Thursday, 31 May 2012

Drinking, Driving and Lobbying

As of the 1st of July, it will become a legal obligation in France to keep a breathalyser test in your car. The tests must be certified as conforming to the legal standards and not be past its expiry date.

Although I was surprised that the government was promoting drink-driving within limits as opposed to total abstention, I initially thought that the law was quite a good idea. Drink-driving is a major problem in France, with 31% of accidents being caused by alcohol, and has not yet become as socially unacceptable as it is in the UK. I've often seen French acquaintances have a few glasses of wine before driving home ... with their children in the back seat. It hasn't ceased to horrify my yet. But at the same time, the French way of drinking doesn't lend itself to a zero-tolerance approach the way the UK style does. Because drinking is slower, less excessive, and usually done at the same time as eating, it is possible to have a couple of drinks and still be within the limits when it's time to go home. Having a breathalyser test in the car might encourage drivers to make sure that they are, rather than hoping that everything will be OK.

A little while later, however, a motoring organisation published this letter alleging that the law had been written into the statute books as a result of intense lobbying by an organisation made up of representatives of a company that manufactures the tests, who will make 1 euro out of every driver in France and everytime a test is used ... or passes the manufacturer's recommended use-by date. Information I've read since suggests that some of the claims in the original letter are false, but the basic story seems to hold true and, in addition to what the letter itself says, it made me think twice about some things:

Firstly, I think it is quite offensive to suggest that people who never drink and drive on principle (including people who never drink at all, for example for religious reasons) should still have to buy the tests.

Secondly, surely the test is only useful if it's been used. In which case you won't necessarily have one sitting ready for the next time in your glove compartment to show the police when they pull you over.

And thirdly, there is my original doubt about the wisdom of suggesting that any drink-driving is acceptable, especially as the breathalysers apparently aren't that reliable.

My conclusion is that the law might not be a totally bad thing, but it's something of a red-herring in the task of actually tackling the problem. What do you think?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Hong Kong Skylines or Why Travel is Important

On the way back from my trip to the Philippines, I had an eight hour connection in Hong Kong. When booking the flights, I had tried to avoid a long stop there, but when a friend confirmed that, thanks to a fast and efficient airport train service and an easy visa process, it was possible to nip into the city for a few hours before heading back to the airport, I was over the moon. Visit a glamorous international city with a dazzling waterfront skyline, at sunset, in the ultimate of foreign countries, with the added cool of just dropping in on the way to somewhere else? Who wouldn't?


The amount of preparation I did for that little trip was ridiculous, mostly because, in addition to a bit of internet research beforehand, at Harold's Mansion, our hostel in Dumaguete which made up with its guidebook library what it lacked in indoor toilets, I was able to borrow, read, and inwardly digest most of the Lonely Planet guide to the city before I went. And, reflecting on why I did this so obsessively as I waved goodbye to the Philippines and set off for my mini-adventure, I reminded myself of why travel matters.

Because sometimes I feel guilty about my addiction to travelling. Going to the Philippines, I asked myself how I could justify spending one-fifth of the average annual income there on one flight. I fret about my carbon footprint. And more than anything, I worry that travel has become consumerist, with the number of exotic places you've ticked off a list and can boast about to your friends being more important than what you  did there or how much you learned.

All of these are legitimate concerns. But the revelation that came to me somewhere over the South China Sea was that travel matters because it makes us care. Visiting a new country makes me want to learn about its language, its geography and its history. Deep down, I want to know things that before were only theoretically interesting. Most importantly of all, it makes me care about the people. I want to know their life experiences and understand the choices they make. And, because they are real to me, I care about their destinies in a way that may ultimately change the choices that I make in my own life, perhaps, in some small way, paving the path to a better world.

That's why, superficial as my snaps of my 4 hours in Hong Kong may seem, they are more meaningful than they look.

A Tale of Two Citizenship Tests

I recently failed the UK citizenship test.

Luckily, it was no big deal because I'm a UK citizen by birth and was only playing around online when I should have been doing something more constructive, but it was a little discomfiting.

On the positive side, I passed the (sample) French one with flying colours.

So what was the difference?

The French test consists of a language exam (I got full marks but some of the questions would be tricky if you didn't have a very sound grasp of grammar) and a history test, which is supposed to be at the level acquired by a French child by the time they leave primary school. My knowledge of French history is a little vague, but I do know why the Eiffel Tower was built and that Victor Hugo was not a French president. It's the kind of information you could easily pick up by being in France for a few years and paying attention to your surroundings, especially if you're European, although someone from a country with less of a shared history with France might find it a bit harder.

