All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Behind the shutters

French Shutters 56Image by geishaboy500 via Flickr

The broad beans are ready in the garden. I have had the pleasure of their heavy scent earlier in the year and now they will be bringing me bittersweet memories as I make them into a puree with potatoes.

I had a great friend who died some five years ago who incarnated for me what was best in French life. She had grown up in a small village, had liberated herself by education and gone to run a bookshop in Paris. In the great days of 1968 she had fallen in love with an electrician who, with his colleagues, had welded himself into the car factory at Boulogne-Billancourt as part of the workers' protest and they had married. They ran a bar at Nantes for years and then retired to her native village where they lived a quiet life behind their shutters, reading, gardening and listening to music.

She was a firm republican and anti clerical, though the local priest was often to be found taking an aperitif at her hospitable table, and introduced me to that stream of life which now seems to be totally submerged....that battle for supremacy between church and state over the minds of French citizens. For her, the struggle for non religious education was still alive and she thought that the heritage of the 'black hussars' - the schoolteachers who inculcated republican values in the children in their charge once the state had introduced universal free education - had been squandered by the existance of 'private' schools in almost every commune. These schools run alongside the state schools and offer a Catholic education, but most parents use the dual system to play one school off against another to get what they want in terms of how little Johnny is treated at school. She thought it was scandalous that local councils gave grants to these institutions, and was distinctly vocal on the subject every year when the budget was discussed.

She had even been a 'godmother' at a Republican baptism...something lost in the mists of time, but revived by her and her friends on the occasion of a birth in the family. Growing up as she did in a period when if a man was not seen at mass with his family on Sunday, he would not be employed by the pious exploiters of the area, the Church disgusted her as an institution and she would not set foot in one of its buildings, even to admire the architecture......not that she was missing much in that respect in our area!

She let me loose on her book cupboard, gave me reading lists, discussed books, authors and...of course...politics! Politics national, politics local, politics international, nothing escaped her interest and sharp analysis and I would regularly turn up at her kitchen door to be greeted by an arm waving a newspaper and the cry of

'Pardi, you'll never guess what has been happening!' in her deep, enthusiastic voice.

She was, to all outside appearances, the classic rural frenchwoman. On market day she went to town with her husband and left him playing cards in a cafe while she did the shopping, the terror of stall holders as she enquired into the freshness, age and quality of everything that caught her eye. I was taken once to her favourite cheese stall, where the owner had rashly offered her some Cheddar the week before. Fixing him with an Ancient Mariner eye she told him that she had brought someone British with her in order to test this unknown quantity and I had to describe what a mature and semi mature Cheddar should be like before I was allowed to taste his offering and give judgement. In one of the Lord Emsworth short stories, P.G. Wodehouse describes the butler laying something on the table before his employer as if it had been a smoked offering and his lordship a tribal god. Lord Emsworth eyes his butler sourly with the manner of a tribal god who considers the smoked offering not up to sample, and that passage describes my friend to a T when faced with spending her money on something she could not produce herself from her garden or kitchen.

Generosity itself, she could not bear to be cheated. With a family celebration in mind, she had gone to a distant cousin in the next village to buy wine. She had tasted and chosen, and the wine was duly delivered. On the morning of the great day she decide to taste the wine again, as being the only thing on the menu not under her control, and found that the cousin had fobbed her off with an inferior wine to that which she had chosen. The wine was packed in the back of the car and she took it back, interrupting her cousin when he was busy with a group of prospective buyers. Well, suffice it to say that the prospects melted away in the heat of her displeasure and she came back with the wine which she had ordered plus a case of dessert wine in lieu of the petrol.

'So everything was O.K. in the end?'

'No, the wine was shaken up and hadn't had time to settle.'

I was then made privy to startling revelations about the private life and family history of the cousin which made even my straight hair curl. And I'd thought he was so respectable!

She cooked with the same attention to detail which characterised her entire life, and demanded the respect due to her work. Her husband knew that lunch was served at one o'clock and that if he were to be late, his meal would be given to the dog. He loved playing cards and while going home for one o'clock was no hardship if he was losing...his wife's reputation providing any excuse necessary...if he were to be winning, the tussle was hard. However, he knew his duty and by two minutes to one, there would be a sound of feet pounding the pavement outside and the clang of the bell as he flung himself through the front door which he had had the foresight to leave unlocked before departing for the bar.

One of her specialities was a broad bean puree which she had taken from a recipe by Paul Bocuse. I don't know what his was like, but hers was sublime! She was particular about the variety of broad bean and the variety of potato and kept a close eye on her pans to ensure that the texture was right..melting without being sloppy. It sounds trivial, but, to me, that puree summed up a lot about her. It was worth taking time and thought to obtain a worthwhile result, in cooking, in politics, in life.

I'll be thinking of her as I cook the broad beans.

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Saturday, 27 June 2009

Taking a liberty with equality, set to music

John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) Spanish Danc...Image via Wikipedia

This day of celebration of music in all its forms started in France and has travelled round the world...for once a great example of France's civilising mission. I look forward to it and start planning where to go as soon as I can find out what's on, which is not always so easy if you are, like me, on the borders of different regions, so that the local newspaper might well cover something happening seventy kilometres away at the other end of my department, but not something ten kilometres away which happens to be in the neighbouring region. Checking on the internet is not always so easy have national sites, departmental sites, tourist office sites and something is always bound to slip through the net so that you see it reported as a great success the week after it has happened. I ring up friends and we swop's quicker.

This year, our village hall is hosting hip hop. Given that most people in the village are of a certain age and can never have heard of that form of music, I suspect intervention by the culture committee of the local authority. It will have been an interesting evening depending on whether the clients of the bar two villages away that deals in drugs decided to participate. As yet, the grapevine has not borne fruit. My postlady is on holiday and the village correspondant of the local rag is notoriously slow to report. As Didier said once,
'By the time he's reported your Silver Wedding, it's time for the Golden one!'

Friends suggested coming to stay with them for the night and attending a flamenco evening in a local chateau...well, local to them, thus the overnight stay.
We had a great day, caught up with the news, pottered round their garden, had lunch followed by a siesta and then tarted ourselves up to go out.
The chateau is a wonderful sixteenth century building, now occupied by an outpost of the Museum of Modern Art which means that it can no longer host the best Fete de la Musique that I ever attended, where every one of the many rooms had a continuously changing programme so that under the painted beams of the royal bedroom you could have a piano recital, a local choir belting out 'Wimeweh' and renaissance music in the course of an hour, while next door in the great hall you could have a chamber ensemble, folk music and the harpsichord. Too good to last.
The flamenco was to be held in the loggia under the painted hall and we faced the typical dilemma of the French night out. Advertised to begin at eight o'clock, we knew that nothing would start before nine, but, given that there is no rake on the floor, in order to see, we would need to get good front seats. We decided to go early, put programmes on our seats and have a picnic in the grounds...not quite Glyndebourne and not 'le dejeuner sur l'herbe' either!

