Why the French are happy to holiday at home

FROM MARY DEJEVSKY

in Paris

It is Ascension Day weekend, the start of the French summer, and by early last evening roads into Paris were blocked for several miles. On the inner ring road, the traffic was almost stationary. Most of the same cars would have taken part in the procession out of Paris on Wednesday evening that was even slower: jams of 15 miles were reported on the motorways to the south.

Where the British traffic reports talk of ports and airports being jammed for Bank holiday weekend, France talks about the roads. One glance at the figures explains why: as a proportion of the population, far fewer French people travel abroad on holiday than from any other industrialised European country.

Where almost 60 per cent of Germans or Dutch went abroad last year, 50 per cent of Belgians or Irish, and about 40 per cent of Britons or Danes, only 12 per cent of French people left the country. This low figure represents a large boost to the French exchequer in the francs that would otherwise be exchanged for foreign currency and spent abroad. The exchequer benefits even more from foreign tourists, to the tune of 60bn francs (pounds 8bn). Last year there were 63 million foreign tourists, more than one for every inhabitant of France, making it the most popular holiday destination in the world.

Any French person will tell you why relatively few people go abroad on holiday: France has everything: sea and mountains, beaches and forests, yachting harbours and ski slopes. It has a range of climate zones, and regions and landscapes. It is stuffed with cities and sites of cultural interest and has food and drink that rivals any in the world. But without denying any of these arguments - which explain why 26 million Britons are expected in France this year - there could be another reason - many French people have not developed a taste for travel, they do not travel well and they feel better in France.

As a result, the foreign travel industry seems far less extensive than in Britain. Moreover, destinations on offer tend to be in the Francophone world, enabling them to travel and yet remain culturally at home.

The government certainly thinks there is a problem about French people and ''abroad''. It is having difficulty persuading workers to move there, even temporarily.

In his statement to parliament last week, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, found time to reproach his fellow-countrymen thus:

''It is a source of regret that the fact of our relatively large population does not encourage more French people to serve their country abroad, because French expatriates are the face of our country in the four corners of the world."

Latest figures say that fewer than two million French people (2.5 per cent of the population) live or work abroad, compared with 7 per cent of Germans or 10 per cent of Italians.

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