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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
France ... plus ca change?
By Lisa Jardine

French rioting
March 2006: Will the French traditional way of life survive?

Wine, good food, great art, familiar waiters in a favourite brasserie ... a visit to Provence in summer raises questions about whether the quality of life enjoyed in France will survive the challenges ahead.

I spent Bastille day with French friends in the beautiful fishing port of Cassis, sitting over a perfect meal of freshly-grilled fish and rosé wine, on the sea-front, in the warm evening air.

We watched the celebration fireworks, as we have done each year for almost 20 years, to the accompaniment, over loudspeakers, of symphonic music, and the Mayor reminding us that the "ville de Cassis" had been following the same routine of fishing and cultivating its vines for two and a half thousand years, since the Phoenecians founded nearby Marseille.

Bouquets of silver and gold rockets burst into bloom high above us, exploding into armfuls of shimmering stars which filled the entire velvet-blue night sky.

Everything about the evening reinforced the pleasures that draw me to spend time in France whenever I can. Having arrived from London only hours earlier, I could practically feel it on my skin, as warmth and well-being.

At my desk at home, the smell of grapes and pine-needles, the sound of the cicadas, the vibrant colours of the landscape, are always available to dream about, always vivid to me - the more so because I can be so certain they will still be there when I arrive in the Midi.

'Quality of life'

The French refer to it (with, it seems to me, increasing insistence) as "a quality of life". Its components are: caring for a specific place; savouring the local cuisine (carefully adapted to suit the produce that grows in the locality); delighting in delicacies made and marketed in the 'quartier'; taking time to allow the familiar flavours to be savoured - rolled around the tongue. In other words, participating in all the traditions that make each particular corner of France unique.

Lisa Jardine
Lisa Jardine enjoys her trip to Provence

And yes, there are the equally reliable annoyances too, that you can always count on - endearingly part of that French aversion not just to change, but to new rules which might interfere with long-enjoyed pleasures.

In the modest brasserie where we ate steak and chips the following night, no smoking notices were plastered all round the walls, but the locals cheerfully smoked their way through their meal - four cigarettes apiece per diner I calculated. And the steep cobbled streets of Cassis boasted the usual piles of dog-excrement, to booby-trap the passer-by in thongy sandals, in spite of signs threatening heavy penalties for fouling the pavement.

Less reassuring was to share the concerns of our French friends about how their children would find the means to continue these traditions now that - despite a good education and several hard-worked placements at very little money in Parisian financial institutions - there was no guarantee of a job in their chosen profession, or any job at all.

We love the fact that the man who serves us in our favourite café has done so for all the years we've been visiting - but where does that leave the youngster, straight out of school, looking for a job?

'Change? Not in our nature'

I found myself reflecting on the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and French temperaments. Our acceptance of inevitable and relentless change, the stress and constant pressure of work, followed by the rush home to further pressures and demands there, hoping all the while for some deferred, future gratification.

French cafe
The French have been reluctant to sacrifice their quality of life

The French believe that the daily process of living deserves to be enjoyed now, in the importance of savouring life to the full, whether you work in a café, as a teacher, or run a substantial business.

Would it be possible - I mused, to blend the French respect for place and commitment to much-loved traditions of everyday life with the resilience and flexibility of the British economy which seems to offer Europe one of its routes to future prosperity?

When I asked one of my French friends in his sixties if he believed change in France was, in the end, inevitable, he sighed, turned his glass of wine around lovingly in his hand, and said: "I don't think the French will ever accept rapid change, it is not in our nature.

"We understand all too clearly the price we pay. Morale here is certainly low. But there are sacrifices we are just not prepared to make."

His 25-year-old son was just as certain that things could not go on as they are. "Eventually my girlfriend and I will leave France. London is the place to make one's way now." His father looked visibly depressed.

Radical artists

Last April, students protests forced the French government to scrap a proposed new youth employment law which would have allowed employers to end contracts for under-26s at any time during a two-year trial period - the young protesters argued that they were entitled to the same security of tenure enjoyed by their elders.

Cezanne's paintings, rejected in his life time, now command huge prices

But to our friend's son, a two-year contract seemed like a marvellous prospect - a chance to prove himself. I imagine many of the unemployed and marginalised young Muslims who rioted in the suburbs of Paris last winter would agree.

And then, on Monday afternoon I went to the Cézanne in Provence exhibition at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence, a breathtaking bringing together of over a hundred of Paul Cézanne's paintings for the anniversary of his death.

