Ah, les britanniques

Eh alors, qu’est-ce que vous avez fait vous britanniques ? Every time that someone has asked me that question since last week, a small corner of my heart has rejoiced in the knowledge that, finally, I have graduated from Anglo-Saxon to Briton. It is just a shame that I have finally been given a reasonable label at the very same moment that I wish most fervently to distance myself from the people I share it with.

I am ashamed to be British at the moment. Not simply because of the worldwide publicity surrounding our suicidal decision to leave the European Union, but also because the news reports emerging from England in the wake of the Brexit vote portray a country that I do not recognise. It is a country that holds dear none of the values that I have been writing about in this blog. How can I possibly bleat on about diversity, integration, and cosmopolitan values, when people are being told to “f*** off back to Africa, you p***” on commuter trams in Manchester?

In France, cultural differences have always seemed to me to be worn close to the surface. Thus nobody ever considered whether or not they were causing offence by describing me as being Anglo-Saxon. I still cannot imagine an equivalent tag being applied to French people in England (who loftily addresses a French person as a “Gaul”, for example?).

This French unabashed public acknowledgement—and sometimes mistrust—of cultural differences can yield results, which, for the politically correct Brit, are somewhat uncomfortable. Take the decision last year to legitimise school meals with no pork-free option, for example, which seemed to inspire certain mayors to create meals where all three courses were constructed solely with pork products on the first day when they were entitled to do so. This defiant display of pig-eating was for me the adult equivalent of a small child who has just won an argument waggling their fingers in their ears and blowing raspberries at their vanquished opponent. Not cricket.

Just a month ago I sat smugly at a dinner party table, listening to someone denounce the burka with considerable force, and declare their perfect conviction that a French person should have the right to rip it forcefully off its wearers in the street. What ever happened to liberté ?, I asked at the time, convinced that I had the killer argument. Surely banning the burka was the ultimate symbol of a nation prepared to embrace freedom for its indigenous people but derisive of it when it came to those from outside? In the UK, I preached, we let other cultures express themselves and that enriched our own culture. We had nothing to fear from people who were different…

Now I watch news reports from my country with a creeping sense of alarm. It seems that the functioning toleration I have always advocated was a mere veil (if you will excuse the pun) across a seething and barely concealed cauldron of racial hatred, petty xenophobia, mutual suspicion, and nastily-expressed egotism. The country about which I felt such a poignant nostalgia just a few weeks ago is not the country that I see making the headlines around the globe.

I feel, therefore, as if, in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote, my French friends and acquaintances have the perfect right to mock me, and to reproach me for my dolt-headed championing of British culture: perhaps I will even allow them a triumphal bim. No, they might never have been prepared to tolerate difference in their midst, but at least they were honest about that. For it transpires that, whatever my naïve delusions, us Brits were guilty of hypocrisie all along. We were only ever pretending to be the good guys.

The dog prefers the floor to being British.
Even the dog prefers the floor to being British since Brexit.

In fact, far from being mocked, criticised or stamped on whilst I was down, I have been overwhelmed by expressions of support and sympathy from the friends I have made here. J’ai honte, I say, and they shrug: mais ce n’est pas ta faute. Ça pourrait arriver même en France.

Although I am grateful for the solidarity, I disagree. Marion Le Pen may have hailed the UK’s decision as the way forward for France, and the far right Front National may be alarmingly popular here, but France is too conscious of the benefits it reaps from its EU membership to vote itself out.

It would be impossible to live in the French countryside without acknowledging the safety net that the EU provides to French farmers (and which they will readily go on strike to protect). Struggling regions have a very clear idea about the side on which their bread is buttered. Travel to the Beaujolais, to take just one small example, and everyone acknowledges with pride that their project to try to boost the local economy and attract newcomers, Beaujolais Vert Votre Avenir, would have made precious little headway without generous EU support. Even if some French people have views on race that would make you shudder, naked self-interest would prevent them from biting off the hand that fed them.

Not so in the UK, of course. The mind could but boggle as Doncaster, which voted 69% to 31% for Brexit, suddenly started scrabbling around in a desperate bid to plug the £133 million hole in its finances which would be left when EU funding was withdrawn. The people of that town had voted against the appalling levels of deprivation they were experiencing by depriving themselves of the one source of hope that remained.

No, you can accuse the French of many things, but perversely engineering their own misery is not one of them. Perhaps Doncaster, and all panicking British towns like it, serve as a good illustration of the reason why there is no serviceable French equivalent to our old adage about cutting off your nose to spite your face.




The simple life

In the UK, every member of the middle classes is a budding interior-designer or an incipient property developer. Long gone are the days when someone’s Everest conservatory was the talk of the neighbourhood for at least a decade, and, aged 18, you left a home that looked exactly as it had done on the day you were born. No, today’s home improvements have smashed the long-coveted conservatory into insignificance, and increasingly elaborate modifications have become a constant requirement for all self-respecting homeowners.

