Magazine article The Spectator

Susan Hill's French Notebook

Magazine article The Spectator

Susan Hill's French Notebook

Article excerpt

An overnight stop on the Ile de Ré taken between the St Malo ferry and the Quercy, where we always spend June, reminds one how closely French history lives entangled with modern life. Sleek hotels, harbours full of private boats, overpriced gift and fashion boutiques are cheek by jowl with ancient monuments and fortifications, in streets of small stone houses so narrow that the ubiquitous bicycles barely get through. Amid the massed tourists here, they still cultivate vines, mine salt and grow potatoes to send over toute la France. The mussels and lobsters remind me of home in north Norfolk and the pretty cottages are freshly painted white with pale grey or soft green shutters. It feels oddly unreal, a film set of an island, and an Atlantic gale buffets the shoreline trees even in June, but many people live here all year round.

Typical of France's eccentricities and problems all in one are the ten villages on the Ile de Ré with, naturally, ten separate tourist offices, none of which know anything whatsoever about the others. One mile away and it's not their patch.

Further south, we encountered a perfect example of the overstaffed French public sector. It defied belief. The verges were being cut by a convoy of four huge machines. The first had its setting on high, to shave a little off the top, the second cut a notch down and so on to the last, which finished the job. Today, a municipal hedge-cutter was operating, with required a white van, rotating warning light atop, parked 50 yards away. This had employee number two in it, reading his newspaper. What was a country of small café and bar owners has seen hundreds of them close, because of the punitive taxes on private enterprise. The (English) man who tends the pool here, and is also a small jobbing builder, was paying 50 per cent tax on a modest income and had to work seven days a week to make it. He has shrunk his business and is helping his son build a house. I do not know if money changes hands but if so, it is all within the family. Several higher earners I knew here have left. If 50 per cent tax is bad, 79 per cent sees talent, enterprise and money draining from France, while vast numbers of public sector employees enjoy a 35-hour week and retire at 60. This is socialism in action. …

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