The UK test, on the other hand, has far more questions to do with everyday life in the UK and what the country is like now, as opposed to several centuries ago. It asks, for example, about what the speed limits are and who has the right to vote in elections.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, it seems to have been designed with the attention to unneccessary detail one more commonly associates with elderly French schoolmistresses than the UK government. You are expected to know, for example, the exact percentage of Muslims in the country, and whether the number of children and young people is 14 million, 15 million or 16 million. There are also some archaic historical and political questions which very few British adults probably know the answers to, never mind ten-year-old children. Since I posted the link on Facebook, none of my friends has claimed to pass it.

If I had to choose between the two, I would definitely prefer to do the French one, because it seems so much more achievable and because the information is interesting, if not exactly useful. But, as so often seems to be the case, surely the best citizneship test would be a happy fusion of the two ideals?

And so I decided to create my own test for French citizenship: simple questions about what you really need to know to get by in France. Unfortunately, British humour got in the way and it came out a little tongue-in-cheek in places ...

1. When you phone somebody, the first thing you should do after saying who you are is: a) ask how the other person is  b) check that you are not disturbing them c) say why you are calling

2. Which of the following people should you definitely not tutoie without asking? a) your brother-in-law b) your mother-in-law c) a stranger you have just met in a youth hostel

3. Does the cheese course come before or after dessert?

4. Is port an aperitif or a digestif?

5. Which of the following is acceptable for a person in their thirties who is going to the supermarket? a) to take their own wheeled shopping trolley to bring the shopping home b) to wear a tracksuit  c) to go out with wet hair

2. Rank the following in order of priority: a) the right to shop on a Sunday b) the right of the workers to have a day of rest c) the need to buy fresh baguette regardless of whether it's Sunday or not.

3. Which is most important? a) that the state should remain entirely secular b) that the state should accord everyone a public holiday that just happens to fall on the religious holidays of Pentecost and Ascension Day c) your right to openly show your religion in state establishments

5. In all aspects of life, but especially grammar and motoring, rules a) are there for a reason  b) are made to be broken  c) always have many exceptions

6. In order to pass this test, you must wait in a queue for three hours to speak to an official who will tell you that you are missing a vital document to complete your application dossier. Will you a) go home and look for the document, if necessary obtaining it at great expense b) tell the official that they are wrong and that you have everything on the list of required documents that is published on their website, if necessary pulling out your smartphone to prove your point  c) explain why obtaining the document will make not only your life but also theirs more difficult, flirt if necessary and attempt to find a solution?
And, if you want to try the real tests, here are the links:

UK Citizenship Sample Test

French Language Sample Test

French History (with answers and critical commentary!)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Deep Countryside: Travels in La France Profonde

The Lac du Der

Last weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I took a trip out east to visit the beautiful Vosges mountains and my old home town of Nancy. With time on our hands and an annoying noise coming from underneath my car when we hit over 100km/h, we decided to avoid the motorway tolls and travelled on the Route Nationale instead.

That extra hour we spent on the road was definitely worth it. Not only was the slower driving and lack of maniacs and traffic jams infinitely less stressful, it also turned into a voyage of discovery and something of a trip down the memory lane of the France I used to know.

Living in Picardie and Lorraine, the France I discovered first was not the glitz of Paris, the splendour of the Alps or the turquoise seas of the Riviera. Nor was it the rich Celtic traditions of Britanny or the gastronomic delights of the Perigord. Instead I learned about life in those vast swathes of the country where small towns appear every so often, tucked into corners of the huge expanses of field and forest and where everything is shut on a Sunday, and a Monday too. On the way out we struggled to find a boulangerie to buy lunch, and on the way back we discovered the beautiful Lac du Der, apparently one of the largest lakes in Europe but probably unheard of even by most French people.

These places are unexplored by tourists, but they account for an enormous area of French territory. School pupils learn about a diagonal "line of emptiness" that crosses the country from Strasbourg to the south-west, crossing the regions of Champagne-Ardenne, Bourgogne and the Limousin which, like the majority of the country's regions, have a population density of less than 100 people per square kilometre, and often even half that. (For comparison, the Ile-de-France has 974 people per square km.)

And while these empty regions may have fewer obvious attractions than the big cities or the coast, I suspect that they contribute significantly to certain less well-celebrated aspects of French culture. I was surprised when I first came to France, for example, by the number of people who buy land to build their own houses here. But when land is abundant, why not? Or by the prominent role played by enormous out-of-town hypermarkets, whose growth presumably depended on the custom of people who couldn't buy everything in their local high street shops. I think it is probably also partly responsible for the importance people place on spending time with family and life-long friends: often, in these places, there's very little opportunity to meet new people. And finally, I wonder if it may be responsible for the importance that French people place on welfare, continuity and security: these areas are probably great for having the space to bring up a family, but if you lose your job, the next opportunity may not be just around the corner.

So if you have the opportunity, next time you have a long drive to do, take your foot off the accelerator a little and take the time to discover La France Profonde.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Why France is not as leftwing as you think it is.

