The Englishman's Castle links to a nice oped in the Wapping Liar by Alastair Campbell about France - or rather about the rosy specs view of France held by Wapping's answer to the loony Grauniad writers - Sir Simon Jenkins. As someone who resides in France I have to say that Sir Simon demonstrates that his knowledge of France is equal to his grasp on, say Iraq, i.e. practically non-existent, yet I would also like to take a few minor potshots at Campbell's piece too. To begin with the more egregious bits of Sir Simon's article:
... 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.
All food is French. In most places the only alternatives to French food are McDonalds, Pizza, Couscous and if you are lucky a "Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai" restaurant. Likewise the roads are "empty" because everyone has gone on holiday and the landscape rural because France has the same population as the UK shoehorned into three times the area.
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.
The key bit here is "at any cost", since Sir Simon isn't here he doesn't have to pay the cost. And the idea that the French prefer their local stores is ludicrous: you just have to look at the crowds besieging every hypermarche every Saturday to realise that, while the French may possibly be OK with buying bread at the boulangerie, they prefer to do the rest of their shopping once at week at Carrefour just the way the English do at Tesco.
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.
And 90% of those local mayors are about as bent as a corkscrew. The mayor of the village where I live is locally famous for providing his services for about a third of the cost that surrounding communes do. I don't think he's a paragon of efficiency, just rather less on the take. The mayoral abuse of the planning laws is so well known that even MacDonalds managed to get something built where they shouldn't in Cagnes-sur-Mer. If you believe there wasn't some brown envelope or Swiss bank account lubricating that transaction then you are far more credulous than I or anyone I know here on the Riviera.
... 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.
I begin to wonder whether Sir Simon has ever actually visited France in person. The idea that traffic on roads in French villages are slowed down by chicanes of shrubs is simply laughable. The French have some of the worst road safety in Europe and they are now beginning to place speedbumps and cameras all over the place to try and reduce the carnage (with it must be noted some success).
.... 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.
The fact that France has about three times the land area of the UK and the same population and the fact that France has been sponging off other EU countries might just help to explain the French paradox. I live in France and I vastly prefer it to the UK in terms of climate, and I have to say that the current ZaNuLabour government of Phony Tony seems determined to make the UK as bad as France, but the belief that French have achieved some sort of Nirvana in terms of a work/life balance is the sort of claim the shows just how out of touch with reality Sir Simon is. In his trips around France Sir Simon has presumably avoided those wonderful banlieux where the immigrants live, with unemployment at 20% or more, with drugs and grafiti on every street corner and enough domestic violence to keep an entire army of social workers happy, if the victims dared to complain that is. He obviously hasn't had his car stolen, his walled nicked on the Metro, his house burgled while he dined at a local restaurant etc. and he obviously has never ever attempted to work his way through the legions of jobsworths who are paid to obstruct citizens from obtaining government services. France may seem like a paradise if you only visit for a fortnight in August, but it definitely isn't one if you live here all year round.
Like I say, Alastair Campbell's article is much better. Spot on about the grumbling on the 35 hour week and the lack of spending power of the French as well as the over-regulation but he also praises the localism that allows mayors to trouser loadsa dosh and not deliver any services. In fact if I want to criticise this article it is mostly about the bits left out. For example he omits one thing that just about every resident I know talks about, namely the difficulty of getting reliable workmen to fix things in ones house. Still in what may be a first, I have to say that I actually agree with about 90% of what he has written. Next thing you know I'll be signing up to join the Labour party.