The Sunday Times - Comment
August 21, 2005
France in the sunshine looks a better place
For 11 months a year the British hate the French. Then comes August. Suddenly the rivalry stops, the abuse ceases. All is goodwill and admiration. Sir Philip Sidney’s “sweet enemy, France” becomes sweet again. Millions of Britons — 12m to be precise — swallow their pride and find France a necessary relief. Half a million of them flee to French second homes.France in August is not a country of striking workers, subsidy-besotted farmers, arrogant footballers and hypocritical trade practices. Its music-hall president with one foot in jail is forgotten. Instead Britons smell the delicious aroma of a newly baked baguette. As the political sea subsides, the towers of Chambord rise from the mist, the ramparts of Rocamadour and the cafes of St Paul de Vence. There are popes again in Avignon and inquisitors in Albi. The Three Rivers of France flow gloriously through Britain’s adopted summer garden of Aquitaine.At such times the visitor opens his Montaigne and his Montaillou. He revises his Albigensian heresy and becomes an idiot slave to the Cathar treasures and the Knights Templar and the holy grail. All food is “fusion”. All cars are manual. The roads are empty and the sun shines on red tiles and ochre walls in a landscape that is always rural. This is the France that the British see in August. They are like soldiers at Ypres, emerging from the trenches for a Christmas truce.A truism holds that not all peoples are best suited to the countries they inhabit. I always thought the Indians would make a better fist of England than the English. The best Germans are from Austria and the best Americans are from Ireland. But one thing is incontrovertible. The French do France better than anyone. They are superb at it.Every country outside its capital city is a dialogue between its landscape and its people. Provincial England achieved its apotheosis under the late Victorians. City and countryside were in a cultural balance, depicted in the novels of George Eliot and Dickens (or at least their last chapters).France found a similar balance in the half century after the second world war. Guarded by Common Market protectionism and subsidy, it enjoyed what Charles de Gaulle called a magnificent harmony. “The pond does not aspire to be a waterfall,” he wrote. “Each element in isolation might have been more radiantly brilliant, but that would have detracted from the whole.” (I quote from Alistair Horne’s admirable new An Anglo-Saxon History of France.) That whole became the French “social model”.While the rest of Europe endured the traumas of restructuring — the British in the 1980s and German industry in the 1990s — France appeared to turn its back on change. Its rulers exploited Brussels with Gallic ruthlessness. They grabbed a quarter of Europe’s farm payments and defied all concessions to free trade. When recently the strategy began to fail, they did what French generals do best. They retreated. Jacques Chirac rejected all European Union reform. In May the French electorate threw out the new European constitution as a supranationalism too far.British Francophobes may be deep into smugness but they should beware. France may be facing its “Thatcher” moment and French opinion may think so, too. Years of defying globalisation have damaged the French economy and plunged France into self-doubt. The loss of the Olympics to Tony Blair’s slick showmanship was a blow. The French now devour doom-laden books with titles such as Adieu à la France and La France Qui Tombe, much as the British did in the 1970s.But the France cultivated over the past half century was not some weak-kneed self-indulgence. The French model was a collective decision to which every election and opinion poll attests. It is not just about 35-hour weeks, 10-week holidays and cradle-to-grave welfare. The model enshrined what Michel Albert, the economist, expressed as the superiority of “the Rhineland tortoise over the American hare”. Capitalism, he wrote, was at risk from democracy because it valued making money above spending it. It should be at the service of the nation state, its values and way of life, not the other way round.I always marvel that the price of a French loaf is still fixed by law, to ensure that bakeries stay open in small villages. Controls restrict all supermarkets that might threaten local stores. Planners guard cafes and tabacs. There are few rural buses, encouraging the use of local services and guarding the state rail monopoly. Small schools, clinics, post offices and mairies are maintained at any cost. What Britons can only remember, the French preserve.Are the French wrong? They respect locality. Mayoral autonomy was reinforced by the loi Deferre of 1982, dismantling the architecture of the préfets and ending much French centralism. Every commune has its elected mayor — known by name to 90% of Frenchmen — from Nice, Toulouse and Bordeaux to tens of thousands of villages. Eighty per cent of French communes have less than 1,000 people, yet their mayors have powers over planning and services and are responsible for the appearance, dignity, order and sense of identity of their towns.The resulting benefits are constantly lauded by Britons who have discarded them back home. Local streets are not dominated by anonymous chain stores, because they are banned. The great food market of Villefranche-de-Rouergue in the Lot et Tarn would be inconceivable in Britain. Local police and welfare services are not steadily withdrawn, as in Britain, because local electors vote to retain them and pay for them. Approach any village in Britain and you are greeted with a battery of warnings, speed bumps and dumpsters ordained by some distant philistine authority. The French equivalent is a welcome notice, shady trees and speed controlled by chicanes of shrubs and flower gardens.The bestseller, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, by Jean-Benoit Nardeau and Julie Barlow, asks light-heartedly how France can defy Anglo-Saxon economics and yet be such a good place in which to live. Its answer is that French social policy assumes that people need not work flat out to be productive. They have voted to barter prosperity — higher personal incomes — for a better communal style of living. Social capitalism works. It is a matter of choice.I am sure that much of this cannot last. Rural depopulation in France is an increasing blight. The once glorious Mediterranean littoral is degenerating into the same subtopia as Britain’s coastline. French pensions must one day be scaled back. French healthcare must suffer. Labour laws that have yielded 10% unemployment must be relaxed to stop the flight of jobs overseas.Yet Chirac could remark last month that France did not “envy the British model” and was “much, much better placed than the English”. Its poor were less poor. Its family friendly policies give it Europe’s highest birth rate. How could anyone want to exchange life in modern France for the anonymous mercantilism of provincial Britain? To his audience this was blindingly obvious. To the British press it seemed ludicrous.That was in July. Now millions of Britons are escaping mercantilism for just the lifestyle that Chirac extolled. Perhaps in August they see the real France, one that regards the objective of a modern economy as not just to achieve prosperity but also to enjoy its fruits in the round. It struggles to keep its cities proud, its country rural and its communities vital. It has made its people rich in leisure. It has made a choice.I am not sure Britain knows how to make this choice any more. The government’s dismantling of civic government has wrecked community self-confidence. Its carelessness of rural life is in stark contrast to France’s determination to use planning to protect it. The disempowering of parish, town and county planning leaves every part of Britain subject to edicts from central government. The coast goes to caravans, the lowlands to sprawl estates and the uplands to masts and turbines.Compared with France, Britain is becoming the dark satanic mill of the 21st century.The French model may not be Britain’s model. But I am reluctant to predict that France’s Rhineland tortoise will inevitably seem inferior to the American hare as the 21st century progresses. France may yet prove to have kept hold of qualities that Britain will regret abandoning. Sixty million Frenchmen can’t be completely wrong. Nor can 12m Britons now imitating them.