The British newspapers today are full of articles about how, according to a recent study by International Living magazine, the UK is only the 25th best place to live in the world, behind not only Switzerland, Australia and Sweden, but also Lithuania and Uruguay and just ahead of Argentina. Italy took tenth place. France came first.
The fact that the first thing that you see when you visit the magazine's website is an invitation to “Be the first to hear about the 2010 Quality of Life Index and get a free report on the World's Top 10 Retirement Havens for 2009” says something about the kind of people who are likely to agree with the survey's rankings. Many of these countries are probably delightful places to live if you can spend your UK pension on what to you is “cheap” produce and price the locals out of the housing market but that's not the real world. In the real world, the average net salary in Italy is about 1000 euros a month and the mafia prevents small businesses from operating efficiently or making too big a profit. That's why the house prices are low. Swallow that with your morning cappuccino.
And then there's France. Now I like living in France. I would even go so far as to say that the standard of living here is very high. But better than the UK? I'm not sure.
Standing on a UK station platform recently waiting for a train that was delayed as heavy snow fell around us, I heard a man complaining that “this would never happen in the rest of Europe.” I was sorely tempted to tell him that none of my local trains in France were delayed because of the snow. They had already been cancelled for weeks because the train drivers were on strike.
The one that annoys me the most though, is when people wax lyrical about the French health service. Yes, in lots of ways it's pretty amazing. Whether you're seriously ill or just have a little sniffle, you will probably be treated quickly and effectively, using state of the art equipment and all the drugs that are available. What the lyrical waxers never tell you though, is that you pay through the nose for it. Social security contributions in France are about 25% for employees and 35% for employers. (In the UK. employees pay about 11% and employers slightly more.) Hiring staff is expensive in France and as a result, it's difficult to find a job, never mind a well-paid one. Teachers, for example, take home about 500 euros a month less than they do in the UK, and that's a job that people aspire to. That's not all though. Even after all that money has been deducted from your paycheck, you're still not finished. The state only reimburses two thirds of the cost of most treatments, so you'll pay up to 100 euros per month for top-up health insurance too. Finally, doctors in France have to option of being non conventionné, which means that they can charge higher consultation fees than the state is willing to reimburse, essentially working as semi-private practitioners. There is no guarantee of having any GPs who don't do this in your area. So yes, healthcare in France is of a very high quality, but it's because it's well-funded and that's because people who work here pay for it. Ask those International Living readers if they would vote for massive tax increases at home to improve the NHS and how many would say yes?
All of this might sound like France bashing, but it isn't meant to be. France has a lot going for it. I like living here. It's just that when you get behind the beaches and the chateaux and the cheese and the wine, it's a real place and, if you have to do more than sit on the terrace of your Provençal farmhouse sipping a chilled glass of rosé, you might just start to notice that.