A return to London from the Continent, as David Cameron would surely attest, comes with a rude shock that has to do not just with the summary transition from countryside or small town to metropolis – or even, this week, with the switch from apparent Gallic tranquillity to the reality of mayhem, but with something more fundamental, rooted in the general pace of life.
Having recently returned, albeit in a more leisurely fashion than Mr Cameron, from the small spa town in southern France I have known for the best part of 20 years, it was this difference in pace that was most striking – and not just the pace of daily life.
Four years ago, perhaps more, I had attended a public meeting called to discuss the town's future development. Among the topics presented by councillors was the deplorable state of the town's original spa hotel, which had been forcibly closed after failing a fire inspection, sold to another hotel owner in the town, then un-sold because of an inheritance dispute among the sellers. It was now gradually falling into inelegant decay, with no new buyer in prospect.
A second topic was a plan for a new road layout at the entrance to the town, which would incorporate a big new traffic island. Giratoires have become a fashionable part of French planning over the past 10 years, and now, it seemed, we were to get one, too. A third related to criticism of the recently introduced plastic wheelie bins. A fourth was a project to transfer the town hall to the old military hospital, which was to be refurbished partly at state expense, along with the provision of a big new car park. And a fifth was the regrettable need to cut down, or at least back, the plane trees that gave the main street much of its character.
Of all these, it had to be said, only the fate of the trees drew any real passion. Was there really no other way of keeping the trees healthy and accommodating the increase in traffic? A couple of years later, it emerged that there was: the plane trees had been viciously lopped, but they were still in place and the thoroughfare made one-way. Of the other projects, though, there was no hint, and the belle-époque hotel was more derelict than ever. I assumed everything had been consigned to the hated wheelie bins.
But no. Approaching the town three weeks ago, you could not miss the works on the giratoire, now in full swing. The town hall, which was in its old mansion opposite the school as recently as last autumn, was now fully functional in the restored former hospital building, complete with gilded lettering and flags. The vast car park behind the main street is finished, and incorporates discreet underground receptacles for household rubbish. And the hotel, while still derelict, has just been sold, to a new owner hoping to restore it to its former glory.
In other words, my expectations had just run a bit ahead of French reality. Which is not to say that everything in the neighbours' jardin is wonderful: they have their ugly banlieues, their disaffected youth and their – almost routine – summer riots. But the sense of measured purpose married to local ambition that plans on a modest scale, to a realistic timetable, is something we could learn from. It also contradicts the notion that nothing in France ever changes. It does change; just in its own sweet time.
Government IT doesn't have to be a disaster
British MPs recently published a report exposing the wastage and incompetence in government IT projects – billions of pounds, the same MPs might reflect in their emergency sitting tomorrow, that could have helped improve education and policing in our many deprived areas.
What never ceases to amaze me, though, especially in health policy, is the enduring infatuation of our politicians, civil servants and academics with the (totally inapplicable) US example, even as they ignore pertinent, and positive, experience across the Channel.
That includes IT. The French have just launched an upgraded version of their national health website (ameli-direct.fr). You can search by area, hospital, specialist and procedure and find a detailed breakdown of the cost, how much is covered by standard insurance, how frequently the hospital or specialist performs a particular operation, and ratings for care and food. Exactly what you need. I've just tried to make equivalent searches on the NHS website. It doesn't do the job. And this is one element of government IT that's supposed to be working.
Love in the hayloft: the dream that never dies
In 1995, just as France was gearing up for some of its most disruptive industrial and social unrest of recent times, jaded city dwellers allowed themselves to be swept away on a wave of nostalgia for a rural idyll most had never known. Le bonheur est dans le pré, (Happiness is in the countryside), directed by Etienne Chatiliez, was a town-country film that traded on the French bourgeoisie's quite false image of itself as just one step away from Rousseau's world of the noble savage, as though a spell in the very same countryside that their forebears had hastened to leave would suffice to purge all their ills.
Something of that same nostalgia has returned to make L'amour est dans le pré – a reality show based on the British series, Farmer wants a wife – this summer's unexpected smash television hit. The first series was in 2006, but viewing figures for this summer's series have outstripped all other primetime programming. I suppose it could be the particular appeal of this year's stars, or the particularly gorgeous locations. More likely, I suspect, French urbanites are feeling almost as fed up with the world as they were in the 1990s, and seeking refuge, once again, to that elusive bucolic dream.