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France 2021 Part 2

Currently the Tour de France is taking place. I imagine they are somewhere in the Alps at the moment, the steep climbs and vertiginous descents packed as usual with vociferous and dangerously surging enthusiasts. The French remain in love with their Tour but I fancy the ardour has cooled a little since the heady days of Bernard Hinault, Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil. Those unwelcome foreigners, especially les Anglais perfides, have been dominating in recent years.

The Tour provided me with another, unexpected contrast between England and France. You would expect a country with such a glittering history and tradition in cyclisme to have its byways and thoroughfares crowded with amateur peletons peddling furiously in all their Lycra-clad garishness. Not so. There is the odd, grimly-intent cyclist abroad but very few. In England, it is rare for a car journey not to be slowed down by knots of cycling enthusiasts, all shouting at the top of their voices. I shall need a physicist to explain to me why – if – words are tossed to the four winds as you communicate with someone peddling alongside, two feet away.

I have mixed feelings about the outbreak of cycling fever in England. Whilst it is heartening to see so many people in this increasingly sedentary world of ours taking exercise in the fresh air, on the other hand, cars and bicycles are not a good mix. Of course, we live on a crowded little island and our roads are not built to assimilate adequate cycle lanes, so we must all share the streets and lanes (often with mutual exasperation). The only answer is to build more cycling tracks (perhaps reviving dismantled railways). But we all know that is unlikely to happen.

However, plenty of French men and women still use the bicycle as a means of getting from one place to another. Strangely, to our eyes, practically none of them is wearing a helmet. In England, even a five-year old on a tricycle is fitted with a helmet. This is one facet of ‘elf and safety that seems to have passed by the French. You are not allowed to swim in a piscine with shorts – budgie smugglers are de rigeur – and you are constrained by law to put your headlights on, even in the lightest of drizzles, as well as countless other fiercely-applied by-laws, but helmets…..Ca n’a pas d’importance. A theory was advanced to me by a friend recently. The difference between the Law of France and Common Law in England is one of emphasis. In France it is decreed what you are allowed to do. In England, we are told what we cannot do. There is also another major difference. The French are hot on rules and regulations, unless they do not like them. Then they simply ignore them. I confess to a sneaking regard for this attitude.

Death – now there’s a subject to set the pulse racing – comes to us all, even at the time of our birth. So said Thomas More to his daughter, Margaret, on the eve of his execution. But on the surface - or ‘under the surface’ would probably be more apposite - the French seem to have a lower death rate than the English. How come? Because their cemeteries – at least in la France profonde – are noticeably smaller than church graveyards in England. Given that France is a considerably larger country than England, with vast tracks of land sparsely inhabited, it is curious that their burial plots are so circumscribed. They are always situated beyond the city walls, nowhere near the environs of the church, often in an isolated field and no bigger than a couple of tennis courts. The brickwork walls do not lend themselves to expansion and the headstones are tightly packed. I am told – and I have no reason to believe that my informant is dissimulating – that you have to book your final resting place, much like a theatre ticket or a parking slot. If you can give advance notice that you are willing to lie on top of your spouse – if you see what I mean – so much the better.

Le marche – one of the central pillars of life in rural France. It goes the round of the local towns and villages, following a rota that is as timeless as the hills. You can spot the same cheese lady, the same fishmonger, the same African selling handbags and leather belts as you follow the traders around the region. The range and freshness of the produce on display knock those apologies for a market in the UK into a cocked hat. And the smell of chicken roasting on the rotisserie is enough to stir the stomach juices, now matter how early in the day is the hour. Why English supermarkets do not make provision for chickens slowly turning on the spit is a mystery to me. You take one look at the glistening bird on the turn and think, right, that’s lunch sorted. There is always a lively queue at the food stalls; the rest of the vendors look bored and idle. Trinkets, pottery, soaps, clothing, second-hand books (I found none of mine), paintings, toys….. none seemed to be doing much of a trade. One significant stall that used to be a source of astonishment to visiting Britons was the knife display. And if you’re thinking solely of innocent-looking penknives, think again. In the words of the eponymous Crocodile Dundee, when confronted by a group of knife-wielding hoodlums on the subway of New York, he riposted, “Now, that’s a knife!”, pulling out his own Bowie knife, more resembling a short sword. Fearsome-looking weapons were on open display and available to buy with little or no age-limit or discretion required by the seller. It never failed to make me laugh, albeit a little uneasily. However, the knife dealers seem to have disappeared. Maybe terrorist attacks in France have compelled French lawmakers to take a second look at those lax regulations. But, whatever the merchandise, whatever the trade, it must be a hard life, getting up before daybreak, setting up your stall, touting your wares and then packing up and moving on to the next venue, rain or shine, day after day. It must be harder still during the winter months, with no tourists or holiday-makers in town. It’s a wonder they manage to make ends meet.