On arrival, we marked our seats, in the second row, and were about to make off when the occupants of the first row said that people who had done so had had their programmes removed by the staff and had lost their places. We had our picnic on the uncomfortable folding seats instead, but the salmon roulade and the Saumur sparkling wine didn't lose much by the change of venue. Time went on...people assembled...the loggia filled up...the dancers were visible on the low stage, checking their movements....but we were still waiting. Nine o'clock, quarter past, half past nine...and then the main event of the night swung into action.
Staff bearing chairs came scurrying down the loggia to place them between the front row and the stage. Several minutes afterwards, a party of thin women and men in suits followed and occupied the said seats. Among them our friends recognised their local deputy and his 'lovely assistant', together with a bevy of departmental councillors. The front row was furious, we were furious, several rows back were furious. We watched an evening of wonderful, inspiring flamenco between the heads of the local politicos and their fixers.

As we went out to the car park, I ranged alongside one of the front row occupants, who was still furious.
'You know,' he said ' these so and sos didn't even pay for their tickets like the rest of us. I asked the girl on the desk and she said that they got in free, because the department and the state gave grants towards staging the event.'

The contempt of our masters for those of us who pay to keep them in the style to which they wish to remain accustomed is without limits.

It was, despite the talking heads, a wonderful event and no village or even small town could have afforded to book such a troupe of performers, so, bravo for la Fete de la Musique!

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Thursday, 25 June 2009

'O wad some Power...

[Portrait of Robert Burns, Ayr, Scotland] (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
An foolish notion'.

Do you think so, Rabbie? I'm not convinced.

English friends came to lunch recently, bringing with them their French architect and his wife and conversation turned to the picture one nation is supposed to have of another. It's a handy device, the removes the need to think about the person to whom you are speaking and substitutes a pre programmed response to whom you assume that person to be.

My father's stereotype of the French was as follows..
'Buggers let us down in 1914...buggers did it again in 1940...can't trust them as far as you can kick them.' He also used to refer to the French army as the Comedie Francaise. He applied the faults of the higher echelons of French society to the entire nation and regarded every Frenchman with suspicion, while as for the women....!

My tutor's stereotype of the French differed from that of my father..
The French were civilised, concentrating on the good things of life, the leisurely lunch, the wine, the foie gras and indulging in sophisticated conversation in cafes about philosophy and literature.
While as for the women...!
While the two views are not mutually exclusive, they would lead their proponents to behave in radically divergent fashions to any Frenchman...or woman...they encountered.

It would not have occurred to my father that a war time generation Frenchman, having been conscripted, would have spent almost the whole of the 'phoney war' period being bussed from one garrison to another only to find his regiment in entirely the wrong place when the German blitzkrieg roared across the frontiers, thanks to the miscalculations of his superiors, despite the fact that my father spent a great deal of vocal energy on the idiocy of those responsible for having the big guns at Singapore facing the wrong way when the Japanese came visiting, a lot of his friends having gone into captivity as a result. I don't think a post war generation Frenchman existed for my father.....his view was formed by two world wars and stayed in that frame.

My tutor thought that every French citizen was a Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre in miniature....if it is possible to be smaller than Jean Paul Sartre.....thanks to their education system which demanded an exam in philosophy as part of the bac...the French equivalent of 'A' levels. It probably never crossed his mind that the majority of French kids just about scraped through the 'brevet' - a sort of leaving exam taken at the age of 16 - and went on to manual work, because he had his fixed idea of French civilisation which firmly excluded anyone not from the leisured classes.

My own stereotype was based on the novels of Georges Simenon.....only to discover later that he was Belgian and had his own twist on France!

Our friends' stereotype was based on the French rural idyll....unspoilt countryside, the grape harvest and the bucolic peasant in his blue overalls enjoying a drink at the bar. I know where that particular view came from...the magazines pushing property and services!

The architect was astonished by these stereotypes...none seemed to him to be how he thought the foreigners thought of the French. Based on what he had read, he thought that foreigners assumed that the French were logical, serious, hard working people with a glorious military history and unique civilisation. I don't know what he had been reading, but it doesn't astonish do read an awful lot, even these days, about France's civilising mission in the world.... well, you do in France.
In his turn, he gave us his stereotype of the British. We had let the French down in two world wars and at Suez. We were pawns of the americans and only joined the Common Market, as it was then, in order to let the americans and japanese in by the back door. We were unintellectual, operating on instinct, not reason, and, moreover, we had burned Joan of Arc.

Now, I cannot say that seeing ourselves as others see us made any great change in any of our perceptions of ourselves...after all, we are all convinced that the stereotype applies to others, not ourselves...but, at least in my case, I picked up a valuable lesson. Find out how you are regarded and it might go some way to explaining how you are treated.

Nomatter how good your French might be, the average French person is convinced that he or she will not understand you because you are a foreigner. Therefore they will not understand you. Inculcated as they are with the notion that everything in France is the best in the world, you will be assumed to have arrived in France to take advantage of this wonderful you possibly could even if you wanted is beyond me, but the matter is past all reason. Your children will go to French schools, you will go to French doctors and hospitals, when you are of pensionable age, you will get eighty per cent of your health costs reimbursed just as if you were French. Thus, you are taking advantage of the French taxpayer...thin though these are on the ground. You are an exploiter, not only for taking advantage of French public services, but because you have bought a run down house, renovated it, then sold it at a profit, thus depriving local people's children of the right to turn it down as being uninhabitable and buy a bungalow.
You, personally, may well be an exception to your neighbours as they get to know you, but, in the mass, that is how you are regarded and no amount of 'integration' will change the overall perspective.

These days, with the large British colonies dotted about France, it is possible to ignore the question of how we are regarded. We can have a social life that only includes French people on the periphery, included on our own terms, and requires very little skill in the French language. When I was first in France, it was very coped with French society and language or you became a hermit. I decided not to be a hermit and learned as I went along the value of the friendship of ordinary people like myself, just trying to make a living, in helping to cope with a state system that regards us all, little French and little foreigners alike, as dust beneath its' chariot wheels.

Still, to return to Burns

'A man's a man for a' that.'

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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Calling the bottom of the market

Chateau de LangeaisImage via Wikipedia

I want to sell my house. Not the one in which I live, but a smaller one that I used to rent out. Now, I have the same magic touch with housing as Gordon Brown had on the gold market when he sold piles of the U.K. gold reserves at rock bottom prices, so, once I have sold my house, you will know that the bottom of the housing market in France has been called and that prices are set to soar.

