SELF-DEPRECIATION is a French characteristic. Our neighbours never tire of stultifying themselves as a nation of functionaries, a social body made up of small placemen. Some writers, in this predilection for administrative routine, even discern a canker-worm preying upon national vitality. They hold that officialism is eating away the germs of enterprise and independence. The manhood of France, assert such critics, is thereby losing qualities more than ever needed if their country is to maintain her position among nations.
May not the bureaucratic system be justified by national characterbe, in fact, a natural evolution of temperament and aptitudes ? Just as an insular people is impelled to hazard and adventure, may not a continental nation be predisposed to repose and stability ?
For my own part, I have long regarded the small French official from an admiring and sympathetic point of view. Bureaucracy seems to me a factor in the body politic no less admirable than that of peasant proprietor-ship itself. At the present time, too, how refreshing is the contemplation of these dignified, unpretentious, laborious lives I Elsewhere we find frenzied speculation, inordinate craving after wealth, and lavish expenditure. Untouched by such sinister influences, the French civil servant ” keeps the noiseless tenor of his way,” a modest competence crowning his honourable and most useful career.
To no class have I been more indebted in the course of my usual surveys than to the departmental professor of agriculture. Locus est et pluribus umtbris, “plenty of room for uninvited guests,” wrote the Roman poet to his friend; and the Third Republic, when creating these State professorships, was evidently of Horace’s opinion. Multifarious as were already Government bureaux, a few more might advantageously be added. Paradoxical as it may sound, the departmental professor was nominated in order to teach the peasant farming ! But if, as Arthur Young wrote a hundred and odd years ago, you give a man secure possession of a black rock and he will turn it into a garden, peasant ownership is not always progressive. The departmental professor must coax small farmers out of their groovein fine, teach them that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy. Recruited from the State agricultural schools of Rennes, Grignau, Montpellier, and others, these gentlemen have gone through a complete practical and scientific training, and exercise a real influence in rural districts. Their gratuitous classes in winter evenings, no matter how apparently mystifying may be the subject treated, are always well attended by young and old. But it is the Sunday afternoon conférence, or lecture held out-of-doors, that proves most attractive and illuminating to the hard-headed peasant. These lectures take the form of an object-lesson. New machinery and chemical manures, seeds, plants, and roots are exhibited, inquiries being invited and explanations given.
Very characteristic is the behaviour of the middle-aged, often white-haired pupils gathered around the demonstrator’s table. Most deliberative, most leisurely of national temperaments, the French mind works slowly.
“It will often happen,” says my friend Monsieur R, departmental professor in Western France, ” that a peasant farmer will return again and again to a piece of machinery or sample of chemical manure before making up his mind to buy either. Like a bird suspecting a gin, he hovers round the tempting bait at a distance, at last venturing upon nearer inspection and a few inquiries, perhaps weeks later deciding upon the perilous leap ; in other words, to throw aside his antiquated drilling machine for Ransome’s latest improvement, or to lay out a few francs upon approved seeds or roots.” No more cautious, I should perhaps say suspicious, being inhabits the globe than Jacques Bonhomme. Not only does farming proper, that is to say, the cultivation of the soil and the breeding of stock, fall within the professor’s province, but kindred subjects, the name of which in France is legion. Especially must his attention be given to the ofttimes multifarious products and industries of his own province, such as mule-rearing, cyder and liqueur making, the culture of medicinal herbs, silkworm breeding, vine-dressing, and the fabrication of wine. In matters agricultural he must indeed be encyclopmdic, resembling Fadladeen, the great Vizier, “who was a judge of everything, from the pencilling of a Circassian’s eyelids to the deepest questions of science and literature, from a conserve of rose-leaves to an epic poem.”