We have some friends who, on a whim, demolished an interior wall over Christmas. Other friends have repainted their living room four times in seven years, necessitating the acquisition of new cushions, curtains, and once even a new sofa, to fit each new colour scheme. We ourselves once remodelled the back of the upstairs of our house solely in response to a water leak through the kitchen ceiling. I was heavily pregnant at the time, and the interval between the first drip dropping and the builders starting work was just four days. And, if you want to sell your house, well, where do you draw the line? I know a person who put their flat on the market thinking that they might give the kitchen a lick of paint. One thing led to another and, within a fortnight, new cabinets were being installed.

Why? House prices doubtless have something to do with it. If your prospects of earning enough money from your day job to buy you that modest family house in Forest Hill are vanishingly small, you may as well chance your arm at acquiring £50k by throwing Dulux and a few screwdrivers around.

Perhaps it is also a desire to distinguish ourselves from the herd that causes this frenzy of building and design. Any child of the middle classes who has done the obligatory ten years in London post-university will know what it feels like to aspire to a Victorian terraced property only to discover, upon arrival, that your particular home looks just like all the other Victorian properties up and down the country. In such a situation, if you want to stand out from the crowd you are going to have to develop and assert your “personal style” pretty quickly.

Entire industries have risen up in response to the ascendency of amateur interior design. Setting aside the builders (who, Brexiters tell us, are all Polish anyway) there are the likes of John Lewis, which boast home departments stuffed to the gills with salivating new home owners. Estate agencies have become savvy too. In some of the better areas, potential buyers would be hard pressed to believe that anyone actually lived in the properties that appear online, so perfectly plumped are the cushions, so marvellously light and sleek are the kitchens. Has some law been passed to prevent the sale of houses with ugly interiors?

Needless to say, this vogue has not yet hit France to anything like the same degree. This becomes immediately apparent when you visit houses that you are considering renting or buying. Not only has nobody purchased a few tasteful coordinating vases and lit some beautifully aromatic candles to entice you to sign on the dotted line, but it can appear that nobody has actually cleaned the property for several years, let alone thought about whether or not their bedding complemented their saucepans. And, whilst we may mock British estate agents for their poor photography, it is alarmingly common for French agents to attempt to sell a house by means of a picture of an upturned plastic chair on a windswept terrace in the middle of one of the worst storms of winter.

This is partly illustrative of lack of concern for the superficial (who, in all honesty, cares where your dining table is from, so long as you can eat off it?), partly due to a cultural frugality (bordering on stinginess), but also, I think, a pragmatism that is not to be found in other areas of French life.

Whilst the British home is insulated by carpets, curtains, cushions and throws, the French home is invariably tiled. This is self-evidently better when your child decides to enter the world ketchup-smearing championship, your dog wees on the floor, or your guest clumps in with muddy shoes. It also enables you to swill red wine with gay abandon, and qui, in their right mind, ne veut pas un verre de rouge with their steak frites of a quiet evening?

This culture goes much further than soft-furnishings, however. I am struck whenever I visit French homes by the total lack of clutter. Homes containing small children are almost entirely devoid of those horrifying downstairs rooms that are drowning in oceans of plastic. It seems that French children are able to entertain themselves without two walkers, three kitchens and twenty annoying beepy things, quite possibly because they are too busy wading through their mountains of devoirs, or becoming champion swimmers in their spare time.

But the adults, too, have less stuff. To give but a trivial example, when I move house I take with me tens of photo frames containing pictures capturing precious moments in the lives of my family and friends. The faces of my nearest and dearest soon proceed to gurn at me from every flat surface in my new abode: even the shoe rack is not exempt. French sideboards, by contrast, bear implements for eating and bowls of fruit, whilst photos are stashed away in albums. No doubt this simplicity is facilitated by the veritable Aladdin’s cave of the French cellar, but, however it is achieved, it does seem to engender a certain lightness of being. Perhaps it is easier to take a two-hour lunch break if you are unencumbered by all the tasteful paraphernalia that hems us Brits in?

Robot and dog
The dog versus robot stand-off on the practical tiled floor

Since moving house, we have been trying to emulate our French friends and live more simply, and with less stuff. The main drawback so far is the fact that we no longer have enough junk to hide the dirt. So far this has led to the acquisition of a robot hoover. It remains to be seen what the ratio of new cleaning items to discarded junk will be over time…


Trust nobody

The other day I went to collect a parcel from a local shop. It being the third time that I had collected something from that particular outlet, the woman recognised my tête anglaise and remembered that I had a verb masquerading as a surname.

