Dominic Lawson: The discreet charm of a nation which respects the stomach - and the handshake

The Catholic virtues of discipline and authority have in general been stigmatised
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The Independent Online

I owe my Francophilia to my parents. As early as I can remember, the family summer holiday was spent in France: indeed, we seemed to enter France on the tarmac of Heathrow as we boarded a Caravelle, the first short-range tourist jet airliner and an elegant symbol of post-war French technological success.

Once in France proper, we behaved in the local style: we actually had our evening meal with our parents, rather than a segregated high tea. We were taught how to enjoy wine, diluted with water, as all the little French children had it. No wonder I began to associate the very idea of France with happiness - and no wonder I now like to take my own family to the same country.

Perhaps France has less of a culinary edge than it did 40 or 50 years ago - although it is a myth perpetuated by English colour magazines that our gastronomic culture is now the equal of the French: at the ordinary village level the gulf in quality and knowledge remains immense. In any case, it is not in the national gastrointestinal tracts that the greatest differences remain. Like all countries which have endured a revolution, France is profoundly conservative. This has its disadvantages in the economic sphere but it also has beneficial social consequences which we can - or should - only envy.

Most noticeably of all, the French still believe in - and practice - the concept of the extended family. A couple of weeks ago, in Brittany, we attended a large open-air dinner designed to raise money for the farmers of the region. The most striking sight - to the English eye - was the large number of multi-generational family units taking their food and wine together. This is not just a phenomenon of the agricultural milieu. Anyone who has gone on a Club Med holiday will have been astounded by the sheer numerical size of the travelling French extended families.

Interestingly, this attractive aspect of French life has survived the decline in marriage as the basis of the family unit. As the French foreign ministry states in its dispassionate assessment of its own country: "The couple has lost that extraordinary stability advocated in particular by the Catholic Church, which used to characterise French families. Yet ... when family structures are disrupted by break-ups or second marriages, the youthful grandparents are the link and reference for members of the family. The continuity and solidarity between generations are upheld thanks to them." There is, in any case, a difference between an absence of marriage and an absence of a father or mother. The proportion of single-parent families has grown in France to almost one-in-seven; but that is still well below the dreadful UK figure of one in four.

There are other more mundane ways in which France's social conservatism makes it a less troubled nation than our own. Civility - I suppose we might call it politesse - is still a paramount social virtue. The English habit of going into a shop and just asking for what you want without even so much as a "good day" is regarded as barbaric in France.

The formal handshake is still mandatory, too. On our recent trip we witnessed a dramatic helicopter rescue of some local holidaymakers whose catamarans had run aground on rocks. After they had been winched safely ashore all the rescuers and the rescued performed a series of handshakes that went on for several minutes. I'm not arguing that English holidaymakers would not have shown gratitude - just that they would not necessarily have known how to do so.

Such social rules are the essence of France; and while it might seem hopelessly inhibited to the modern eye, there is a sense in which it is also liberating. Once you know what the rules are, then you need not become agitated about whether you are behaving appropriately or not. Sneer at the notion of respectability as petit-bourgeois if you want, but the French adherence to it strikes me as less ridiculous than the entirely subjective modern English notion of "respect" (pronounced "respeck").

This respectability is intimately linked to civic pride. Of course, there are many English villages which have a deep pride in their appearance: but I don't think it is anything like as common as it is in France. French towns and villages are often breathtakingly dull in their architectural appearance, but they are also, by English standards, breathtakingly tidy. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, at least if Victor Hugo got it right: he attributed to Prince Louis-Philippe the following observation: "England's strange, nothing at all like France - too tidy, too clean and too quiet."

I'm aware that any observations about the difference between England and France are bound, when elevated beyond the particular, to become mere generalisations. Each of these nations is multi-faceted, frequently based upon internal regional differences - for example the extended family unit remains relatively strong in the North of England.

It is still worth asking just why it is that France has managed to retain such social harmony and discipline. Some blame the "Thatcher revolution" for our social malaise, arguing, along with Karl Marx, that unfettered capitalism is the destroyer of social custom and the family unit. Others would argue that welfarism, in which the state has increasingly supplanted the father as provider of first and last resort, is the real source of the trouble.

Neither of these is an adequate explanation for such differences as exist between the English and French ways of life. We need to look deeper into the past in order to understand the present. My own guess is that it stems from the fact that France is a fundamentally Catholic country and England a Protestant one - indeed, the phrase "perfidious Albion" was originally a French reference to the English break with Rome.

Protestantism has many virtues: with its rejection of the ossified and rigid institutions of the "old" Church came a culture of personal freedom which extended well beyond the religious domain and which has been a fantastically powerful engine for social and economic flexibility. Yet the Catholic virtues of discipline and authority have in general been stigmatised - and therefore underestimated - in this country: in Anthony Howard's acclaimed biography of Basil Hume, the late half-French Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster is quoted as saying that the essence of Catholicism is authority.

I am the last person to claim any share of that virtue. Not only am I not a Catholic: like most journalists I have a visceral inability to accept authority. What's more, I have none of the "politesse" I so admire in the French, being socially abrupt in a way which is considered (marginally) acceptable only among Englishmen.

Perhaps that is why so many of us like being in France. Its very nature demands that we behave well as visitors, as a result of which we begin to feel better about ourselves.