The French: work a 35-hour week, go on strike all the time and enjoy what is supposed to be the best public health service in the world. They sit around in cafes discussing philosophy and their fond memories of May '68. They may just have elected their first socialist President for the first time in nearly 20 years, but French politics is so left wing that even their right wing is so left of centre that the average American would have to twist their head 180 degrees to see it, so it doesn't really count. Correct?

Well, sort of. But, as European political chat centres on what effect Hollande's growth pact will have on Merkel's Germanic austerity measures and we all wonder how on earth he will possibly find the money to finance all these retirements at 60, I thought it would be interesting to write about the other side of the coin. About how, the longer I live in France, the more I see that it is not as lefty as we often think it is.

Take the health service. Yes, they treat you fast, they treat you well and they hand out prescriptions like sweeties. I'm grateful for that (apart from the prescriptions part, which is incredibly wasteful and does a great job of lining the pockets of Big Pharma, but more on that another time). But the state only pays for two-thirds of it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a country and an era where almost every health service treatment is entirely free. That, to me, is the socialist ideal.

Also, the French system allows medical practicioners to work on a semi-private basis, where the state will refund its share of the basic price, but the clinics and hospitals can charge more than that, and the rest falls to the patient or the insurers. Meaning that the cost of the insurance goes up. So we pay for that. In generally richer areas, it can be hard to find specialists who are not private, effectively making life more difficult for the people who live there and can't afford or don't want to pay for the extras.

Secondly, the education system. French public schools are generally fairly egalitarian, and anyone with a Bac can go to university for a few hundred euros a year, with benefits for housing and such things provided. But the best facilities and career prospects are not to be found in the public universities, but in the Grandes Ecoles, where fees can be up to around 15000 euros per year. Not having attended one of these can put a glass ceiling over your head for the rest of your life. There are bursaries available for poorer students and I don't know enough about these to say that they do or do not make the Grandes Ecoles genuinely open to all who are intellectually capable of undertaking the courses, but it's certainly a system that in the UK would be unlikely to have stemmed from a truly socialist government.

Finally, France may have a great history of standing up for its workers and defending their rights, but culturally it is definitely a conservative country. Despite the above comments, the French left fits my conception of what is traditionally socialist, but it isn't really liberal or particularly open to change. Walk into a French primary school and you will see desks lined up in rows and children copying lines from the board in their best copperplate handwriting, then memorising the text for homework and saying it aloud in the special voice that is reserved for that activity. Seating them in groups would be considered progressive, never mind thinking about student choice or pupil-centred learning.

And French people like it that way. One of Hollande's flagship policies is keeping the retirement age low for workers in certain sectors (basically because they have hard jobs and are likely to die younger). I can't help thinking that if that was me, I'd rather someone found an innovative way to keep me alive for longer than simply let me enjoy my last couple of years more before I went to an early grave. But voters like policies which are familiar, not creative, so this one works at election time.

The intention of this post is not to criticise France, or even its politics. There are many great things about French socialism, and also about the socialist attitudes that are so ingrained that they aren't challenged even by the right. Nor am I claiming to be an expert on any of the above (except the schools: I know quite a lot about French schools) and I would be happy to change my opinion on any of it. I just find it interesting to make these observations about how concepts that we assume are transferable from one country to the next can actually mean dramatically different things. And I think it's important, if people are to make intelligent decisions about what they want from politics, to stop and reflect on actual facts and our actual experiences instead of making judgements based on those assumptions.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Impassioned Politics

I was on the RER the other night when the train stopped for a couple of minutes longer than expected at one of the stations. Standing on the platform and wearing a CGT jacket was a man with long grey hair and a beard brandishing a copy of L'Humanité with a picture of Sarkozy on the front.

"This man," he declared, "This man has the face of a dictator. How can we rely on him to represent us?" Seeing that I was watching him with interest, he came up close to the train window and held up the paper so that we could see more clearly through the glass. "Don't vote for him, Madame," he said.

Then he moved up to the open door of the carriage and repeated his entreaties to a group of people who had just got on the train. Then the alarm sounded, telling us the train was going to leave. As the doors slid shut and we slipped away from the platform, several people applauded.

A similar thing happened on the metro late last night. The train drew into the station and a man bounded towards the doors to get off. As he leaped onto the platform, he turned to the whole carriage and called out, "Don't forget to vote for Hollande!" and disappeared.

At the beginning of the election period, I was almost relieved not to have a vote. It wasn't a particularly inspiring campaign and I would have had a hard time picking a candidate. In the past few weeks, though, it feels as though the whole country has been caught up in election fever. Not only are the French passionate about politics and not afraid to show it, as the incidents above prove, they also confront the arguments with intellectual confidence. 20 million people watched the 3-hour debate between Sarkozy and Hollande that was shown live on multiple television channels between 9pm and midnight last week. And even in a time of crisis where there are no easy solutions, people still believe that politics can change the world and are prepared to act on their views. It would have been fun to have been part of that.

Friday, 4 May 2012