La France: friend of civilization, enemy of the future


Heidi Fuller-Love and her husband created a bed and breakfast in France a couple of years ago. They asked the village to make a small change to accommodate them, and all hell broke lose.

Over the next few years we suffered every kind of persecution imaginable. The neighbour’s scruffy mongrel with close-set eyes was left outside to bark day and night, adolescents with mopeds revved for hours on end outside our front door, the cantonnier sprayed our roses with weed killer, fisherman tramped through our flowerbeds and horsemen tore down a part of the fence, then rode roughshod over our newly planted lawn. When we complained they said our garden was on a right of way and we had the devil’s own job to prove them wrong.

Apparently, this happens a lot.

Our lawyer in Angoulême regaled us with a host of similar tales. “Making people leave” was a well-loved local blood sport, apparently.

Finally, a Catholic priest helped clarify.

“You can get on fine in rural France if you don’t take initiatives. But if you scare local people – and anyone who wants to change things inevitably will – then God help you!”

It’s tempting to dismiss this as simple xenophobia. But I couldn’t help thinking that that this little village on the Charente/Dordogne border was once more the rule than the exception.

Most anthropologists find themselves dealing with people who exhibit an implacable hostility for innovation. They may not quite as bad a French villagers. (Clearly this is the special accomplishment of La France.) But by and large, most human communities, especially, second and third world ones, don’t like innovation or initiative, and fight them hard.

This makes mysterious the fact first-world Westerners should embrace change so readily and manage it relatively well. Actually, the first mystery is how we went from a dirge march as hunters-gathers to the full out sprint of the present day. It’s as if something remagnitized our feeling for change. It’s as if we wouldn’t change until we started changing, and once we started changing, we couldn’t stop.

The second mystery is how we do it now. We are changing just about all the time. We accept change as the constant of our lives. Sometimes we grouse and grumble, but mostly accept each new new, and all the rippling innovations that come from it. Email, birth control, Linux, Anthony Robbins…if we were hunter-gathers (or French villagers), we would have murdered all of these innovations in their crib.

We have effectively reengineered the person. Speaking of Anthony Robbins, we may take his program and career as part of the reengineering, as an attempt to give the self new properties, to give the individual a new willingness and agility in embracing change. In fact, we could treat a good deal of the cultural change in the West in the last half of the 20th century as a cultural response to change. This would stretch from Anthony Robbins backward to Objectivism and forward to the electronic enablements (PDAs, etc.) at our disposal. Indeed, we might even think of the MBA as a set of preparations for a professional life that will be nothing if not a process of constant innovation and adjustment.

But the strangest thing of all from an anthropological point of view is that we cut ourselves no slack. We don’t say, “Yikes, we have created a world of new dynamism. What, systematically, are the problems it creates? What, systematically, are the solutions we require.” No, we make ready often badly and by halves. The anthropologists wonders, “when are they going to snap out of it, and see that they have a new set of problems that are better addressed structurally and strategically?” Anthony may be the right person to lead us into the promised land of proactive dynamism. On the other hand…


Fuller-love, Heidi. 2005. Fear and loathing in rural France. The Telegraph. February, 14, 2005. full text here

4 thoughts on “La France: friend of civilization, enemy of the future


    The Tony Robbins philosophy or objectivism is not the only route to go, though it is the most obvious. Another strategy, especially for women who are already successful, is to embrace some sort of eastern philosophy. I’ve noticed that successful career women in the U.S. often ascribe to some version of eastern philosophy, either through yoga or popularizers like Rolf Gates or Pema Chodron, to pick two names I came across doing a quick amazon search. This is also a form of cutting yourself some slack withoug slacking off. You can say to yourself, the world is always changing, always in flux, and the best way to accomodate yourself to that, to succeed in that kind of world, is to embrace a philosophy of change. So it’s not so much an escape or consolation as a way to get ahead by going with the flow.