I no longer wish to rent. Tenants have more and more rights as against owners, and requirements for owners are becoming more and more onerous. I am not a Rachman, and I jib at having to pay out for an 'diagnostique' before I can covers things like the state of the woodwork, the electricity, asbestos, lead, a test on the level of insulation all very right and proper, but in my case it costs about 1000 Euros. With rent at about 350 a month, it is not inviting. Then there is the question of non paying tenants.....not much you can do to get your money back if they do a moonlight flit while if they have children they can thumb their noses at you between November and May as you cannot evict 'vulnerable' people in these chilly months of the year. By the time the tax treatment of rent is taken into consideration, the game is not worth the candle....and I'm getting no younger. I'm tired of telephone calls telling me that the loo is blocked - answer, you let the toddler shove paper towels down it, you clear it - that a window is broken, or whatever else people think is my responsibility. I even had one bright spark who dug out my beds of flowering shrubs to replant them with bedding plants from the garden centre but the best was a couple who had arranged insurance on the house, a building dating from the late eighteenth century with granite window surrounds, who sent me the estimate for the blinds the insurance company deemed necessary....plastic roller blinds whose fitting would entail chopping into the stone!

Enough! All this is behind me and a new era opens, that of the estate agent.

In this area, we are unfortunately off the main tourist drag, or even in these hard times, the house would sell without a problem. However, the top class agents' offices are more than 50 kilometres away, and no French agent worth his salt will take a client that far from base. Where would they get lunch? I am left with local French and local English agents who have widely differing working styles.

In the glory days of house sales to the Brits, nearly every tin pot French agency had english speaking staff. These typically worked on a commission only basis, and a few remain, clinging on grimly only because their agencies have no one French who can speak English and even if they have no English buyers, they have any amount of English sellers who can't speak French! Some of the old regulars I know well, even if only by repute. I have been here a long time! The relative newcomers are an unknown quantity, but can provide entertainment. I was explaining to one of them that I was waiting for the plumber to finish an overhaul and had been waiting, as is not uncommon in rural France, for some months. He beamed at me and announced soapily

'But that is what we all love about France, don't we?'

He was rapidly disabused of that notion in a few words which would have been better chosen if I had had time to consider the matter.

No, it is not one of the things I love about France, waiting for an idle bugger to get round to doing a job which would take a couple of hours, for which he will send his underpaid assistant and then demand top dollar.

In some cases, the agency's director has come out himself - usually when I have refused to accept the presence of one of the better known old lags on my property. He looks over the place carefully, looking for the slightest fault, like the front door, which sticks a bit, while airily waving away the problem of the plumber. Monsieur will come eventually, that is not the problem. He sits me down with him at the table and produces a file. Within are the details of the houses on his books with which I will be competing if I put the house with his agency. Well, if I took this exercise seriously, I would be completely downhearted. There are photographs of things that look as if Picasso did the exterior paintwork, others that look as though he confined himself to the interior, ceilings so low that even a Frenchman would have to duck, optimistic conversions specialising in chipboard and various hovels. However, the object of the exercise is to convince you that to sell, you have to pitch your price in line with these horrors, which will mean that the agency will be able to sell it quickly and get its claws on the commission. These days, they are not proud. Any amount of commission will do.

I haven't experienced the next stage of the spiel, but a friend who has told me that when she did not appear too impressed by the competition, her agent told her that she should be glad to accept any price for her house since she was, no doubt, having trouble paying her mortgage - she doesn't have one - or living on a reduced income thanks to the results of relying on the Anglo Saxon financial model. More like, in my view, having to support half of childbearing France on what she pays in tax!
There are people who are financially stretched, but, unless they have been terminally stupid in loading themselves with debt, nothing that a bit of belt tightening won't cure. However, the press light on a few people returning to the U.K. and decide that all the English are bankrupt and fleeing the country. Evidently, French estate agents believe all they read and hone their technique accordingly.
I heard, though not at first hand, of another French agent who told his prospective English client that she should be ashamed of wanting to make a profit from her house as she had bought it so cheaply! The mind boggles at times.

There are well established English agents, all duly licensed and legal, who have survived the hard times and they have a different technique. They trot round the house with you, cooing enthusiastically about the possibilities and then sit down over a cup of tea to tell you how hard things are, how few clients they have and how they don't know how they could sell the house at its' proper value. However, their valuations usually come in somewhat above those of their French competitors.

The other alternative is the internet. I think in my price bracket I should be O.K., but a friend with a big house up for sale tells me she is deluged by offers from kind Christian bank directors and high ranking civil servants from Nigeria who want to put money into her bank account.
Christian indeed. God helps them as helps themselves.

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Monday, 22 June 2009

Sarkozy's burqa

Afghan women wearing their traditional burqas ...Image via Wikipedia

President Sarkozy has announced that the burqa - the head to toe covering worn by some muslim women - is not welcome on French is not a question of religion, he says, but a question of the dignity of women.

A deputy from Lyons, noticing that more and more burqa clad figures were to be seen on the streets of his multiracial constituency, has suggested a parliamentary enquiry into the matter, concerned as he was that women were being coerced into wearing the garment. When asked whether legislation might be a possibility he replied

'Why not?'

I can't say I've seen any burqas out here in the sticks, though Mme. Chose comes pretty close to it in her wet weather gear for feeding the rabbits....between the brim of the hat and the turned up collar of the raincoat you see only the eyes behind their thick spectacles, while her lower extremities are covered by the sack she winds round her waist. I don't think M. Chose coerces her, either....he prefers to live rather than cross his formidable helpmeet.

I don't see it either in the ethnic area markets I go to for coriander and other exotic items not recognised by the French palate. The only sign of fusion cuisine out here is when you leave a plastic bowl on the hot plate while you answer the telephone. However, the immigrant population here is mostly Turkish, and, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, women don't wear garments that impede their daily life. Headscarfs and trousers, yes, burqas no. I haven't caught up with what happened to the attempts of the somewhat Islamist Turkish government to allow women to wear headscarfs if working for the state, which had beeen a practice firmly banned before, but I'm all in favour of encouraging women to regard themselves as people rather than objects of cultural tradition and giving an example in public employment sectors.

I suppose wearing the burqa is more a sign of peer pressure than anything else. As so often, women who are oppressed oppress other women in their turn, all in the name of doing their best for them. Thus the continuation of female circumcision, and, disgracefully, the blind eye the responsible authorites turn to this practice with the pretence of not upsetting ethnic cultural sensibilities. I should like to see the 'responsible authorities' have their sensibilities upset by an onslaught on their genitalia. In what we regard as our advanced society, the pressure on women to be thin comes from other women, as does the pressure to produce children, have a creative job, etc...the reality is a guilt ridden, harried creature working on low pay who doesn't know whether she is coming or going.

People do strange things behind the front of religion. The Church of England probably still has provision for 'churching' women after childbirth, to purify them, but, just like wearing hats, it has gone by the board, as, with the acceptance of female priests, has the notion of women being silent in church. St. Paul thought that if they didn't understand anything, they should shut up and ask their husbands when they got home, which probably explains the origin of most of the early heresies.

I have been reading 'The Map of Love' by Ahdaf Soueif, which is a hymn to the delinquency of colonialism and the discovery of being a female in turn of the century Egyptian society. Once again, as in all these 'joys of islam' works, we hear of the delights of the veil, of seclusion, of the limited sphere of action open to a woman. You would have to be off your trolley to agree, but it is a measure of the lack of confidence our society has in its own values that such a novel was a Booker Prize finalist.

