Sunday May 6, 2007
My brother-in-law, who lives in Paris, told me last week that the televised debate between the French presidential rivals Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, watched by 20 million people, appeared to electrify the city even more than last year's World Cup final, where France lost to Italy. 'Politics here is far more of a spectator sport and many even use sporting terminology to describe a particular verbal sally by one candidate or another,' he told me. 'The next day, when I dropped the kids off at school, all the parents were clustered around the gates, staying for hours discussing the great debate. The French love a verbal punch-up.'
Twenty million viewers. And this on top of an 85 per cent turn-out in the first stage of an election process that finally ends this weekend. It is a far cry from Britain's recent democratic record, which has seen dwindling voter turn-outs over successive general elections. The relative lack of outrage at the impending coronation of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister is further evidence of a nation that has lost its appetite for the kind of all-out, raunchy, knock-down, democratic bunfights that we regularly see unfolding on the other side of the Channel.
Ms Royal refers warmly to Tony Blair's model of 'Third Way' politics, while Mr Sarkozy is a great admirer of British deregulation and devotion to free-market dynamics, but when it comes to public participation in the life of the nation, the French clearly have something to teach us. I have to admit to being increasingly irritated at the tendency of British commentators and politicians to present the election as France's last-chance saloon, for in most things that combine to make up a decent quality of life, from health to literacy, to gentility and solicitude for the vulnerable, France has us beaten.
Mr Sarkozy did not appear too convinced of this when he came to London three months ago to address expatriates who had fled high unemployment in France to find work in the City's booming financial-services sector. Referring to London as possessing a 'vitality' that Paris sorely lacked, Mr Sarkozy exhorted the crowd to return home - after casting their vote for him of course. 'France is still your country, even if you are disappointed by it,' he said, at the same time promising less regulation, more jobs and other free-market reforms.
The BBC's Crossing Continents took up the theme, broadcasting a documentary on how French graduates are flocking to the Square Mile. But the BBC should follow up its investigation with a comparison of how each country treats its citizens once they move from the freedom of youth to buying a house, getting from A to B, educating the children, staying healthy and growing old. For the fact is that British migration to France, at just over 40,000 a year, outstrips French migration to Britain. Most of those who leave cite what they see as a declining British values system, the soaring cost of living and poor public services.
London might be rich in 'vitality', but its pleasures are far more accessible to the super rich and tax-favoured non-domiciled billionaires than for the rest of us who are priced out of the housing market and forced to commute from an ever-expanding hinterland on a transport system that is as expensive as it is inefficient. I sometimes feel like apologising on behalf of my country to tourists at underground stations, rendered speechless by the cost of travelling a few stops on our glorious Northern Line. Research presented to the Foreign Office by Montesquieu University, near Bordeaux, shows that many Britons moving to France come from English urban areas in a bid to substitute overcrowding, soaring crime rates and high prices with 'things people associate with a typical French village that they feel no longer exist in Britain'.
Mr Sarkozy's visit lent extra weight to the arguments of our commentators who seem to accept that Britain's free-market system and relative lack of regulation automatically leads to a superior quality of life. But I grow increasingly frustrated with our assumption of superiority over the French, whose society in many ways is happier, healthier, better-educated and more carefully nurtured than ours.
The Telegraph's Simon Heffer contends: 'While much of the rest of the world moves on through the application of free-market economic disciplines, France is demoralised, impoverished, overtaxed and in despair.'
But any Barbour-clad, Telegraph-reading member of my Kent community, when asked about what is most irritating about Britain, rants about poor retirement income, high taxes in return for substandard public services, the high cost of living, the decline of civility and the decrepit road and rail infrastructure. These polemics often go in tandem with heartily delivered supremacist rants about Europe in general and France in particular, where performance in every aspect of Middle England's quality of life index is demonstrably superior. Yes, France is in dire need of economic and social reform, but the British would do well to look closer to home before labelling the country a society in crisis. French tax rates are higher than Britain's, but in France, the public services work. In Britain, they are, at best, mediocre. Both countries have high tax economies based on redistributive principles, but it is France that is better at fulfilling its social contract with its citizens.
I have first-hand experience of the British exodus. Recently, my in-laws moved to France. They follow my parents, who made the same decision two years ago. And they follow my brother-in-law, Dom, who moved to Paris years ago with his wife. My wife's parents are now settling down, among a growing band of British exiles, on the banks of the Charente, 600 miles from their children and the home they have known for a large part of their married life. Nearby Jarnac's population of around 5,000 has been swelled by 150 British families over the past few years. They are not all old people either, but families with children who are renovating properties and starting businesses.
My in-laws were finding it increasingly hard to cope with the cost of living in London and with inadequate health care. My mother-in-law, who has Parkinson's disease, has just found out that she is entitled to free weekly physiotherapy, a treatment deemed essential by French doctors, but not mentioned by her carers in Britain.
My father-in-law, who currently pays £500 a month for private medical coverage to supplement care by an NHS he already funds through taxation, expects now to contribute just £100 a month in the form of an insurance payable by French citizens (or their employers) to accompany state funding of the health service. My father pays less tax on his pension than in Britain, and the same will apply to my father-in-law when he registers as a resident.
My parents, who live near Angouleme, south-west France, are similarly surrounded by middle-class Brits who mutter darkly about about failing British health care, the country's dilapidated infrastructure, spiralling crime and the rising cost of living. My parents too have been joined by growing numbers of younger people with small children,families who are buying up the older properties and transforming them into gites.
Many young people are lured to France by its taxation system which, unlike Britain's, rewards fecundity and fidelity with tax breaks. Dom's third child arrived a few months ago, entitling him to a significant reduction in income tax. His carte famille nombreuse allows them half-price metro travel around Paris and half-price travel on the excellent national rail network. And the municipal authority, concerned at the lack of affordable housing for growing families, has capped his mortgage repayments.
Dom, who is a graphic artist, could not return to Britain even if he wanted to: 'Where would we live? How would we live?' he says. 'Even if I was earning two times what I earn here, it would not be enough to get a mortgage, let alone a comparable quality of life. The children would have a worse education; the family's health would be a big concern.'
So my experience shows me that France, despite its manifest social and economic problems, is kinder to those who are starting out on the road to family and responsibility, and to those who have reached the end of that road, and who should be able to expect, after a lifetime of paying tax, a comfortable and secure retirement. Mme Royal might admire 'New' Labour's 'Third Way' political and social model, but I can't help feeling that it is the belief that a government can be all things to all men - that near-unrestricted capitalism, for instance, can happily cohabit with comprehensive welfarism - that has created a British social model that is more confused and sclerotic than the French one.
In Britain, where the mainstream parties are tearing each other's throats out in the battle for something called the 'centre ground', choice is limited and voter turn-out low. How can David Cameron talk about patient choice, but eschew market principles in the NHS, defend the bloated public sector but campaign about the waste of public money, or defend marriage, but also uphold civil partnerships as of identical status?
Despite their admiration for Mr Blair, both candidates in the French election offer distinct visions for the country across the political spectrum from left to right. If this country remains on its current course after Gordon Brown's elevation, growing numbers on this side of the Channel will feel they have a greater stake in France's future than in Britain's.