In the shadow of the mountain of Sainte-Victoire - the mountain whose shifting shades and angles Cézanne spent a lifetime trying to recapitulate in paint - the whole region paid visible homage. Knots of people waited patiently for admission in the heat (the exhibition is booked days and sometimes weeks in advance).

Stepping from the blue, ochre and green of the sun-soaked Provence landscape into the cool, white air-conditioned interior of the museum was like entering a cathedral. There was a hush, a concentration. Those standing rapt in front of the works were from all over the world, and yet by far the majority of them were French families, elderly couples, school parties, young back-packers and tanned sun-worshippers.

Cézanne would have found all this hard to believe. I realised that the total lack of recognition he experienced during his lifetime was connected to that very French love of the familiar, and resistance to change that so seduce me.


Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839. By his early twenties he had abandoned the legal studies his banker father had insisted on, and moved into the world of art encouraged by his childhood friend, the novelist Émile Zola (they later quarrelled). During the 1870s Cézanne began to paint almost exclusively outdoors, producing vibrant "plein-air" paintings in the manner which was coming to be called Impressionist.

Towards the end of his life, he resettled in Aix-en-Provence and produced the works for which he is best remembered - richly textured and coloured landscapes in and around his home town, above all view after view of his beloved mountain.

Every year, from 1863 onwards, Cézanne submitted his paintings to the jury of the National Salon in Paris - France's official art showcase. With the exception of one portrait, in 1882, they were all rejected. The work of Impressionists like Cézanne simply broke too many of the rules, shattered too many much-loved French artistic conventions.

During Cézanne's lifetime, the residents of Aix-en-Provence dismissed him as an untalented eccentric. The director of the Musée Granet swore that he would never allow his collection to be desecrated by his "daubs". The first Cézanne painting was exhibited there in 1953.

There must, surely, be some way to retain "quality of life" in the midst of the kind of rapid change and economic success we in Britain currently enjoy. But if I have to choose, I know that I belong temperamentally in a culture which will be more inclined to recognise, seize upon and celebrate immediately the next Paul Cézanne.

Add your comments using the form below.

Comparing Cassis (a small fishing port) to London to come up with the idea that the French have a better standard of living is crazy. If you compared Padstow or Newquay to Paris you'd doubtless come to the conclusion that Cornwall has a better lifestyle than France.
Peter, Nottingham

Having lived and worked in France for a couple of years near L'havre all I can say is "what a load of tosh". You should smell the wafting aroma of petroleum from Europe's largest oil refinery. The hectic scramble in the supermarket to do the weekend shop after work as they still close early in most areas. Popping over to France on holiday and gushing about its wonders shows the most naive piece of writing you have pasted up here in a long time!
David C, Chelmsford

Nice holiday, but not real life ... Your article is not credible! To live the life you describe, you need money, lots of money.
Karim El Shakankiri, Nantes, France

This is such a romantic view of things it would be laughable if it wasn¿t so ill informed. It would be similar to moving to the Lake District on the basis of a few summers spent there drinking a couple of fine ales with friends in a pub garden watching the world go by. Very pleasant and relaxing it certainly is; representative of an actual way of life it is not.
Gilles Bergeron, London

I worked in the South of France for a French company for three years, it was pleasurable working and living there and I made many good friends. What Lisa Jardine describes is a holiday not normality. Her description comes remarkably close to many other rather ephemeral opinions I have read from British expats writing whilst sampling from of their well stocked caves. Cassis does produce some excellent, if pricey, wines but let's not get carried away with purple prose.
Stuart Reader, Brussels, Belgium

It's very strange. I've lived in France for over 30 years and yet every time I read articles about living here, it's a completely different France from the one I live in. One that I and the people I know don't live it. I don't know people who have the time or the money to sit around in cafes drinking wine, unless they are on vacation. I haven't met or worked with the French people who allegedly spend two hours eating lunch during the week. They certainly were not in the companies I worked in.Then, lunch was downed in 30 minutes maximum, and more often than not, in 20 minutes. Or a sandwich at the desk. ... Hmm. And when I'm in London to see my son and go to the theatre, I'm really relaxed and have long lunches and dinners. Sit in parks or wander around. No fuss, no worry.
Cecily Spiers, L'Etang-la-Ville, France

Well said, Cecily Spiers! I would love to be sitting in a café sipping wine, but instead, I'm melting in 32°C in my office in Paris, just like I would be in London! The quality of life is undoubtedly better in the provinces, but only if you have the time (and money) to appreciate it. In short, Ms Jardine's article can be summed up as "life looks better on holiday"!
Helen, Paris

