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OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible

A barbed column in a British newspaper that suggested the French are not child-friendly and their youngsters are more repressed than their British counterparts has angered many francophiles. Writer Colin Randall responds to the latest example of "frogbashing" from across the Channel.

OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible
Are French children almost Victorian in comparison to British rambunctious brood? Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Beneath a headline pandering to Middle England prejudice – “The one thing I don’t miss about our family holidays in France? The French” (paywalled) – a Daily Telegraph writer announced that her Francophile days were over.

Georgina Fuller told in a barbed column this week of grim restaurant experiences south of the Dordogne where French diners would tut-tut at her “unruly brood” of three small children. 

The details were enough to persuade someone editing her words to sum them up as an argument that few countries are less child-friendly than France. 

The writer complained that restaurants failed to open before 7pm. There were “no such things as a kids’ menu”. Painfully stuck in the mind was the memory of feeling mortified when her eldest child demanded fish fingers next to a table where a French boy of around four was happily tucking into a bowl of moules.

Unconvincingly presented by Ms Fuller as the light-hearted observations of one whose late mother had a fondly remembered home in Aquitaine, this was journalistic feat taking us back decades to lamb wars and the Sun’s “hop off you frogs” campaign.

And it took me back to the dying days of my own Telegraph career. At a leaving party in the paper’s grand apartment-cum-office overlooking the Tuileries gardens in Paris, the British ambassador kindly noted that my work revealed an understanding of, even a liking for, the French. “No wonder they fired you,” a fellow-journalist teased me later.

He was only half-joking. This week’s piece in the Telegraph confirmed that when stuck for an idea, a certain kind of columnist can usefully fill the void with a spot of frog-bashing,

In my own experience, it is a peculiarly British or rather English trait to gaze across the Channel in gleeful search of any opportunity to mock or belittle. 

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OPINION: Cheap French-bashing is an old tune from British press and politicians

It can work both ways, but only up to a point. There is what the former president Jacques Chirac described to me as “l’amour violent”, not so much a rough love affair as a tempestuous relationship between near neighbours with a long history of falling out but also much to admire and respect in one another.

Chirac may have been overheard saying the UK’s only contributions to Europe were bad food and mad cow disease. But more broadly, I see little evidence of reciprocal kneejerk disdain for all things British, whereas the “love France, hate the French” line is trotted out at regular intervals, even when there are no disputes over a Covid vaccine or fishing grounds. 

Some expats have been known to indulge. Several years ago, a Home Counties woman living reluctantly in northern Brittany explained her unwillingness to learn French.  “Who on earth would I want to speak it to?” she asked as if it were the most natural reason imaginable for stubbornly resisting the integration that enriches so many lives – including, to be fair, those led by her more open-minded husband and son.

The notion that the French are not child-friendly, least of all in restaurants, is surely risible. There is certainly a case for suggesting their children are better behaved when eating out. This, to some extent, is because it is entirely normal to be included in such family outings from an early age. 

Why wouldn’t the four-year-old on the next table be enjoying his mussels? In resorts close to my home in the Var, I see children of a similar age happily dissecting shellfish. A snail producer in Loire-Atlantique once told me most French children had regularly eaten the delicacy by the time they were six or seven. There are children’s menus in France now but when my own children were small, they were content with shares of their parents’ food.

Georgina Fuller quotes with apparent approval a French acquaintance who felt he and his siblings were more repressed than British counterparts given carte blanche to express themselves freely.

 “Some of the silent children I saw in restaurants and local towns in France seemed almost Victorian in comparison to our rambunctious brood,” she writes.

Such generalisations are best treated as suspect. Even my late French father-in-law was accurate about only some of the British with his favoured mantra: “The French live to eat, you eat to live.” 

But if children, middle class or otherwise, are encouraged to regard fatty processed food as the height of their dining ambition, and maybe grab packets of crisps and sweet fizzy drinks between meals, it is no wonder they recoil from anything more interesting or nutritious.

The Fuller children may indeed flourish away from disapproval in France, when taken instead to Devon and to other continental destinations such as Ibiza, the Netherlands and Portugal. 

But their mother should not be surprised that the response of French people who have read of her resolve to steer clear of France can best be summed as bon débarras.

Colin Randall was the Daily Telegraph’s former Paris bureau chief and is now a freelance journalist and divides his time between London and the south of France.

 

Member comments

  1. Let’s face it. We are not child friendly towards the British children we see rampaging through shops and restaurants because the majority are out of control and lack the basic social skills because their parents also lack them.

  2. We moved here in 2019 from Vancouver with an 8 and a 5 year old. Parenting has its differences– like how children seem to all tolerate being dressed in business-casual from age 3 up. But being in family spaces, you see kids running, laughing and shouting just as much. And parents being even more patient and attentive than the average suburban parent in Canada, in my opinion.

  3. Thank you to Boggy’s comment.
    I appreciate this response to offensive scrappy article in Telegraph. Yes, “bon débarras.”

  4. A poor article in The Telegraph and a decent, measured response from The Local. I’ve had a house in France for nearly 20 years and when we first holidayed there, our kids were 4 and 6 respectively. There’s a big difference between an English pub garden and a French restaurant; the former is more casual – by a distance. So it has always been a simple matter of respecting the values of the places where we’ve eaten. Looking forward to eating in French restaurants again as soon as possible after May 17!

  5. Don’t rise to the provocation.
    Since Brexit the English press (Express, Telegraph, Mail etc) have published a series of anti-Europe articles which either highlight the victimization of the UK by the EU or which highlight any negative comments within or about Europe.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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