The French

2 November 2023

The French

Are different.

By Robert Kilconner

They do things differently in France. No, not just in their kitchens or in making their wine but in the use they make of their resources. The first sign of it is at Folkestone as you move onto what for political purposes is French territory, preparatory to driving your car onto the shuttle. The customs posts are better manned than their British equivalents, with a couple of people lounging about in the background supporting their front line colleagues. On a slow day it looks like overmanning but it no doubt gives a flexibility to deal with emergencies, sudden surges in traffic and the rest. Both systems have their advantages of course with the British tendency to sweat assets giving rise to instability and the French system presumably costing more to run.

Then move to the centre of a country town and try to buy a croissant at lunchtime. No way, pal, C’est tout ferme, a sacrosanct interval. No lunch at the workplace for the French worker – in fact eating at the workplace is still banned under legislation going back to 1890. Is that a good thing or not? It seems they think so. The legislative barriers to workplace eating were removed during Covid but have now been reasserted. The boulanger puts up his shutters for lunch because no one would buy then anyway. What a civilised alternative to the Anglo Saxon devotion to customer service at all times and of course to the bottom line.

The set-off of efficiency against leisure has deep cultural roots and reflects years of tradition on both sides of the channel. It reflects different circumstances in different countries and as those circumstances have evolved, the traditions have evolved too. Now though there is a big change on the horizon and it is a change common to all first world countries. Basic labour will be provided by AI and that has consequences for the contribution required from the human population. A system based on efficiency and saving labour could look odd when the main social problem is to find something for people to do. Perhaps the time is coming when we will move towards the French model.

Then let us look at something different, access for mobility scooters. In the UK, or at least in Islington, frequent drop curbs mean you can use the pavement in safety. In France, however, little thought is given to this so you are faced with a choice of going over a nine inch drop or going back hundreds of yards and driving your machine up the road. A dark wet night with low visibility makes for an exciting ride but to ensure that the game is properly flushed out, some towns – step forward Chablis as an arch offender – specialise in a system by which one end of a pedestrian crossing has a drop curb and the other does not. Plenty of room for “le turnover” if you call it wrong but even if you get it right you have to change direction in the middle of the road affording the “chasseurs par auto” a second go.

For a country with such a casual approach to drop curbs, the availability of disabled access to restaurants is a surprise. Here there is a requirement of French law and restaurants are well equipped with ramps. Unfortunately the rules do not apply to chateaux where the level of provision is patchy.

Normally an article like this should end up with a conclusion. “Inefficient France needs to catch up” or “Aggressive Anglais need to relax”. Should in theory, yes, but the picture is too mixed for that. Let us just say then that the British and the French are different and leave it at that.

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