French Mistress July 2008
Are meddlesome bureaucrats sapping France’s famous joie de vivre?
If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then what is a Frenchman’s? I think I have the answer: as well as a place to build a barbecue out of breeze blocks, decorate badly and tie up barking dogs outside, it is somewhere for bureaucrats to poke their noses into.
A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for the school run, I was surprised to find a man getting out of the car beside me.
“I am from the forestry,” he said.
“Very good,” I replied.
“There’s plenty of that around here, but could you please get out of the way so I can take my children to school?”
“I have come to talk about the clearing of the undergrowth,” he continued.
I was delighted – finally, someone useful arrives on my doorstep. Normally, I just have Jehovah’s Witnesses, people who have lost their dogs or sheep farmers accusing our dog, Wolfie, of eating their flock. We agreed to meet to discuss the topic once I had got rid of the children.
When I returned, 10 minutes later, he gave me the grim news. It turns out that some busybody politician introduced a law making it obligatory for every householder in certain areas of southern France to strim all the undergrowth within a 50-metre radius of their home. If they fail to comply, they risk being taken to court and fined or slung into jail. The only exception is if there is a public road within the zone, in which case it is down to the local mayor to clear the brush.
This being France, nobody took any notice of this law. Until 2003, that is, when a succession of serious fires saw houses – and firemen – get burnt. God knows why it has taken the authorities five years to reach us (maybe we’re too far from the village for them to bother), but they are now on to us, and apparently here to help.
“In what way are you helping, exactly?” I asked the man from the forestry.
“We are giving support to the mayor of your village.”
“How?” “By coming to visit you and making sure you do it.”
“Are you helping us with the work?”
“No.” “So, will you help pay for it?”
Most helpful – now we will have a bill for a couple of thousand euros and nothing to show for it but fewer bushes.
This reminds me of all the commotion a few years ago when, following the death of a politician’s young relative in a swimming pool, a law was passed obliging every householder with a pool to install an alarm or put up a fence.
A good idea in theory, undoubtedly, but the wind sets the alarms off at all hours, or people leave the gates open and children still drown.
The daughter of a French couple who live about 20 minutes from here died last summer when she climbed over the fence surrounding the swimming pool and drowned. Other friends of a friend lost their youngest child while the grown-ups were having lunch nearby. They assumed the alarm would go off if any of the kids went in the pool. Apparently, the boy walked in carefully and didn’t trigger it. Ultimately, there is no substitute for watching children – and that is up to parents, not the state.
So, where does all this French bureaucratic meddling stop, I wonder? Will they soon be popping into the bathroom to make sure we don’t have the water too hot, checking we don’t fill our coffee cups too high or arresting us if our jeans are too tight?
The nanny-state element is one of the downsides of living in France. Just as George W Bush famously declared that there is no French word for entrepreneur, so I have yet to hear a Frenchman utter the term “live and let live”.
I asked Jacques, a French friend of mine who is a former English teacher, how he would translate the phrase. He ummed and ahed for a while, which is most unlike him.
“I would say vivre et laisser vivre or chacun fait ce qu’il veut,” he said eventually, but he conceded that the concept is less common here.
If you live in France, you get used to this lack of flexibility and laissez faire. (Isn’t it odd that laissez faire is a French phrase, rather like joie de vivre?) I love the French character, but a less joyful nation is hard to imagine. The French have pretty much everything you could want from a country: endless seashores, fabulous skiing, the loveliest city in the world, great food and wine, not too much pressure to work, sunshine and the sexiest first lady since Jackie Kennedy. So, are they happy? Non. They are not. I have never known a nation grumble so much. In fact, the French are at their most miserable since records began, according to a recent survey. And that’s pretty miserable.
My children seem to have picked up this ability to whinge, complain and go on strike at every given opportunity. Maybe they’re just spoilt, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we live in France. How many primary-school children do you know who come home, throw their bags on the floor and curse Gordon Brown? In our house, every time Sarkozy is on the television, they start yelling at it.
“Why do you hate him so much?” I ask. I get three Gallic shrugs in response, then more grumbling.
I can only assume that this French reluctance to display happiness is down to the worry that, if they smile, the taxman will assume they are hiding money and investigate them – or at least tell them how to look after their garden.
Which brings me back to my undergrowth. “I will be back to check in a month,” the man from the forestry told me before driving off to bother someone else.
Being a well-behaved citizen, I did as I was told. I hired Jean-Claude, one of my husband’s cycling pals, to strim everything within 50 metres of the house. Actually, I am rather chuffed with the results. Instead of an impenetrable forest, we now have a lovely, gentle slope with olive and pine trees swaying in the breeze. He even built a little stairway up to the slope as a present for Leonardo, my four-year-old.
Every time I walk up it, I thank the French state and its meddlesome ways. I never thought I’d see an upside to bureaucracy.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019