This year I chose to exchange the bops, beers and boogies of St Andrews for a continental French adventure, qualifying me as an arbiter of all Franco-British cultural differences. Yet writing about France as a Brit is always going to be difficult. It’s very much akin to writing about the newfound partner of an ex, or indeed about the prospective partner of someone you quite fancy yourself. You may have no problem with said partner – indeed you may find them to be indubitably charming – but you wouldn’t dare say as much. Except that here, I shall write just that: for all its faults, modern France gets some things right.
I’d be wise to leap first over the hurdle of gastronomy. Specifically, the gastronomical stereotypes. Nobody eats snails. Garlic is used no more than in British kitchens. The cheese does more often ‘stink’, but that’s largely because France as a nation eats more than three cheeses, unlike we Brits who get by with only cheddar, red Leicester (at a push), and Babybel. Nevertheless, the French men and women whom I’ve amicably interviewed after a couple of pints evidence the fact that their tastes are softening; the milder flavours of mozzarella and parmesan are now all the rage. These clarifications don’t change the reality that many French dishes, still commonly eaten, remain questionable – If not abhorrent – to a British population that would contemplate them askance.
Oysters are an example of this, for I’ve seldom seen them sold in the UK. They’re an acquired taste, and the salty, somewhat slimy descent down own’s gullet may prove to be a challenge for the unacquainted. But despite this, I liked them. The same applies to steak tartar. Immense respect is merited by the first individual who consumed this dish, which is essentially raw beef accompanied by raw egg. Talk about a death wish-cum-delicacy. Yet it too positively surprised my cynical British palette.
In the past, I have naïvely defended British gastronomy against its detractors, against those who said it was an empty concept filled only with impoverished imitations of other countries’ better nourishment. But – for once – how right those detractors were! Apart from fish and chips – against which I wouldn’t countenance a bad word – the French have us (and swathes of nations) well and truly beaten. Not to mention that in my work’s canteen, I can get a 4-course meal for €3; sometimes life gives both the lemons and the lemonade.
Nevertheless, such a meal is, I suspect, quite substantially subsidised by the taxpayer. France as a country relies firmly on the power of the state, which is amply exemplified: the state-owned railway company SNCF; the education system in which even private schools and their teachers are remunerated by the state; the state-run CAF, an organisation that provides financial endowments to citizens merely because they live somewhere. I must confess, such state involvement surprised me; I was under the impression that communism had left Europe in the early 90s.
I say that with tongue in cheek. Modern France is by no means communist, but it smells excessively state-heavy to me. I do not believe this necessarily to be bad thing, by the by. Public transport where I live, in a city of just over 100,000 people, is quite phenomenal compared to its British counterparts. I was quite shocked the other day to see that, when public repairs needed to be done, men in orange jumpsuits came to carry out said repairs. Such an occurrence is a rarity in modern Britain, where we’ve seemingly given up on filling in potholes. Without them, what would the family rant about at Christmas?
However, it’s not all cookies and cream in l’Hexagone. For the citizen’s everyday life, such public expenditure works a charm, but on a macrolevel, there are some profound concerns. Unemployment is high, much higher than in the UK, hovering around 7% in January 2022, according to the OECD. When one does find a job, taxes take a significant chunk of one’s earnings; this burden falls equally onto young people, who often obtain employment only after relocating, or getting lucky, or both. I feel these social forces beginning to alienate people a little. There is an unforgiving distinction between those who have made it professionally and those who haven’t. So too are there geographical distinctions between the young people scattering across this immense country post-university. For work, they leave behind friends, family, and frequently must settle into a new milieu where they know no one. It doesn’t make for a happy society, and this is perhaps best represented by a town hall arrangement I saw on a short holiday to Lille, which displayed the French national motto.
Originally spelling out “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, the arrangement’s only legible word had become “Liberté”, thanks to a plethora of fallen letters. This struck me as symbolic. French society is quite free, and that’s a good thing. It’s good to be free. But it’s less fun to be free if the system is extravagantly unequal and the society widely alienated. I like to tell myself that the UK does better on these fronts, but I know it doesn’t. Perhaps the truest comparison I can make is in fact a similarity: France and the UK are two countries united in trying their best, in a world where ‘best’ has never had, doesn’t, and will never have, a universal definition.
Illustration: Lucy Westernberger