It’s time to talk: Macron’s Grand Debate

It had been coming for a while. The unexpected tenacity of the gilets jaunes, and their evolution into a protest movement against inequality, demanded a political response. At the end of last year, France’s President Macron delivered. He announced that in the New Year, France would engage in a “grand debat” across the country that he would launch off with a letter to the people.

At a time when our own politics seems a bit mired, I’ve been keenly looking for ways to enliven democracy and bring some faith back into the relationship between electors and their elected. And what better place to do this than in the land of bastille-storming, strike action and political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French know how to do politics. And it seems, they keep reinventing how to go about it.

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On Monday, the President delivered his letter to the people. One and a half full broadsheet pages. He was thorough. It took me three mornings of breakfast cereal reading time to get through it. I was impressed by its clarity: I didn’t need a dictionary and only had to re-read a handful of phrases. It was clearly written to be accessible to all. But at the same time it covered his main issues: taxes and public services; State institutions, democracy and citizenship; immigration; and environment.

Macron hopes for huge participation and, although there are regional meetings and a website, he’s relying heavily on the most local level of government – the mayors.

“The mayors will have an essential role because they are your elected officials and so are the most legitimate intermediaries to express the views of citizens.”

Apparently, 68% of French people are satisfied with their mayor, which is perhaps also why Macron has emphasised their role. The mayors themselves have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The sceptics will only offer an open book for citizen contributions, while other more enthusiastic mayors are organising public feedback events.

The varied responses are understandable. They’ve never been in this position before. In my catch-up with my local pastor today, I explained how new all this was to me.

“It’s totally new for us too.” She replied with a wry smile.

“But I’m really keen to get the parishioners involved. It’s a chance for us to emphasise the importance of social justice. It’s the first time everyday people have had the chance to make these points directly to the President.”

This man, accused of being aloof and elitist, is now trying to get in touch: to hear the truths of the people. These people who elected him in hope. When I ask locals here about their view of the President, many respond: “I voted for him. I liked his plans for change. But I don’t think he’s been going about it the right way.”

He seems to have got the picture. In his letter, he explains that his commitment to his overarching plan of reform hasn’t wavered. What’s on the table now is how these principles should be turned into action. And he’s open to every and all ideas. Nothing is forbidden, except violence and insults.

Will it work? Who knows. There’s sure to be an unmanageable amount of content. But I can’t help but admire this big move to throw it all open. To invite every French person to air their concerns and propose their solutions. I love the thought of all those tiny mayor’s offices I’ve passed in the hilltop towns and valley villages around here, being involved in national policy-making.

This is the only way I can see to rebuild people’s faith in democracy – bring them closer to the decision-making. Bring together politicians and public servants, with everyday people for a respectful conversation about what matters and how to make things better. Let the highly educated share their deeply-researched views, and let the citizens share their accumulated lived experience. It’s only when these two sides find the intersecting space, that both will feel they’ve found the right path towards a better future for all.

Vive la démocratie ! Liberté, égalité, fraternité !

An epiphany in Alsace

Yesterday was Epiphany. While this is a purely religious observance in Australia, here in France it’s taken on the same broader cultural significance as Christmas. That is, there’s a cake on offer, a surprise for the children, and you don’t need to be Christian to play along.

The cake is called a galette des rois, and it’s kind of a cross between a cake and a sweet pie. There’s pastry on the outside that surrounds a dense frangipane filling of almond meal in which is secreted one little fève– a small hard object. The fèveplays a role similar to that of a silver coin in a traditional English Christmas pudding. But in this case, the person in whose slice the fève is found, gets to be the king for the day and wear the crown that is generally provided along with the cake.

I’d decided to follow local custom and had resolved to buy a galette des rois at our regular Saturday market. I wandered around the stalls and spotted a mound of rounded tomes accompanied by a stack of gold paper crowns. This had to be it. I confirmed with the shop owner that these were indeed for l’Epiphanie and handed across the euros. He placed it in the bag and, glancing at Silas and Delphine, observed that we’d soon be having a little king or queen at home.

As it turns out, I’d made a bit of a mistake and had actually bought a gateau des rois instead. This is round and comes with afèveand crown too, so my confusion was understandable. But this version is made of brioche and sugary icing. It was a mistake but not an unhappy one. We all agreed that in its buttery, doughy goodness, it was delicious.

