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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
Au revoir Paris
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

French flag
The French are patriotic and have a strong sense of civic pride
I know that it is time to leave Paris because directly above my office desk, right over my head, is a leak. And not the sort of leak that journalists usually like.

No, this is an unwelcome and persistent drip - a suspiciously brown, watery stain that spreads slowly across our ceiling from a bathroom above.

The BBC office here is in a slightly down-on-its luck apartment block in a chic area of Paris, where the glorious facades of the imposing stone buildings are kept clean by law. Their inhabitants are commanded to blast clean the elegant outsides every 10 years, to ensure a show of cleanliness in the City of Light.

But beneath the sparkling surfaces, it is a different story - a city of leaks and gently peeling hallways. The plumber who eventually meandered in to mend the latest leak gave a superb example of the Gallic shrug. His verdict - what can you do? The pipes of Paris are old and rotten, and need to be replaced from top to bottom.

Easier said than done. Getting our building's inhabitants to club together to replace eight storeys' worth of pipes is, well, a pipe dream. There is no law to make them do it, so nobody bothers. It is someone else's problem. Precious little "solidarite" there then, never mind "egalite" or "fraternite".

We have simply had to ask the lady upstairs not to bathe too often during office hours. And soon, I too shall give a Gallic shrug and a rueful smile and pass the leak onto my successor, along with the task of covering the new France.

Urgency of change

But our leak seems a gloriously opportune metaphor for the state of France. On the outside, everything looks wonderful: a nation whose quality of life and public services, even its high-speed trains, are the envy of the world.

Its family-friendly policies have even given France Europe's highest birth rate. But beneath the beautiful facade, much is quietly falling apart.

French demonstrator stands in front of riot police - Paris March 2006
In 2006 young people protested against employment reforms
This is a country where decades of selfishness - from the trades unions to the political classes and their friends in big business - have brought things to a standstill, leaving a quarter of the young unemployed and many immigrants stuck in outer-city ghettoes, excluded from the workforce.

Not to mention passing on the unaffordable cost of those splendid services to their children and grandchildren, creating an increasingly bitter younger generation who know that they never will have it so good.

It is a state of affairs only just beginning to be slowly and painfully unblocked. And as President Sarkozy - France's new chief plumber if you like - surveys the state of the nation, he will find there is rather a lot of work to be done. For this is a place uncertain of the present and fearful of the future, now realising the urgency of change.

French bureaucracy

I was warned when I first moved here from Moscow that France was the only place, apart from North Korea, that still genuinely believed in communism.

I thought they were joking. Until I moved here, and discovered that stroppy French officialdom, hatred of the boss class, grumpy shop assistants and supercilious waiters could give even surly Muscovites a run for their money.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Business is waiting to see what Mr Sarkozy does next
My first clash with French bureaucracy came in my first week, with the carte de sejour - that precious official document that gave me the right to live and work in France. Except under EU law, that should have been automatic. But not in France in 2003.

Getting it involved an almost daily trip to the local immigration ministry. A gloomy corridor that resembled the seventh circle of hell became my new home, as I took a seat alongside the other supplicants. They looked as though they had spent hopeless months bathed in the yellowing light reflected from the 70s orange plastic seating in the grand but decaying municipal building.

On the first day, I brought every document I needed. Not good enough.

Another day, another hatchet-faced Parisian official in a computer-less office, her face half-obscured by precarious piles of paper. The only smile came as she told me: "Non, madame, you haven't got your original birth certificate. We'll need that too."

On the third day I was rebuffed again: a crucial document was in English - it had to be in French.

On the fourth day, I came well-armed with every official-looking piece of paper I possessed. "Voila!" I crowed. "Every document in triplicate, just in case!"

The official looked up, grunted and finally grudgingly stamped the treasured carte de sejour into my passport. He then allowed himself the smallest of smirks.

"Voila, madame. Your carte de sejour. Although from today, you'll find you no longer need one to work in France. The rules have just changed."

Outward perfection

Yet, four years on, I have come to love France and even the French themselves in all their contradictions, their public rudeness and private courtesy and warmth - though perhaps not Parisians, a species justifiably loathed by the rest of the country.

Caroline Wyatt
Caroline Wyatt has been the BBC's Paris correspondent for four years
For a born and bred Parisian, the city is a walkway on which to parade, a stage with all the Parisians in it players, and tourists or foreigners merely a financially-necessary blot on the otherwise perfect city. Except that the elegantly-attired Parisians walking their obnoxious fluffy dogs barely seem to notice as their pet piles up the excrement on the pavements, wafting past in a cloud of perfume, oblivious to the muck below.

But perhaps Paris has changed me too, as these days I very rarely step in it any more. And I can waft past with the best of them.

When I first arrived, I used to go to work wearing trainers and trousers for my bike-ride. But years of unconcealed sneers from poodle-toting Parisians, clacking past on kitten heels as they took in my sad British appearance, made me realise: never mind the inner beauty, outward perfection counts here.

