with an understanding that France and ‘Frenchness’ is not achieved through a small-minded insistence that we use ‘la fin de semaine’ and not ‘le weekend’, but through a reshaping and visioning of those values of liberté, egalité and fraternité that speak to all nations in their timeless leadership.