French Politics Puts its Boots on the Ground

Fifty years on since the 50-Mile Kennedy Walk inspired extreme hikes in the US, Britain, South Africa, Australia — and ongoing endurance treks in Europe –French randonneurs are out in force … including three on a surprising political pilgrimage.

Back in 1963 US President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans and others around the world to walk 50 miles non-stop – encouraging thousands to pull on hiking boots and go walking for distances that they had previously thought impossible.

The spirit of his challenge remains alive and well today and in common with 80km endurance walks Kennedy is credited with popularising in Europe, France boasts walkers with a vast range of different persuasions and motivations.

In 2012 for instance nearly 10,000 randonneurs marched across France along the Camino Frances as part of the Compostela 2000 walk. They were headed for the Santiago de Compostela sanctuary in Spain that, along with nearby Lourdes in south western France, is an important destination for many on the great web of walks spanning France and indeed much of Europe.

Poster for the film Camino The Journey To Santiago

But there is much more than spirituality driving French randonneurs. According to associations that organise trails and hikes nationally, some 6.5 million French walkers now hit the country’s GR or GR® Chemins de Grandes Randonnées/Long Distance routes each year and these numbers are on a rising curve — or steep gradient as anyone who has done one of those challenging GR will know!

So popular is walking for exercise, leisure, religious rites de passage and socialising that it was perhaps not unexpected to find that some took to the byways on a political pilgrimage! Over the past summer three well-known Frenchmen — a journalist and writer, a geneticist and a politician tramped off along three separate routes criss-crossing the country to take the pulse of the people and listen to the views of La France Profonde.

What they learned left them shocked and worried about a country trapped in a quagmire of insipid Socialism where the question being asked everywhere was  “is the chief pilot still at the controls of Airbus France”?

As if to underline this deep concern the latest polls (Ifop for Journal du Dimanche Sept 22) show that the popularity of the pilot in question, President François Hollande, fell five points to 23% in September, which, says Le Point, is the lowest level ever since his election in May 2012.

French President Francois Hollande has never been so unpopular.

French President Francois Hollande has never been so unpopular.

But the poll results should not really be a surprise (see On s’en Fout ! We’re Voting Marine le Pen) and in a way merely serve to reinforce the impressions reported by the three political pilgrims above.  The routes walked by these three men — Axel Kahn (68) , Jean Paul Kauffmann (69) and Jean Lassalle (58) — totalled thousands of kilometres over some 8 to 12 weeks and according to Marianne magazine which reported on the saga, brought them up sharply against grim reality. Out there the French are struggling with poverty, disillusionment, anger and dismay. Worse, they harbour a strong sense of rejection and hatred for French politicians in general, and for Brussels and the EU in particular. It is a relentless picture and one too easily forgotten by politicians in their Paris salons.

The treks by the three — Axel Kahn, professor of medicine and a celebrated geneticist who walked 1,600 kms in three months, Jean Lassalle, vice-president of Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) and a deputy for Pyrénées-Atlantiques who covered 3600 kms in 3 months and Jean-Paul Kauffmann, a journalist and writer, who walked 525 kms in seven weeks – were pilgrimages in the classic sense, “long journeys or searches, of exalted purpose or moral significance” and clearly humbling for the walkers.

As their predecessors did in ancient times, these 21st century pilgrims, tramped the byways to sense the mood and sniff the air. None had expected to find the country as damaged and angry as they did. “People talked with us because of our backpacks, the backpack changes the way others see you and broke down the barriers, people spoke about their businesses, about the gay marriage protests, politics, jobs for the young, and insecurity … and they were uninhibited”, said Axel Kahn.

In an interview with the newspaper L’Alsace, Jean Lassalle sounded the alarm: “Exasperation is increasing. I fear the situation in the country is deteriorating, the economic crisis is becoming a social and relational one and is destroying community bonds … there is tension in Parliament where debates are increasingly more violent. As for the people I met, it was a scary experience. I had the feeling that our fellow citizens are increasingly exasperated, there is a cold anger out there, the resignation is chilling. People I spoke with are desperate, they see no future before them, no jobs, industry closing down, no opportunities for young people and the words people use are more violent than I’ve heard before.

Jean Lassalle deputy for Pyrénées-Atlantiques

Jean Lassalle deputy for Pyrénées-Atlantiques

“Indeed asked whether they felt the regime was in danger, nine out of ten people told me they felt ‘it was set to collapse’ and this was true across the spectrum of social classes, schools of thought and religions, in the towns, the countryside and the poor suburbs. People also told me they hate politicians and political elites in general while along our frontiers (with Germany and Belgium), there was a frightening increase in anti-European sentiment…For three months I walked and talked with people I met. I had the distinct impression that those I met were French people with a very strong sense of identity and in part this was the problem. The world around us has undergone enormous changes over the last 30 years and one can feel that people are finding it hard to be French, European, and citizens of the world, all at the same time.”

