The French enigma: how do they get away with it?
France is a beautiful, diverse and largely uncrowded country with some wonderful habits, but its residents may have to raise their game
On magazine covers in France last week I kept noticing photos of a chic woman I didn't recognise but who was clearly pregnant and possibly 42. "Some Cannes actress up the duff," I muttered and thought no more.
Only on returning to Britain did I realise the mystery thespian was actually Rachida Dati, Nicholas Sarkozy's high-flying justice minister, the Gallic Jack Straw. As the child of North African Muslim immigrants, the unmarried and decidedly secular Dati ticks a lot of prurient boxes for the media, even in France where discretion usually prevails.
Contrasting French tolerance towards public sexual permissiveness (at least in Paris) with American uptightness - as usual Britain is caught somewhere in between - some Fleet St papers wondered "how long the French can get away with it?" Since the father of Dati's child is publicly unknown "who's the dad?" - VIP or one-night stand? - is part of the fun, if you like that sort of thing.
In the corner of rural France where we hang out folk don't gossip much to strangers. But in the week when the TUC meets in Brighton to fight for the living standards of its members my holiday prompted another question about the way the French live: "How long can they all get away with it?''
The question was lodged in my mind when we stayed overnight in Orleans, 80 miles south west of Paris. It's a handsome, historic city of 110,000 or so, quietly prosperous like so many less well-known places in France.
What startled me was to be reminded just how much such places simply shut down for the annual fortnight's holiday - or longer - in August.
Orleans may be a tourist town but if the local customers are heading to the Med or Atlantic coasts, the lakes or mountains, so does most of the retail trade, even major department stories like Galleries Lafayette in Orleans. Row upon row of shops had "back on August 25" - or September 1 - signs Sellotaped to the window.
I know Paris is quiet in August. So is London, though it doesn't suspend parking charges for the month, as the French capital does.
Its retail sector and restaurants certainly don't shut down. Perhaps they should. But as we have moved towards a 24/7 consumer culture since Margaret Thatcher's controversial repeal of Sunday trading the French have moved the other way, reducing the working week to 35 hours a week in 1998.
It is a law subsequently modified, but still making for complicated opening hours, often different every day. Sunday closing is de rigueur.
"They're not acquisitive in the way we are. If they can pay the bills and the car starts in the morning, they're more concerned with family and food, with enjoying life," a long-time English resident later explained over a coffee at the market in Villefranche. "The shopkeepers say, 'we're entitled to a holiday too.'"
I wouldn't quite express their anti-materialism quite that way, since they charge a lot for services (I think the meaning translates differently) and are keen to be paid in cash. That is why French banks have to restrict the amount their customers can withdraw from ATM machines in a given period, to curb the black economy.
In Italy, friends tell me, Berlusconi's new regime has relaxed such restrictions: a bad sign. Sarko is trying to reform bad habits - and has an electoral mandate to do so. But yesterday's papers quote a French teacher complaining that they don't want him copying British suburbs. "They're all slaves to the free market over there (Britain), it's just like America." Sarkozy has an uphill struggle.
All the same, you can see their point of view. France is a beautiful, diverse and largely uncrowded country with some wonderful habits. It's corny, I know, but every time I marvel at the butchers, the bread, the country markets, the cheese.
The downside is the difficulty of getting a coffee in downtown Orleans before 10am. or of knowing exactly when the shops will be open for basics - or unexpectedly closed. I've been trying to get it right for years and still fail.
Sometimes, I swear, they shut when they think some looming customers might disrupt their day. Heading south this year we found ourselves off the motorway (much less stressful) near Issoudun, which boasts an excellent restaurant in La Coquille. Did they have a table for lunch? Had we booked? No. In that case, sorry but no. After a pizza and pastry round the corner I peeped through La Coquille's window: it didn't look too full to me.
This may be a standards thing (the chef can only supervise so many excellent meals), but in Paris on our last night a kind woman hesitated, then fitted us in. But I think it's deeper attitude at work.
I tried to buy a few bottles of Tariquet, a striking Chardonnay/Sauvignon blend from Gascony which I like, at what passes for the village wine merchant.
In week one the charming patron told me her supplier was on holiday. I was busy in week two. In week three I found her closed on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as the (usual) Monday.
