Walking down the narrow, sunny streets of Arles (or I suspect any other major cultural city in Provence) one is immediately struck by the numbers of well-dressed 30- and 40-somethings deep in discussion on artistic topics such as the latest Lucien Clergue ‘expo’ or the planned projections on the walls of the Roman Arena. Hair thrown back, one eyebrow cynically raised (of course) and references dropping like confetti from every sentence, the overall impression is frankly charming and reassuringly close to the image we (Brits, but certainly other Europeans too) have of the cultured Frenchman/woman sipping on a proletarian Pastis or glass of rosé while deep in intellectual debate.
However, should you continue to walk these streets over a matter of weeks or months, it soon dawns that the faces at the various bars and cafés are invariably the same. They may change location in accordance with feuds and whims of the flock, but the features remain the same – as do the discussions.
When I arrived in France at the age of twelve, I was too young to really appreciate or question either the image of the intellectual French or the reality that surrounded me. It was only after I grew up a bit, left, worked, studied, and came back that I was able to pick out specific characteristics that I had come to automatically associate not only with the French, but also with myself as one who considered the place home. So it is that at the age of 25, slogging it out as a waitress between studies, I finally began to wonder how it was that these people never seemed to be working and yet had the means to spend their days consuming litres of their chosen beverages in one of the most expensive parts of France. Were they all heirs to family fortunes? Did they conduct some shady business at the dead of night when everyone else was in bed? Or had they managed to find the perfect job with few hours and high pay, allowing extensive leisure time in order to improve their minds?
My employer had his own theory.
“The fact is these people don’t work; most of the time they have virtually no money at all. And what they do have they receive from the government.”
He then told me about a client who dropped a bank statement in the restaurant. A sneaky glimpse revealed that despite the copious meal she had just enjoyed she only had 10 euros on her current account and no savings to her name. Another time a group of regulars came in for a meal, but when it came to ordering it was revealed that one of them didn’t even have the funds for a dessert (6 euros!) and none of her friends could oblige her. This didn’t stop them from ordering, however, and leaving their unfortunate friend sitting, tummy grumbling, while they tucked into their food.
This intrigued me. Why should so many apparently well-educated, likely well-connected, relatively young French adults find it so difficult to get a job, and why did they need government handouts? They certainly didn’t correspond with the image I had of perpetual unemployment, in fact, they looked the part of your typical upper middle class professionals. So what was going so wrong?
This line of questioning took me back a few years ago when my parents owned a small gallery in Arles, in particular to the case of… let’s call him Jean-Pierre. J-P approached us with the idea for a conceptual installation based notions of perception and technology. This included grandiose plans for a 3-D Mona Lisa made of pixels, projections onto walls covered in paper words and a mind-blowing/numbing speech about non-reality. The whole thing seemed fairly impressive and we were willing to give it a try. However, it soon became clear that the muscle behind the mind was somewhat flaccid. Nothing was done. The brain (and mouth) worked tirelessly, but the rest of the body just didn’t follow. A mutual friend revealed that this was not the first time that he had blown such an opportunity. Indeed, his whole career seemed to be made up of a steady decline: after graduating from the Beaux Arts, he initially got a decent job designing communication campaign materials until a series of screw-ups saw him dropped. After that he gradually used up all his useful contacts through non-deliveries on exhibitions and collective projects, and ended up living off various older women until he got too old and fat to do even that. Last time we met him, poor old J-P was definitively on his uppers.
As time went on, this became a recurring story in the gallery: many exhibitors just couldn’t seem to grasp the concept that once they had sold the idea they actually had to make it work, until finally my exasperated mother put an end to the whole experiment and retired to the countryside (as far away from humanity, and artistes, as possible).
But despite their failures, it cannot be denied that these wafting individuals certainly had the gift of the gab. They were invariably able to sell their ideas time and again to various galleries and government institutions in order to get financial support and exhibition space, as well as provide entertainment at cafe tables. Indeed, at first sight they really do appear convincing.
This cacoethes loquendi, according to a psychologist friend of mine (who actually calls it arrogance), is typical of what is known in France as the ‘bobo’, or the ‘bohemian bourgeoisie’. This refers to a class of well-to-do urbanites with a love for the cerebral, the floaty, the ‘ethnic’, the artistique… the pseudo-bohemian. They are recognisable by their forays into the world of alternative lifestyles (cf. homeopathy, imported spiritualism), distinctive dress (i.e. lumpy jewellery, hemp and rough silk interspersed with Christian Lacroix) and, above all, by their ability to talk for an hour without anyone outside their species understanding a single word. In fairness, they tend also to be philanthropic, avant-garde in terms of human rights and tolerance, and untiring supporters of the arts. In fact, this love of the arts and their devotion to promoting ‘high’ culture is perhaps their most defining feature, asides from having wads of cash oozing from every pore. However, recently, I have come to doubt this last criteria. It seems that in every way but one, these café terrasse philosophers correspond to the ideal-type of the bobo… just minus the money. Is it possible that they are some kind of second or third generation bobo where the money has run out without changing their attitudes, leading them inevitably to expect a certain way of life they cannot possibly afford?
According to a report published by Marie Goyon and Frederique Patureau for Insee, the number of individuals seeking to make it in artistic spheres (in particular as photographers, writers and artists) has more than doubled since the 1990s. The vast majority of these newcomers are extremely well educated with enough diplomas to wallpaper a small house, and they generally come from rich family backgrounds. However, the levels of success and financial prosperity among these people are very unevenly dispersed, with a small elite capturing up to half the total income (see here).
Perhaps that is why so many qualified 30- and 40-somethings can always be found on these cafe terrasses, paying for their rosé with government cheques. The most upsetting feature is not that these people are moneyless (languishing is surely an essential part of the experience), but the realisation that even with all the chips at your end of the table (elite education, rich family background, ‘the right kind of friends’), life can still be precarious and diplomas only so many draught-stoppers. I can’t help but be reminded of Julian Maclaren-Ross’ depiction of the collapse of the former colonial elites in 1940s Britain. His main character, vacuum cleaner salesman cum struggling writer Richard Fanshawe, and his buddies are left scraping desperately to survive in a world they used to own and which they no longer understand, and in which their former currency is no longer valid (Of Love and Hunger, 1947).
Photo credit: Vincent van Gogh, Café Terrace at Night, via Wikimedia Commons
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