Everyone in the world is French

M. Luc Arnaud farmed a small plot somewhere in the south of France. Exactly when and exactly where M. Arnaud’s farm was is now no longer remembered, but we can be sure that he had a few cows, a few pigs, a few chickens and one rather moth-eaten and elderly goat. He didn’t have a wife or children — perhaps if he had, we would have never heard of this old French farmer, since a child would have certainly talked some sense into him.

Like most farmers of the south, M. Arnaud was a proud Frenchman. He was French, his cows were French, his pigs were French and his chickens were French. The goat was apparently a stubborn animal and didn’t deign to venture comment on its citizenship, but since old Arnaud had bought it at a market barely ten miles from his own farm he was certain it was French too.

What’s more, all of M. Arnaud’s friends were French. Well, perhaps friends is the wrong word: old Arnaud knew a few people and even played the occasional game of tarot with them, but most of the time he kept himself to himself. Every now and again he would appear at the baker’s or the butcher’s, or at the market, make polite but rather stilted conversation and then disappear back to his farm.

How, then, do we know anything about old Arnaud? There are plenty of farmers in France; a little fewer in the south maybe, and perhaps not many at all who have cows, pigs, chickens and a very venerable, headstrong goat — but still enough that M. Arnaud is not a historical novelty.

The reason is this: Luc Arnaud had a very singular belief. Everyone in his village knew about it, but none of them agreed with him. Everyone who came to the market from the surrounding countryside knew about it too, but none of them agreed with him either. In fact, old Arnaud had yet to meet anyone who agreed with him — but, as we have already mentioned, he didn’t talk to that many people. (The feelings of the cows, pigs, chickens and goat about Luc’s singular belief are not recorded, by the way.)

So, what was it?

M. Luc Arnaud was convinced that everyone in the world was French.

He had very good reason for this belief: he was French.

Let us not titter too much about the French sense of superiority. Old Arnaud didn’t merely think that everyone in the world wished to be French because being French was the best possible thing for an old farmer to be; no, he simply believed that everyone in the world was French.

Why did he think that?

Luc Arnaud was not very educated; you and I have probably read more books than he ever did, and longer ones at that. But in his own way, he was a scientist. He knew the seasons, he knew the soil, he knew which crops would thrive and which would fail based on the amount of rain and sunshine they were getting. He knew all this by way of his own observations and by his own prior knowledge. He was rarely wrong, but if he was, he would mutter to himself and make a mental note about it for the future.

Like any thorough scientist, M. Arnaud applied this kind of thinking to the rest of his observations about life.

And, well, he was French. His cows were French. His pigs were French. His chickens were French. The goat, as we have said, was not so sure, but there being no very reasonable alternatives was deemed French as well. And besides those little animals with which Arnaud interacted on a daily basis, all the people he met in the village and at the market were French too.

Furthermore, he reasoned, getting quite carried away by these leaps of logic, since he had grown up French, his parents must have been French too. And for them to be French, their parents must have been French… and so on and so on, all the way back to the dawn of time. (Since Luc had not had the chance to read many books, he didn’t know, as we do, that human beings probably started somewhere in Africa, not France.)

Ipso facto, he thought (and was well pleased with the term), everyone in the world is French.

Nothing that anyone could say would convince him otherwise. He was quite firm. He had never observed anyone who was not French. Why then should he believe that there were non-French people in the world?

His friends and neighbours debated this. Did they themselves know any non-French people? Marguerite, the baker, was quite sure that she’d once sold bread to a girl who had seen, and even spoken to, an Englishman in Paris. But this was swiftly dismissed — any explanation relying on information from Paris was not to be countenanced, Paris being rather far away and not truly French, after all.

Georges, who was an artist, said that as a young man in Montpellier he had often given money to a busker who sang songs in another language. That meant that there must be non-French people around. After all, the French themselves had no use for other languages — in French you could say, or sing, anything you wanted, provided you had plenty of time. But the villagers hemmed and hawed over this; Georges, being an artist, was also a dreamer. It was quite possible he had imagined those songs.

Fauchelevent the carter had the most compelling evidence. He had once been in Marseille, where he’d met some sailors from Greece. He’d even eaten some of their food, though he didn’t allow that it was as good as proper French cooking. This, finally, was sufficient for the villagers — everyone could remember that Fauchelevent had indeed gone to Marseille not too many years ago, and he was a trustworthy man. The matter was thus settled: not everyone in the world was French. Fauchelevent’s stomach was testament to the fact.

But still old Arnaud did not accept it.

The seasons changed one by one. Arnaud continued to farm on the outskirts of the village. He continued to make his occasional appearances at the market, at the butcher’s and at the baker’s. He even won a game of tarot and celebrated by buying everyone a drink, an event which was talked about almost as much as his singular belief in the comprehensiveness of the French.

Some years later, a particularly harsh winter stopped the village in its tracks.

Strands of ice hung from the tree branches. The river was frozen over, and the pond. One night, a hungry fox raided the village, taking any chicken or duck that was left outside.

The poultry was not the only death the land witnessed.

Two weeks into the freeze, Arnaud appeared in the village, a sack slung over his shoulder. In the sack was the body of his goat, whose natural obstinacy in the face of death had finally been overcome by old age.

Burial was impossible in the frozen ground, and burning would have been a waste of wood. In the end, old Arnaud decided to offer the goat around to the village. The winter was bad enough that someone would probably eat the meat, and someone even more desperate would take the offal, and the bones.

After the carcase had been disposed of, M. Arnaud returned to his farm and his fireside. As a farmer, he had seen death many times. It did not upset him, although he thought he would probably miss the goat’s milk, and its refusal to engage in reasoned conversation.

What happens after death? he wondered. He wasn’t sure, despite having seen quite a lot of it.

Is there anything outside France?

He had been so certain that everyone in the world was French, despite all his friends telling him otherwise.

It was at this moment that Luc realised that sometimes the best answer you can give to a question is no answer at all.

History doesn’t record what happened to M. Arnaud after that. Some say that he died a few days after the old goat — though no one in the village was quite desperate enough to eat his body, which was stored in the church crypt til the ground thawed and he could be buried. Others say he lived for another fifty years, annoying everyone around with his newfound penchant for professing his ignorance. Once, upon being asked for his bid at the start of a round of tarot, it is said that he answered “I don’t know” with such immense satisfaction that everyone else in the village refused to play with him ever again.

Still others report that old Arnaud is still farming the land down in the south of France, though exactly where, and exactly how old he must be by now, is not remembered.

What do you think?

This work was partly inspired by a conversation with Shaun Hampton, and partly by this passage from the Wikipedia article on cosmic variance: “Consider the physical model of the citizenship of human beings in the early 21st century, where about 30% are Indian and Chinese citizens, about 5% are American citizens, about 1% are French citizens, and so on. For an observer who has only one observation (of his/her own citizenship) and who happens to be French and cannot make any external observations, the model can be rejected at the 99% significance level. Yet the external observers with more information unavailable to the first observer, know that the model is correct.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: