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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 April 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Change France but keep the lunches
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, France

As France goes to the polls many agree that change is vital to tackle the slowing economy and growing public debt. But they also want to keep the best of what makes the country so distinctive... so French.

Earlier this spring, I found myself in the small sleepy Burgundy town of Donzy at one o'clock and very much looking forward to a solid French lunch.

Man browing at open air bookstall in Paris
This is our way of life, and I don't want it to disappear
Jean-Francois, builder
The pale sunshine beat down on the main square, giving the honey-coloured stone a golden tinge.

On the narrow cobbled main street was a host of cafes, their blinds shading the tables outside. For once, we had time to stop for a meal, and I could hardly wait. Until, that is, we went in to the first cafe to ask about lunch.

"Lunch? Oh no Madame, we shut for lunch," was the reply from Claudie, the owner, who raised her finely-pencilled eyebrows in arcs of amazement that anyone might think a cafe would serve lunch at lunchtime.

The next place looked shut as well - and the one after that. We grew hungry and slightly fractious, and returned to Claudie for advice.

"Bah oui - you just need to go a little way up the road to the next village. There is a restaurant there, and they stay open for lunch," she said. "But you'd better hurry - the kitchen shuts at two!"

Lone restaurant

The village she meant seemed dead, its one road silent and eerily empty.

All that was missing at this French high noon was the tumbleweed.

But opposite the Romanesque church - whose bell tolled an ominous half past one - a lone restaurant was indeed open - and absolutely packed.

This was where everyone had gathered from miles around. Farmers in grass-stained overalls clinked hearty glasses of red wine, discussing the calving season as they tucked into bleeding steaks, while a stone-mason earnestly discussed politics with a carpenter, gesticulating dangerously with his fork.

A Paris cafe
The fear is that banishing what is bad could endanger what everyone likes most - the sense that people in France still matter more than money, and that a good lunch is worth making time for
The restaurant's rather rotund golden labrador bounded up eagerly as we arrived, wagging his tail.

Hot on his heels came the equally round chef, to welcome us almost as warmly and advise on what to eat.

I felt as though we had walked into a family party, as others turned to greet us with a bonjour and a smile.

On offer was a three course meal for just 12 euros (8) each, clearly created for a clientele with plenty of time for lunch.

Anxiously, we asked the waitress how long the meal would take. She gave a not unfriendly Gallic shrug. "As long as it takes." But that was not very long at all.

With remarkable efficiency, we tucked into pate on crusty warm bread, home-made chicken stew, and a fresh berry and cream pudding - and were out of the door a mere hour later. Everyone else was still there as we left, looking faintly puzzled at our unseemly rush.

Middle way

Then we were back on the road to Donzy, to join Claudie and her customers for coffee.

At Claudie's, an unemployed builder was heatedly debating with a local teacher whether France needed to end its 35-hour working week.

If it hadn't been for their clothes, I couldn't have said who was who. Both had been to the same village school, both could quote their philosophers and the history of the Fifth Republic with equal ease.

Before I moved here I had assumed that the French were rather like the British, although with nicer wine and food

The main divisions here were not between rich and poor but left and right and just how radically each thought France must change.

"I think we have to reform things," the builder, Jean-Francois, said, "but not too much. Otherwise, we'd lose all of this," and he gestured eloquently to the sunny street outside. "This is our way of life and I don't want it to disappear."

This one small town still had a butchers, three bakers, two doctors' surgeries, several hairdressers and two beauty salons. Yet unemployment was the same as most similar French towns, hovering around 10%, far higher for the young.

And all here wondered if there was some magic middle way that France can find to keep its way of life, and the things that matter here: family, friends, good food and enough time to enjoy them all... to keep them and yet put France back to work without turning into Britain or the US (a prospect quoted at me in horror by many on my recent travels).

Human side

Before I moved here I had assumed that the French were rather like the British, although with nicer wine and food, more mobile faces and a better class of shrug.

Donzy scene
Picturesque Donzy has many of the characteristics of rural France

But I have come to realise just how Mediterranean France really is, far more like Catholic Spain or laid-back Italy than its work-obsessed northern neighbours, where time is money and time is to be raced against rather than savoured slowly.

In Paris, as I sat down for coffee with friends the other night, the waiter at my local cafe greeted me by name, and called me his "petite" - I think with a certain Parisian irony.

Even in the big city though, there is still the human side, the pleasurable dawdling along the way to enjoy a meal or a conversation.

That night, all of us joined in the anguished national debate over France's future, after the elections.

And what came up again and again was the same sense of fear and hope that I had heard in Donzy.

The hope that France can keep what is good: a birth rate that is the highest in Europe, hospitals and public transport that work and a sense of civic pride.

The fear is that banishing what is bad - the lack of jobs and a certain state-sanctioned idleness - could endanger what everyone likes most, the sense that people in France still matter more than money and that a good lunch is worth making time for.

Because the feeling remains that for all that is wrong with France, an awful lot is still just right.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 28 April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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