Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

New France Is the Old France

Why is the City of Lights turning to Quebec for culture?

When I moved to Paris six months ago, I couldn’t believe how forcefully French everything seemed. Unlike my former home of Montreal, where you could choose what kind of culture you wanted to immerse yourself in, Paris didn’t seem to offer many options—it was virtually impossible not to get into the routine of buying fresh baguettes, arguing just for the hell of it and dismissing the rest of the world as not French enough.

I’m an anglophone Canadian, so no matter how hard I tried, I’d always fail to be as French as the French. But where anglophones lose, the Québécois are the big winners. Regarded in France as what it has always claimed to be—a distinct society and the only interesting thing about Canada—Quebec has become something of a cultural foil for France. Once thought of as nothing more than a big forest populated by France’s petits cousins, Quebec has now become a large part of the cultural mainstream.

“Of course, when we think of Quebec we think of the people with the funny accent,” says Jean-Marie Dumas*, executive director of a Paris-based political think tank. We’re sitting in his massive, white-and-gold office just a few short blocks from the Louvre. “But don’t worry—although the accent is funny, it’s not like the Belgians. Their accent makes them sound not that bright … the Québécois just seem simple to us.”

A handsome, well-dressed man in his mid-forties, Dumas has a charm- ing, breezy manner. He speaks with authority on a number of political issues but gets downright passionate when discussing the trajectory of French pop culture over the last thirty years. I ask whether Parisians have identified historically with the Québécois; he leans over his desk toward me, smiling wryly. “Look, in the seventies, they showed a TV series from Quebec out here. It was about a simple family living in rural Quebec, and it was in French. They had to put subtitles on it. It was like a different planet. Do you get it? They could not have seemed more different.”

He’s referring, of course, to Quebec’s longest-running téléroman, Les belles histoires des pays d’en haut, which was broadcast in Quebec from 1956 to 1970 and syndicated for years afterwards. Set in the eighteen-nineties, the series showed backwater Quebec residents trying to eke out a rural existence in the Laurentians, amidst scandal, jealousy and intrigue. When Parisians watched the series in the seventies, they must have thought they were witnessing the dying days of Cro-Magnon.

Luckily, Les belles histoires didn’t exist in a vacuum. Since colonization, the French have continued to be fascinated with New France. Case in point: the impromptu Charles de Gaulle speech in Montreal (“Vive le Québec libre!”) that galvanized the Quebec sovereignty movement. The day before (July 23, 1967) in Quebec City, however, de Gaulle made what was, arguably, an even more controversial statement, when he proclaimed the essential oneness of the French and the Québécois: “Nous sommes liés par notre avenir parce que ce que vous faites en français de ce côté-ci de l’Atlantique et ce que fait en français le vieux pays de l’autre côté, c’est une même œuvre humaine.” [“Our future binds us together, because what you are doing in French on this side of the Atlantic and what the old country is doing in French on the other side is part of the same human enterprise.”]

An unexpected element of this shared œuvre humaine developed in the seventies and eighties, but perhaps not as de Gaulle might have predicted. Quebec’s North American edge allowed the province to become the perfect breeding ground for a new generation of francophone pop stars, mostly modelled on what was coming out of the US. Ginette Reno, Robert Charlebois, the reunited supergroup Beau Dommage, Luc Plamondon and many others became international celebrities despite being mostly unknown in the rest of Canada.

Dumas remembers this trend of Québécois pop stars as “a wave every five years. They would descend on Paris and you would hear them on the radio—of course, Céline Dion was the most famous, but there were others. They were the ones making traditional French music, the more easy-listening type of music. They filled a niche, making the music that used to be the heart of French culture.”

When asked why traditional French music sung by foreigners appeals to Parisians, Dumas looks wistful. “I guess we like the fact that the Québécois are nice—not naïve—but very simple, very down to earth, as opposed to the Paris showbiz people, who are harder, who come from the banlieue and who make rap music.” Quebec stars offer what very few contemporary French ones can—a believable image of a simple world that avoids any mention of the banlieue.

Dumas’ preoccupation with the suburbs is typically Parisian. Inhabit-ed mostly by immigrant North Africa and Arab populations, the less-affluent suburbs are increasingly being blamed for many of the capital’s problems—congestion, crime, unemployment and the erosion of French culture. There’s a real feeling here that the city is surrounded.

