Thursday, 13 March 2008

Boredom, beer and fags

Something like a nuclear shock-wave seems to radiate out from Paris, and we walked into the grey dust of its fall-out just outside Beauvais. A disaffected ugliness of soul and place had settled over the land, and seemed to deepen the closer we drew to the capital.

The first signs came on the edges of country lanes and at forest-side parking places. Every few metres lay discarded a beer can of "Bavaria 8.6": super-strength brew for super-strength anaesthesia. The frequency of these missiles told of people - young men, we assumed - driving the lanes drinking, swearing, throwing the cans out as they went. At times there was a regular orgy in a single spot.

Looking round at the villages, it is hard to blame them. Small cottages, run-down or of that recent, imagination-destroying construction of cream Monopoly houses with dusty plasterwork and muddy gardens. Few of the villages had so much as a boulangerie at their heart. Though nearly all could boast a Mairie. No restaurant, no café, no bar to be a meeting place for the people, a place for them to talk and drink companionably. An occasional Salle des Fetes stood empty: sanitised echoing halls of stacked chairs, preserve of the very young or the very old.

Larger towns might manage a PMU Tabac, those formica hangouts which the state has designated to supply the populace with cigarettes and gambling. Desperation drove us into a couple. Their clients were exactly the men we had imagined behind the scattered Bavaria cans. In their twenties and thirties, in long greasy hair or skinhead cuts, they mostly wore old tracksuits with hoods pulled up. Chalk-dull faces, like their houses, with the tang of inbreeding in some. In the middle of the afternoon they were not at work, for there seemed no work to be had. The small factories: tanneries, cement works, dairies, chemical works, sugar beet refineries that had flanked the villages looked closed, graffitied; the work consolidated to bigger plants further away, if at all.

On the news there are reports of a growing divide in wealth between people in France, an increasing depth of poverty and homelessness which counterbalances the ease of those riding the wave. The inequalities often crystallise around a simmering racism. People are quick to say "the blacks have taken our jobs". Or the Muslims. We had seen very few non-white faces in the deep countryside but at Créil, an industrial city of chemical works and tower blocks, the station concourse was a sudden shock of dark faces; as if all the immigrants of France and their descendents had been collected together in a few designated locations to serve the factories and to travel to Paris for low-paid cleaning work. Deportations, harassments, violence against immigrants - these issues are being raised by journalists, but not the politicians.

With local elections coming up we hear what does concern people. Transport, jobs, security. The socialists still have a strong showing in France. One of the posters in the official campaigning areas shows a fist clutching a red rose, with the legend that the most important thing for France now is to better share out the wealth between people. The almost daily strikes in one sector or another across the country would seem to agree.

Low incomes are clearly deep-rooted in this troubled zone. The farms have agglomerated and cut down their labour; but somewhere in the past the response was to find pockets of land for allotments around every village and town. Something not seen before Beauvais. And they're still being worked, by old men and their wives, sometimes with holiday-marooned grandchildren in tow, learning the idea of self-sufficiency and graft.

In Senlis we found a pool of stylishness and comfort. Restaurants and cafés were open, there were concerts and markets. Within the walls of this ancient city we were on the other side of the wealth divide and the drab, mind-numbing villages were temporarily forgotten.

Back in the villages, there is nothing to do. In a long, empty afternoon in St Leu d'Esserent, we sat on a bench by the church, waiting for something to happen. The kids, filling their half-term as best they could, practised kissing in the far corner of the garden, practised throwing stones onto cars from the wall. Like them, I felt an overwhelming urge to smoke, simply to have an activity. The hours stretched away without relief, till we could reach the safety of an evening meal and the inanity of French TV. Until the they, no doubt, could peel back the rings on their first cans of "Bavaria 8.6".

21 February 2008

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