Sunday, 11 May 2008

With some exceptions

Slowly we have grown sure that France is a deeply paternalistic country, one where the government – the little government of civil servants not the big government of the politicians – probably does know best and will safely plan out the details of life. Without the State, we feel, it is doubtful that the French would live to the sturdy old age we can see, outside boulangeries in small villages, that they do.

It must first become evident to anyone visiting the country as they drive the motorways. Those endless ditties in rhyming couplets aimed at keeping the maximum number alive.

“Un trait, danger;
Deux traits, sécurité!”

No advert may be aired for anything that will pass one’s lips without a warning to eat and drink in moderation and to take exercise. The finger-wagging even gets chalked on the bottom of the “plat du jour” boards, together with a nationally-protective website: And the “Pour votre santé, evitez de grignoter!” (for the sake of your health, don’t eat between meals) clangs oddly at the end of ads for Macdonalds or Kinder eggs.

Then there are the TV fillers, five-minute programmes that exhort one to keep cleaning products out of the reach of children, to wear seatbelts or condoms or to plant trees for the environment. They’re not punchy adverts that, sophisticated westerners that we are, we would realise are manipulating us. No, these are mini-documentaries that interview “ordinary people”, apparently even-handed.

And as for the patronising tone taken at the entrance to most villages with their “Soyez sympa, pensez à nous!” pleas with drawings of children playing.

But this fairly benign paternalism is nothing compared to the rampant bureaucracy of lower-level government. Every village with more than a boulangerie and a church surely has its Mairie, its mayor and deputy mayor who are paid a retainer even if they’re only open for business on a couple of afternoons a week. The power wielded locally can run riot. We talked to people whose mayor had been in office for twenty-one years. It’s the Mairie that would watch whether a chambre d’hôte served a meal without the visitor, by regulation, eating with the family. It is the Mairies that knows if a restaurant with rooms allows a guest to stay the night without eating. The Mairies that can check and rescind licences.

But the most frequent example we see of local posturing is at the entrance to roads, and paths of all widths and surfaces. A round white sign circled in red that forbids vehicles to pass.


The variety of exceptions permitted locally is bewildering. Except for access. Except for the people living here. Except for farm vehicles …

Sauf bus
Sauf desserte riverains
Sauf communaux service public
Sauf gestion forestière
Sauf 4x4
Sauf ayants droit
Sauf engines agricoles
Sauf cars scolaires at carrosserie
Sauf livraisons
Sauf deux roués
Sauf autorisation spéciale décret du 06/02/1932

The fact that it is the local power-brokers who control these things is made gleefully clear by the addition of the regulation being invoked and the date the mayor took the decision to forbid or to permit an exception. On a heavily-wooded hilltop in the Montagne de Champagne, four deeply rutted and rocky paths sunk in mud and tree roots met at a collection of signs with the information:

“Sauf dérogation arêté affiché en mairie” – “Except for a list of dispensations posted up in the town hall”

Oh, right. I’ll just nip back down to the town hall then, shall I, to check whether I can winch my zimmer frame up here?

Or maybe we’ve got it wrong. Maybe all these signs and regulations are symptomatic of the sheer bloody-minded contrariness of the French that we British would secretly prefer to believe in? Symptomatic that is, that the French really would consider it within their rights and their capabilities to drive a car up a six-inch-wide scree slope.

All these “sauf”s belabouring our eyes sensitised me. But when another “sauf” lodged in my mind it took me in another direction entirely.

“Si on me dit, c’est chacun chez soi, moi je veux bien;
Sauf que chez moi, il n’y a rien.”

It’s a song on the new album by the excellent, poetic, reclusive singer Francis Cabrel – a veteran who I first heard twenty-seven years ago as a politically- and socially-concerned singer-songwriter. This song is called “African Tour” and takes the voice of an African man forced to travel to Europe via small boats to Spain to seek work illegally. Yes, he would rather stay at home; except in his home, there is nothing at all.

At the moment in France there’s a lot of talk about the “sans-papiers”, the illegal immigrants (or asylum seekers – it’s a moot point), many of whom are being thrown out by force. The government has declared that these people will henceforth be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, which seems to have aroused pain in the human rights fraternity. I suppose it depends on what the starting point is. If, for example, most applicants are routinely turned down according to regulations, then perhaps a case-by-case interpretation of the rules might signal a humanising influence.

Or maybe the French are too familiar with the random and personalised application of “sauf” by little people with local power. Maybe the defenders of the sans-papiers fear such personal prejudice or rank injustice will follow in the wake of case-by-case laxity?

6th May 2008

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