France is unknown to the majority of my compatriots. It was at least partially unknown to me when I moved here five years ago – even though I had visited it regularly since childhood, even though I had lived here as a student, even though I had travelled throughout it with perennial curiosity and anorakish energy.
The only major city I’ve never been to is Brest (there’s still time). But the more familiar one becomes with a nation the more complex it gets. Familiarity breeds a mistrust of generalisation. Looked at from within, France persistently defies expectation and almost wilfully neglects to conform to stereotype.
Until early last summer my wife and I lived in the country between Bordeaux, whose conurbation is the sixth largest in the country, and Angoulême, whose population is almost 200,000.
Our commune comprised several hamlets and about 200 people whose amiability was matched only by their incuriosity. The local industries – arboriculture, dairy farming, arable farming, viticulture and, above all, quarrying – are mechanised, far from labour intensive.
The commune was, farcically, forever intending to market itself as an area of “green tourism”, yet no one appeared to observe the widespread environmental damage wrought by the quarries themselves, or the more mundane attrition caused by their recklessly thundering lorries.
If these depredations were noticed they were not remarked upon since no offence could ever be given to the quarry owners, regional bigwigs with fingers in a multitude of parochial pies, because of the (few) jobs in their gift. Employment opportunities were indeed scarce.
Nonetheless, not a single person was willing to commute to the cities, even though they were a mere 40-minute drive away. Not long, but too long to get home for lunch.
I’m not kidding. The importance of this meal cannot be overstated.
It is a quasi-sacramental familial rite that determines the day: artisans would rather turn down a “distant” job than miss it. It is emblematic of the deep conservatism of a countryside whose rhythm and social patterns are bizarrely untouched by the ubiquity of combine harvesters, mobile phones, satellite dishes, quads and pavillons.
Pavillons? We would call them bungalows. They plumb the depths of sub-architectural insipidity. They sprout like mushrooms. Every couple of weeks a new one would appear, seemingly overnight. Sarkozy has spoken out against “the bungaloid rash which is contaminating our landscapes”.
But true to form he has done nothing to stem it. To do so would demand the wholesale dismantling of the legislation that, in a splendidly cynical act of clientelism, François Mitterrand introduced 30 years ago.
Its ostensible purpose was decentralisation. It has proved all too effective and has pandered to the profound streak of localism that inhabits the French psyche: the next valley is treated as though it is a foreign country with very strange mores.
The mayor of even the smallest commune, the tribal elder if you like, has formidable powers over planning and changes of use.
He (it is invariably a he) is also paid according to the number of people in the commune. Thus it is in his pecuniary interest to grant planning permission for more and more dwellings. Flood plains, land beneath sea level, land subject to subsidence from mining – no problem.
Thus when a particularly high tide and a vicious storm coincided on the Atlantic coast north of La Rochelle, 30 people were drowned as they slept in pavillons built by the commune’s deputy mayor with a special responsibility for housing.
The demand for pavillons is excited by a reversal of the rural diaspora, by white flight. They are for many people the only alternative to the suburban social housing projects, no-go areas ruled by gangs of North African teenagers armed with Kalashnikovs.
The pavillon is cosmetically differentiated according to region: stick-on “beams” in the Basque country; biscuit colour in Poitou-Charentes; pink in Provence. It derives from the example of post-war American mass-produced housing and, particularly, from Levittown [a 1950s Pennsylvania new town] and its successors.
In this regard the pavillon is quintessentially French. That is to say it is an unacknowledged translatlantic borrowing. America retains an exoticism because the majority of France is not anglophone. Its cultural colonisation of France is achieved by every means save language.
This colonisation is of course denied. But should the tourist, hurrying from a immemorial cassoulet in an impossibly lovely bastide to a history-steeped chateau, bother to look at the bits between these officially sanctioned and entirely atypical heritage sites he will, likely as not, find himself in a sprawl reminiscent of the northern outskirts of Boston, or the southern satellites of Chicago.
Science parks, office parks, exhibition parks, industrial parks, lorry parks. And supermarkets on a gargantuan scale. How many hangars selling leather furniture does a town of 30,000 people need? Ten.
The planning (not quite the word) of these subtopian developments gives the lie to France being a dirigiste state. Controls in exurban environments are risibly lax. The countryside is an open-air factory. France does not enjoy the delusion known as the rural idyll. The pastoral tradition is frail. France prioritises city centres.
There is no country in the world with a more marked appreciation of urbanism. This is not due to disinterested aestheticism. France only becomes truly legible when its demographic topography is understood and when the more or less invariable shape of its cities is taken into account.
Cities are effectively zoned. The class that wields power shares the distaste of rural peasants for commuting. This class inhabits city centres as their communal fiefdom. It has a stake in them. Hence the care with which they are tended, hence the shops and exquisite street furniture, hence the feeling that many city centres are smug museums of themselves.
Beyond the centres lies the unseen world of riot-torn ’burbs and burnt-out cars that are of course a cause of grave concern, hand wringing, expressions of liberal piety etc… And beyond them the gaudy neon of a consumerist world that is rather exciting – so, so, so like a road movie.
I now live in a city centre.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 10 January 2012.
Jonathan Meades on France starts tonight at 9pm on BBC4