John Lichfield’s France: In the land where everyone is at home in their maison secondaire

For the French middle class, a ‘little place in the country’ is just part of life
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The Independent Online

One and a half million French people will catch a train today. Millions of others will choke the autoroute exits from large cities. More than 50 years after it was made, Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot remains the classic portrait of France on holiday: a nation of individuals which likes individually to do the same thing, en masse.

The film has just been re-released in a remastered, digital version. The opening scene show thousands of holidaymakers flocking angrily and obediently from railway platform to railway platform as inaudible announcements are made on a loudspeaker. Anyone who has caught a train at the Gare de Lyon on the first weekend of August will know that this scene is social documentary, not satire.

However, in one important respect, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is misleading. The classic French, middle-class holiday is not spent in a hotel or guest house. Almost every moderately well-off French person I know – and some who are not especially well-off – possesses or has visiting rights to a house or flat in the country or at the coast.

Frequently, they have a choice between two or three of them. Occasionally, these homes have been bought recently. More often they have been passed down in the family for generations. Sometimes Maman or Belle-maman (mother-in-law) lives there permanently and plays host to a complex house party of quarrelling children and grandchildren every summer. Often, the house is jointly owned by several siblings.

The homicidal weekend "house party" is a staple of British detective fiction. The brooding, near-homicidal, summer house party in an extended family maison secondaire is one of the great clichés of modern French cinema.

Officially, there are 3million maisons secondaires in France, of which only 200,000 are owned by foreigners and 50,000 owned by Britons. These figures are certainly a huge underestimate. Many French maisons secondaires are owned by teenaged children or grannies to avoid the hated "wealth tax". Sometimes, they are owned and run by a company set up by an extended family.

In the tiny hamlet in Normandy where I have my own weekend and holiday home, there are seven habitable dwellings. Two of them are owned by absentee Parisians with local connections. One was inherited by a charming brother and sister who visit with their spouses and children each Easter and summer. The house remains exactly as it was – without inside toilet or bathroom – at the time of their grandmother's death in the 1980s. They decline to spend any money because both have access to alternative, weekend or holiday retreats elsewhere, acquired through their partners.

The other, much larger house is owned by a Parisian lawyer, whose mother is the local landowner. He, thanks to his wife's family, has another holiday home somewhere in the south. He visits often in the spring and autumn but never in the summer. Throughout July and August, the house stands empty.

I have a Parisian friend who owns a chateau in another part of Normandy jointly with six or seven siblings. As a child, he also used to spend part of his holidays at a large house close to the shore in northern Brittany. Some time ago, this was acquired by another branch of the family, which now insists that even their cousins must pay rent when they visit. This is regarded as an extraordinarily mean attitude.

We are talking here, it must be remembered, about middle-class France. One in three of all French people takes no holiday at all, a figure likely to increase this year with the recession.

For the French middle classes, the "little place in the country" is an accepted part of life, hardly a luxury, usually quite cheap to run, especially if shared with siblings. (There can, however, be epic family quarrels over costs.) France is such an enormous and beautiful country (four times the size of England with a slightly larger population) that there are plenty of open spaces to share around.

I have a theory. Access to cheap holidays is part of the acquis – the accepted and unchallenged privileges – of the French middle classes, which makes them less politically quarrelsome than the British middle classes. Two other components of this middle class acquis are the education and health systems. If the French opt for private health and education (and many do), the cost is subsidised by the state health and education services. Unlike in Britain, the French middle classes do not have the irritable impression that they are paying twice for schools and doctors.

There is, however, one French person that I know of who does not own, and has never owned, a second home in the country. He is a rare example of a Frenchman with no known provincial roots. This may help to explain some of his oddities. His name is Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Jacques Chirac had a chateau in Corrèze. President François Mitterrand had a modest place in the Landes, south of Bordeaux. President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had a chateau in Auvergne. Even the austere Charles de Gaulle had his retreat at Colombey-les-deux Eglises in the unfashionable but beautiful eastern marches of France.

Mr Sarkozy and his former wife Cécilia had nowhere. They were an irretrievably urban couple, part of a rich Parisian coterie, which preferred rented yachts and foreign villas to provincial houses.

With his marriage to Carla Bruni, all of that has changed. For three weeks from this weekend, President Sarkozy will be resting after his coup de fatigue at a classic, shared family maison secondaire. He and Carla and various children from past marriages and liaisons will be at the Chateau Faraghi, the 1930s retreat of the Bruni-Tedeschi family on a rocky outcrop on a gated peninsula at Le Lavandou, Cap Nègre, near Saint Tropez.

Resting? Last summer, famously, President Sarkozy spent part of his stay at Le Lavandou trying to broker a ceasefire in a savage dispute between the residents of the peninsula over plans to install mains sewerage to make the disgusting seawater lapping their rocks suitable for bathing. The local prefect (senior national government administrator) was recently fired, allegedly because he had failed to resolve this epic quarrel.

One can only hope that Les Vacances de Monsieur Sarko will be a little more restful this year.