This, I think, rather than the burqa itself, is the problem. We lack the confidence to say that it is a disgrace that women should be wearing their winding sheets before they are dead and we lack the confidence to do anything about it. We have a history of intervention...just think of the slum missions in the U.K. in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, bringing some measure of civilisation to people abandoned to filth, poverty and drink....and it is not one to be ashamed of. I worry about is always such a cack handed way to go about things...but as our modern society has sapped the will and the energy of its people to take any initiative for fear of the consequences of not being PC, I suppose it might be the only solution.

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Friday, 19 June 2009

The knock on the door

A photograph of an engraving in The Writings o...Image via Wikipedia

Imagine you are renting a house in France and a man comes banging aggressively on your door one morning. What would you do? Call the gendarmes? All right, stop laughing...really, what would you do?

A couple renting a house for the summer had just this experience and found themselves opening the door to a bum bailiff who announced that he had come to value the contents of the house to satisfy an unpaid debt! They explained that they were not the owners, but this did not satisfy him and he shouted and bawled a great deal before announcing that if they did not let him in he would return with the see, they are available sometimes, to the right people.

They telephoned the owner, who is living abroad, who duly contacted his keyholder, only to discover that his keyholder had passed on her duties to someone else...a private arrangement...and had been somewhat selective in forwarding the post, so that the debt at the origin of the morning call - a case lost in court - had not been notified to him. He telephoned the bum bailiff's HQ straightaway, and the whole matter was settled, at least as far as his tenants were concerned.

I know the owner....I have been living here a long time....and I can imagine that this must have been the last straw in an affair going back a very long time.

Years ago, he had bought a run down cottage, this being the era when the French thought it hilarious that foreigners would buy these heaps of stones at the exorbitant prices they were demanding. When the heaps of stones turned into little gems, they were laughing on the other side of their faces, but this is by the by. Run down this cottage might have been, but it had water, electricity and mains drainage, all these noted in the acte de vente - the deeds.
He made a nice job of it and let it as a holiday cottage until the Saturday mucking out run became too much for he explained, people fell into categories - the very nice who polished the furniture, the very nice who didn't, the nice ordinary holidaymaker, the odd professional complainer and the total filthpacket. When the last category started to become more than a rare occurrence, he stopped letting. It was just too much strain, running round in the short time between the late departure and the next arrivals trying to find parts to mend the loo or replacing shower fittings that had been wrenched from the wall, let alone the time that he went to change the beds only to find a naked female occupant still ensconced.

He put the cottage up for sale and found a buyer. The acte de vente was duly signed and money changed hands. However, this was not the end of the story. Months after the purchase the buyer called him and asked him where the drains ran, so he went over and showed the guy the run of drains and the manhole cover in the road, just as the guy who sold him the place had done. Some weeks later, he received a letter from his buyer's lawyer, claiming that he had deliberately sold his buyer a pup, in that the cottage was not on the mains, the manhole cover being an access to the storm drains which led directly to the river!

On enquiry at the local mairie, it appeared that half the village was on this inventive version of mains drainage, but that was no comfort to him. How did he stand legally? He went to an avocat with both actes de vente and the letter he had received from the buyer's lawyer and his avocat found an interesting feature. When he bought the cottage, the vendor had stated that it was on the mains. When he sold it, the notaire had changed the wording of the clause with the effect that he, as vendor, took full responsibility for the existence of mains drainage. He had not thought anything about it as it was read over to him, because he genuinely thought it was on the mains and, anyway, the original owner had vouched for it in the first place. He asked his avocat for advice and got the usual legal humming and haaing.

'Well, let's see what they want and then we'll think about it.'

His avocat wrote to the buyer's avocat and, a year later, having received no reply, sent the papers back with a suggestion to get back in touch if the question ever surfaced again.

Well, it didn't surface for three years.

He was at home, having returned from foreign climes, when there was a knock at the door. It was a bailiff, who informed him that he had been taken to court by his purchaser and, in his absence and unrepresented, had been found liable for the cost of installing a septic tank to deal with the sanitation problem at the cottage. One always has to be thankful to the late Frankie Howerd in these circumstances, as nothing better sums up the situation as to say that his flabber had never been so ghasted. Further perusal of of the proffered document revealed that all this had happened three years' earlier.....just after his own lawyer had given up on hearing from the opposition. He had not been in France at the time, but a neighbour had been collecting and passing on his post and there had been absolutely nothing, either from his purchaser's lawyer or from the court in relation to this case. In the meantime, he had been back in France for over eighteen months and this was the first he knew of any problem.

Telling the bailiff what he could do with himself, he contacted his lawyer to ask firstly how was it that he could be taken to court without receiving a summons and secondly, to tell him to appeal the judgement. There was no answer to the first request, but a demand for 660 euros to deal with the second. He paid it and left his lawyer to get on with it while he went off to visit the family, being sure to give his e mail address to avoid difficulties with the post. Eventually, his lawyer e mailed him to say that since the case was three years' old, the possibility of appeal was time barred. Surprised that this advice had cost him 660 euros when one would think that an experienced lawyer would have some idea of how long it can be before an appeal is barred, he replied, asking his lawyer to investigate the possibility of overturning the judgement on procedural grounds. He was still awaiting a reply to this request several months later when the bombshell of the second knock on the door hit him. He paid up, to avoid disturbance to his tenants, but he can't have been happy.

Several things come to mind.

First, why didn't the buyer, once he was aware of the problem, get in touch and try to sort it out face to face? If that hadn't worked, then by all means go to law, but it seems needlessly aggressive to me.

Then, where was this 'security of purchase' so often touted by notaires? In all their publicity, they tell you that when you buy, they cover all the problems and have an insurance scheme to pay compensation if any hitch should occur. Well, in this case, it was the same local notaire who covered both sales, so you would think that some compensation was due, wouldn't you? If you would, then you haven't lived in France very long. According to the second 'acte de vente' the client took full responsibility....that lets out the notaire who drew up the document.
More interestingly, why had the notaire changed the clause? Could it be that the question of sewage disposal had been drawn to the notaire's attention and that this change of clause would let the notaire off the hook for not checking it in the first place?

How was it possible for a court to proceed without one of the parties having been informed? Our chap received nothing and signed nothing but the court proceeded willynilly to hear the case and come to a conclusion. It has to be said that the administration of the court in question has always had a dubious reputation in its locality. I know of a case where a young man was accused of driving while over the limit. Considering that he had overshot his turning when returning from the discotheque at four in the morning and, on turning round had overtaken a gendarmerie van before driving into the ditch and accordingly being breathalysed, it was probably unwise of him to advance in his defence that the gendarmerie had driven him off the road. It was probably also tactless to offer the officers a drink when they delivered him to his parents' house. What amazes me is that he managed to find any gendarmes out after dark...they must have had a nightlight in the van. He was duly hauled up in court and had several points deducted from his licence. Not surprisingly, this would have had the effect of banning him from driving, given his previous activities behind the wheel, so his father went to the local fixer and put himself in his hands. After due consultation with the officers of the court, a price was arrived at and the points were never deducted from the licence. I've heard a lot more, but this is the only case I know about from the horse's mouth...oh, except the case where a medical certificate was lifted from a dossier before it went to the judges. Luckily, this is one of the courts due to be abolished under the reorganisation proposals brought about by Rachid Dati before Sarkozy sacked her, and you should just hear the great and the good of the area kicking up.....they'll have a damn hard job getting the court in the departmental capital to oblige them the way this one does.

