From the Archives

This little curio is from May 2011. In a funny sort of way, I’m quote proud of it: my over-estimation of French banking expertise does stick out like the proverbial male canine undercarriage – I (like most) didn’t appreciate how large the investment banker lunatic fringe had become here – but apart from that, I think its point has worn well. That is, the French are neither lazy nor stupid: they are obdurate and canny.

If you want to know where things are headed in the EU, come to provincial France.

We’re back at long last in the land where nothing is more important than food, and paying tax is seen as dangerous – in that it might encourage mad politicians to lavish it on ever more slap-dash spin ideas.

This attitude, while quite rightly resented by the Anglo-Saxon countries currently supporting the Common Agricultural Policy, has left France in pole position for the coming race to the Bottom. The country has more quality land available for agriculture per citizen than any other EU member. It has milked Brussels for every infrastructural cent available (largely by fiddling the definition of ‘private sector’), while its transport infrastructure is second only to Germany’s – and much more efficient.

None of this should be mistaken for Francophobia: I’ve been in love with France and the French since first coming here in the late 1960s in a haze of blue smoke and fine ideas. The French can be infuriatingly arrogant and pedantic (and the fonctionnaires pernicious) but they have more commonsense reality than the rest of the EU put together. When everyone thought future power requirements could be met by recycling farts and filling the North Sea with Lancaster Bomber propellers, the French doubled their nuclear power network. When the rest of the planet went debt-mad, the Banking system here remained under the firm control of those who thought borrowing more than you could ever pay back was a flawed concept. The French don’t do new paradigms, and this endears them to me immensely. “Les banquiers” my nearest neighbour rightly affirms, “ne parlent que des conneries”. (Bankers are full of shit).

Thus it is always a good idea to keep a weather eye on how the French behave; and this is as true of the provincial farmer as the Sorbonne-trained bureaucrat. I posted quite a bit last year about the sudden blitz here on road signage, sewer repairs, road-building and general investment – a sample of one observation that was nevertheless backed by everyone who read the pieces, and has been to France since. “Il faut profiter,” said our Mayor when I tackled him about this odd sign of France ‘feeling the pain’. I took this to mean ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Behind their shutters and after the second Pastis, the more shrewd French know perfectly well that the Brussels gravy train will soon be shunted into a siding and forgotten about: they regard it as insanity to turn down free money while it’s there. It’s very hard indeed to argue with this outlook.

There are other signs. Down the road and over the hills, M. Langue has been selling plots of land, and increasing his animal menagerie with Noah-like compulsion. He used to breed horses and dogs, but they don’t give milk, eggs, or cheese. Now he has chickens, goats, cows – very noisy cows – and a few sheep. His allotment is three times bigger than it was. His neighbour nearer to us has this year ploughed all her fields right to the edge (chemins rurales are no more) and planted wheat. Both these folks have the same idea: food is going to get expensive, especially grains.

Property prices have fallen by roughly 30%, but at the right price, there is still a steady – and increasing – flow of traffic. There are hardly any downmarket Brits, but more Germans and Americans are doing the rounds of the estate agents – and tens of thousands of Belgians are buying whatever they can. The last of these talk quite frankly about their troubled country falling apart: they speak French, and are prepared to submit to endless ‘thick Belgian’ jokes in order to be where they feel safe. “The Yanks will collapse in the end,” one told me, “But not France. At the end there will be the Swiss – and the French selling them food. Belgium is finished.”

Why does all this seem to benefit the French unfairly? I put a lot of it down to cultural pragmatism – and the value the French put on communities. No commune here – no matter how small – lacks a meeting hall (salle des fetes) – and every last one has a Mayor.

A classic example of how France devolves power massively to Mayoral level comes to light when one looks to sell a property. On the one hand, there is the usual bureaucracy about this achat and that formule: but a friend rang the water company about getting his septic tank approved by the new inspection system. “That need not concern you, Monsieur” said the apparatchik, “Your Mayor has been granted a dispensation.” Sorted.

Although many British people have this vision of the French as generally disorganised and all over the place, this partly true cliché doesn’t apply to the important stuff. The French expect SNAFU, and prepare accordingly. Innately suspicious of l’anglo-saxonisme, their instinct is to zig when the English-speaking world zags. It’s worked very well for them so far. It works for me too – when I’m here. But as a reluctant, forced citizen of the EU, it simply provides me with another good reason to get out.

Vive la France! A bas des Eurocrats! Aux barricades!

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