Heading for home on Friday and spotting she was open, I stopped and found some Tariquet on the shelf at last. "I'll take a case of that," I said. "Sorry, they're my last four bottles and he's told me there won't be any more this year. Come back next year,'' she said - but nicely.
Do you laugh or cry? I laughed and took the four bottles, plus two more she recommended so she gave me a bottle for free. Trying to buy her favourite pain au raisin across the street my wife had the same experience: sorry, we've sold out (this was mid-morning).
It all infuriates me, even more so a close friend who has to juggle French labour laws and meet a payroll. Yet at one level I admire its deep-seated, producer-orientated bloody-mindedness and the majority's quality of life.
Alas, back in the car we started listening again to The Age of Uncertainly, the 9-CD abridgement of Alan Greenspan's memoirs, a gift from my son. Yes, that Greenspan, the ex-chairman of the US Federal Reserve. You listen to Arctic Monkeys or Catherine Cookson if you want to. I prefer US monetary policy.
Chairman Al is a clever chap, as he would admit without the threat of torture. And he tells a good, if discreetly-worded, tale of serving five presidents, not including Nixon, whose private personality disturbed him.
Nixon and Bill Clinton were the cleverest, but he greatly admired Gerry Ford for decency, quiet self-confidence and straight-dealing: a moderate Republican like himself.
You can tell Greenspan must have been quietly appalled to discover that Ford veterans like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had become born-again ideologues by the time they joined George W Bush's White House team in 2001.
That's not my point. Nor is his relief that "my good friend Gordon Brown" and Tony Blair had dropped the damaging economic nostrums of Fabian socialism by the time they took power in 1997.
Central economic planning doesn't work; what has worked to extend global prosperity to untold millions is the rule of law, entrenched property rights and capitalism, plus accountable democratic governments, Greenspan believes.
His hero is Brown's fellow-Kirkcaldy-ite, Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations (1776) and champion of the "hidden hand" of the market. He's not a hero in France.
Greenspan's memoirs strike me as a bit disingenuous, sometimes plain naïve, about politics, a craft which he has seen close up, albeit from a ringside seat.
He condemns the damaging economic impact of authoritarian regimes and Latino economic populism, of Fabian socialism and communism, all of which end up making poor people poorer than they need to be.
He is acutely aware - as the TUC will be in Brighton this week - of widening inequality of incomes in many countries (China's gap is wider than the US's own, he claims) and how it may lead to false remedies. Latin America needs more market capitalism, not less, to break the distortions of oligarchical power, says the chairman.
As for the US, it will correct its own failures, he believes - a touch complacently, I thought. American financial capitalism recklessly privatises profit and socialises the risk and a lot of it happened towards the end of Greenspan's long (1987-2006) tenure at the Fed. The emergency rescue of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac this weekend underlines just how serious things have become.
Where is this ramble leading me? Back to France, of course. Not to Ms Dati's baby - the jazz-loving intellectual Greenspan is a bit of a prude - but to the country's way of life.
Most French voters would rather work for the government; only 35% believe market capitalism is the best way (half the US proportion); France has slipped to 45th on the economic freedom scale, he notes; its unemployment remains stubbornly high.
Despite boasting some very successful global firms, "it is difficult not to be gloomy" about France in the new age of globalisation, concludes Greenspan, quoting Jacques Chirac to the effect that "ultra-liberalism is as big a danger as communism was" and his ex-premier Édouard Balladur calling markets "the law of the jungle".
The EU has "culture-driven structural problems" which have slowed growth and pushed up unemployment, he insists. Italy's plight is worse than France's and Japan's protracted slump arose because the system there refused to lose face by liquidating failed banks and their worthless debts.
People do vote to defer pain, they sometimes vote for folly, he suggests. Ex-British colonies are among the most prosperous, thanks to that rule of law habit, though Singapore is better on law than democracy and Zimbabwe has made every mistake in the book.
But there is no escaping hard choices, no hiding place, not even Burma. If Greenspan is more right than wrong - I fear he is - then it means my village wine merchant and her fellow-countrymen may have to raise their game.
Come to think of it, some of her bottles have acquired distinctly-Australian-looking labels lately, though she denies it. Some of the contents taste a bit foreign too. Has globalisation crept into rural France? Will it save or ruin them?
P.O. Box 3867
Skype ID : Kayisa66