Publisher's Note — August 21, 2018, 1:53 pm

The Illusion Train

“French ‘solidarity’ was looking decidedly less solid than it had the previous day.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on August 8, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

As the referee’s whistle signaled the end of the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia, I confess that I wept, more from relief than from joy. The blunder by French goalie Hugo Lloris that allowed Croatia its second score had struck me as suicidal. It reminded me of Zinedine Zidane’s narcissistic, self-destructive foul in the 2006 final World Cup match, when the Italian defender Marco Materazzi allegedly insulted the French superstar and Zidane responded by attacking him, causing Zidane to be ejected and weakening his team to a degree that I felt cost France the game. Was there something in the collective unconscious of les Bleus that didn’t want France to win its second world title, following on the great triumph of 1998?

Thank God, that wasn’t the case, and the hundreds of spectators standing with me in the Place du Champ-de-Mars, the central square in Autun, where I had gone to speak at a journalism conference, were able to express their happiness at a very high decibel level. I’ve been personally present at many dramatic athletic events, but at none of them did I experience anything like the emotion I felt in that little French provincial town, surrounded by strangers, in front of a giant outdoor screen. All my lefty ideas about the engineered agitation and crowd manipulation that are such a large part of sporting events had vanished. Before the ecstatic and multiethnic faces of France’s soccer team, my pride in my French citizenship was at its height. I shared with the news magazine Marianne the notion that the French national squad’s manager, Didier Deschamps, a “little man with a Basque-country accent,” had become “the greatest unifier of the French people,” and that he embodied the highest values of pluralist, republican France. Deschamps has been, as Marianne’s Éric Decouty wrote, “first as a player, and then as a coach, courageous, hard-working, an anti-hero, not a handsome lad, not an artist… a sort of anti-Macron,” morally superior to the “president of the rich.” Liberté, égalité, diversité! France without class divisions, with everyone on the same track.

And then, naturally, real life resumed. The following day, after a lunch at the home of friends in the Mâconnais district, not far from Autun, I set out for the Var department in southeastern France, some 350 miles away. Thanks to an article in Le Monde diplomatique, I was aware that mid-sized French towns are suffering from a reduction in rail service that gives preferential treatment to the TGV, France’s high-speed intercity express trains. (Had I opted for a TER, a regional train, it would have taken me more than four hours to travel the 115 or so miles from Autun to the station in Lyon, with two transfers, in order to catch a TGV that would eventually get me to my final rail destination of Toulon.) In the end, I got a car ride to Lyon, and from there took a TGV to Marseille, where I planned to transfer to another TGV to Toulon. The trip went smoothly from Lyon to Marseille; the only downside was the Breton sitting across from me, who found that a reporter in Le Télégramme (a newspaper published in Brittany) had overvalued the performance of the Mâcon-born soccer player Antoine Griezmann.  

However, just as we were arriving in Marseille, the TGV stopped on the track before entering the station. “Security measure,” the conductor announced. There was no further explanation, and we remained there as the time for catching my connection to Toulon—TGV 6177, leaving at 5:31 p.m.—slipped away. Finally off the train, I rushed to locate the display showing the upcoming departures, but TGV 6177 was nowhere to be found. In the overcrowded ticket office, I was directed to run to a distant track, where I stood before a Toulon-bound TER, packed tightly with people as if it were a refugee train. “You’ll have to go and find the TGV, Monsieur,” the conductor told me. I swore that there was no TGV for Toulon, and the fellow, out of pity, pointed me to a little opening in the human wall blocking the entrance to the nearest car.

I pushed my way in and came to rest with my back flat against the door to the toilet. French “solidarity” was looking decidedly less solid than it had the previous day. A lady of a certain age, wedged between crying children and exhausted adults, took advantage of the chaos to vent her anger at the recently striking railworkers of the SNCF (the national railroad company), the politicians, and especially the new generation of young people, among them several teenagers who hadn’t offered her their seat: “I wouldn’t have accepted, but it’s the principle of the thing,” she told me. Nor did she spare me her contempt: “You should have taken the TGV,” she declared with a wry smile. “There are ten stops between here and Toulon.” Indeed, the TER was going to take a good half hour more than the TGV would have, had it not been delayed (as I later learned) by a violent storm that had brought down a tree on some overhead lines east of Toulon.

As the journey proceeded, calm and courtesy slowly reestablished themselves, although the atmosphere on the train was one of resignation. At last, when we stopped in Aubagne, I was able to sit down. After a while, I asked the passenger beside me why the train wasn’t leaving the Aubagne station. “Generally,” she explained, “this is where they let the TGV pass the TER.” And, in fact, after we’d sat there for a quarter of an hour, a TGV, perhaps the one I’d missed, hurtled past us with a tremendous roar on another track. My fellow citizen, accustomed to a two-tiered France—a France with two economic levels—had presented me with the perfect metaphor for a country that remains dominated by Emmanuel Macron, in spite of my egalitarian dreams.

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