This is a masterpiece of vacuousness. A veritable bouillabaisse of daft cliches. I'm astonished that someone who is allegedly intelligent could have written something so shallow. Please get Cecily Spiers to write your next article on France - she sounds like she knows how French people actually live rather than a smug tourist. And ask her about French bureaucracy while you're there!
Brian Walsh, Hove

A small correction: Marseilles was not founded by Phoenicians but, famously, by "les Phoceens", ie. Phocaean Greeks from Asia Minor. Surely this is what the mayor of Cassis said?
Nick Stylianou, Oxford

Great programme.
Penny Weaver, Ashtead

I live part time in both rural Staffordshire and rural France. I believe the French way a life is vastly better than the UK, it's remarkably cheaper that's for sure! Excellent public transport, the roads are quiet and well constructed and the health service is brilliant. Even grocery shopping is better, with a wider variety of local produce and much higher quality than the UK's sorry attempt. The countryside is gorgeous, the weather is fantastic and property price aren't insane, I live in a chateaux for the price of a semi in Reading! Whilst I love England dearly, I will be retiring to France perminently, no contest!
BF, Civray/Staffordshire

All sounds idyllic. However, I do not imagine it makes paying the bills any easier, nor cleaning the toilet a more pleasant job. The good things in life are great - but how many people have the chance to enjoy them fully? And a museum in France with lots of French people in it! Wow! How amazing. Personally I would have expected it full of Japanese!
Philip Meers, Birmingham

All depends where in France you are viewing 'Frenchness' from. We can all delight in the well heeled middle class version of France told from Paris, and the sun drenched, wine drinking stories of the south. I travel through northern France on a regular basis, through the ex-mining areas, and the outskirts of Lille. Unless you take account of this other France, as grim as the worst parts of Britain, you're deluding yourself about the reality of France and 'Frenchness'. Rows of concrete tower blocks stuffed full of immigrants, whole villages boarded up and abandoned apart from a few poverty stricken souls clinging on, depression, violence and crime, and people for whom the middle class preocupations of French Identity are as remote as wondering where you are going to get your next pair of hand-made shoes from. If the BBC have to give us 'reports from France', lets make it the whole of France, and not just the bit on the postcards.
G Fincham, Norwich

Yet another romanticised and luvvie comparison between the two countries ... It's better to enjoy France's good food and countryside from the safe vantage point of a holiday.
Frank, London

Lisa Jardine is suffering from the same as many gap year students: travelling blues. ie that feeling you get after coming back from holidays. Life is always better in whichever country you choose so long as you have the means to enjoy it, which she and all those on a gap year do. Then, reality hits - to have the time to relax one needs the money to get there in the first place! The French have a different quality of life and a different attitude to life, I couldn't say whether ours is better or theirs and I can't judge because I have only ever been on holiday in France (having been on holiday in England, I can identify with every feeling held about France)
David, Plymouth

As a resident of the French Riviera I can fully understand why Lisa has such a wonderful impression of Cassis. Its excellent wines and of course wonderful fish cooked over a slow barbecue with the scent of wood smoke perfuming the air on a summer evening are a delight to the senses. Great pity Lisa wasn't here earlier in the year to take in the uniquely French scent of the burning cars and petrol fumes wafting across the banlieues.
Monsieur B, Valbonne, Sophia Antipolis, France

The French have the right idea. In this country we accept change that is made for the sake of change not for the improvement of our quality of life. I would love to enjoy a relaxed lifestyle but the culture in this country is to work for all hours of the day.
Mark Jones, Manchester

I resonate with Lisa Jardine in finding 'sense of place' and a love of familiarity such sympathetic qualities. I feel these can be found in the UK as much as in France - but they tend to be disparaged the attitudes of 'Middle England'. I wonder whether the rigidity Lisa describes has more to do with a very intellectually-minded love of law which haracterises the French way of thinking, in contrast with the pragmatism of the Anglo-Saxons. Also, in my encounters with French people, I've noticed that they tend to resist change, not because they don't like change in itself but because they hold Frenchness in such high esteem - and change usually entails a move away from this to the ways other nations do things.
Rachel Chown, Dundee

I think the other comments left here have missed the mark somewhat. This article is only partly touching on holiday blues, but is also trying to convey the kind of unhurried life you just cannot get here in the UK. I am Brazilian having lived in England for 16 years and it still strikes me how warm, friendly and community based people are every time I go abroad and the only conclusion I can make is that the reason this change I see is so marked is because unfortunately here in the UK values are so different. I work for clients from all over the world and only the UK clients expect a 50 hour week compared to 40 hours pretty much anywhere else, as an example.
Daniel Canfora, Richmond, London

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