I’ve been away from blogging for a good couple of weeks now, and physically away from my computer for around ten days. This has been spent in a landline-free, signal-free Breton valley near Guingamp. Every once in a while a journey to a nearby beach would put us in range of a mobile mast and I’d be able to twitter, but that was about it.
Relaxing though the lack of technology was, the French attitude to any kind of commerce still strikes me as woeful. Most shops—including several sorts of food store outside the hypermarkets—close from around 12.15–12.30 till 2.30pm, and are only then open till perhaps 5.30pm. Given that nobody except the boulangier opens before 9, we calculated that one tourist shop (which took things a stage further and remained closed every other day) managed 26 hours a week.
A family friend who had settled over there and was now working as an odd-job man mentioned that employment of staff in France was essentially a gravy train for the individual employee: if a company made someone redundant, they would have to pay them a living wage for twelve months or until they found a new job. Certainly French bureaucracy, which seems to have been grown under glass specifically for the purpose of employing more people, was evident in the system for looking round the Château de la Roche-Jagu: you couldn’t buy your ticket on the door, and the doorman wouldn’t even tell you the price; ticket purchases were made in a completely separate out-building; when you got there, they would tell you that the castle was currently full, also refuse to sell you a ticket, and ask you to wait half an hour. It looked suspiciously empty when you actually began your long-suffering attempts to merely buy the “product” on offer, and there were no guided tours that might account for an extra hundred or so people.
As a good socialist I can see the merits of protectionism. It prevents cross-border exploitation (such as happened recently with hiring non-union employees from abroad) and preserves local culture, artisanal methods and plenty of other aspects of daily life that might suffer if they had to justify themselves in terms of global market forces: decent pavements, libraries, shared spaces. But it’s pretty clear that employment and commerce in France are in for a rude awakening: a country whose model of working life is based around obtaining a job as a sinecure, employing three people where two will more than suffice. I can’t say I admire the Victorian-inspired, Anglo-Saxon model of hard work as a duty to be endured regardless of enjoyment of your job, but the French system feels like thumb-nosing hubris in the opposite direction, heading for its own internal crunch as population ages and exports and interbank lending all suffer in the recession.
Still. There’s the sweet Brittany cider and filling galettes, and the lush, green hills and dales that make up the region’s interior. There’s the half-empty beaches—almost completely empty at lunchtimes—and the unexpectedly vibrant Breton culture, with the grasp of tongue-in-cheek humour that leads to mugs in gwenn ha du depicting “Che Guevarrec.” Ancient buildings, riverboat tours, animals in bucolic repose. Western France is a nice place to visit: if you’re lucky enough to find it open.