When Liz Truss was asked whether France’s president Macron was friend or foe, she replied, “The jury is still out”.
That predictably got Manny’s culotte in a twist and he said testily that “the United Kingdom is a friendly nation, regardless of its leaders, sometimes in spite of its leaders.”
Friendly, yes. But with reservations, which go beyond Manny treating Brexit as a personal affront to be avenged, annoying though that is.
I often tell our French friends, some of whom are politicians, that I like everything about France except her politics.
They dismiss such statements with indulgent, good-natured smiles, as if both expecting les anglo-saxons to be slightly eccentric and at the same time not minding such quirks. But the way I use the word ‘politics’, it transcends the mechanics of putting together and running a government.
Politics to me defines the power balance between the government and the governed, which in turn defines the amount of liberty in the country. And French liberté isn’t quite like our liberty – just like their argent isn’t exactly like our money.
All modern states have a claim to our income that would have been unthinkable in times pre-modern. At base, they believe that our money really belongs to them, and it’s up to them to decide how much of it we should be allowed to have.
When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown inadvertently expressed that philosophy in so many words. “Our government,” he said, “lets the people keep more of their money.” You can let someone keep anything only if it belongs to you. So thank you, Gordon, for spelling it out.
This approach is common to all modern states, but there exist individual differences in how much the central state can get away with. And in France it can get away with a lot more than in Britain or America.
That goes to the core of the country’s political history and the mentality that history has produced. Without exceeding the scope of a short article, let’s just say that the French accept more power on the part of the central state than the British (or Americans) will countenance.
The word ‘statism’ conjures up largely negative connotations in the Anglo sphere, especially among conservatives. By contrast, the French word étatisme, while not always laudatory, is hardly ever pejorative.
You may think that all this is theoretical. So it is, until the theory is put into practice to affect your life. Two examples, one having to do with friends of ours, the other with us personally, illustrate this point well.
Our friends had a house in the South of France and paid about €3,000 a year in property tax. Then some five years ago, the authorities began charging them an extra €500 as tax on some garden structure that didn’t in fact exist.
Rather than refusing to pay, our friends dutifully coughed up the money, and then asked the local notary what they could do to get it back. He did some research and informed them that the tax authorities would only stop the charge if they investigated the matter. However, they preferred just to have the money rather than spending precious man-hours on superfluous groundwork.
The wrangle went on for five years, as did the annual €500 shakedown, and finally our friends refused to pay. Not a problem: the government simply took the money out of their account. That extortion only stopped when they sold the house and closed the bank account.
What happened to us is as typical – and as hard to imagine happening in Britain. We’ve had an account at the branch of BNP-Paribas in our village for 22 years. As happens with all local tradesmen, we’ve established personal ties with our bankers, making life more pleasant (agréable).
Then a couple of months ago, BNP informed us that the accounts of all British homeowners in France were being transferred to a central Paris branch. It’s all for our own good, we were told. Now we’ll be able to talk to English-speaking bankers, and isn’t that wonderful.
Well, no, it isn’t. We have no difficulty transacting all our business in French, although we realise that not all Britons in France feel the same way. In that case it’s good for them to have the choice of moving their money into the hands of Anglophone clerks – just as it’s good for us to have the choice of keeping our account where it has been for 22 years.
Except that we haven’t been given the choice. We were simply told where our money was going, and thank you very much for doing business with us. Penelope, in her incarnation as Pénélope, has fired off an indignant letter to BNP, knowing in advance that we have no recourse whatsoever.
No big deal one way or the other, you might think, and on some level you’d be right.
Yet both examples I’ve chosen illustrate something that goes deeper than the exact location of our bank account or even the extra tax our friends were unfairly made to pay. The two stories point to the kind of relationship between the state and the individual that’s fundamentally alien to les anglo-saxons.
What bright spark decided that Britain and France could comfortably snuggle up together within a single state? Whoever it was, and one could name several culprits, knows little about the two countries’ political history – and understands even less.
Vive la différence, for sure. But let’s never forget that la différence does exist – and that it’s fundamental to the point of being irreconcilable.