Jean Lassalle added that many of those he encountered,  “no longer believe in anything, and overwhelmingly reject current policies. They do not trust the elites especially if they are connected to Paris and Brussels”.

For his part Jean-Paul Kauffmann who walked along the banks of the Marne – at 525 km the longest river in the country– from its confluence with the Seine to its source, for seven weeks and at a slow pace of some 10 km a day, reported a journey of mixed experiences but not all darkness and gloom. He says he discovered an invisible France: “This is the France of Belote, evening barbecues at the Town Hall, scrabble competitions and many volunteers. The stillness of the countryside conceals a real active generosity despite the numerous villages with empty storefronts, closed churches, communities that are sparse and spare but not moribund. He describes villages and towns where life resists showing an aptitude for enduring the sacrifice.

Kauffmann crossed paths with a rural lifestyle peopled by those he dubbed “les conjurateurs” invisible, stubborn people, resistant to the moodiness, resigned almost to their fate but still showing signs of living communities. “I saw villages that rarely exceed a hundred people, where newcomers were renovating abandoned farmhouses, where shops are still open, where community life is dynamic.” And I adopted a motto: “We must restore pride in a France that is stunned by the crisis.”

What about the politics in all this? Kahn, Kauffmann and Lassalle all drew the same conclusion: the gap between the French and those who govern them is widening. Many criticised both Hollande and Sarkozy, and one widespread symbol of the malaise was le mariage pour tous, the widely protested gay marriage law. “You put us into an incredible position, everything that could have been simple, you made unhealthy with this law,” one father of a young gay man told Jean Lassalle. All three pilgrims described a loss of identity in France, a country without a common vision: “Here in Alsace, I do not know if I am Alsatian, French, European or a citizen of the world,”one man told Kahn. And everywhere was the same. When we spoke of the sovereign people, we were asked: “What people and what sovereign will?”

Axel Kahn walked across France to the Belgian and the Spanish borders, between 8 May and 1st August doing some 30kms a day, stopping to blog, to meet locals and talk about the state of France. The contrast between a de-industrialized France and dynamic agricultural France was very noticeable he said. “This is the France that considers the world as full of threats, and one that will only get worse tomorrow. The values that these people hold close are condemned, issues such as hunting, are now subject to decisions about its future taken in Brussels. My first 500 km were a stunning landscape: the Ardennes, the ghosts of Arcelor-Mittal plants… ‘I faced sick France villages where 65% of the population live on the minimum wage: there is nothing left of the steel, electronics, timber industries. I came across the sad spectacle of a de-industrialized country and a stunned people’ “.

On the way, Axel Kahn says teachers, ecologists, mayors and totally depressed Socialist activists talked with him: “It’s hard to be of the Left, we expected something else”, they told him. The geneticist describes a countryside “plagued by the rise of the Front National: I noticed the same sense of frustration among the victims of economic disasters. The rural world wants no truck with Brussels; it is angered by limitations on hunting seasons, and with the Greens out to screw their lifestyle. They feel that the world is against them. The Great Satan is not just Paris a city of technocrats, but also Brussels. People understood that most of their ills come from the European Commission.

“At Decazeville in the Aveyron, I walked from industrial disaster to industrial disaster. In the Ardennes, there is almost nothing at all. Apart from scenic beauty, all that keeps the north of the department going is the Chooz nuclear power plant. In the Marne, the Meuse, industry has disappeared… There is a misunderstanding about the depopulation of the countryside: it is not related to the economic crisis, but rather to the fact that ten times fewer hands are needed to cultivate crops and farm today than before. Agriculture however remains a powerful wealth-creating sector of our economy.”

And despite all the devastation he saw and all the heavy hearts he encountered he holds out at least one optimistic note: “People continue to say they are ‘heureux comme Dieu en France‘, happy as God in France, which means we still have lots of good assets, we just need to put them on the table”.

For more on the GR that take walkers and pilgrims from various points across France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, see our earlier report — Santiago de Compostela – a Jubilee Year 2010—  and the amazing maps on the website of Peter Robins.  Robins, a long distance walker has tracked the rise of the current fashion for following in the footsteps of the early pilgrims, on his own fascinating and detailed website (found here)

See also this film clip:


Camino The Journey To Santiago – The Camino Documentary
The Camino Documentary Short “Camino, The Journey to Santiago” is a film about a pilgrim’s hike across Spain on the popular “Camino de Santiago.” In the spirit of popular books and movies about the ancient route, such as “The Way,” Paulo Coelho’s “The Pilgrimage,” and Shirley McClain’s “The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit,” this film also explores the Spain pilgrimage across the “Camino Francés” or “The Way of St. James.” It is an impressionistic film that presents an easy narrative about the journey, and what it is like during its modern revival. The images and sounds of the adventure gradually unfold, revealing a pilgrim’s rewarding experiences. If you’ve walked the “Camino Francés,” or if you plan to explore “The Way of St. James” in the near future, this Camino Documentary Short will inspire and encourage you.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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