Bruce Logan: Family glue holds France together

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Long lunches, closed shops are evidence of belief in home values, not a lazy work ethic, writes Bruce Logan

Shopping and cooking for long meals at midday look like slacking to Kiwis, but they feed the strength of the family unit in France.
Shopping and cooking for long meals at midday look like slacking to Kiwis, but they feed the strength of the family unit in France.

'Ferme, Monsieur" (Closed, Sir) - I hear that a lot. Although I spend lengthy periods every year living in a town of about 12,000 people in southern France I sometimes forget the two, sometimes three-hour lunch. Almost everything closes except those places where the sane go to eat and the normal go to buy their daily baguette.

Recently I went to Mr Bricolage, a hardware chain store, to exchange a clamp that was too large. Alas, it was two minutes past 12, 33C and a few days away from July, the hottest month. "Ferme, Monsieur."

It's probably the extended lunch hour, more than anything else, that causes foreigners to believe and boldly declare a kind of received mythology - the French don't know how to work and they can retire too soon; no wonder their economy's a mess.

It's true that the state does employ a quarter of the country's work force and a pretty good deal they have too. Unionised civil servants and government employees can retire in their mid-50s and many have old and deeply embedded privileges.

The fast TGV train drivers still receive a coal shovelling payment.

On the other hand, private employees are seldom unionised.

French culture and economics from a New Zealand perspective are paradoxical. Socialism is entrenched in a country that still does seem to believe in "liberte, egalite, fraternite". But it's a different kind of socialism to that which drives the contemporary Labour and Green parties.

In New Zealand, it's often claimed the welfare state harms family cohesion when the opposite would seem the intention.

The welfare state is intrusive in France, too, but its power to erode is weaker. New Zealand is strong on liberty and equality, less so on brotherhood. In France, brotherhood has probably the strongest emotional power.

Maybe a difference can be seen between the two countries in the way they make films about the family. Domestic drama and comedy are popular in France. The French are able to make the daily ordinariness of family life fascinating.

Recalling sympathetic domestic drama with a Kiwi origin is difficult. The End of the Golden Weather maybe and the occasional film that has a Maori theme; Boy, perhaps. Films that "explore" domesticity tend to be dark. Of course all that could say more about those in New Zealand who write and produce films than anything else. Whatever the case, family life in New Zealand seems to be a minor political issue. Issues like "child poverty" or "family abuse" seem to swamp it.

France remains the most rural country of the big three in Europe. Family life is still strong and sustained by laws that would be strange in New Zealand. Much property is owned by family members rather than individuals or couples. Buying a house, for example, can be an exercise in frustration. The house I live in had 10 owners and one part of the house is still locked up because one owner refused to sell her portion. Attempts to simplify the law so far have been unsuccessful.

The extended lunch hour might look like a loopy utopian and socialist idea but it is neither. It is a traditional and domestic response to a belief in the importance of the family. Certainly it is being threatened, but it's still there.

It's not surprising that France kicked up the biggest fuss of all the countries having same sex marriage thrust upon them. Religion was not an issue. It was an attack on the family and French domestic life. So, too, would be the reduction of the extended lunch hour.

Unlike New Zealand, France does not have seven-day shopping. Everything, including supermarkets, is closed on Sunday. Sunday is family day. Boulangeries that open on Sunday morning close on Monday. The New Zealand debate around Easter trading is entirely alien to the French mind.

It may appear socialism has undermined the will to work in France but that would be a superficial observation. What looks like the lack of a work ethic is evidence of a different kind of work ethic; one that sees domestic life critical to national health.

Bruce Logan is an Auckland writer living half the year in France.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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