Magazine

French and British national moods a world apart

  • 5 October 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Interiors of Gare du Nord and St Pancras
Gare du Nord v St Pancras

It has not been a great week to be French. Unemployment has just hit three million, growth for next year is estimated at barely above zero, and the popularity of President Hollande has plummeted.

Anyone who uses the Eurostar regularly gets to know the station at either end pretty thoroughly, so I do not think I will be the first traveller on the line to make the following observation - St Pancras: Gem. Gare du Nord: Dump.

Get on the train in London and it is a treat. The stations are clean, the staff are friendly.

Get off in Paris, and you know straightaway you are in a less than salubrious part of town.

A couple of weeks ago, about to board a train there to Brussels, I interrupted the activities of an obvious con man.

Wearing a spurious official-looking cap, he was trying to interest tourists in some scam. I stopped him (because the staff did not), and for my pains got shouted at as an interfering foreigner.

Elsewhere, vaguely threatening vagrants with dogs and organised bands of aggressive-looking beggars swiftly dispel any desire to linger. A year or so ago, there were riots here.

Now, I am not going to draw any too-facile comparison between France and Britain on the basis of a pair of 19th Century railway termini.

But I will say this - never in 16 years of living in France, and making pretty regular trips back and forth across the Channel, have I ever felt a greater disparity in national moods.

You will object that this has been a pretty unusual year in the United Kingdom, what with the Jubilee and the Olympics - and that appearances may be short-lived and deceptive.

Anxious - a familiar look in today's France?

And I will concede that a lot of what made Britain so attractive was a spirit of optimism and community no doubt inflated by the exceptional circumstances of the summer.

But then again, it was hard not to see in all the bunting and the good cheer and the universal joining-in-ness of it all, a kind of shared national experience that really might mark some kind of historic, psychological change.

It really did feel like Brits were looking at themselves after half a century of decolonisation and deindustrialisation and immigration and the "end of deference'" and all the rest of it, and saying "Well, here we are and actually, we are not so bad."

It pains me as a lover of France to remark that no similar state of mind is anywhere near realisation over here.

Things do not feel great in France at the moment. On one level, looking at the statistics does not mean much - because the figures are pretty bad in Britain too.

A post-Olympics buzz enveloped all parts of the UK

But still, unemployment here just hit the three million mark and is going to keep rising. Every week sees a new announcement of large-scale lay-offs. Just this week the last blast-furnace in Lorraine - once the crucible of the French steel industry - has closed.

Taxes are going up, and no matter what the socialist government says, it is not just the rich who will be affected.

Business-creators are furious because the new rules mean that people who build up an enterprise from scratch will lose more than 60% to the government when they try to sell it on. More and more of the brightest and the best are thinking of moving abroad.

The day-to-day news is unremittingly awful. This week two young men were knifed and clubbed to death because of some argument over one group not "respecting" another group.

This was in Grenoble - a town that in my old-fashioned way I associate with a university, hi-tech industry and the Alps. Not any more.

Even the good news is bad. The national handball team recently won the Olympics. This week, several stars of the side have been arrested for match-fixing.

Now I know there is bad news everywhere. But there is something about the atmosphere in France that worries me. I think it is to do with a lack of perspective, a lack of potential for change.

In Britain you get the impression that however controversial they may be, efforts are at least being made to redefine parts of national life, like education or welfare. There is movement.

ArcelorMittal employees protested after the closure of two blast furnaces

The same cannot be said in France, where the government's new plan to cut unemployment for instance - with tens of thousands of state-financed youth jobs - is basically the same as the one I remember reporting on 15 years ago.

Our two countries, it has often been observed, move forward on parallel tracks.

Separate systems, different gauges - but two trains of similar size moving forward roughly in tandem at roughly the same speed. But sometimes you can spot the difference.

I feel it now. St Pancras is a better destination than the Gare du Nord.