Like the immortal Mr. Turveydrop, also, he must perpetually show himself. And if not in the flesh, at least vicariously, he must survey mankind from China to Peru. Not only is his presence indispensable at local and municipal meetings of agricultural societies, at agricultural shows and congresses, at sittings of the Departmental Council General, at markets and fairs, but beyond the frontier, across the channel and the Gulf of Lyons, he wends his way. Now he visits the Shire horse show at Islington, now an agricultural congress in Rome, or an exposition vinicole (exhibition of wines) in Algeria.
Again, the amount of writing that has to be got through by the departmental professor is enormous. Reports for the Minister of Agriculture are periodically drawn up, pamphlets and flying sheets for general distribution are expected of him, besides contributions to the local journals of agriculture. Whenever I receive a printed communication from my friend M.R. , I am moved to confraternal commiseration, my own aching fingers ache doubly out of sympathy.
The devastation wrought by the phylloxera, as we all know, cost France a sum equal to that of the Franco-Prussian war indemnity, namely, two hundred million sterling. In the midst of that panic-stricken period a prize of a million francs (40,000) was offered by the Government for the discovery of a remedy. No one obtained this splendid gratuity, but several professors of agriculture, amongst others M. R—–, have serviceably co-operated in the reconstitution of vineyards by American stocks, and other works of amelioration.
The Third Republic has ennobled agriculture as well as accorded it a professorial chair. As behoved a régime whose watchword is peace, the French Government some years since instituted a second Legion of Honour. Warriors wear the red ribbon, academic dignities confer the purple ; the yellow rosette now chiefly encountered at agricultural shows and markets denotes the newly created ordre du mérite agricole, or order of agricultural merit. Not only do we see this badge on the frock-coat of the professor, but occasionally it adorns the peasant’s blue blouse. And if the former is gratified by such recognition of his services, how much more must the humble farmer or dairyman glory in his tiny orange rosette I For a bit of coloured ribbon may seem a small thing,’ but its symbolism may be immense. By what laborious hours and painful effort has not the husbandman’s insignia been gained.
To appraise French character we should see our neighbours, not only in their own homes, but amid English surroundings. A former cicerone in Normandy, M. R twice afforded me the opportunity of returning the compliment on native soil. What struck me about my friend was the change that comes over a Frenchman as soon as he quits his own country, an attitude the exact reverse of an Englishman’s mental condition abroad. In France a Frenchman’s mood is invariably critical, that of a carper. Away from home he looks about for something to appreciate and admire. With ourselves, too often a fleeting glance or supercilious expression seem to be thought appropriate to everything foreign.
And wherever he is a Frenchman’s eyes are open. I well remember one instance of this when strolling with M. R- on the parade at Hastings. It was in February, for my friend had crossed the channel in order to visit the horse show at Islington. As we now walked briskly along, I saw him look at the line of fly-horses, each well protected from the cold by a stout horse-cloth,
” How admirably your cab-horses are cared for here ! ” he observed ; adding, “I shall make a note of this for one of my lectures.”
And as the French peasant’s want of consideration for his animals often arises from thoughtlessness, who knows M. R may prove a benefactor to cart-horses as well as those of the hackney carriage ? In the year of Queen Victoria’s final jubilee, I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend to Rothamstead, spending a delightfully instructive day with the late Sir John Lawes and his charming granddaughters : also of introducing him to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. We had projected a visit to the agricultural school of Hollesley Bay, Suffolk, but the departmental professor of agriculture is the commis voyageur, the commercial traveller of the State, not always a very indulgent firm. M. R ‘s report was called for, and to our mutually-shared regret the expedition had to be given up.
When I first knew my friend, he had just exchanged the modest post of répétiteur, or junior master in a State agricultural school, for that of departmental professor. I do not suppose any man living is more contented with his present lot a proud and happy père de de famille, a wife of equally happy temperament, and two little sons making up his home circle, the combined incomes of husband and wife sufficing for daily needs, the education of their children, and the usual putting by. Truly to these civil servants of France may be applied the Roman poet’s apostrophe, it is such men,
” Who make the golden mean their guide, Shun miser’s cabin foul and dark, Shun gilded roofs, where pomp and pride. Are envy’s mark.”