If we could put our prejudices to one side we'd see why French society is so much better than ours, and we might even be prepared to learn a few lessons from them, says Alex Proud
I’ve just got back from France. And, you know what, I think maybe the French have it right.
This thought struck me as I drove off the ferry at Folkestone. In France, we’d stayed in a beautiful chateau for little more than the cost of a Travelodge. We'd driven over a thousand kilometres (yes, I quite like the metric system) from Calais to Provence and back on sweeping, efficient motorways. We’d passed through countryside so stunning that my children stopped watching their iPads. We’d had excellent meals, fairly cheaply, pretty much everywhere. And then...
...and then we were back on British soil. Cracked motorways, horrible service stations serving appalling, overpriced food. Badly planned suburbs made up of tacky little boxes sprawling over some of our most beautiful countryside. Commercial squalor everywhere. The kids went straight back to their iPads – and with my blessing. I didn’t want them to see their own country.
But why is this – and what do the French do so well?
To be fair to us, the French do have a better starting point. They hit the geographic jackpot. Their country comes with everything included. They’ve got Europe’s highest Mountain (get lost, Elbrus, you’re Eurasian at best). They have a second mountain range which is still better than anything we have. They have a third mountain range (the Massif Central) which is also better than anything we have. They have proper sunny beaches in the south, booming surf beaches in the west and Brittany in the north. They have one of Europe’s biggest canyons. In between all these stunning attractions, they have tons of beautiful and varied countryside, some quite like England, but less spoilt.
By comparison, we have a lot of islands, which, while beautiful, are off Scotland where they are too cold and wet to be particularly useful. Our mountains are big hills which lack the requisite altitude to ski on reliably or hold pretty glaciers. We do have a lot of coastline. But honestly, much of this is chilly or badly located. It’s true that Cornwall is great but the French have Brittany, which is like Cornwall, but warmer and with better food. Fewer braying public school kids, too.
'Parts of France have a castle density to rival Wales' (Photo: Alamy)
In fact, geographically, France is more like a kind of compact US than Britain. It’s also vastly bigger, meaning that like the US, it has room to spare. And, unlike the US, it doesn’t appear to be filling all this extra room with McMansions and strip malls. In fact, even a bog standard French town will have a nice, usually pedestrianised, little centre with a couple of cafes and bars. It’s weird to go somewhere and realise that all your cheesy romantic notions about it are basically true.
In France, you don’t sit there for ages discussing wine to impress your oenophile friends. You just drink it
I was also struck by how many chateaux there were. I’d always regarded the whole stately homes and castles thing as an arena where we were the uncontested champions. Now, I’m not so sure. There seem to be quite a few bits of France that have a castle-density to rival Wales or as many stately homes as Somerset. What’s more, in France, you can stay in them cheaply and have dinner with the absurdly convivial owners. In the UK, they’d be either owned the National Trust or turned into conference centres where corporate robots attend seminars on customer engagement.
OK, so France is pretty. You knew that. But there’s not much we can do to change our landscape, climate or population density. However, there are quite a few things the French just do better – and these we could learn from.
There’s the toll roads. Love ‘em. Such a simple, no-nonsense principle. If you want to drive long distances quickly, you pay for it. This, combined with an excellent nationalised rail system (which now owns chunks of our own lousy private railways) means that roads are a pleasure to drive on. You can motor 1,500 kilometres from Calais to Nice and finish happier than when you started. Can you imagine this in Britain? Can you imagine the howls of indignation and the thundering tabloid headlines as our loud, boorish motoring lobby defended its right to sit in unpriced gridlock?
Next we have the food. Yeah, yeah, I know that London is probably a more exciting place to eat than Paris these days. And I know that there is good food to be found outside London. I even know that the French quite like McDonald’s. But the fact is, if you pitch up to eat at random in the middle of nowhere in the UK, you’ll probably get average pub grub, quite possibly made in a factory in the Midlands and reheated, and likely pretty expensive. If there is somewhere serving decent food, it’ll be full of people from London congratulating themselves on being there.