Why, having obtained judgement, did the buyer wait three years before enforcing it? Given the absence of notice, was it to ensure that there could not be an appeal?

What was the lawyer doing to earn his money? Clearly, not a lot.

There is something decidedly whiffy about the whole business, and it's not just the drains.

The U.K.'s legal system, though creaky in parts, is open and impartial. In your own best interests, don't assume that the French system is likewise, or you risk ending up with a knock at the door and a nasty surprise.

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Thursday, 18 June 2009

A surfeit of lampreys

If you want to live and die like a medieval monarch, the main market of a big French town is for you. As the supermarket fish stall franchises decrease their range and quality and the small market stalls go for the reliable basics, it is off to the big city on the weekend to see what you can find.

All the usuals, of course, and not necessarily cheaper than in the supermarket, but some splendid surprises await. I once bought a firm, white fleshed fish with spotted skin called Capitaine. It was so good that I mentioned it to my mother when on the telephone and she said that when she was living in the Congo before the war it was regarded as a great delicacy. Now what on earth was an African fresh water fish doing on a slab in the middle of France? I have bought whole shark in my, not of Jaws proportions....but can easily resist the melancholy tanks of carp trying to survive until being decanted back into the holding tanks at the supplier's base. There is something about those mobile mouths that induces guilt and sorrow.

I have found the little green crabs for putting into bouillabaisse, the roes from lotte, shad -the fresh water herring - queen scallops and, of course, lampreys, that estuary fish with a sucker on its head famous to schoolchildren of my generation as being the downfall of various medieval monarchs. I did not buy them, not because of their fairly repulsive appearance, but because the only recipe I had for cooking them involved plunging them alive into boiling water to remove the silt, then into cold water to remove the skin, then, while they are still alive, removing the spinal cord. I can only imagine that having received that treatment, the results of a surfeit are the lampreys' revenge.

When I was first in France, fishmongers displayed whole fish, which were then cleaned, scaled and filleted as the customer required. It meant long queues, but you could gauge the freshness by the eye and gill, unlike today, where the customer's perceived distaste for fishbones and smell results in a display of ready filleted fish, together with that abomination, salmon steaks with scales on the flesh as the fish has not been scaled before being cut. I may not be as fast as these d'Artagnans of the fish knife, but I can clean, scale and fillet accurately if I take my time, and there are still bargains to be had. As these big markets are usually on a Saturday, some fish cannot be kept over until Monday and as the market closes will be sold off cheaply. This used to be the preserve of Chinese restaurateurs as the French are suspicious of anything cheap, but these days the U.K. expat with elbows honed on years of attendance on the Boy Scouts' jumble sale provides worthy competition.

The drawback to these markets is that they are at least an hour's drive away, and, being in the town centre, the parking is diabolical. However, when I go on my own, I set out early with my coolbox, and am parked within walking distance of the market by the time they are setting up the stalls.

Visitors are another matter. For one thing, extracting a visitor from its bed is worse then scraping a limpet from a rock, and then they all occupy the bathrooms - oh for a water cannon and tear gas to get them out in under an hour. Finally assembled, one always decides to go out for croissants, thus making everyone else move their cars so that he can drive down to the baker to obtain these indigestible symbols of the holiday in France. When he returns, the objects will need to be reheated, filling the kitchen with the odour of the industrial fat with which they were made. Then it's back to the bathrooms. Bring back Napoleon and his whiff of grapeshot.

When the convoy finally sets off, it travels at the pace of the idiot with the gps which is set to travelling on autoroutes - something for the conspiracy theorist here - or by the most direct route as the crow flies, which leads one into villages with one way systems, chicanes for traffic calming, and single track roads with no passing place. Finally parking in the expensive private parking lots and undertaking the long march to the market, the whole horde will turn as one on the sight of a cafe with a terrace to imbibe coffee...and, given the unaltering folly of human nature, order croissants.

On the way to the market a committee will appoint itself to choose which fish to have for dinner, and, on reaching the market, sub committees will form once what is available becomes apparent. Finally the family dictator will restore order to chaos by settling himself in a cafe with coffee..and possibly croissants...and despatching his underlings to report on prices and quality. By the time all reports are in, the market is closing and it is back to the elbow competition with the Chinese restaurateurs.

At home, in the evening, grimly cleaning, scaling and filleting the catch of the day while listening to bibulous noises from the terrace, one thinks longingly of the lamprey and his revenge.

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Monday, 15 June 2009

Sarkozy's septic tank

Map of the French Riviera.Image via Wikipedia

French sewage disposal is a subject which only rarely surfaces....I think this may be an inappropriate word but no other comes to polite conversation, but M. le President has done it again. Sewage is uppermost...oh our minds after recent revelations of Presidential intervention in the disposal of his in-laws' waste on the French Riviera.
It appears that his in-laws live in an area where no collective waste disposal system...sewage works to the vulgar among us...exists. They appear to be thus on a par with most of rural France.
They would, it seems, like to have a sewage works but the neighbours won't agree to cough up the necessary contribution. Enter Sarkozy. At a meeting in the presence of the local Prefet -Paris' man in the local departments - and the man himself it was promised that the State would pay for the works. In-laws happy. Neighbours, on looking into the details of the scheme, not happy. Further meeting with the Prefet, but not with Sarkozy, who is out making the most of his old jet before the new one is delivered. Result, no sewage works and neighbours happy.
Return of Sarkozy. One wonders if his in-laws were able to call him up on the plane's communication system with which he is so unhappy or whether they had to wait in line with government ministers and suchlike canaille, but no matter. He is informed of the about face.
The Prefet has just been removed from his post without being appointed to another. Such is the importance of waste disposal to President Sarkozy.

We could do with his intervention out here in the sticks. While there are some individualists like the guy up the road whose waste runs straight into the ditch beside the road, most people have septic tanks of varying vintage and efficiency which occasionally need emptying if something goes drastically wrong. Mine backed up spectacularly once, and the night cart operators later presented me with a set of false teeth which, I can only imagine, had been deposited in the loo by an over enthusiastic reveller and had then worked their way in a fashion I would rather not contemplate into the outlet pipe. Try though I might I cannot fit those teeth to a face.....

However, in an attempt to conform to European Union water standards, local authorities are trying to clean up the system, so that only clean water percolates into the soil. To this end, they have usually delegated their powers to the regional water boards who are sending out inspectors to see what is happening and telling people to stop it. Gives a whole new light on water boarding.