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The next morning we travelled down to Thann for church, or “temple” as it’s called here to distinguish it from the Catholic kind. We had the usual readings for epiphany – where Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and God’s voice resounds through the clouds pronouncing his divinity – but we also had a guest speaker of the more visceral kind. Someone who brought a different kind of epiphany for me.

Our speaker works for the regional government to promote inter-religious dialogue and he’d come to speak about his work. It turns out that Alsace is one of the most religiously diverse regions in France. There are practising Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all sorts here, including many more protestants than is generally the case in the rest of France.

He was passionate about his work, and an unrepentantly proud proponent of the depth of inter-religious tolerance in Alsace. He spoke of how the respectful interaction here extends beyond just the larger cosmopolitan towns to also be found in country villages such as our own. Newly arriving rabbis, imams and priests are regularly invited to the worship places of the other faiths to be welcomed to the local community. Perhaps, he opined, this religious diversity and respectful interaction, has been made possible by the openness of Alsace’s geographical location, sharing borders with multiple countries. He imagines Alsace as a “corridor” through which people of many backgrounds have passed over the centuries, and even millennia.

He closed his presentation by clarifying that he didn’t believe the objective of inter-religious interaction was to generate one shared belief system. “Inter-religion is instead a question of dialogue between different faiths. The point isn’t to create one unifying religion, but to build bridges between them all.”

That night, we finished off our gateau des rois. I cut a chunk off for each kid and retreated to the kitchen to do the washing up.

Silas called out, “Mama, I think she’s found it!”

Delphine rushed to explain “I found it in my kouglof.”

Wrong cake, right region.

“I dug in. And I found it.”

“And now I can wear the crown.”

She posed it on her head “I’m King Louis!”

Wrong king, right season.

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Inns of the high country

Today we celebrated New Year’s Day in the mountains behind our home. Last week’s rain had washed away the snows and, with them, our hopes of a New Year’s ski. But when there’s no snow, there’s a ramble to be had instead and so as the day dawned mostly clear, I decided we’d bring in the New Year with a walk around our local ski resort of Le Markstein. We could familiarise ourselves with the resort before snow’s arrival made the terrain harder to interpret and we could also get out in the fresh mountain air.

It was also a chance to finally peer inside the doors of an Alsace institution – the ferme-auberge. These farm-cum-inns dot the landscape of the high Vosges mountain range. According to the glossy coffee table book tucked under the television, there are at least 68. I find the text difficult to understand, the author couldn’t resist literary flourishes in his nostalgic and poetic description of their history and present day reality. But the photos tell it all – flower bedecked in summer, snow-iced in winter, these family-run hostelries combine farming activity with offering a warm welcome to mountain visitors, including hearty meals for hungry walkers, skiers and snow-shoers.

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So my eyes lit up when I noticed our proposed walking route led right past one of them. And I was thrilled when, after a quick phone call, I could confirm that it was open on New Year’s day and serving lunch. We had a reservation for midday.

With the rosy sun touching le Grand Ballon, we headed off, backpack bulging with all the essentials for high mountain walking: jackets, overpants, drink bottles, snacks, beanies, gloves, map. Our preparations were necessary. As we arrived into Le Markstein the weather closed in and we all layered up in respect of the changeable mountain weather.

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A few backtracks and map re-reads later, we found ourselves moist and mist-haloed at our destination: Augberge S. Before pushing open the door, I read the sign “90% of all our meals are home made with our own or local ingredients. So, understand that our menu changes regularly.” Encouraging.

We stepped immediately into the dining room: true Alsace. Solid wooden chairs, red and white patterned table cloths, wood beamed ceilings and a Christmas tree in the corner awaiting the 12thday of Christmas. Our hearty host welcomed us and gave us the menu in verbal form. No need for a written version when it changes daily.

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Robert couldn’t resist the offer of escargots – snails. So I had to choose the equally French option – onion soup. For mains, we chose another local speciality of a potato and cheese dish featuring the local Munster cheese, from the eponymous town just 45 kilometres down the road.

We chatted happily with our hearty host as our meal was cooked by his wife, who came from Geishouse. And yes, he knew our neighbour, who just happened to have been president of the committee that runs Le Markstein. We talked about our neighbour’s generosity and how we had found that to be characteristic of the Alsaciens in general.

“Up in the mountains we’re all solidaire: we share, exchange and help each other out.”

“Alsace is known for its warm welcome but also for its good food and wine, beautiful countryside. That’s why it’s such a popular tourist desitnation here in France.”

Then he added with a cheeky grin: “We say that the French come to Alsace for their holidays, and the Alaciens go to France for theirs.”

