There are many possible definitions related to the identity of a nation: its land, language, history, and general contribution to culture. For France, all these criteria are significant: her land is unique, her language is capable of expressing matters of the heart and reason; her history has placed her at the crossroads of the greatest events in the world for more than a thousand years; and, for at least fifteen centuries, her contribution to the arts has been immense. And I’ve talked about one of her best representatives (Blaise Pascal), by referring to the existence of the “genius of the French” and defining it by the sense of measure, passion for reason, and a taste for the universal and refinement.
But no nation can be reduced to its “genius” alone; and in particular no “genius of the French” could survive and prosper if there were not also a people capable, in their daily lives, of living out these genial insights, protecting and defending it, without claiming to participate either in the elaboration of a general culture or history.
This art of bringing the genius of France to life, which the President of the Republic has nicely named “the art of being French” (and which exists just as well in all other nations, or specific regional or diasporic entities that intend to defend their identity) is defined by different behaviours, which gives it a specific character. For me, nothing protects the art of being French better than French food. It is French cuisine that supports the entire cornerstone of the notion of genius of the French. It is the one that must be defended and promoted.
In fact, for at least four centuries, French cuisine has defined itself as being free of artifices, using fresh produce, without heavy sauces or spices that mask the taste of the food. And, while France has never been the leader of the global economy, (like the nations that dominated cooking before it, such as China, the Arab world and Italy) it has succeeded in imposing, on the planet, a gastronomic model that is admired and imitated throughout the world; even as the Flemish, English and Americans successively took economic and political power.
The French meal (the only one currently included in the UNESCO universal heritage) is not only what you eat during this meal; it also depends on the way you eat it: the time you spend eating, the conversations that you have during the course of the meal, and the events that occur during this time at the table. In France, there is not a sentimental relationship, a family, or a commercial affair, whose fate is not decided over a meal. This is because the French have organized their society around this rurality (which has been costly, by removing themselves from the use of their maritime assets, which was a source of glory for others), which gives a different meaning to time and the products of nature. It is around these meals and the conversations they make possible that every dimension of the French genius has been organized, from architecture to science, literature, and politics.
Today, even if we defend ourselves better than the rest of the world against the artificialization of food and life, the French way of life is threatened by the way the industrial machine crushes our lives by imposing increasingly shorter meals, less sharing, and more industrial products.
The defence of the French way of life therefore requires above all today that we respect a few simple principles: eat, if possible, as fresh produce, only those produced less than 150 km from home; without depriving yourself of what is produced further away and which is necessary for your health. Do not eat alone. Do not eat quickly. Devote a larger proportion of your income to food, and of your time to meals. Use meals to exchange, create and transfer. Think about the impact of our meals on future generations: this is what I call, a “positive gastronomy.”
This is not anecdotal: since the dawn of time, food, language, culture and power have been intertwined. And it is by protecting the art of eating that we will best defend all the other dimensions of the French genius. And the universal genius as well.