January, 2008

Is France’s liberté going to the dogs?

In my next life, I would rather not come back as a French dog. Unless you are a Parisian poodle, life will consist mainly of being tied up in a yard or put in a cage and left to bark for hours on end. (Having said that, if you do come back as a Parisian poodle, you may be expected to wear some dreadful haute couture bling-style dog coat, which could be even worse). But one thing is sure. If you’re a country dog used mainly for hunting, you’ll be treated like, well, a dog.

We have a dog. He was a stray, who arrived at our house one day. It took him three months to come anywhere near us. A long-haired alsatian in terrible condition, he was thin, and had clearly been badly treated – he was terrified of people. We called him Wolfie.

He would come for walks, but keep his distance. Then he started to run past me, pushing his nose into my hand as he went. Eventually, he let me stroke him. Now, almost four years later, he is part of the family. But he still doesn’t trust anyone else.

Until recently, he retained total freedom. He didn’t even have a collar. I found it rather touching that he chose to live with us, even though he was free to come and go as he pleased. I liked his independent spirit.

Our French neighbours were not so keen. One local vineyard owner came to see us a few weeks ago, complaining that Wolfie had been eating his rabbits and trying to seduce his bitch. I believe the last bit, but he’s never shown any interest in the rabbits around us.

“What do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“Keep him tied up,” the wine man said.

Recently, the children and I were cycling to school. Wolfie followed us, and ended up in the village. A woman promptly rounded on me.

“Dogs must be kept on a lead in the village. If not, it’s breaking the law,” she yelled at the top of her voice. So much for French liberté.

But that’s the thing. The French are not really very free. Here in France, much of your life is dictated. You can go on holiday whenever you like – as long as it’s in August. And, as for a good location – well, France is the obvious choice.

Last August, when I was leaving Marseilles in a taxi to catch an early-morning flight, the traffic was appalling. I asked the driver what was going on.

“Everyone’s going on holiday,” he said.

“Where are they going?” “Well,” he said, “you can turn left or you can turn right.”

Then there’s lunch. Just try getting a croque-monsieur after 1.30pm anywhere in the Languedoc. It may be different in other parts of France, but down my way, you eat at midday, whatever else is going on. I was once asked to collect the children from school because of a terrible storm. It was midday when I arrived at the school gates.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the headmistress, motioning for me to come back later on. “They have to have lunch first.”

My children are being brought up in the French system, and I notice small signs of this lack of liberté creeping into their psyches. When I took Bea, 7, to Paris, I spent most of my time waiting at traffic lights for the little man to go green. Nothing would induce her to cross the road when he was red, even if there wasn’t a car around for several miles.

This obviously has its advantages – Bea is less likely to get run over than a lot of children – but you see what I mean. The other day, Olivia, 8, the eldest, said I was not to overtake a car while driving into town, “because normally we go into town in this lane and we come back from town in the other one”.

One of the first expressions you learn in France is tu n’as pas le droit (you don’t have the right). It can be applied to everything, from which bag you use to take your shopping home from the supermarket to more serious issues, such as daring to wear underwear that doesn’t match. The other day, I was exasperated with the children and told them I was going to run away. “Mummies can’t run away,” Olivia retorted. “ Tu n’as pas le droit.”

Ultimately, there are lots of things about the French sense of right and wrong I like very much. I feel I am living in a place where people care what goes on, where there is a sense of civic pride and where how you behave is noticed. In France, there is not the feeling of decay I sense in England, probably because there are still too many people running around telling you what to do – who needs CCTV cameras?

Which brings me back to Wolfie. If our French neighbours had their way, he wouldn’t have the right to run anywhere. They would rather he was tied up all day, barking himself hoarse, than doing what comes naturally to male dogs: seeking out females on heat and trying to get close to them.

But one of the things I love about Wolfie is his liberté. This is a majestic, elegant creature, born to roam the fields. The thought of turning him into a caged animal is hateful. But maybe I don’t have the right to do otherwise.

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