La France dans la merde

7 mins. to read
La France dans la merde

During this last trip to France for the New Year something really shocking happened. I was walking through a small town on my way to the boulangerie early one morning to buy some freshly baked croissants for breakfast when I availed myself of a pedestrian crossing to cross the road. And – you won’t believe this – the oncoming car stopped. I was even offered a little wave and a smile by the driver.

You see, in my experience of French pedestrian crossings, as soon as French drivers spy a pedestrian about to cross, they accelerate, and often offer an angry toot as they swish by. How dare a mere pedestrian – and some kind of foreigner to boot – slow down the speeding progress of a Renault Laguna or a Peugeot 408? Where the hell do they think they are? England?

And then – I couldn’t believe this – it happened again. It was an old deux chevaux and the elderly male driver actually pinched his beret in a charming gesture of salutation.

Arriving at the boulangerie, of course there was a queue. Why wouldn’t there be, with that gorgeous smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the morning air, melding with the odour of fresh café au lait from the café next door?

Now, even before last week, I would have said that the French do have a concept of queuing, (unlike some of our neighbours who shall remain nameless) but the general attitude towards this activity is one of sauve qui peut[i]. Yet on this occasion a young woman with a small child in front of me, wishing to inspect a shelf of elaborate pastries more closely, gestured to me to take her place ahead of mine. S’il vous plait. Well, that’s another first.

I am not sure why, but recently the French seem to have come over all English. Shopkeepers and tradesmen seem to have lost the art of dramatically shrugging their shoulders with a dismissive pfffffffff… Waiters no longer treat diners with operatic contempt. I have even seen a Gendarme smile. What’s going on?

I wonder if it might have something to do with the fact that the French are actually in a bit of state about their role in the world. Like all first-class people and athletes, the French, despite their reputation for arrogance, have always been racked with self-doubt and worry deeply that their latest performance was below par. Their extraordinary history can sometimes be a lot to live up to.

Don’t get me wrong, life in France for the well-off (and the Brits who can afford to live there) is as congenial as ever. And even for the not-so-well-off there is a comprehensive social system and excellent education and healthcare – not to mention the superlative culture. Even the most insignificant village boasts a Fête de Musique. And don’t forget that the country still boasts 31 Fortune-500 companies (as against 29 for the UK and 28 for Germany).

The problem is that many young people from all classes are finding it very difficult to get jobs (despite brilliant qualifications); the French political class is the subject of ridicule for much of its population; the political class feels that it has lost the initiative in Europe to the Germans; the middle classes are being taxed into oblivion; and yet state finances continue to get worse.

It’s clear that no normal capitalist would want to open a business in France – the bureaucracy is fearsome and small business owners do not enjoy a high social status – which is why small provincial restaurants have deteriorated so dramatically since I first went to France as a schoolboy in the 1970s. French economic growth, rampant in the 1960s and 70s – the heyday of Gaullism – is now pitiful, as bad as Italy’s.

The CEBR World Economic Growth League Table Highlights published on 26 December concluded that:

Some of the weaker European economies like France and Italy are slipping way down the [growth] table. They face exclusion from bodies like the G-8 and possibly eventually the G-20 as their economies persistently underperform[ii].

The latest growth figure – for Q3 2015 – was 0.3%. Unemployment, well above 10%, is at an 18-year high.

In 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President on a platform of la réforme. He strutted about and struck poses for five years, yet achieved little. Then, in 2012, the French elected François Hollande to oppose la réforme. Currently, it seems that even Socialists regard Hollande’s presidency as a failure.

Looking to la présidentielle of 2017, everyone hates Marine Le Pen of the Front National, except of course for the one third of the French who have already voted for her. Right now, the bourgeois right are talking up Alain Juppé, who, like most of Jacques Chirac’s old guard, has a criminal conviction for abuse of public funds. Manners aside, the French are much more forgiving than the English of politicians’ sexual peccadilloes and greed. Even the sainted Madame Lagarde (for now still President of the IMF) will go on trial in Paris for corruption soon. But no one seems to think the worse of her.

But my perception is that the French look forward to the forthcoming French presidential with a kind of tragic resignation. Whether it be Valls (the charismatic Socialist Prime Minister) or Sarkozy II, or Juppé, or Asterix the Gaul, nothing much will change.

Meanwhile, France is going bust – though in a typically dignified manner. According to Eurostat, France most recently had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 95%. Government spending as a proportion of GDP, the highest in Europe, continues to rise. In 2015 it was 57.2%. With interest rates at near-zero, deflation is gaining ground.

But the French are suspicious of economic statistics. What really hit them in 2015 was the realisation, with two horrible Islamist terrorist attacks, that the idea of a unified motherland of common, secular Republican values is in fact a chimera. One of the most depressing books that I read last year was Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada[iii]. Hussey, Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris, believes that the long war between France and the Arab peoples of the Maghreb is still being fought out in the banlieue of France’s great cities. Interestingly, French intellectuals are now discussing the British model of cultural integration in respectful tones. (If only they knew.)

In terms of manners, the English are going in the opposite direction to the French. I am now beyond regular commuter trains; but if ever I have to catch one for a meeting in London, I see only serried rows of salary men and women gazing into hand-held devices, oblivious of their fellow passengers, Styrofoam beakers of scalding liquid in the other hand. A friend of mine was on a commuter train to London Bridge recently when someone had a heart attack. Everyone pretended not to notice.

Despite a reputation for brusqueness (brusque is a good French word), the French were always courteous, rather than polite (courtoisie is another old French word). Last week, I was working out and each and every man who came in to the gym made a point of systematically greeting everyone else with a firm handshake and, making eye-contact, a Bonjour Monsieur. In my gym in Kent, I’m lucky to get a muttered Alright, mate?

At this rate we shall have to throw away our Get By in French phrase books as a new French lexicon emerges. French people, on meeting for the first time, will ask one another: Comment est-ce-que vous faites? (How do you do?) And people waiting at bus stops will muse inconsequential nothings about the weather such as: Un temps qui s’est déroulé agréablement, encore une fois, n’est-ce-pas? (Turned out nice again, hasn’t it?)

I am sure that the French will get through their current malaise and inspire the world once again. But in order to do so they will have to drop the three obsessions that have so undemocratically taken over from Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Namely: the European Ideal, the Social Model and la mission civilisatrice. (The latter is the French notion which has its transatlantic analogue in the idea that America has a duty to foist democracy on the world – whether people want it or not.)

All of these three things are now passé; and many French people know it. What’s more – something I intend to write about soon – French economic interests are now diverging from those of Germany.

This will be another difficult year for the French. 2017 will probably be even worse. And yet the French, always brilliant, in adversity get nicer. I long to return there in the spring. First loves never die.

[i] Normal English translation: Every man for himself.

[ii] Available at:

[iii] The French Intifada; The Long War Between France and it Arabs, by Andrew Hussey, Granta Books, 2014.

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