Letter from France

The sea glimmers over the gently lapping waves of the Mediterranean, interrupted only by the murmuring of foam and the occasional call of a gull. Gone are the bobbing heads and bronzed bodies of tourists and locals, which remained scattered across Nice’s stony shore until the end of October. The beach restaurants which jutted out from the promenade at regular intervals have given way to a colder and emptier shoreline.

Back in autumn, a stroll down the Promenade des Anglais would bring snippets of many nearby languages—Italian, German, Spanish, and of course English—but also from further afield: Russian, Finnish, Japanese, Korean. My French would often be met with the broken English of visitors from outside the Francophone and Anglophone worlds.

But as the late Mediterranean sun of October drifted into the damper weeks of November and the chill of December, these diverse tongues have yielded gradually to French. Four million tourists come to Nice each year, hemming themselves into the hottest months, although a stable foreign population of over 20 percent remains throughout the winter. The city may no longer be the fashionable place for British aristocratic families to while away the winter months it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the Nice of today is home to populations from across Europe, the Maghreb, and beyond.

Roads exhibit the names of foreign lands, from the Rue de Russie to the Quai des États-Unis, bearing witness to Nice’s historical openness to foreigners and their investments. Flags of many of the world’s nations line the shoreline in small clusters. They reflect from time to time local sentiment over contemporary events: the French flags were at half-mast for Jacques Chirac’s death in September; the British flag was lowered—just a fraction—when Boris Johnson agreed a new Brexit deal with the European Commission; and the US flag was torn to the ground when Donald  J. Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

Founded in the third century by Greek colonists scattering themselves around the shores of the Mediterranean, Nice has always been a city of foreigners, of travellers, of outsiders. Gauls mixed with Greeks in the first days of the city, producing a creative cultural synthesis which gave the city its early identity. The intersection of cultures has been fundamental to the Niçois spirit ever since. Aristocratic and even royal families from Britain, Italy and Russia ensured the prosperity and development of the city up to the first world war, and more recently the city has seen an influx of pieds noirs and Arabs after the independence of the Maghreb states in the 1950s and 60s.

Yet there have been periods of intolerance too. The city was swept along in the wave of anti-Semitism which plagued the country from the late 19th century onwards; anti-Italian sentiment emerged in a similar period as the city looked to establish a distinctively French identity. In recent times, Nice has been the centre of the burkini controversy, which saw a woman fined for her clothing on the beach, and tensions surrounding a project to build a large mosque for the minority Muslim population reveal contemporary anxieties about integration and identity.

Nice, populated by so many new arrivals from all corners of the globe, is itself a relative newcomer to the nation of which it proudly proclaims its part. For a long time, it lay just outside of the kingdom of France, and the remains of the city’s old château, destroyed by French king Louis XIV in 1706, bear witness to Nice’s status outside France for much of its history. It fell briefly to French rule under Napoleon before being lost again; though a part of France since 1860, Mussolini had designs on it as part of his plans to enlarge Italy to its “natural” borders.

The traditional local dialect, niçois, is the product of a close intermingling of Italian and French, though it is no longer spoken and is unintelligible to the majority of locals. If the longevity of the city’s niçois anthem—played to me on more than one occasion in my time here—reveals a strong sense of local identity, the divergence between the dialect and the mainstream French spoken by locals shows the close attachment which the city now feels towards its adoptive nation.

Yet despite this national diversity and local identity, a conscious attempt to unite behind the French nation can be felt: in the particular abundance of French flags, which grew all the more in the aftermath of terrorism, and in the national pride of so many of the residents I meet. A tall, imposing statue of the goddess Victoire looks out over the bay and celebrates Nice’s annexation to France, which has become a defining moment in the city’s mythology and folklore: a monument which affirms an element of continuity with the ancient settlement of Nikaia (dedicated by the Greeks to Nike, the goddess of victory) but in a new, proud, and distinctively French form. 

Yet if the city marks its historic connection with notions of victory, it is profoundly conscious of its status as victim, too. The Promenade des Anglais, with its peaceful, easy character, bears the marks of violence: bollards placed periodically across the front serve as a reminder to the passer-by of the need to protect residents and tourists from the possible danger of a lorry-driving terrorist.

The 86 deaths caused by the terrorist attack of July 16, 2016 hang heavily over the city, and the memorial to the victims outside the Musée Massena receives a steady stream of solemn visitors. When I speak with locals about their lives in Nice, the memory of that day invariably surfaces. Yet today the Promenade des Anglais retains all the bustle and life which it ever had. Macho runners make their frenzied journey along the cycle path, leaving meandering families of cyclists in their wake; tourist couples gaze at the steady, rolling waves to one side before turning their heads to the grandeur of 19th-century hotels on the other; and local workers make their hasty way across the seafront or seek to attract the late-season tourists with offers of merchandise or food.

Centuries of inhabitation from varied peoples have left their mark on Nice. Along the seafront, a British Hotel Westminster vies for attention with the grand, Romanian Hotel Negresco and the French art deco style of the Palais de la Méditerannée. Yet the natural beauty of the bay and the mountains that first attracted those early Greeks remains to this day. The rich blues of the coastline which inspired the painter Yves Klein are as intense as ever, and the bay contains a rich diversity of wildlife. Sitting beside me on one of the many benches looking out to sea, a kindly old man invites me to notice the different color patterns of seabirds, and what can be learnt from them. He smiles at me: “I see you lost in your book. Books are great, but don’t forget to look up too.”

Aidan Chivers