Everyone is created equal

Before I moved to France, I took the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto somewhat for granted. Lovely aspirations, I thought: who would not agree with them? Now that France is in fully-blown election fever, however, I have had cause to note that the égalité part, at least, is not merely a soundbite for a long-forgotten manifesto, but an obsession that permeates every aspect of French public life.

In the centre of our village, there are a series of metal panels onto which posters can be pasted. For most of the time the peuple ignore the affichage libre signs instructing them where they can stick their notices (so to speak) and compete riotously with each other to plaster their adverts closest to the middle of the only section where they have no right to do so. A few weeks ago, these metal panels suddenly multiplied. Within minutes, they had been slathered with François Fillon posters.

Then, one day, everything was taken down and stern notices went up telling people to refrain from further campaigning. The panels remained naked for about 24 hours whereupon, one morning, they sprouted numerals, from 1 to 11, to each of which a single poster promoting one of the 11 presidential hopefuls was assigned. Since then good citizens of St Cyr have obediently left the panels well alone.

It took me a while to work out that this unusually orderly bout of affichage was a symptom of the literal-minded French obsession with égalité. If all the candidates are given the same surface area on which to advertise, the State can say that they are equal.

It is not just posters that are singled out for the equality treatment. The live presidential debate broadcast across French television screens in early April allocated precisely 18 minutes of speaking time to each of the 11 candidates. In other words, it didn’t matter whether you had a great deal or nothing at all to say on any particular issue, or indeed whether or not anyone wanted to listen, you would be able to express your views for precisely the same amount of time as everyone else.

The debate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to égalité in French political broadcasting. France Télévision and Radio France are, it transpires, required to give equal time to all of the candidates in all of their broadcasting — quite a feat of coordination across their many networks and channels. I listened to an interview with one of the officials in charge of this policy during which, the interviewer, quite reasonably, asked what the state intended to do about social media. The official responded that ça fait déjà beaucoup de travail de surveiller les antennes. Throwing social media into the equation would require more resources than were available. Well quite. Not to mention the blatantly North Korean note that such an initiative would strike…

On the one hand, it is touching that France continues to strive so earnestly for égalité in politics despite the obvious futility of such an endeavour in the internet age. On the other, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s most intractable ideological blind spots.

Running provides an instructive metaphor here. In a sprint, officials can do their best to make racing conditions fair: they can make sure that everyone runs the same distance, starting at precisely the same time; and without the help of any detectable drugs. What the linesmen cannot do, however, is create equality. If they could, then Eadred would stand a chance against Usain Bolt. The fact remains, however, that Usain Bolt and Eadred are not equal in running, or in anything else for that matter. That is the point of a race: to root out the inequalities, and celebrate them.

In politics, as in sport, the State can make conditions fair (although arguably much less comprehensively than is possible under sprint conditions), but they cannot make the candidates equal. By allocating everyone a single panel for their poster and 18 minutes of speaking time, they will not give them all an equal chance of winning. Some will have more money backing them; some more notoriety to thrust them forwards; and some will simply be willing to engage in bare-faced corruption. Others may be female, from an ethnic minority, ugly, impoverished or just championing a difficult cause. Whatever it is, there will always be some candidates that have an advantage over the others.

In the centre of Lyon, not all citizens think political posters should be treated equally.

Does this matter? The inequalities in any system certainly have an impact, for better or for worse (take Donald Trump, for example). If you can’t bring yourself to care about whether or not all politicians are created equal, you probably can care about kids in school. It is the same mule-headed muddling of the concepts of fairness and equality that has led to the creation of an education system where no special considerations are shown to children with dyslexia, or autism, or indeed just those who have a practical rather than an intellectual brain. Well, says the State, we gave zem la même scolarité, ils peuvent se débrouiller, non ?

Fine, though I’m not sure that liberté, sink or swim, fraternité will catch on as a national motto.

