France is in a mood. But what mood? I’ve been travelling the length, and some of the breadth, of the country by electric car in the last week. I’ve been on holiday but I’ve also been asking questions and observing.
How are the French – the majority of the French – coping with the pass sanitaire (health pass), which restricts access to fun and long-distance travel? As the country approaches the rentrée and next spring’s presidential election, are the French in the febrile, even explosive, mood described by pollsters and opposition politicians?
Some of them, maybe.
I’ve lived and worked in France for 24 years. Some part of France – although not always the same part – is generally in a febrile and explosive mood.
My impressions are the following.
First, the pass sanitaire has been broadly accepted by the great mass of the French people. It is, in fact, working reasonably well.
The 200,000 or so people who demonstrated against it last weekend represent an extraordinary range of gripes and obsessions and special interests and some reasonable objections and reservations. They are not representative of France as a whole. (Pollsters say the protesters have circa 30 percent popular support, unchanged since the anti-pass movement began in mid-July).
Everywhere I went, I asked waitresses or restaurant or bar owners how the pass is going down. “Much better than we expected. People are playing the game,” said a waitress in Saumur on the Loire.
A few minutes later, a group of young men and women asked if they could eat on the terrace “sans pass”. The waitress politely refused. They politely departed.
In Aurillac in Cantal, a brasserie owner said that she feared that she had lost some customers. (Some restaurants report a 40 percent fall).
“There are fewer young people in the evening. That’s certain. But I’m not against the pass,” she said.
“People need to be vaccinated. If that’s what it takes to persuade them, I’m in favour. What I dread far more is another lockdown. I couldn’t face that.”
My second observation – a fairly obvious one – is that France has gone on holiday in France this year. There are many Dutch and Belgian visitors, very few Britons, but the holiday-makers in rural and mountain France are predominantly French.
Compared to last summer, when caution was thrown to the winds, most people are observing social distancing rules. We visited a surreal market in a small town in Cantal. Piles of local cheeses and saucissons; an atmosphere of festival and fun; and almost everyone wearing a mask.
Maurs market. Most people are wearing masks. pic.twitter.com/dBv5YaMahx
— John Lichfield (@john_lichfield) August 19, 2021
We stumbled on the market as we were looking for somewhere to recharge the car. I have a Renault Zoe, with a nominal battery range of 300 kilometres. The range melts rapidly beyond 100 kph. Unless you have a more expensive kind of e-car, you are obliged, more or less, to keep off the autoroutes and take the N and D roads.
This can be tedious. It can also be a joy. Leaving the autoroutes reminds you that France is a country of infinite beauty and undiscovered, or forgotten, local marvels, like our market in Cantal.
It also reminds you that France has become a country of a million roundabouts. Officially there are “only” 30,000 rond-points or “carrefours giratoires” . Actually, there are reckoned to be more like 50,000, with a thousand new ones springing up every year. Someone has calculated that half of the world’s roundabouts are now in France.
This is a relatively new phenomenon. When I hitch-hiked, and later drove, around France in the 1970s, there were almost no roundabouts. The D (departmental) roads and some of the N (National) roads were in a disgraceful condition. The warning sign “chausee déformée” (bumpy road ahead) was as much a part of rural France as fading advertisements for Martini or Byrrh painted on barns.
France’s secondary road system, even its tertiary road system, is now astonishingly good. The plague of roundabouts is a symptom of the billions of euros which have been spent in recent decades on major and minor roads outside the motorway network.
The original rural and outer-suburban Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) of 2018-9 were, in some respects, the precursors of the present anti-pass movement. One of their constant complaints was that taxes were spent on the big cities and the inner, multi-racial suburbs but not in La France Profonde.
This is untrue. More tax money is spent on rural France than is raised there – hence the new-found excellence of the roads.
One of the legacies of the great rebuilding of France’s rural roads is the roundabout – which also became the symbol and favourite haunt of the original Gilets Jaunes movement, which complained that rural France had been “abandoned”. That contradiction, so deliciously French, was seldom pointed out.
There is another deliciously French contradiction this summer.
The Saturday anti-pass marches are waning slightly but are still remarkably well-attended for the month of August. The great majority of French people (now 70 percent first vaccinated and 60 pecent fully vaccinated) have accepted the pass with a shrug and got on with their lives.