A man made his way slowly across the square, picking up scraps of paper with one of those elongated claws. “I must say,” I remarked to my companion, “French villages and towns, for the most part, are spotlessly maintained.” My companion gave a hollow laugh. “Do you know how many civil servants there are in France?” I confessed that I did not. “Five times the number we have in the UK..” That did surprise me, though I did not grasp the connection between this fact and the cleanliness of the streets. “Take this village,” he continued, “How many street cleaners and kerb trimmers do you think it would need?” Once again, I owned up to the fact that I had no idea. “There is work enough for one man, maybe one-and-a half.” I forbore from enquiring what half a man would look like, for my companion was on a roll. “And yet there are five! Just one example of the bloated army of people in this country employed by the state.” Not quite persuaded by his assertions, I took the trouble to check the figures. In fact he was mistaken; the numbers are even more astonishing. The French Civil Service employs 5 million people, about 20% of the country’s workforce. In England, the figure is about 330,000. What on earth do they all do? “Not much,” was the general response, when I broached the subject. This bloated bureaucracy, this favoured elite, with their relaxed working hours, their fat pay cheques, their early retirements and their favourable pensions, grate on the public consciousness. I am no economist but I do wonder how France, living well beyond its means, sees its way out of this spiral of debt. I guess the Gallic shrug is the answer.

The word in French for a civil servant is ‘fonctionnaire’. That is a splendid word that somehow better fits the bill than its English counterpart, much like ‘hors d’oeuvre’, ‘avant-garde’, crème de la crème’, faux pas’, savoir faire’, ‘trompe-l’oeil’, ‘raison d’etre’, ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ and many, many others. All these phrases have a certain je ne sais quoi. ‘Fonctionnaire’ should be said out loud, almost spitting it out of the mouth, its disdainful tone dripping from each syllable. It doesn’t sound a very estimable sort of word, like ‘surgeon’, ‘barrister’, ‘chancellor’, ‘professor’, ‘champion’, ‘general’. You get my drift. The function of a fonctionnaire is to fulfil its function. Rather like Jarndyce v Jarndyce, that fictional court case in Dickens’s Bleak House, which goes round and round and never comes to a conclusion, fonctionnaires make work to justify their existence. How else do 5 million workers fill their time looking after their countrymen?

Location, location, location! A French word, of course. Not the least of the attractions of this alluring country is the abundance of charming properties set in a location that house-buyers in England would pay for through the roof. I use the phrase advisedly because many of these dwellings do not have a roof, slowly bequeathing their shells to the ravages of time. The possibilities that these dilapidated dwellings afford – at knock-down prices too – are boundless. Sadly, I do not have a single DIY bone in my body but for those who relish a project…. Some of these houses have been rescued by resourceful builders and craftsmen, restoring them and bringing them to a pleasing level of aesthetic harmony entirely in keeping with their surrounds. Many of these have been bought and done up by Brits. I have a sense – no more than that, taking into account my execrable French – that this invasion is a bit resented by the locals. I do not think it is anti-English per se; it is more of a small-town antagonism to all foreigners. It would be the same back home, I’m sure. One French family in our village would be a novelty. Several would be charming. A whole cohort loudly taking over the pub would be just ‘too much’. NIMBY. Or in French, PCM (Pas Chez Moi). However, it is an inescapable fact that these ex-pat Brits bring work, employment and spending power to the local economy. I just wish that some of them did not bray so loudly – and in their own tongue, too.

Little English is spoken by the natives – why should they? – so it is incumbent upon those English who come to live here to make a concerted effort to learn the language. Some do, and speak fluently. Some try, but find it a strain and speak haltingly. Others cannot be bothered and rely on gestures and pidgin English. The cliché of the Englishman who cannot make himself understood in a foreign country just shouting more loudly contains, like most cliches, more than a grain of truth. I always thought it polite – and pragmatic – to learn at least a few useful phrases in a foreign country. I remember making myself very popular among the hotel staff on a holiday in Turkey by uttering the single word “Ataturk”. I imagine any visitor to England would gain equal approval if he went around saying, “Churchill’.

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