Letters to Paris: ‘Off with Their Head!’

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By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // In this week's edition of 'Letters to Paris', Xander Brett discusses his French visa application and Conservatism in the USA and France.

24th January, 2021

Last week I had to submit a visa application for France. To just mention getting a “visa for France” sounds absurd. Yet now we join the Americans and Australians as a continent apart. Your passport, school diplomas and university letters, proof of accommodation with accompanying permis de sejours or identity cards, parents’ bank statements, tax returns and payslips… all are copied and stamped. Then your photograph is taken, your fingerprints seized, added to a red file that’s whisked across the river for inspection by the Consulate and further email instructions. Staples, double signing and strange implements. The experience is typical of French bureaucracy, something I used to find intriguing and now find simply irritating. Indeed, endless paperwork is why so many elderly Frenchmen and women are now denied the coronavirus vaccine and a return to safety and freedom.

European Parliament, Strasbourg | Epigram / Xander Brett

When I was 17, I spent a week working for the mayor of a small village in southwest France. I was to earn €100 for mending the roads and sweeping the streets, filling time at my grandparents’ house before being joined by the rest of my family. Not only was I surprised to see this 600-strong village had its own secretary, but to collect my payslip I was instructed to present myself at the nearest maison de l’état, a sub-prefectorial office on the outskirts of town. The experience was quaint and amusing, but it hid the serious consequence of over-processing. Brexit happened from a mistrust of paperwork… a feeling that those in charge had little understanding of the day to day, informal work of farmers and fisherman. Unlike London’s parliament, laws in Brussels take countless amendments and humourless meetings, passing through endlessly complex commissions and committees. Yet, now removed from ease of travel, the paperwork for us must mount. So, sure, those farmers and fishermen have and will never travel abroad. But to do so now, they’d be hoisted by their own petard somewhat.

This week, though still wading through paperwork, I was pleased to see we’ve entered an era of new optimism and energy. While the virus continues to rampage, there’s hope in the speed of vaccination. And, while the troubles of America still dominate, there’s hope over the Pond too. With the swearing in of Joe Biden, and the departure of Donald Trump, the United States regains its position as leader of the free world. But, while we wish it well, that leader will, I fear, still hide dreadful backwardness for years to come. Healthcare remains privatised, and in twenty-five states the death penalty is still enforced. Obviously, it’s something the United States shares only with third-world dictatorships. But it’s something France cannot claim to be entirely clean from.

Château de Vincennes | Epigram / Xander Brett

In 1981, France was the last Western European country to abolish capital punishment, though not until 2007 was the constitution formally amended. The revolutions of 1789 and 1830 were two of the bloodiest in history. But executions only increased in the years that followed, conducted in public right up to 1939, with the execution of Eugen Weidmann in front of a large crowd in Versailles. On seeing the mass hysteria, President Lebrun immediately confined executions to prison walls. Even so, executions remained for such crimes as insurrection, piracy, arson or armed robbery, commuted only by the President of the Republic themselves, with the last guillotining occurring as late as 1977. It was President Mitterrand who led the charge to finally be done with it. He made ending capital punishment one of his ‘110 Propositions for France’ electoral programme in 1981, introducing it to the National Assembly two months after taking office, and overseeing its adoption that October.

While conservatism prevails in the United States – even with a Democratic president and legislature – change for President Biden will be harder than it was for President Mitterrand. Nevertheless, the abolition of archaic retribution in France should give hope to the world’s leading democracy, proved still to stand two weeks ago. And about the paperwork… well, all going to plan, my next letter will be coming to you from the Île Saint-Louis once more. It’s been too long, and I can’t wait to be back!

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett


Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.

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