Is France about to take yet another step towards losing its identity?
When I first heard that the Balladur commission, appointed by President Sarkozy to re-think how France is governed, will propose next week reducing the number of administrative regions from 26 or 22 to 15, with larger regions swallowing up the smaller, I thought, here’s yet one more cultural distinction and morsel of its heritage France is preparing to sacrifice. (In theory, the justification for reducing the regions is to reduce the number of elected officials; departmental councils often duplicate the functions of regional councils, for instance. The Socialist opposition view is that this is an attempt by the Right to diminish the power of the Socialists, who control 20 of the 22 regions in France proper. One of the regions eliminated would be Poitou-Charentes, controlled by Segolene Royal, Sarkozy’s opponent in the last presidential election.)
And yet it’s not so clear as that…. For if the French often identify themselves — with rightful pride — by their regions of origin, as often it’s the smaller departments which make up the regions which are more determinative. For example, where I live now, those born here are more likely to call themselves, and be called, “Perigordians,” a reference to the area which encompasses the Dordogne department and, depending on who you talk to, parts of the neighboring Lot. I’ve never heard anyone be called “Aquitanean,’ after the larger Aquitaine region, which is bordered on the north by Poitou-Charentes and Limousin, the East by the Midi-Pyrenees, the West by the Atlantic Ocean and the south by Spain, notwithstanding Eleanor d’Aquitaine…. (To help you situate it, the capital is Bordeaux, which lies in the department next to mine, the Gironde.) If I think it’s cool to be in the same region as the Basque country, the tall pines of the Landes (a third of which were decimated by the recent storm), the Ocean, Pau and the Pyrenees, and the border with Spain, it’s not like I can take a day trip to Spain.
By contrast, those from the Auvergne do call themselves, and are called, Auvergnats. They have their own hat and even their own hit song, “Chanson pour l’Auvergnat,” by one of France’s most famous troubadors, Georges Brassens. There are restaurants that specialize in the cuisine of the Auvergne, known for its salami, raclettes, five cheese appellations including blue d’auvergne, the poor man’s roquefort, and cantal, at 2000 years estimated to be the world’s first cheese. There’s even an excellent if under-appreciated wine, Saint-Pourcain. But my favorite regional specialty is gentiane, a bittersweet aperitif fabricated from a flower that grows in the region’s volcanic park. (The best-known mark is Suze, but I prefer Aveze, which has a less medicinal taste.) (As I’ve previously written, Simenon, in more than one Maigret tale, has called Gentiane the aperitif of last resort because it has a low alcohol content, for an aperitif anyway, thus is perfect for those with low alcohol tolerances and traveling salesman who have to imbibe a lot.)
In other words, notwithstanding that even some ex-pat Auvergnats think it’s a bleak terrain — including mountains which may owe their black color to the volcanoes — this region would seem to have more claim to continued political existence than mine, the Aquitaine. (Indeed, as the mighty Dordogne river which gives its name to my department and is its most distinctive feature originates in the Auvergne, an argument could be made for the Auvergne swallowing us — washed down by a nice St.-Pourcain of course. And preceded by a glass of gentiane, famous for helping the digestion.) And yet it’s the Auvergne which, under the Balladur plan, would be swallowed up by another, the Rhone-Alpes (capital Lyon), while the Aquitaine would grow, consuming Poitou-Charentes (and, presumably, Segolene with). Also being considered for absorption are Franche-Compté (by Burgundy), the distinctions of “Lower” and “Higher” in Normandy, which would be just that; Picardie (I have no idea where that is) and the Lorraine, which would be attached to Alsace.
Mais moi, it’s the loss of the Auvergne which I’d mourn most, echoing Brassens:
“Elle est à toi cette chanson
Toi l’Auvergnat qui sans façon
M’as donné quatre bouts de bois
Quand dans ma vie il faisait froid
Toi qui m’as donné du feu quand
Les croquantes et les croquants
Tous les gens bien intentionnés
M’avaient fermé la porte au nez….
Elle est à toi cette chanson
Toi l’hôtesse qui sans façon
M’as donné quatre bouts de pain
Quand dans ma vie il faisait faim.”