Just as she was about to hand over the package, she asked to see my identity card. Catastrophe. I did not have one, I said: us Brits don’t, generally. After the obligatory expressions of shock and bewilderment at the notion that a person could exist without an identity card, non, she said, I cannot give you ze parcel because you do not have your carte d’identité. I proffered my carte vitale—my social security card—which bears my full name and a photo of me, but this was rejected. I did not have my driving licence because for some reason my husband had it in his wallet. Votre passeport alors ? Mais non, surprisingly, given that I had no intention to leave the country that day, I had not slipped it into my handbag before leaving the house. Well then, there was nothing to be done. Without the correct documentation, my parcel would remain in the shop.

This, for me, was an example of the mistrust, both institutional and social, that is written into every transaction that takes place in everyday French life. It did not matter that the woman in the shop knew who I was: her role was to mistrust me. Presumably my two previous, legitimate, visits had all been part of an elaborate ruse to trick her into allowing me to make this third visit, unsupported by any passport, during which I would somehow, somehow… well, do something incredibly méchant, that’s what.

Such mistrust is not confined to postal transactions.  Industrial and political mistrust is currently wreaking havoc with ordinary French lives: it even touches the lives of the ordinary British people who have opted to live in the pitchfork waving hexagon.

A week ago, finding the petrol tank in our car running low, I decided to fill up. I turned into the forecourt of the nearest petrol station, only to discover that there were barriers in front of every pump bearing improvised signs which announced that the patrons were desolés, but that both petrol and diesel were en rupture. Feeling slightly jittery, I crossed the river to another petrol station where, happily, there were a number of cars on the forecourt. It was not until I had swung cheerfully in that I realised that there were chains across all the petrol pumps. Only diesel was available: petrol was, here too, en rupture.

Now in fully-blown panic, I drove to a third petrol station, even further away. I kept my speed right down, eliciting furious honks all round, for fear of burning up too much of the now-precious resource in my petrol tank. Fortunately, two of the ten petrol-dispensing pumps at the next station were in operation, and I was able to fill up. There was, however, a long queue of similarly nervous-looking people, and the notices heralding limited availability made me worry for the people at the back of the line.

The petrol shortage that I was experiencing was caused by a strike by workers at French petrol plants, large numbers of whom were protesting about the controversial loi travail being proposed by the Government. This being France, you will already have deduced that the strike was not confined to petrol workers. Beh non. They were joined in their outraged disquiet by numerous other disgruntled workers, notably in the domain of transport. Across France, as trains were cancelled willy-nilly, planes grounded, and the roads clogged with those cars that dared to use their last litres of fuel, people were seen desperately dusting off bicycles that they had not ridden for 20 years in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their daily commute. Rumour has it that even Madame Lipstick remembered that she had a pair of feet that had skills other than depressing the accelerator pedal.

Depending on the point of view that you (mis)trust the most, the loi de travail is either there to enact much-needed reforms to the labour market that will help get the one in three young people who are currently unemployed into work and boost the stagnating French economy, or to remove the last skimpy vestiges of protection from the already embattled French worker. (See here or here for a more reliable summary of this parlous state of affairs).

No matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter are, I have been astonished by the levels of deeply ingrained mistrust that I have heard expressed on the subject. One acquaintance informed me in solemn tones that the proposed law signalled the end of France’s fine socialist tradition. It was about allowing the grand chefs, every last one of whom was deeply and intrinsically evil, to force their employees to work during August and then to fire them unceremoniously in order to fill their posts with cheap foreign labour, or possibly even robots. Were all patrons necessarily evil, though? I was met with a disbelieving stare. Mais, oui : il faut se méfier d’eux tous. There we had it: mistrust of one’s employer was a prerequisite: as obvious and necessary as buying one’s daily baguette.


On the other hand, in the rarefied air of our local commune, the opposite sentiments are equally caricatured. C’est la guerre, remarked one otherwise mild-mannered, red corduroy-sporting neighbour: zese people will hhhhruin the Frunch economy. Ziss week, plus d’essence. Next week, they will be guillotining people devant la Mairie. (Personally, I think the strikers resemble less a set of bloodthirsty Robespierres than a set of stroppy toddlers, but there you go.) The Unions, too, it seems, can never be trusted.

United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
All this mistrust seems to me to create a series of set piece tableaux: whichever side you belong to, there is the goodie and there is the baddie. The goodies are good. The baddies are bad. The one should never trust the other. The two can never be reconciled. I put this down to too many stimulants in the form of black coffee and red wine. Perhaps if the French learned to drink a good milky cuppa, they’d imbibe with it the art of the compromise, or just the good old British art of a fudge.


For a more jolly view of French life, I would recommend visiting the #AllAboutFrance linky…


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