Life in the fast lane

In a recent edition of Late Night Woman’s Hour, business woman Hilary Devey was asked whether she followed her instinct in her professional life. She described walking away from a deal with someone after he had revealed that he frequently drove from Brussels to Paris despite being banned from behind the wheel for drunk driving: at this, her instincts told her that the man was untrustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m with Hilary. I, too, would have turned down the deal. Given that the meeting took place in Paris, however, in her place I would have been neither shocked nor surprised. Since moving to France, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen someone get behind the wheel after several glasses of wine (although it does not excuse the behaviour, British readers should remember that a French glass of wine is a mere 125 ml compared to its bucket-sized UK equivalent). No doubt the man in question made his disclosure so openly because he did not think there was anything particularly unusual about it. If Hilary were to rule out doing business with anyone who had a string of driving infractions to their name, she would never do business in the hexagone again.

The French don’t let a drink get between them and their car

Eadred and I consider ourselves to be scrupulously law-abiding citizens. Our children are the sort of annoying progeny who, having heard us drone on about respecting public spaces, loudly voice their disapproval of people who drop litter or tag walls. Since our brushes with Madame Lipstick, they have added speeding to the list of antisocial behaviours about which they are generally appalled. They have even been known to wind down the back windows of the car and yell disparagingly at drivers striving for the speed of light, mais vous êtes en retard pour la fin du monde ou quoi ?

Of late we have had to admit that our self-righteousness is starting to lose its sheen as the result of a number of speeding tickets, which are beginning to drop into our boîte aux lettres with sickening regularity. They turn up despite earnest attempts to remain within the speed limit at all times.

The fines are uniformly exasperating, doled out for doing a speed of 56 km/h in a 50 zone, or 117 km/h in a 110 zone. “Well,” my formerly upright British self would have tutted at these protestations, “speeding is speeding. It’s a fair cop. You only have yourself to blame”. Oui et non responds the lax Gallic half of my brain. The panneau announcing the 50 zone, for example, was erected precisely 20 metres before the camera which caught me frantically braking in response. The 110 zone was on a section of motorway that alternated between limits of 130, 110 and 90 km/h with bewildering frequency and no discernible logic. One momentary lapse of concentration on the side of the road (when arguably you should looking straight ahead) and you’re liable for a ticket.

The first speeding ticket to arrive (mine, incidentally) prompted much hand-wringing. “We have each been driving for nearly 20 years,” wailed Eadred “and we had clean licenses until we came to France”. I made repeated trips to the filing cabinet to fawn nostalgically over the virgin expanses of my paper licence, soon to be sullied by my first-ever point. I felt it as a great stain on my character. Now that we have received a combined total of five such missives, however, our response is markedly different: oh putain I muttered at the last one, casting it aside in frustration. I have become so acclimatised to my illegality on the road that I have even downloaded a fine-paying app onto my mobile phone. Eadred had to report to the Mairie just this morning with paperwork to appease the police who had stopped him for speeding last week. Whereas three years’ ago he would have been appalled at this brush with the law, now he is principally irritated by its inconvenience.

A screen that pops up on my phone all too often

Speeding is, you see, a French national pastime, but then so is the creation of zones in which the speed limit varies unpredictably. It’s like a vast game of one-upmanship. Where can we hide zis new spiiid limite panneau ? chuckle the authorities as they daily shift the speed zones around on a completely random basis. ‘Ow fast can I goh wizzout getting cotte ? say the drivers, rubbing their hands with glee. At work I have heard colleagues boasting about the number of points they have on their licence, and reminiscing about the happy time they have spent on the special stage you can pay to attend so that the points are taken away. When I attempted to join the discussion, my musings were waved away on the basis that my three points were too meagre to count as a meaningful contribution.

As with school and tax, it seems that the rules of the road proliferate for the sheer pleasure of seeing them broken. Whether we like it or not, for the first time in our straight-laced existence, Eadred and I are being forced to acclimatise to life outside the cadre.

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Thank you to all of you who pointed me towards the excellent post by France Says on speed cameras in France. She expresses the view that many cameras are simply cashpoints for the State and has given me some excellent new French terminology to boot. The post is well worth a visit, as indeed are all her posts, if you want to read more about speeding in France…