Stephen Bayley: The impossible dream of French perfection

Something to Declare

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The Independent Travel

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker showed a couple glumly facing each other across a kitchen table and the caption read: “Exactly when did all the things you love about me become all the things you hate about me?” I am beginning to think that way about France. The idea of France was always a dream. And in dreams begin responsibilities and, it turns out, disappointments too.

A few days in Provence, in what the French so didactically declare “one of the prettiest villages in France”, has finally taught me that trying to recapture my Gallic dreamworld is like trying to embrace fog. In this hilltop village, there is a fine collection of medieval buildings and each one has been pitilessly molested by either the tourist authorities or middle-brow junk art galleries.

I turned into a dark chapel for respite only to find it booming with sub-adult HD video about an “experience” on offer. Oiky gap-year French youths, escaping the imminent reality of real-world unemployment, walked around officially dressed as troubadours (with trainers).

Nearby was something impressive, the La Coste wine estate where Irish entrepreneur Paddy “Claridge’s” McKillen has created a hugely ambitious sculpture park. By the time it is finished, with the golf course and hotel, it will be a World of Adventures with vines.

So we went on to Marseille, the 2013 European Capital of Culture, to see the new MuCEM (the politically correct and wearyingly inclusive Museum of the Civilisation of Europe and the Mediterranean), perhaps France’s very last grand projet. Local architect Rudy Ricciotti says he wants to “demuseumify museums”. Not, if you ask me, a felicitous expression that promises calm and clarity. Still, if you want to find an architectural demonstration of what France has become, visit the Fort Saint-Jean complex on the Vieux-Port.

I kept on trying to translate “mink coat and no knickers” as we sweated and jostled through vapid exhibits at MuCEM, trivialised by big swinging architectural rhetoric. And if “culture” means vast queues of listless tourists gazing at plasma screens, personally I want none of it. At least there were no troubadours.

We stayed in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse which has a number of apartments available for brief stays. I am no doctrinaire opponent of strict-observance Modernism, far from it, but here was another test of French dream vs French reality.

The cheerful “vertical garden city” of the propaganda has a haunted and sinister quality. Not sinister in the sense that a demandeur d’emploi troubadour might knife you in a dark corridor, but more that it is solid with a sense of failure. It strikes me as significant that the Toulouse riots of 2005 began in a banlieue designed by pupils of Le Corbusier. Fact: they don’t have riots in Le Panier, the crumbly dense old quarter of Marseille.

I reflected on this as we left the city to meet friends for lunch in Peter Mayle country near Ménerbes. Marseille is a difficult place not, I think, at ease with itself. Sweaty and desolate in turns, sullen and grumbly, despite the City of Culture wash ’n’ brush-up.

Then we hit the D99 between Saint-Rémy and Cavaillon with its lovely arbres and the dream came rushing back.