Sunday, April 29, 2007


‘I want a job for life so I voted for Segolene Royal,’ a young Frenchman told a TV interviewer in the wake of the first round of France’s Presidential election.
He is not alone.
An analysis of the vote revealed that it is the young, to whom any country looks to for the future, who are most afraid of and resistant to the changes France so badly needs to modernise its economy. And they voted for Royal in their millions.
It’s understandable.
If you have grown up in a country where a 35 hour working week, five week holidays from jobs that are virtually impossible to lose, a first class health service and guaranteed pensions are the norm, why change it? Even if you can’t afford it.
France is a gentler place than the UK. There are no binge drinkers wrecking havoc on the streets of Paris after dark. And the country is such a delightful, old-fashioned place that 250,000 Britons have bought second homes in France because it reminds them of how life was in the UK in the 1950s.
The death, days after the first round of French election, of Alan Ball, the youngest member of the triumphant English Football World Cup team in 1966, may seem far removed from the Gallic hustings.
But the two events reflect a longing for past, lost glory that cripples the ability to move on.
The glory and the grandeur that was France exerts a far more powerful psychological hold over the country today than its former empire does on Britain. France has found it far more difficult to adjust to the loss, which may at least partly explain the hauteur with which it tries to dictate terms in Europe and resists attempts to accept new reality.
More than any other capital city, Paris exudes the past. Its magnificent avenues and boulevards are dominating monuments to those proud, glorious bygone times whereas, with the exception Nelson’s column and Trafalgar Square, London’s memorials to a triumpant past blend in easily with the modern city.
What England seems incapable of moving on from is that two generations ago it won the World Football Cup. Its sporting achievements ever since have at best been transitory and it is not the world champion at any sport. The England cricket team didn’t so much lose The Ashes on the recent winter tour of Australia as scatter them across the entire island continent as they were bombed out of every one of the five test matches.
So any excuse will do to rake up the glories of 1966 and spew out old newsreels on TV and the Internet.
Alan Ball’s untimely death from a heart attack at the early age of 61 provided such an excuse. For an entire day screens were deluged with old black and white pictures which only rammed home the ancient history of the achievement and the repetition did nothing to add to the tributes rightly paid to Ball.
The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn has observed that in every life there is a golden time when a human being functions better and is more fulfilled than at any other time and that nothing before or after can ever match it.
This is not necessarily so. The brilliant Australian cricketer Richie Benaud went on to become one of the most respected commentators on the game after he put away his bat. And the record breaking Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe went into politics after he hung up his running shoes and now heads London’s Olympic team for 2012 team.
The same kind of second successful career is carved out by lots of people after their brilliant first career is over.
The same can be true for nations. Britain has not made a bad fist at all of life after the loss of its empire.
Life is after all about change, adapting, moving on and making the best of circumstances at any time.
Only brutal revolution brought change in France. And the ‘brutal’ Nicolas Sarkozy may be the only man or woman who can wring the changes his country so desperately needs and halt its ossification.
I don’t know what will make England or Britain world champions at any sport. But raking over past glories again and again certainly will not.
It is time to stop clinging to the past and look to the future on both sides of the English Channel.
Copyright © Rebecca Hamilton 2007. All Rights Reserved