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A spirit of fellowship that transcends communities | James Harrington

The quiet responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with those inalienable French rights of liberté, égalité and fraternité 

THE FOLLOWING tale is more than just the story of how an uncollected bûche de Noël saved a man’s life.

You may have read about Mary Tomasi, a baker in Lillers, Pas-de-Calais, who became worried when a customer in his 60s failed to pick up his Christmas dessert.  

Police initially shrugged off her concerns, saying the man had probably gone away for the holidays – but after discovering he had not cancelled his daily paper, Ms Tomasi called the authorities again.  This time, she warned: “If you find this man dead in a week, or a month or two, I know I did the right thing.”

Officers called at the man’s house to discover Ms Tomasi’s concerns were justified. He was alive but unable to move after falling out of bed five days previously. That could be the end of it – a heart-warming festive news story – but it deserves better than to be forgotten so quickly. It is yet another example of something that thrives – often unheralded and uncelebrated – in hameaux, communes and villes across France.

It is more than just community spirit. It has a name that is burned into the heart and soul of the Republic – fraternité. More often than not, it surfaces at times of sadness. Think about the candles lit outside Lycée Saint Exupéry in Lyon after two pupils died in an avalanche at Les Deux Alpes in January. Remember the spontaneous demonstrations of grief, defiance and solidarity in the wake of the attacks in Paris last November, or after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the three days of terror that followed in January 2015.  

Recall also the open letter sent to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011, in which 16 French billionaires including L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt urged him to let them pay more tax to ease France’s economic woes – and called on more of the country’s richest citizens to do the same. Then try to remember the last time the UK’s rich made a similar offer.

Fraternité and its siblings liberté and égalité are championed as rights, but they are more, much more. They are seriously taken responsibilities.

Fathers-to-be receive a booklet from the government containing advice on impending parenthood. It includes a covenant in which the state promises to provide, among other things, a chance of a decent education, reasonable local leisure facilities, and public safety. In return, parents are expected to raise “responsible” children.

But you do not have to be a parent to experience this concept.

It goes hand in hand with the feeling that someone, somewhere, is watching out for you. It is evident in the silent marches held in memory of a much-loved resident after tragedy strikes. It is in the demonstrations for or against ... well, anything. It is in the millions of people who dig just a little deeper several times a year to buy food for those who are struggling. And it is in people caring for each other, like Ms Tomasi in Pas-de-Calais, who cared enough about a customer to do something.

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