Among the most life-affirming vignettes in French philosophy is the one by Voltaire that includes the charming words: “We must cultivate our garden” (Il faut cultiver notre jardin).
A wise old Muslim man referred to as ‘The Turk’ utters them as he explains how he ignores the world’s horrific problems, and instead concentrates on his little plot.
Forget trying to sort out inequality, injustice, natural disasters, and other grim matters beyond our control, this key character in Voltaire’s Candide, which was published in 1759, suggests that growing your own fruit and vegetables, and selling what you don’t eat at market – as he does – will give you all the personal fulfilment you need.
Your own plot equates to happiness
The true meaning of Voltaire’s life guidance has been discussed and reappraised a thousand times (it’s called philosophising), but the most obvious meaning – your own plot equates to happiness – has been a bedrock of French life for centuries.
The eternal France mythologised by Gallic icons from Joan of Arc to Charles de Gaulle is one full of proud but humble gardeners turning over their own fertile soil and remaining self-sufficient in the process.
The concept of La France profonde (Deep France) – a rural idyll with endless roots – has inspired songs, literature, and films.
Even King Louis XIV was a green-fingered sovereign. His Potager du Roi (King’s Vegetable Garden) is still open to this day at Versailles.
The contentment it brought to the Sun King is undoubtedly one of the reasons he is the world’s longest-serving monarch, with a reign lasting 72 years and 110 days.
Macron has never grown a carrot in his life
Hence the sense of outrage at the rumour that Emmanuel Macron – a Frenchman who is certainly far more interested in cataclysmic global affairs than local ones – wants to tax profits on home gardens.
It would be the kind of move that is typical of a fiscally-obsessed head of state who has never grown a carrot in his city-based life.
At present, home plots, whether allotments or modest window boxes, produce some of the best food in France.
Do not mess with France’s vegetable plots
If the land does not exceed 500 square metres, nor represent a main business, then owners keep all the profits.
Macron, a former banker and civil servant who specialised in tax, knows that even a few euros from every plot across the Republic would bring in multimillions.
Such an initiative would bolster the economy at a time when he has already caused riots by putting up the pension age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote.
Messing with gardens would trigger even worse trouble, and that’s undoubtedly why an Agriculture Ministry spokesman insisted that there were “no immediate plans” for the new tax.
Draws attention to Macron’s contempt for ordinary people
Opposition politicians were less convinced – Macron has no obvious affinity with France’s rich soil, let alone those who cultivate it, meaning he could spring a mean-minded levy at any moment, using a presidential decree to get it on the statute book.
Others have suggested that social media tricksters started the rumours, but rightly so, because they draw attention to Macron’s contempt for ordinary people outside the Paris establishment, and indeed his disregard for democracy.
Whatever the case, there is no doubt that in a world of e-commerce and automated working practices that alienate and divide, we could all do with getting back to what really matters occasionally.
Yes, the world is too interlinked to ignore the big issues completely, but as a means of distraction, it is hard to beat growing what you can, keeping what you need, and making a satisfying profit off what’s left.
If you want to hand your spoils over to a worthy cause, all the better – just make sure it has nothing to do with grasping urban politicians.