Our Man In Paris: One giant suburb

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The Independent Online

There are now 2 million weekend homes or maison secondaires in the French countryside and fewer than 700,000 farms. I imagine that the imbalance in Britain is even greater. It seems to me that most of Britain, or England at least, has become one large suburb, punctuated by the occasional farm. Hence the anger and confusions of the recent countryside march through London. What is the countryside now anyway?

There are now 2 million weekend homes or maison secondaires in the French countryside and fewer than 700,000 farms. I imagine that the imbalance in Britain is even greater. It seems to me that most of Britain, or England at least, has become one large suburb, punctuated by the occasional farm. Hence the anger and confusions of the recent countryside march through London. What is the countryside now anyway?

As the proud owner of one of those French maison secondaires (there are 3 million if you include the ones in coastal towns), I had a smug belief that France was different. There is real countryside still in France, I said; you can walk for miles around our little house in the Norman hills without seeing a car or a person; we, at least, live a proper country life in Normandy, growing leeks and spying on the neighbours. Etc etc.

A French structuralist anthropologist, who specialises in studying the tribal patterns of French life, has shattered my illusions. Professor Jean-Didier Urbain is, among other things, responsible for the best three-word definition of the French I have heard. He says the French are "individualists en masse". In other words, they like to do things on their own – so long as everyone else is doing the same. M. Urbain's latest book – Paradis verts (green paradises) (Payot, €19.95/about £13) – is an attempt to puncture some myths about the French urban dwellers' attachment to "la France profonde", to the rural way of life, to "the provinces".

Contrary to what most French weekenders claim, the vast majority do not migrate, like salmon, each weekend to the village of their ancestors. They buy houses where their friends buy houses, in fashionable, or cheap, parts of the countryside, within easy distance of Paris or Lyons or another big city. When in the countryside, they like to grow their own flowers and vegetables (one-quarter of all vegetables eaten in France are now home-grown, according to one study). They like to promote local "crafts" and bemoan the replacement of "traditional" farming with ugly and smelly new (but profitable) forms of agriculture, such as vast fields of cereals and intensive pig and poultry units. They like to think that they are on good terms with the permanent country-dwellers, but they are secretly detested.

M. Urbain says this is part of a "Robinson Crusoe syndrome". Weekenders do not flee into the country to re-connect with anything, but rather to disconnect, briefly, from the modern world. They play at being hermits, while assembling as many urban conveniences as possible in their dinky cottages.

Ouch. Stop it. It's all so true that it hurts. I have a vegetable garden; I took the side of my feckless but picturesque ex-farming neighbour Jean-Michel, when the real country people hated him. I deplore the fact that Jean-Michel's former fields, with their tumble-down fences and wandering, headstrong horses and pretty cows, have been turned into a neat cereals ranch by a young, successful farmer from the next village.

We seem to be on good terms with our neighbours, except the grumpy deputy mayor of the commune who lives next door, but no one gets on very well with him. Our other next-door neighbours have virtually adopted our middle child, Clare, as a surrogate granddaughter. But they – though country people originally – are also weekenders, working and living in Caen, 25 miles away, during the week. In fact, our little hamlet has become, depressingly, a perfect example of what M. Urbain writes about. When we bought our cottage four years ago, there were two small working farms in the village. Both have gone. Of seven habitable dwellings, two belong to retired farmers, four are weekend or holiday homes, and one is rented by a family whose breadwinner works in Caen.

M. Urbain isn't complaining about all this. He suggests that it is inevitable, even desirable in its way. His main point is that France is fooling itself about the true nature of the French countryside. France, like England, is becoming a giant suburb. "City residents, by going into the country, are not becoming country folk," he says. "It is the countryside which is becoming residential."

Why Johnny is still rocking all over le monde

For 44 years it has been fashionable in Britain to mock Johnny Hallyday , France's official rock star ("notre rocker national"). I used to share in the mockery, but no more. Johnny, little by little, has become one of my heroes.

Johnny turns 60 next year, and he's planning a spectacular birthday rock show at the Parc des Princes. He is also going on a nationwide tour and has released a new double album (his first double since his unfortunate, rock-musical version of Hamlet back in 1976).

Johnny belongs to the same indestructible generation of pop performers as Cliff Richard, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, but he has been around longer than any of those, without ever being taken seriously anywhere outside the French-speaking world.

This is a pity. It is true that Johnny Hallyday has imitated, and often mangled, every passing fashion of rock music for more than four decades. His flower-power period was especially ill-judged. The truth, I fear, is that Johnny cannot rock. All his best songs have been slow numbers, either gently paced rock numbers or songs in the poetic, languorous tradition of chanson française.

My favourite is "Tennessee", a Johnny hit ballad from half a dozen years ago, which deserves to be a pop classic, not just a French pop classic. However, M. Hallyday (née Smet) insists that he is, first and foremost, a rocker. His latest stuff has been far too guimauve (soppy), he insists. The new album – A la vie, à la mort! – mostly consists of hard-rock numbers, with mixed results.

Johnny is, none the less, a class act. He was the guest artiste on Star Academie, the French version of Fame Academy, the other day. The greatest French pop star of all time insisted on sitting alongside the three wannabe stars who were threatened with expulsion that night. A simple enough gesture, but not one that many rock legends would have considered.

A double bind

A few weeks ago, I wrote the obituary of the double-barrelled French first name. There were, I said, far fewer young Marie-Charlottes and Jean-Maries than in the 1950s. But theprénom composé is re-emerging in an unexpected quarter. Second- and third-generation families of North African origin are linking French and Arab names. According to the latest survey, the country is now full of toddlers called Rachid-Nicolas or Ahmed-Philippe. Sociologists wonder what this means. Are ethnic Arabs born in France now more integrated? Or still unable to choose between two worlds?

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