  2. Dilys

    As I recall, this book was published awhile ago and I had an argument with someone who had read it and was scandalized . She said, “Why couldn’t they let them make a little change?” What we concluded is that for anyone who really relishes the perfection of the European village, or traditional cuisine, or social mores, well, that’s why they can’t accomodate a change that you think is a good idea and wouldn’t hurt anybody.

    The traditional and innovative systems, inside and outside the person, are quite different. That is why, even among educated Americans, things seem so superficial. Visual features and relationships and a comfort with the local geography and expectations has not built up for generations. On the other hand, we ride the changes if not cheerfully, at least reasonably capably.

    Why are we willing to do this? Most of us, or our parents or grandetc.parents, came from a social system where they saw the underside of traditional and implacable rules. Even British younger sons. How do we do it? We foster moveable investments, like education, and uniformity, so when we have to move the next place is familiar.

    There was a good discussion about rootedness on The Conservative Philosopher before The Founder had a tantrum and closed the comments. There may be a relevant parable there.

  3. liz

    BJR wrote: “Another strategy, especially for women who are already successful, is to embrace some sort of eastern philosophy. I’ve noticed that successful career women in the U.S. often ascribe to some version of eastern philosophy, either through yoga or popularizers like Rolf Gates or Pema Chodron,”

    1. Quibble #1: “successful career women in the U.S. often ascribe” — I think you mean to use the word subscribe, or perhaps give lip service

    2. Quibble #2 –count, please. My own observation is that successful career women in my milieu attend to their spiritual needs by denying them or by belonging to the most prestigious church (most wealthy parishioners).

    3. Quibble #3–Don’t mix up fitness and spirituality: How is sweating and bending — the level at which many Western people encounter yoga — an evocation of spirituality?

    4. Quibble #4 — putting such as Rolf Gates (, whose claim to fame is that he has a flexible and photogenic body, in the same category as a 30-year monastic such as Ane Pema
    (, reveals a certain shallowness of perception. I’d say that Chodron was not a popularizer — in the sense of ducking complexity and diluting or simplifying the message — as much as a subtle thinker with a folksy, accessible style. All of her works that I’ve read or listened to have been talks (“sermons” in Christian parlance) to serious students of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practice. If anybody is a popularizer in that end of the pool, it is Jon Kabat Zinn (

    Grant wrote, ““Yikes, we have created a world of new dynamism. What, systematically, are the problems it creates? What, systematically, are the solutions we require.” No, we make ready often badly and by halves.”

    I wonder how much of this make-do, improvisational credo is a product of the improvisation required by the ever-expanding frontier? I wonder, did the folks who craved change and flexibility leave the Old World for the New at any excuse?

    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

    I am a child of the West — how much of our tolerance for change, for evanescent towns is a product of the repeated mining frenzies, the gold rushes and the silver booms, where towns bloomed overnight, and faded just as fast.

    I’m in Blaine County, Idaho, while I write. At one point in the 1880s, the population of miners was about 3 times what it is today…

    And think of the American fascination with duct tape — the force that binds and keeps us:

    It is not a material that is designed to last, it is designed to “get ‘er done” — do the job and move on!

    But we aren’t willing to admit — or haven’t had to confront — the idea that improvisation and moving on have costs attached to them.

    I wonder also if focussing on innovation — the new– distracts us from the more important deal. The traditional way of doing things has the advantage of certainty — little risk of failure. The question is, how did we get the nerve to risk failure, to court failure? Innovation is rarely successful the first time — you have to go through iterations of failure (from total to near-success).

    How did we get so tolerant of failure?

  4. Anonymous

    Hi Grant; very glad to hear my book/article has provoked discussion. In a fast changing world change seems to be an increasingly frightening phenomenon. Difficult to accept when you have a more ‘fluid’ outlook on life. Yet, hardly surprising when faced with a group of people who’ve always lived in the same villagein ‘deepest France’ and the biggest outing is to the seaside, 40 miles away, once a year. In my heart I cannot blame these people; I do blame the society which made them that way…

Comments are closed.