French and British national moods a world apart

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.

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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 France rugby fan 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.

Parade in Scotland 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.

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More French people live in London than in Bordeaux, Nantes or Strasbourg - some now regard it as France's sixth biggest city in terms of population.

The French community is no longer confined to the streets around the embassy in South Kensington, where you will find French bookshops, patisseries and pavement cafes patronised by impeccably dressed mothers dropping off their children at the posh Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle.

The French consulate in London estimates between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens live in the British capital - many in London's cutting-edge creative hub, in the East End.

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 demonstrate 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.

Below is a selection of your comments

After living for 10 years in the UK as a French expat, I moved back to France last year and I can say that your article is 100% spot on. You can feel anxiety the fear of the future across the whole French society. France is suffering from a very severe lack of confidence. The incapacity to reform is at the centre of it. The society is far too conservative, being led by older, 1960-70s generations clinging to its social privileges. The sad thing is a lot of these privileges are hidden behind generous concepts of equality, fraternity and social progress. But the cynicism of it is starting to become far too obvious, as it puts aside migrants, young people, non-qualified workers... The UK on the other side, can reform quickly and with an constant eye on pragmatic approaches that France lacks.

Eric Didier, Toulouse, France

If I read this article a year ago, my French pride would have been tingling and I probably wouldn't have agreed with most of it. I lived in Paris for almost all my life, and I love this city with all my heart. But I moved in Belgium two months ago and it really opened my eyes. I was shocked by the huge gap between the French and Belgian mood. It truly was a breath of fresh air seeing smiling and relaxed people on the streets, joking around with perfect strangers, and simply enjoying the good vibration of this place. France is indeed gloomy and depressive right now. I guess the economic crisis, social/immigration issue, rising insecurity and delinquency, etc. weigh a lot on the French people's mind, without any other counterpart to cheer them up, like the Olympics did for the British. I hope it's just a temporary situation.

Quentin B., Brussels, Belgium

I don't know what world your journalist is living in but it's not the same one I'm in. I've just moved to Paris from the UK. The atmosphere in both countries is the same because we are all in the same situation. Maybe he should leave the shiny new coating London has put on for the Olympics and talk to some young people in the north of England, still struggling to find a job. Instead of tossing on a new coat of paint, waving a flag and proclaiming "We are number one" we could start actually addressing the cause of the current European crisis, which like it or not includes Great Britain, and pass some legislation to prevent it from happening again. This whole article is just nationalist nonsense which couldn't be further from the truth.

Matthew Deyell, Paris, France

We have been living in France nearly six years as a family with three small boys and it is truly wonderful. We are near the coast in wonderful countryside with very low crime and great open spaces to enjoy. Living in France is akin to living in England 30 years ago where traditional values are appreciated. There are far fewer people, more space and driving is a pleasure. There is far less materialism and people have time for one another and are generous to a fault. Crime is non-existent where we live and youths will carry old ladies' shopping as opposed to robbing them. We all love it and would not swop it for anything. The joie de vivre is still in full swing here.

James Colling, Thouarsais Bouildroux, Vendee, France

I have lived in France as an expat for nearly 11 years now. During my years here I have come to learn that France as a country is way behind in its thinking compared to the UK. The government here has no foresight, the young people of this country no chance. British expats are leaving the country in droves. The pipe dream is dead here and France as a state is not far off either.

Jason Roberts, Le Vert France

I just read your article and find it complete nonsense. Grenoble is a pretty good town to live in. Yes, some parts are more difficult, but like any cities in the world. As for comparing to london, once in St Pancras step down Caledonian Road and tell me you are in a nice cosy safe part of London. As for people being nice in London, not all of them - try WHSmith in Kings Cross early in the morning. I could go on and on.

Eric Jamet, Grenoble, France

I cannot disagree more with Hugh Schofield's comments. Here in SW France, our French neighbours are living a happy and balanced life. The summer has been dry and hot and as yet they have not become disillusioned with President Hollande; life is good. Having just visited Paris twice in the past month for various ceremonies, my wife and I found Paris friendly, uplifting and no beggars on the Metro. Of course some areas are scruffy but then that equates with any modern city.

Terence Dennett, Beurlay, France

We have lived in France for almost 20 years and our children have largely been educated here. Only since they have grown up and started their lives have we begun to realise how dire the situation is here in France. Yes, the mood here is indeed grim - the educated masses feel that the present government have obtained office by appealing to the uneducated masses and offering them higher benefits, reduced pension ages and an increase in the minimum wage! Who is to pay? The salary earner and the business owners. I have run my own business here for almost seven years now but I shall be stopping shortly - I simply can't afford the huge social security and health charges which are based on the pittance I earn from my business. The government take around 50% and I am BELOW the tax threshold level. It's sad - I love France but the mood is changing...

Lucinda Hannant, Montazeau, France

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