A man will appear and will pour blue and red phials down your sink and loo. He will then go outside and try to trace red and blue colours where you tell him that the outlet pipe is...or at least, that is what those who have suffered this visitation tell me. I am still waiting as our water board has two men trying to examine all the septic tanks in over fifty communes. He will ask you how many bedrooms you have, how often they are occupied - what happens in rural brothels, I ask myself - and tells you whether your system is in the norms, if not, what you have to do to it and how long you have to do it and if it is, how often you should empty it. For this visit you are charged eighty euros.

This charge has raised hackles. Out here in the sticks, we pay water rates with a contribution to collective sewage disposal which does not benefit us as we have no access to it. Now the water boards are charging us to inspect our systems while being unable to offer us the services for which we are already paying. Several communes have started to protest and they are beginning to gather together to refuse payment.

Sewage wars. You read it here first.
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On the markets

Assorted wine corksImage via Wikipedia

The migration season has begun. Wending southward across the English Channel, the weary travellers push on determinedly to their destination....the friends or relatives living in France. The routine is well known to all parties. The car arrives, its contents are disgorged, all the bathrooms are occupied and the party foregather on the terrace where bottles and glasses await them. I often think that for some of them an intravenous drip would be more appropriate, like a blood transfusion.....but in red, white and pink.
'Nurse, another wine box and adjust the feed...the patient is recovering consciousness.'

The first few days are the recovery period, catching up with how awful things are at their end and trying to persuade them that things are not too hot at this end either, but, inevitably, at this point they want to go to a market. I could understand it when the U.K. had nearly lost all its interesting ones, but now, I thought, they had Farmers' Markets and suchlike.

'Well, yes, if you want some stuck up trout trying to flog you meat at three times its normal price because the animal had the privilege of eating her grass while it was alive and looking down her nose at you because you don't wear an appropriately aged Barbour jacket when you go shopping.'

O.K. We'll go to the market. In our local town, it's in the week and is on the small side...a few vegetable stalls, a fish stall, someone selling honey and clothing stalls that make you open your eyes and wonder about the undergarments of your fellow man and woman. Great alarm has been caused recently by an English couple setting up a stall and selling what were described as 'exotic products'. Bearing in mind that when I was first in France Worcester sauce and picallili were to be found on the 'exotic products' shelf together with Vietnamese fish sauce and bean sprouts in tins I was not as impressed as my neighbour thought that I should have been by this news and asked what specifically they were selling.

'Well, I didn't get too close, but I didn't recognise anything.'

This left the field wide open, from live termite grubs - here, for various reasons, the area could develop an export trade - to Viagra, but actually turned out to be energy drinks and new age paraphenalia. I cannot hold out much hope for their enterprise in the land of the thirty five hour week...not much energy gets depleted in that time. Come to think of it, for a nation which eats snails I cannot imagine how a category for 'exotic products' can exist - I suppose it just means anything not produced in France.

There are actually three vegetable stalls on that market. One is run by a retired schoolteacher who regards himself as an expert on all things rural, one by a local supplier and the last by a satellite of a large fruit and veg wholesaler who knocks out their surpluses in the markets in the area. I have had a close look at all three, in terms of the quality and price of their goods and the approach of the stallholder and I go for the wholesaler every time. The retired teacher's produce comes from his smallholding and is nothing out of the ordinary, on a par with the local supplier. They both charge top dollar for the privilege of buying their goods. The wholesaler is much cheaper and the quality as good. If it is at all dubious, signs announce
'Make jam!'
''Cooking grade'
'Eat now!'
and for apricots for jam, tomatoes to cook down for the winter it can't be beaten.

The clientele varies markedly. The would be intellectuals patronise the retired teacher - corner of high thinking high mindedness at high prices - the local supplier has the respectable ladies who have duly donned a suit and high heels to be seen in public...a great contrast to the bedroom slippers and dressing gowns in which they normally pass the morning. The wholesaler gathers the rest. Elderly gentleman are led through their wives' shopping lists, cafe owners pick up supplies and ordinary people on ordinary incomes do their ordinary shopping. The staff are raucous, occasionally outrageous and I wouldn't shop anywhere else.

The visitors are happy..someone has managed to buy twice the amount of aubergines anyone could want to eat..... fired by the presence of the travelling black pudding maker someone else has bought a pile dripping and hot from the cauldron and we are going home to lunch.

'Nurse! The wine box....'

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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Post it

I bank at the Post Office. Well, the banking bit has been hived off into La Banque Postale, but all my activities take place at the local office of La Poste so it makes no difference to me. I have a great service, thanks to the co operation between the post office staff and the banking staff who blithely ignore the separation of powers in the interests of helping their clients. There have been exceptions on the banking side, but they don't stay long.

When ill and unable to get to the post office I could telephone, ask for what I wanted to be done and the next day the appropriate forms would come out by the postlady's van. She would check I had filled them out correctly, take them back transactions were made. I am not at all sure that the bosses of the Banque Postale would approve, but for me it was a great help and much appreciated.

La Poste is undergoing reforms....less front line staff, longer post rounds, more pressure from above, but the staff really do their best to make sure that their clients do not suffer. My postlady is annoyed because when her round was altered, the one important factory in the area was put on the end of the round rather than the beginning. Her bosses were busy looking at the petrol tanks rather than at the risk that when, at last, commercial competition is permitted in France, those factory bosses will desert the post office for a private competitor in order to get their mail early in the day. They should put her in charge of commercial relations, but there's no chance of that...she has a good education but no 'business' qualifications which would make her eligible for such a post.

The last time the powers that be decided to reorganise the rounds, the postal staff called for a public protest so I duly attended, together with the family who happened to be visiting at the time. We made a large group, boosting the turn out on a cold winter's day, and had a great time watching all the local maires and departmental councillors girded in tricolour sashes demonstrating their oratorical powers from a little platform in front of the mairie. They were united in one thing....their post should arrive first thing in the morning! One maire, the one from my commune, was missing and the postlady tracked him down the next day to enquire into his backsliding. He was foolhardy enough to tell her that he was not in sympathy with all these left wing demands and that it was about time she did a bit of work instead of lounging about having demonstrations. I leave it to you to guess when his post arrived in future.

Back when I first lived in France, the post office had a social mission. My first postman used to call on all the elderly people on his round whether or not they had post, just so that they had someone to speak to and so that he could check on how they were keeping. These visits probably accounted for the strong smell of drink that preceded his arrival at my place at about three in the afternoon, but I suspect that he was a better bet for the welfare of the elderly people on his round than the modern day social worker. For one thing, they trusted him, he was one of their own, not someone imposed on them from the outside. My postlady does not drink, but she still tries to keep up with the old people on her round despite the pressures on her time and the changing nature of public service in France, but it's not appreciated by her bosses.