Within the confines of the périphérique (the circular highway that separates Paris from its outlying communities), paramilitary police, almost all of whom are white, circulate five-deep or in busloads of fifty, constantly stopping people to check their carte d’identité. Since arriving in Paris, I haven’t seen a single white person get stopped, though I’ve seen this happen to hundreds of African and Arab youth (some say that the fear of the banlieue is the real reason the metro shuts down before one in the morning). The message is clear: those groups that live on the fringes of Paris are not welcome, and Paris must protect itself from them at all costs, even if they are the ones producing the new urban pop culture. Quite simply, many older Parisians don’t want to hear people from the suburbs rapping about how shitty living in Paris can be. They would rather listen to a Québécois sing about finding love, even if love is to be found in Châteauguay.

But it’s become quite impossible for even the most diehard nostalgists to ignore what is going on in France. This past year, the core issues of French culture were pulled out of the attic and debated with alarming ferocity, even by French standards. The results of the referendum over the European Union’s draft constitution—a resounding non—have threatened to derail the pan-European political and economic machine.

While President Jacques Chirac had his back turned, disparate elements of French society banded together long enough to produce a credible anti-EU movement. Communists, socialists, anarchists, the extreme right and disaffected youth of all stripes seemed to share the same fears—that the already high level of unemployment (10 percent) would increase; that the generous French social safety net would be overhauled and replaced with a free-market capitalist system; and that the EU would eventually allow Turkey to join the alliance, giving 70 million Muslims unfettered access to France. An excruciatingly boring document became the catalyst for a reassessment of French identity. Since the referendum, however, a number of Parisians seem especially frightened of what their country could become and are desperately trying to find their way out.

Antoine Brunner is among them. He’s a young documentary filmmaker who voted oui in the referendum because he’s sick of the way that France treats its immigrants. Young, dashing and always well dressed, Brunner has spent time in San Francisco and New York but he feels drawn to the culture in Quebec. “In Quebec, what I’ve heard is that there is a real celebration of difference. A celebration of étrangers—it’s unheard of here! At school, I was never taught about other cultures. Never. I remember feeling the resentment of my African classmates as we got older. It’s implicit in French culture that they were not as French as their white neighbours, in spite of the fact that they received the same education as everybody else. In Paris, in France, we look at the immigrant as someone who doesn’t have the right to be here—quelqu’un qui n’est pas [someone who isn’t].”

The French have never been big travellers, but the sense of instability here is leading many of them to consider leaving—and Quebec seems more and more like the destination of choice. Over the past ten years, the number of French immigrants to Quebec has grown steadily, peaking in 2003 and 2004 at about 3,000 newcomers per year. This makes France the largest source-country for francophone immigrants to the province.

“In the seventies and eighties, the myth of the American dream was alive … There were quite a few French who were thinking of moving there. The American dream is dead now, for sure. It’s very scary—the Americans have gone crazy,” Dumas said with a laugh. “But Quebec … is familiar and less frightening than the US. It’s a place with a mix of North American culture, with some protection, with underlying socialist values.” A recent issue of the popular news magazine L’Express, entirely devoted to explaining the process of immigrating to Quebec, echoes Dumas’ and Brunner’s sentiments, though it was quick to caution those thinking that Quebec was a French-language paradise. “Attention aux faux amis!” the weekly warned. “Le Québec n’est pas un morceau de France en Amérique et est bien plus qu’une Amérique en VF.” [“Beware of false friends! Quebec is not a parcel of France in America, and it’s much more than just a French-speaking version of America.”]

Brunner isn’t discouraged by the prospect of Quebec being different than France. His generation of Parisians was born into the EU project, and it has grown up with a set of broad internationalist ideals. His plan is to move to Quebec in the fall to attend classes at the Université de Laval. “The Québécois are nice people,” he says, getting dreamy-eyed as he tries to describe what draws him there. “Cool people. People who take the time to live … They have that ability to live with everything that’s around them.” When I tell him that knowing how to live the good life is an attribute that Canadians generally ascribe to the French, he looks surprised and shakes his head. “There’s a real fear of the ‘other’ in France. Sure, we live well—people take their time here, they perhaps walk a little more slowly in the metro here than in other countries. But there’s a serious problem—people are scared of each other.”

“It’s true that life in Paris is good, that it can be so pleasant,” said Brunner, letting his voice trail off. He pauses then laughs softly, “But actually, for most people, it isn’t.”