Saturday is market day in Ferney-Voltaire, a town in the next commune where the father of the Blonde enjoys his French living. Market day in Ferney is something of an event, as it is across all of France, and is an excellent opportunity to sample something of the local flavour. The streets in the centre of town are closed to traffic, and with the grand mairie festooned in tricolores serving as the backdrop, I made myself useful as a vegetable carrier while Savta did the purchasing for a planned dinner party. As we strolled between stalls and sampled interesting tidbits, my father-in-law answered my questions about the town and the influence of its patriarch; the so-called squire of Ferney.
Until the middle of the 18th century, Ferney had been a largely insignificant border village of 150. Isolated from much of France, it attracted little attention until, in 1758, its seigniory was bought by Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. In his 60s by this time, Voltaire had made a life’s work of getting up the nose of the establishment and had spent the larger part of his adult life relocating. Expressing his philosophies on matters of social injustice and equality through anonymous pamphlets and theatre had made Voltaire persona non grata in his native Paris, leading him to spend extended periods in exile in England, at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, and most recently in nearby Geneva. Here he had broken laws that forbade the performance of plays, and Voltaire sought a place where he could enjoy the social freedom of France while not giving up the political freedom of Geneva. A rich man by this time, he did the obvious thing and bought himself a village.
The car parks around Ferney are filled with Swiss cars on market day. Strict limitations on agriculture in Switzerland mean that goods across the border are noticeably cheaper. They dominate the multinational mix that line up to taste the Jura’s cheeses, boar saucisson, and, of course, wine. The towns and villages of the Pays de Gex act as dormitories for the many employees of the large international organizations based in Geneva, and Ferney is one of the largest.
Voltaire took to his role of country gent with aplomb. He built a church and a school and established numerous industries, including watch-making and pottery. His reputation had spread far, and many of the great and the good journeyed to his grand chateau on the edge of town to share in intellectual banter. For those 20 years, this humble village in eastern France became the centre of the Enlightenment. Due to the security of his position and with the cussedness that old age brings, Voltaire no longer played the game of anonymous publishing and denial. During his time at Ferney, he became more involved in high-profile discourses on liberty and religious freedom and championed the oppressed. Ferney grew under his patronage, and by the time of his triumphal return to Paris in 1778 and subsequent rapid demise at the age of 84, it had grown tenfold and become a renowned centre for artisans. To insure against the magic wearing off, the name of the town was tinkered with and Ferney-Voltaire was born.
Today, the squire of Ferney watches over a sweet stall, his stooped figure rising above the striped awnings. He died over 10 years before revolution tore the country he knew apart and a republic was established based on values he treasured and espoused. What would he have thought of the results of all that Enlightenment?
Voltaire’s chateau became a national monument in 1999 and is now open to the public in the summer… sometimes. Check Ferney-Voltaire’s website for refurbishment news. His former home in Geneva, Les Delices, is also a museum dedicated to his life.