The letter of the law

A French friend has just returned from a trip to London. When asked for her impressions, I received a five-minute soliloquy on queuing. C’est incroyable, she gasped, breathless: les personnes arrivent à l’arrêt de bus et elles se mettent en rang. C’est bêtement efficace. Mais comment ça se fait ?

Every British person knows in their very bones that the order of precedence for getting on the bus, with the exception of the elderly, disabled and heavily pregnant, is basically first-come,-first-served.** Just as important as following this rule is being seen to follow it. That is why we organise ourselves into a queue, which is merely the visual expression of a deeply ingrained principle.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that France, a country which regulates so comprehensively, can be so apparently lawless in everyday life, whereas England, where the rules are far fewer, obediently toes the (unwritten) line. I have come to the conclusion that this has a great deal to do with the legal systems in the two countries.

Bear with me for a minute… In the UK we have common law, which, however much we howl about the growing weight of the statute book, is minimalist in its approach. It is law by custom and usage, with judges using (and making) precedents in order to reach verdicts.

France, like the majority of countries around the globe, uses a civil law system that derives from Roman law, in which everything is minutely codified. Its own particular version is called the Napoleonic Code, in which all law springs from a series of abstract principles, and is difficult to modify in the face of real life cases.

(If you want a very neat summary of the two systems from people far more expert than I am, you would do well to read this article in the Economist.)

If you live within any system for long enough, it affects the way that you think and behave without you realising it. Thus in the UK we are so accustomed to unwritten rules that bus queues materialise out of thin air. In France, the idea that everything must be codified in order to function gives rise to the sort of infantilisation whereby adult musicians are instructed in the arts of punctuality and bringing their own music stand. It also, as all parents of toddlers and adolescents know, leads to a certain degree of pleasure being derived from circumventing the rules. Furthermore, it creates the idea that the rules are inherently right whatever the context – that by doing no more than slavishly following them you yourself become flawless and irreproachable.

Let me illustrate. One of our neighbours, let’s call him Monsieur le Bricoleur, is building a house in the garden of his children’s home, which happens to be just beneath the terrace of our house. We have been subject to several of Monsieur le Bricoleur’s laments about other neighbours’ dislike of his construction. Nous avons tout fait dans la légalité, he says, donc, je ne vois pas le problème. This last pronouncement—that because everything is legal he cannot see why people do not like his house—makes me choke on my croissant.

The law states that Monsieur le Bricoleur cannot build his house closer than four metres to our shared boundary. Garages, however, are exempt, and yes, you guessed it: Monsieur le Bricoleur has kept his house four metres away from the fence but built his garage right up to it. It may be legal to have done this, but the effect is no different from that had he built his house right up against the boundary line. If having the house so close would have made us unhappy, common sense suggests that the garage will too. The fact that one of those scenarios is legal and the other not makes not a morceau of difference to the effect the construction has on us, or to our feelings.

For Monsieur le Bricoleur, however, our feelings are indivisible from the legality of any given situation. Unlike us, with our common-law sense that every individual circumstance will make for subtle variations in the interpretation of the rules, Monsieur le Bricoleur has the civil law feeling that rules are best made in the abstract, and that reality will simply flex to fit them. If the rule says that people will be happy with a garage abutting their land, they will be happy: no need to bother seeking their opinion on the matter or indeed to consult one’s own common sense.

The house just below  our garden
The house just below our garden

There is no getting away from it: we find the new house, in all its worthy legality, moche, especially compared to the nice square of green that preceded it. Other than muttering darkly about this to ourselves, the action that we have taken has been to start planting a hedge that will eventually grow tall enough to hide the house from our view: a pragmatic solution averting all non-neighbourly feeling, we thought.

Prim and proper as we are, we e-mailed Monsieur le Bricoleur to advise him that the hedge would be planted. The response was immediate. He drew to our attention the rules which stipulate that no hedge on any boundary should be higher than two metres tall. He did not pain himself to point out the less convenient part of the law, with which fortunately we were already acquainted, that the hedge can exceed two metres when it is planted two metres from the boundary.

Taking the lead of Monsieur le Bricoleur, we decided, therefore, that, even if the effect on him of a hedge planted two metres back from the boundary would be the same as one planted on the boundary line, or indeed worse if we allowed it to tower above three metres, given that planting such a hedge was entirely within the law, he would be happy about it. When in Rome…




** I should deal with those of you who are already brimming with examples of UK-based queue-violation. I suggest that the reason that you can bring individual examples to mind is that they are not—yet at least—the norm. In France, having my place in the queue ignored is such a commonplace occurrence that I struggle to recall specific incidents. In the UK, the phenomenon is sufficiently rare as to make it remarkable: the exception that proves the rule.



4 thoughts on “The letter of the law

    1. I shall listen to the podcast, thank you!! And yes, getting round the rules is indeed a pastime (see my remark about toddlers). The whole purpose of the cadre is to step out of it… thanks for stopping by.

  1. I love this post – and wish everyone here would queue properly at all bus stops – but living legally is clearly the thing en Francais. We live and learn, but it won’t stop me from calling out those people who don’t queue properly here!! Yes I’m so very British. Thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo

Leave a Reply