Still, banking with the Post Office certainly beats banking with Credit Agricole, with whom I used to have an account. I had sold a house and by some administrative mix up the demand for the Taxe Fonciere went neither to me nor to the new owners. Accordingly, neither of us paid it. Then I received a statement from Credit Agricole showing an unauthorised overdraft on my current account, where I kept just enough money to maintain activity. My savings account was still virgo intacta. I telephoned and was told that there was a problem with the tax office. The tax office told me that they had appropriated the taxe fonciere that I had not paid from my bank account. My dealings with the tax office are another story, but my dealings with Credit Agricole demonstrated clearly the difference between having an account with them and having one with La Poste. The Post Office in similar circumstances would have telephoned me as soon as the taxman struck to warn me, and to let me transfer money between accounts. Credit Agricole smugly charged me for the overdraft and waited until the next statement day in order to collect as much as possible.
I had already had unsatisfactory dealings with them. I wanted to buy shares, and as the Post Office could not buy on the markets outside Europe, I used Credit Agricole. I impressed upon the 'financial adviser' that time was of the essence, given the state of the market, but, of course, by the time their regional office geared itself up, the markets had risen and I had missed a good opportunity. I was following the share price on the web and saw no buyers in the market for the amount I had ordered, so went into the local branch to complain. The 'financial adviser' first told me that I could not possibly know whether or not the shares had been bought, and then, when I kicked up, deigned to telephone the regional office, who reassured me that they were indeed getting round to entering the market, but, due to the amount of intermediaries they were using, it all took time. Finally, the shares were bought and, as the market went on rising I swallowed my annoyance until I got the statement with the charges for holding my in France the individual cannot hold his or her own shares...a financial institution does so and charges handsomely for this monopoly. Eyes watering from the financial pain, I went into the branch again and asked which registration institution was holding my shares...these days it is all electronic and the lovely old share certificates are no more. Once more the 'financial advisor' called the regional office,and I put my question again. There was much huffing and puffing about why I wanted to know and I was finally told that this was confidential information which could not be divulged!
I later discovered, by other means, that my shares were being held in a nominee account, in the name of Credit Agricole!
I sold my shares, and, as I was leaving the 'financial advisor' asked me if I needed any advice. She was a nice little girl, her lack of training was not her fault, so I did not say what was bouncing up and down on the tip of my tongue, but decided to close my accounts.
I waited until a Friday afternoon, went to the local branch, waited while the assistant had a conversation with her uncle and then asked to close my accounts. I signed all the appropriate forms, and then she asked me to wait while she prepared a cheque.
'No, I want it in cash.'
It took a time, because the safe had to be opened, and they even had to have a whip round among the staff, but they finally made it. I walked down the road and deposited it all in the Post Office.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

D Day all over again

On the beaches of Normandy, brave men are reliving the moment when they fought their way ashore to liberate the continent of Europe on the 6th of June 1944. They were soldiers.

Across the river from my house, lily livered bullies are busy trying to destroy the rookery that lines the waterside by shooting at the nests. They are louts....otherwise known as 'la chasse'.

In the autumn, the peace of rural France is broken by volleys of gunfire and tooting of, Chancellor Merkel has not decided to conform with German tradition by invading France....the hunting season has started. Men in camouflage clothing with vast amounts of ammunition tramp through the vines, and mushroom picking becomes dangerous as they don't seem able to differentiate between a human backside and a deer. No wonder their insurance policies cost so much. By twilight, the shooting stops, but the tooting carries on late into the night as the hunters try to recover their dogs, who, having been liberated from the pens full of excrement where they spend most of their lives, underfed to keep them 'keen', have understandably disappeared into the countryside.

La chasse is supposed to be one of the triumphant results of the 1789 Revolution. Before, only the nobility could hunt and the peasants had to watch deer scoffing the crops they needed to sell to pay the rent to the nobility....well, that's roughly the idea. After the Revolution, anyone could hunt anywhere, except that the new masters, usually notaires, enclosed vast stretches to prevent anyone hunting anywhere they liked. This is one reason why la chasse is to be found in your back garden stealing your chickens.

Sport it is not. Pheasant farms abound, and the local chasse buy a batch of birds and release them the day before a hunting day...usually Thursdays and Sundays. The birds associate people with being fed and so advance towards the hunters offering an easy target. They still manage to miss, though. Wives tend to kick up if husbands return empty handed...bredouille...given the price of cartridges and this is the second reason that la chasse is to be found in your back garden stealing your chickens.

Having caught one bright spark who sent his dogs in to retrieve my birds, I telephoned the, not that one, the President of the local chasse, to complain.

'Not a problem' he replied sunnily. 'We'll pay you the cost of replacement.'

It has never crossed what he is pleased to call his mind that my chickens are not just a feathered version of the euro to me. I like my birds, they supply eggs while they are able and live out their lives scratching up the flower borders when they're past it. I hope my old age will be as pleasant, but I doubt it.

It has never crossed his mind either that his members have no business to be stealing poultry in the first place. La chasse regards itself as privileged, a law unto itself, and most rural French go along with that...after all, la chasse is armed, and can make life unpleasant.

Originally, the only limit on their activities was a requirement not to shoot towards your house if less than 100 metres away from it, but latterly, the European Union has promulgated a law which allows you to keep the chasse out of your property completely. I can only assume that some Eurocrat had had his chickens stolen too. They don't like it and will defy it if they can, but it is the law. Mark you, getting a gendarme interested in upholding the law is an uphill struggle, especially against armed men.

Some years ago, a young woman was house sitting in what later became my house. At five o'clock on the morning of the first of May the telephone rang. A man's voice told her that she would hear shooting, but that she was perfectly safe if she stayed indoors. She did indeed hear shooting.....a large group of men were advancing through the garden, shooting the rooks from their nests. She ran out, asking them to stop, but they laughed at her and continued. She went out to the road and took the numbers of the cars parked there, then returned and telephoned the gendarmerie. Nobody came, and the shooting continued. She telephoned the maire. His wife said he was out shooting rooks. They eventually left, leaving carcasses everywhere. She telephoned the gendarmerie again and was told to get a bailiff to estimate the value of the birds.

She had been mocked and terrified and no one gave a damn. It was a local tradition, the gendarmerie told her, to shoot at the rooks' nests, as the birds are supposed to pick holes in the plastic covers of silage dumps and ruin the contents.

Now, as far as I am aware, people were not making silage and covering it with plastic in the French Revolution, so this was a pretty recent tradition....just another manifestation of la chasse making itself unpleasant. The owner was based in Paris, and was resented locally, so this was a means of putting her in her place by the local bully boys.