'In France, you still get waiters who know their stuff' (Photo: Alamy)
In France, by contrast, you can get a good meal anywhere. It may feel a bit retro (there won’t be a horribly Anglicised Thai green curry in sight) but it’ll be honest regional cooking, inexpensive, and come with wine. What’s more, the person on the table next to you might well be a local farmer or a builder. They won’t be someone who lives two streets away from you in Kentish Town.
Maybe those lazy, boozy, holiday taking Frogs are actually better at making money than we are
While we’re on restaurants, I like French waiters and waitresses. The French, like most Europeans, recognise being a waiter as a proper job which commands respect. This is why you get older waiters who know their stuff, rather than our endless stream of often clueless 22-year-old Australians and Latvians who do it for a year or two. It’s also why the waiter-customer relationship is so different. French staff know the customer isn’t always right and I rather I enjoy their snootiness. The thing is, companies are always banging on authenticity and I’m pretty sure that the disdain my French waiter has for me is authentic. By contrast, the plastic, Americanised bonhomie of their British counterparts almost certainly isn’t. It also makes me a little nostalgic: not so very long ago we too had snooty waiting staff. Now, we have a second-rate imitation of American service.
And of course there’s the wine. Yeah, I know there’s lots of exciting stuff from the new world. But in France, the wine is just there. It’s everywhere. You don’t sit there for ages discussing it or trying to impress your oenophile friends. You just drink it, along with everyone else. It feels like a liquid embodiment of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” rather than a chance for the middle classes to show off. And it’s usually pretty good and very cheap because the French do not not slap a flat duty of £2.05 (the highest in Europe) on every bottle, regardless of whether it sells for £5 or £500.
Aha, you say. But what about the economy? Here in the UK, we’re lucky enough to enjoy an endless stream of right-ish propaganda about how the French economy is dans la toilette. But these claims really don’t really stand up to much scrutiny.
For starters, France’s growth figures for the first quarter of this year were twice as good as ours. It’s true they do have signficantly higher unemployment, but they also have extremely high productivity. In fact, as The Economist recently noted, “The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week.” This is not something you hear very often from our chancellor. They also have a rather better balanced economy and a considerably lower Gini Coefficient, the preferred measure of inequality. While we’re at it, they beat us on GDP per capita, earn roughly the same and have a lower cost of living.
So, maybe (and this hurts) those lazy, boozy, holiday taking, socialism-loving Frogs are actually better at making money than we are. But this shouldn’t be such a surprise. The French don’t focus obsessively on their economy. They don’t bend over backwards to please businesses or foreign billionaires. They have a healthy disdain and distrust of the wealthy. And they’re better at making the rich share. Perhaps the French realise that they live in a society first and an economy second – and this actually makes them all richer.
I could go on. The people are more stylish. They enjoy a connection to the land that we lack. They have a regard for public intellectuals and that we once had. Their armed forces are better and cost less. And, perhaps above all, they have a sense of what it means to be French – and a belief that being French is something worth standing up for.
We worship everything across the Atlantic, yet we treat anything across the Channel with moronic disdain
This last point is hugely important. There are many good things about being British, but we’re reluctant to defend them. As a result, everything from our famous sense of fair play to our lovely countryside is under endless assault. And we just roll over and let it happen. You see this most horribly with our tragic, infantile enthusiasm for everything American; there literally is no Yankee turd we will not pick up. And yet, while we worship everything across the Atlantic, we treat anything across the Channel with moronic disdain, no matter how good it is.
OK, for all this, there is still one truth I can’t deny. There are more French in London than there are Brits in Paris. In fact, London is often described as France’s eighth or even sixth biggest city. This is probably an exaggeration, but even so, there are something like twice as many French in London as there are Brits in the French capital. This is often cited as proof of the UK’s towering superiority. But, again, I’m not so sure. If you look at London, the one big thing it has that Paris doesn’t is a vast, overweening financial services sector.
So maybe we get the French who care about money – and they get the Brits who are care about things like culture, food and quality of life. Again, I have to wonder if the French have it right.