That French perfectionism has its benefits though. I began writing this on a train - a TGV whizzing me to the south, from Paris to Marseilles in just three hours.

Modified TGV
A French TGV went 356mph to break a world record in April
A smartly-dressed conductor inspected my ticket and wished me "bon voyage" in a peaceful carriage in which mobile phones were banned. Anyone using one was frowned out of the carriage in shame. Bliss.

It was a brand new train, the interior designed by no less than Christian Lacroix - probably the closest my bottom will ever get to one of his expensive creations. Yet the ticket cost less than 60 euros (40) return, and the train arrived bang on time.

The SNCF may be proof of a command economy, but that belief in well-run public services - and providing the means to get to work on time - still makes France one of the most productive nations in Europe.

Civic pride

For the past decade or so, the French have looked across to Britain with a curious mix of envy of our economy, and pity for the state of our public services and public spaces - not to mention scorn for "le binge drinking".

A sense of civic pride is one of France's most enduring qualities. As almost every British family moving here to re-conquer the French countryside house by house will notice, nearly every village has an immaculate green, and a flag hanging proudly from the mayor's office.

The French may grumble that the state spends too much and employs too many, but they can see where the tax money goes, whether to local doctors who still pay home visits day or night, or schools that produce children who can read and write.

Yet there is a limit to what even the French state can do, although not everyone wants to believe it.

Driving from Marseilles along the winding roads of the southern coast to the Languedoc region, we went on the trail of France's "wine terrorists", a shadowy, improbable group called the CRAV, who demanded that President Sarkozy raise the price of wine - or else.

Belief in the state

Their demand showed a touching, and perhaps not so misplaced, belief in the power of the French state. President Sarkozy recounts in his most recent book what he calls the 'historic day', when - as finance minister - he called in the major supermarket chains and made them lower the price of groceries.

Little wonder he was elected President. I am not sure the same could happen in Britain - nor would people expect it to, with market forces deemed to be beyond anyone's control.

But not in France. There is a belief that the government can and must stand up to the worst aspects of globalisation and temper the wilder ravages of capitalism for the public good.

On a hot southern afternoon, the neatly-combed vineyards of the Languedoc shimmering in the haze, we meet small independent wine-growers who will not admit to being members of the CRAV, but clearly support the group's demands.

"My family has taken care of these fields for generations," one tells me, "but I am the first not to be able to make a living from them. And yet this is our heritage, and we must pass it on to the next generation to ensure that our children too know what it is to make good wine and look after the countryside."

Vineyard in Languedoc
Even the owner of the local chateau agreed that the government must act to preserve their way of life. Surveying the perfectly-groomed lawn outside the family castle, Jean-Marc Ribet poured another glass of Chateau de la Vernede and condemned falling wine prices and rapacious middlemen with equal vigour.

Yet he no longer sells his wine in France - the customers are too poor, and the mark-up too big for most French on small salaries. Americans are his best customers.

But like many now, Monsieur Ribet is optimistic that President Sarkozy will bring change - whether it is making the French value hard work again or lowering their taxes.

Economy a paradox

Somehow, though, the economy remains a French paradox. Its small companies may be hampered by a thousand rules but its big businesses are among the world's most successful.

Until recently, they have made their money quietly, and spent it discreetly. The battered Renault outside could belong to the biggest boss or the most junior employee. Ostentatious displays of wealth have been unpopular in France since Marie-Antoinette's time. And the national suspicion of le patron, the boss, is another enduring French trait.

But perhaps the national scorn for the making of large sums of money is what makes this nation so appealing to the overworked British visitor as we come to enjoy a week or two off, watching enviously as the French take the whole of August to enjoy it with their family.

All that though, I suspect, will change. President Sarkozy has already dismayed MPs by decreeing they must sit in Parliament from June until August, so that he can push his reforms through before the nation shuts down for the holidays.

Passion for food

But some things in France, I hope, will remain eternal. My friends have teased me for being the BBC's French food and wine reporter, rather than its Paris correspondent, but in truth they are one and the same.

A Paris cafe
Food and wine are central to "la vie francaise", a passion that unites everyone from the street-sweeper to the stockbroker - as vital a part of French life as arguing ferociously over politics, evading your taxes or denouncing your neighbour to the authorities.

"A meal is never just a meal," confided Le Figaro's food critic. "A meal is the story of all the other meals you've ever had, from the chicken that your mother used to roast when you were young, to the first dinner you shared with your lover."

And covering France has been a little like that. Each tale has been a story within a story, mingling layer upon layer of contradictions, and the memories of France's great times past with its struggle to deal with the future and the changing world outside. And now, at last, there is a genuine sense of hope that with a new generation in charge, things are moving again.

I am sad to leave without knowing how the story of France under President Sarkozy ends, nor if the leak above my desk ever will be repaired. But I look forward to my successor keeping me well-informed on the progress of both.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 28 June, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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