I wonder what conclusions French voters will draw from this:
Down in the Pays Basque, the young natives are disconsolate. Immobiliers (estate agents) with sharp English marketing techniques are sprouting like radishes in the towns. In the markets, one hears three languages: Basque, French and English. And, astonishingly, in a nation so protective of its culture, some houses this summer had signs advertising them For Sale instead of À Vendre.
It was my French niece who saw them, out on her travels as a veterinary surgeon, and she came home to her small, rented house and dropped her handbag with an exasperated clunk on the table. What hope do we have of ever being able to afford a house, she said, when the Brits are paying crazy prices and we can’t compete? It’s just so depressing.
Partly this is a story about French economic decline. Economic decline often happens without you realising it. And then, suddenly, you do realise it. That factory you thought you had a safe job in for life gets abruptly closed, because the government has decided that the subsidies to keep it going are becoming too huge. You suddenly realise that private education for your kids is going to be forever beyond you, that where you live state education is actually getting worse, and that also you can not afford to move to where it is any good. Multiply little dramas like that by a million, and you have an entire country in economic decline. Thus, economic decline often impinges upon an electorate not in the form of rather meaningless statistics moaned about by journalists even as life goes on happily, but rather in the form of dramatic vignettes like this one, of vulgar English people invading the formerly idyllic French countryside.
Another French vignette of decline is of clever sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, who can not seem to get jobs worthy of their obvious talents and superior educations, unless they go to vulgar England. Even there, they will have to start out as waiters and waitresses, but at least they’ll have a chance of better things soon. In France, education is obviously far better than in vulgar England, but in vulgar England, for some reason probably involving evil America, more stuff is actually being done.
Another force which I think France is on the receiving end of here is the enormous difference that the internet, e-mail, etc., has made to the nature of life in the formerly deep countryside, of which France has a great deal, but England relatively little. (In Scotland it is different.) Simply, you can now do a lot more with your life when physically cut off from everything than you could twenty years ago. Did Engels say something about the “idiocy” of rural life? Some smug townie did. Well, now, country life is not nearly so idiotic as it was. Outsourcing is not just taking work from Europe to India, it is taking it from European cities jammed with commuters to European rural escape havens. The big thing they now sell in the countryside of places like France is not what the countryside grows, so much as how beautiful and nice it is to live in, provided you don’t have to scrabble about in the rural mud for a living. Thanks to email and the internet, organising the switch from suburb to country has also got a lot easier.
Or, to put it another way, the suburbs just got a lot bigger.
So, will France’s voters try to make the symptoms of economic decline and of the new super-suburbanisation illegal? Probably. Good luck with that, mes amis. You will need it. A smarter attitude would be to stop fretting about these changes and to start profiting from them, as many French people are already doing, of course, not least by selling their rural shacks for silly English money.