Since I have lived there, the neighbour who steals ducks asked if I would mind if they shot rooks on May Day, and, to be fair, my refusal has been respected. Of course, my fences have been repeatedly broken to allow my dog to escape onto the road, but this must just be coincidence. They stand on the other side of the river and shoot the nests, ostensibly on their side, but on mine too if I do not stand out there and watch them.
I have, however, discovered the existence of the garde chasse, an employee of the body regulating hunting activities, and have also discovered that the local representative has a vendetta against the particular group annoying me. I don't know why and he won't tell me. It is apparently illegal to shoot out the nests because protected species of bird may use them and this was enough to have him setting up an ambush and catching them in the act, for which they all got a 200 Euro fine.
Some days later, the wife of one of them rang me up.
'You owe us 200 Euros. If you hadn't reported it we wouldn't have to pay the fine.'
My French has matured to a level where I could give the appropriate response and be understood. The 'phone was banged down at the other end.
For the rest of the season and well out of it, they then made a point of gathering opposite my terrace on a Sunday morning, blasting off with their shotguns. As intimidation it didn't work.....and if they want to waste their money on cartridges that's their worry, but it is symptomatic of what is wrong with our European society generally. No one will control the lawless louts and bullies who make normal life unpleasant.

I would like to see la chasse up against what faced those men landing on D Day.....perhaps I could persuade the Bundeswehr to have a summer camp in my garden. They wouldn't have any problems getting to us.......all French roads are lined with trees so that the German army can march in the shade.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The European elections - nul points

If the European Union had had any sense, it would abolish elections to the European Parliament. They just stimulate disgruntled European citizens to express themselves and, while this has no effect whatsoever on the workings of the EU, it does not make for good publicity.

I have been looking at the lists of candidates,or, more precisely, at the lists of parties who will, should they win in my region, impose their choice of candidate upon me. There are all the usual suspects....the Union for the Presidential Majority, the Socialist Party, the more socialist than socialist list, the further out than socialist list, the right wing list, the right wing non LePen list - have to be careful how you describe this gentleman as he is litigious - the Philippe de Villiers list....follow his example, breed for France to keep the immigrants in check- the third way list of Bayrou, wonderfully entitled MoDem...burned out before it started - Greens....after the German experience of Green power causing the average voter to refer to them as the Green terrorists I'm staying well clear - the Esperanto list - and, fascinatingly enough, a royalist list! There are others, but exhaustion takes over after a while. I did just wonder what happened to Chasse, Peche, Nature, that association of chancers who believe they have a right to trample over anyone's property in order to shoot or hook anything living in the name of tradition, but I expect they're in there somewhere, hiding under another name.

European politicians complain that these elections will just be treated by the public as a chance to react to national politics, but they should think carefully about this line of argument. If people didn't treat them in this way, then very few indeed would turn out to vote at all. People have more sense than politicians like to think....we know that European Members of Parliament are just the window dressing for the deeply undemocratic operations of the European Commission...but natural indignation gets the better of us on the occasions when we are allowed any participation in political affairs. Rather than crying 'A plague on all your houses', we let off steam with our cross on the ballot paper whenever we have the chance, which isn't very often.

I dream sometimes that people will try a new form of civil disobedience....just not participate in elections at all. Just imagine if after Thursday's hullabaloo the results were announced all over Europe.....

'France Centre, nul points, France Ouest, nul points.....' Terry Wogan's stint on the Eurovision song contest would come in handy here on a TV election special.

Still, one most not underestimate our masters....the European Commission would probably react by setting up yet another well paid body to investigate the disenchantment of Europeans with well paid bodies set up by the European Commission.

It is, of course, all the fault of the U.K.
Mired in the disentanglement from Empire and the perceived need to lick any passing U.S. presidential backside, successive post war British governments took their eye off what was happening on the continent of Europe. The Coal and Steel Authority and Euratom developed into the European Economic Community without any participation from across the English Channel, and, by the time Edward Heath took the U.K. into its fold, the European structure was set. This has been a catastrophe for anyone hoping for participation by the ordinary citizen.
The model used for the EEC was that of French administration and French administrative law. This might well have been acceptable to the rest of the original partners, since all shared the legal and constitutional legacy of Napoleon I's conquest of Europe, but it is totally alien to what was then the U.K. constitutional and legal heritage. Contact with the pernicious European model has diluted and distorted that heritage in very short order, which demonstrates its attraction to the power hungry and greedy administrator and its danger to the man and woman who has to live with it all.

Until recently, candidates for jobs with the EU went through a sort of finishing school, to train them to pass the qualifying exams for employment. The training consisted of learning and being able to regurgitate the history and achievements of the EU, which might be wonderful way of training the memory, but not much use in relating to the needs and aspirations of the average guy in Europe. However, it was modelled on the French system of crammers for the Hautes Ecoles...ENA, Polytechnique, Ponts et Chaussees...with the same aims. Instant recall of 'La Princesse de Cleves' does not in my view qualify anyone for running other people's lives. For once I agree with Sarkozy.... However, the objective is to form a body which thinks and acts alike and in this respect, the training is most effective.

The idea of a European Union is European citizen would argue against a body that keeps its composite nations 'jaw jawing' instead of 'war warring', but the reality is dreadful. On one hand, farmers get handouts to keep the European agroalimentary industries profitable. On the other hand, money has to be spent to clean up the water supply polluted by these farmers' activities. Local authorities can get grants for traffic calming, resulting in more road rage than I ever thought possible as one negotiates the chicanes and has to back up against a file of traffic as there is no room for a lorry to get through in the other direction, but not for setting up decent old peoples' homes.

A recent project sticks in everyone's craw locally. The river which runs through my garden was the object of an environmental plan. Put in plain language, it needed cleaning out. The obvious thing to do is to assemble the riparian owners, see what equipment they have, hire anything else necessary, then let them get on with it. This is not the European way. A grant category exists. The expert staff employed specifically by local authorities for applying for grants do their stuff. To avoid corruption...pause for hysterical laughter all round....a study has to be done by independent experts. Three men with an expensive car come out and walk along the riverside for a few days and come up with a plan. The cost of this exercise swallows up most of the available grant, but, with undaunted optimism, the job is put out to tender and a public meeting is called....democratic participation in the operation of the tell those concerned what has been decided. The river bed must be cleared of lumber which has accumulated in the winter floods for the past twenty years. We have to allow access for crawler tractors, tree cutters and their necessary equipment, and boats. We have to agree to move the wood cut before the winter floods carry it back into the river again. We don't have a voice in what trees must be cut.

Three men with a chainsaw, trailer and small bathtub arrive. Red marks are put on trees overhanging the river, including some recently planted under another European grant aided scheme to stabilise the river banks. They set to work. The dog chases them off my property and they do not return. I see them on the river in the bathtub with a chainsaw, cutting off branches protruding from the water. I ask them what happens when the river level drops. They shrug and motor downstream.

In due course an exhibition is opened at the local authority offices. Our stretch of the river is now officially cleaned up. I take the dog for a walk on the riverside footpath. It is still obstructed by overhanging trees as is the river....branches stick up menacingly from the riverbed....a lot of trees have red marks on them. I can only assume that anti European Union dogs saw them off this stretch as well.

On the ground, the European Union is not working for the ordinary European, so, on Sunday June 6th, as far as I am concerned...nul points!