It turns out that he and his small team had worked for 24 days straight. I expressed my surprise and said that sounded pretty exhausting. He shrugged and replied “but that’s what we’re here for: to serve people in the mountains.”

Our meal was tremendous: Delphine couldn’t get enough of the snails, soaking up the last remaining juices with her chunk of baguette.

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Everyone had a go at my basin of onion soup. And in the end the Munster potatoes defeated us, despite their rich, cheesy flavour egging us on to eat just another mouthful.

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It was with warm tummies and even warmer hearts that we walked away with a happy wave to our host.

“Au revoir – perhaps we’ll see you in Geishouse the next time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He said resolutely, very much the proprietor as he stood at the entrance way to his own personal kingdom. “But I’ll always be very happy to have you back chez nous.”

‘tis the season: celebrating Ecole Steiner style

Steiner schools know how to celebrate Christmas. It’s all in the build up. Rudolph Steiner was a big fan of marking the seasons – partly as a way to imbue children with the wonder of the world around them, and partly as a way to help them understand the passage of time.

The season of Advent (the period marked by the four Sundays before Christmas) provides a rich supply of material. The first sign at Ecole Steiner Haut-Alsace was the appearance of the Christmas couronne in Delphine’sJardin d’enfantskindergarten room. Not the “crown” that I’d thought when I’d first heard the term, but instead a table decoration: a Christmas wreath adorned with the four candles of Advent.

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Each morning in the dim light of wintery morn, early arriving children would sit around the couronne watching the warm flame and singing Christmas songs. Once experienced, I was enchanted. For the whole month of December I set my alarm clock a little earlier to get on the road a bit sooner and arrive at school in time to enjoy the whole tender tiny ceremony.

An important waystage on the way to Christmas here in north-eastern France is the celebration of St Nicolas on 6 December. Of course the school celebrated. For days before, we’d added songs about St Nicolas to our traditional Christmas ones. This child-loving gent is known to secret bon-bons (sweets) into children’s slippers to greet them on 6 December. In the jardin d’enfants, little children arrived on the day to find tissue-paper parcels bound with fine silver thread stuffed into their “inside shoes”. Excited fingers discovered walnuts, mandarins, a spiced biscuit and a little bell inside. Delphine wore hers on a string around her neck for days afterwards. My own little reindeer.

The excitement lifted another notch with the arrival of the school’s marché de noel – the first in the school’s new building. In fact, the building itself looked like a Christmas present, beribboned as it was in its red bunting and green pine boughs. I’d helped out with the decorations the previous day, working alongside my fellow craft group parents.So it was with a feeling of belonging and a faint proprietary air that we turned up on the big day.

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It was a cold, overcast morning but nothing could dampen the mood. The whole school was there to celebrate its achievement of moving into their new school building, as well as opening their doors and warmly welcoming the local community into their new home. We ate enormous amounts of home-made cake, watched an exquisite puppet show, ventured into the magical “grotte des lumières” (cave of lights) and perused stalls of lovingly-made objects – including the most delicately detailed beeswax candles I’ve ever seen. I even managed to buy Delphine’s Christmas present with the quick understanding of the stall-owner of my hand-gestures and pointing.

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But last night was the turning point. In so many ways: The last day of school for the year. The winter solstice bringing with it the darkest day of of the year. The official beginning of winter in this part of the world. And the school’s nativity play.

Apparently this is an annual tradition that had been postponed for two years running as the school was relocated from temporary home to temporary home during the purchase and then elongated restoration of their current home. But last night, it was back on. In this school, it’s the staff who dress up as all the usual characters. There was a bubbly air of expectation as we walked into the hall, proper stage-lights illuminating the stage setting of decorated pine tree, manger and hay bales. Windows flecked with rain drops adding another wash of stars to those hanging from the ceiling.

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I looked around the room as families and children filed in. So many familiar faces now. I knew at least a third of the children by name. I could match them with parents, whose names I mostly didn’t know but whose personalities were now warmly familiar. It suddenly hit me. I’d looked at so many of these faces for over a year as I’d poured over the Facebook page of this school, steadily falling in love with the spirit of its community. And now here I was, in the midst of it all. I felt doors sliding. A sensation of having stepped out of reality and into the pages of a beloved book.

So although Delphine squirmed on my lap and later sclathed on the floor, and Silas had to be relocated away from an irresistibly chatty neighbour, I could feel the magic of Christmas shot through the fabric of pragmatic parenting like golden thread in silk woven from warp and weft yarns.

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