Piers Paul Read's Week

The Rewards of Patience
Feb. 22 2002 2:12 PM

Piers Paul Read's Week

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It has been said before, but I will say it again: The French are the most governed but least governable people in Europe. The latest instance of their anarchic behaviour is reported in this morning's newspapers. The distribution of the free newspaper Metro, which has passed without incident in 14 other countries (copies of Metro litter the London Underground), was sabotaged by heavies from the CGT trades union in Paris; and in Marseilles CGT demonstrators destroyed 50,000 copies of Metro before they could leave the printers. It goes without saying that, France being France, this interference with a free press has not been denounced by the high-minded journalists of mainstream newspapers like Libération, who see their livelihood threatened by this "underhand" competition. It was the same with McDonald's. A branch was burned down in protest against this manifestation of "globalisation" (by which they mean Americanisation), and the arsonist became a national hero.

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Two years ago, with my share of the proceeds after the sale of my family home in North Yorkshire, I bought a house in France. It was neither a courageous nor an unusual thing to do: Tens of thousands of Britons have done the same because property in rural France is much cheaper than it is in Britain, and the climate is generally better. Above all, there is more space. Increasingly, living in the crowded southeast of England makes one feel like a rat caught in a trap

We dithered for a year or two about where to look for a house. My wife favoured the southwest—in particular a department called the Gers. I liked the east and suggested northern Burgundy: I said the southwest was too wet and overpopulated with English already. We were lent a house near Toulouse to look for a house in the southwest. It rained constantly for three weeks, and we could find nothing decent for sale. Seeing a fine-looking house in a region near Lyons advertised in that glossy directory of upmarket properties, Belles Demeures de France, we drove back over the Massif Central to see it and, though the house itself was too large, the region—the Brionnais—was a revelation. Six months later we had found a small farmhouse with a huge Mediaeval barn and a fine view. We made an offer and the deal was done.

We embarked upon this adventure better equipped than some of our compatriots. My wife, whose parents were diplomats, was educated at French Lycées and so speaks fluent French. I spent part of what would now be called my "gap year" in Paris following a Cours de Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne and came away not just with some knowledge of French but also a liking for that French civilisation. I was taken not so much by the pompous monuments in Paris, as by the racy French novels such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Maupassant's Bel Ami. And I also grew fond of the ubiquitous French café, so much more agreeable than the English pub, and the decent food served at a reasonable price in the brasseries or buffets de la gare. In the 45 years or so since that sojourn in Paris, France has changed radically but in some ways remains the same. Then, it was called "the sick man of Europe". It was a much poorer country than Britain, had smelly lavatories, and the tap water was not considered safe. Now it has roads, trains, an educational system, and a health service that are streets ahead of Britain's. The French economy defies all the Anglo-Saxon rules: It may stagger under the weight of government regulation—25 percent of the workforce employed by the state, high taxes on employment, a 35-hour week—but it sustains a flourishing motor manufacturing industry which is more than can be said of Britain.

The department of Saône-et-Loire, where we have our house, is deeply rural. Small farms rear Charolais cattle for beef. There are no economies of scale. Without subsidies from the European Union, neither the farmers nor their way of life would survive. It is a particular way of life, quite out of tune with the fast pace of urban life elsewhere in the world. At midday, everything closes as workers either return home or go to one of the many small restaurants to eat a heavy and leisurely lunch. Here one works to live, one does not live to work. There is little evidence of Thorstein Veblen's "conspicuous consumption". Most people dress down and drive around in shabby old cars: Only the local notaire wears a tie. Their attitude to the English newcomers is difficult to gauge. Some of the shopkeepers appear taciturn, even sullen, but that may be nothing to do with us being English. Our immediate neighbours have been exceptionally friendly: during the first summer. We were given the honour of holding the village fête in our garden—a grand bouffe that started at 11 in the morning and went on until midnight.

The economic sclerosis has been evident in our attempts to convert part of our barn. Our architect—a charming, cultivated man—was so committed to conservation that we sensed he would rather we had let well alone. His office in Macon has an electric typewriter, but there is no sign of a computer. The plans for a modest enlargement took a year to draw up, but that turns out to be the least of the delays. There is a dearth of builders in France. The law of supply and demand, which in London sucks in Poles, Russians, Albanians, and sundry illegal immigrants into undersubscribed areas of the labour market, does not operate in overgoverned France. Apparently, the socialistic schoolteachers discourage their pupils from pursuing careers as manual workers. They think everyone should, like them, study philosophy and get a job bank-rolled by the state. There are other contributory factors—a reduction in VAT on building works and the sudden need, last year, for the French to spend the millions of francs hidden from the taxman under their mattresses before the advent of the euro.

"Il faut patienter

," we are told: You must be patient. And we are patient, because I feel that our second home in France, when it is built, will be worth waiting for: tranquil, secure, with courteous neighbours, an incomparable view towards the Beaujolais mountains, and a silence broken only by the bells of the Angelus at midday.

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