FIDELMA COOK

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - Cook­fi­delma@hot­mail.com Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook

AFRIEND of mine who moves al­most ex­clu­sively in a French cir­cle was as­ton­ished to be told the other night that “so­cial­ism is dead”. He was as­ton­ished be­cause the man mak­ing the claim was a fonc­tion­naire or civil ser­vant who more than most has ben­e­fited from so­cial­ist ideals put into prac­tice.

He was dou­bly as­ton­ished be­cause the French have al­ways prided them­selves – even while of­ten flirt­ing with the far right – on be­ing a na­tion that looks af­ter its own.

“So what has been put in its place?” he asked.

“Cap­i­tal­ism,” he was told, as all around the ta­ble nod­ded.

Out­side, three of the guests’ cars were brand new; the dim out­line of the new pool could just be seen through the win­dows and soon hol­i­days were be­ing dis­cussed.

All prob­a­bly nor­mal things to you and once, to me, but ab­nor­mal here, deep in the heart of old France. Or rather, were ab­nor­mal, be­cause it seems, al­most overnight, at­ti­tudes to credit and debt have changed.

Low in­ter­est rates, in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of credit cards and chang­ing bank prac­tices, plus the over­load of US and UK pro­grammes on TV, have all com­bined to re­place the word “need” with “want”.

Ten years ago open­ing my bank ac­count in the vil­lage was a master­class in in­ter­ro­ga­tion. The bank man­ager set aside an hour to ex­am­ine the sheaf of doc­u­ments, from pass­port to util­ity bills, be­fore dis­cussing my ar­range­ments. Her face re­mained a mask of in­dif­fer­ence un­til I said I’d like a rolling €10,000 over­draft “just in case”.

“In case of what?” she asked, her fore­head creased in a heavy frown.

Ac­cus­tomed as I’d been all my work­ing life to such an ar­range­ment, I re­alised I ac­tu­ally had no an­swer and gave the first of what were to be many Gal­lic shrugs.

“You can have €300 … just in case,” she snapped be­fore ex­plain­ing my du­ties to the bank.

It was against the law to present a cheque with no funds to cover it; the cheque would never be hon­oured and I could find my­self be­fore her watch­ing my cheque book be­ing ripped up and my bank card cut. I would not be al­lowed to join an­other bank and it would be three months be­fore I had purged my con­tempt.

If I tell you I have never been over­drawn by even a cen­time in my French life you will get the power of her warning even af­ter all this time.

To­day she no longer sits in her back room at the bank, hav­ing gone to pastures new. On what were once bare walls, posters of­fer credit cards and loans for mul­ti­ple pur­poses, and brochures ex­plain­ing credit fa­cil­i­ties for stu­dents pile up by the door.

In the su­per­mar­ket car parks, gleam­ing, nearly-new ve­hi­cles have re­placed many of the bat­tered, mud-splat­tered 10-year-old ones that were par for the course once.

Valet­ing sta­tions have mul­ti­plied to keep these sym­bols in their orig­i­nal state.

In­side, banks of huge flatscreen TVs are be­ing ex­am­ined by cou­ples and ex­cited chil­dren; phones and com­put­ers are sim­i­larly ex­am­ined as a young sales­man goes in for the soft sell and the magic word “credit”.

Such scenes were fa­mil­iar to me in my old life and on ar­rival their ab­sence and the lack of in­ter­est of the lo­cals in mere things was at first strange and un­com­fort­able but quickly be­came a re­laxed and right way to live.

Why buy a new car when the old one worked per­fectly? Why buy a new TV just be­cause it’s flat? Go into debt for a fort­night’s hol­i­day? It seemed ridicu­lous when the whole of France lay be­fore you.

There is a re­lief that comes from giv­ing up the rest­less need to keep up with oth­ers; to con­stantly re­vi­talise your house, your­self, your life.

Of course hav­ing no longer the guar­an­teed monthly pay cheque to fund such things, I fi­nally ac­cepted and took a quiet pride in such liv­ing.

The wa­ter­fall of cards in my bag dis­ap­peared, re­placed by cash or debit card only. And af­ter writ­ing off my flashy 4x4 I used only half the in­sur­ance money to buy a sec­ond­hand es­tate car. Af­ter the first bash on the side, I no longer no­tice the scratches and dents that come with park­ing in my area.

And, like my farm­ing neigh­bours, I went into shops for specifics, not to browse and buy. If the same ap­plied to my hair­dress­ing vis­its, then so what? If I wore the same clothes year in, year out, who cared? If I could no longer re­mort­gage ev­ery time the out­stand­ing debt maxed all of my cards, so what? There was no longer a mort­gage or cards.

Once you have given up the pur­suit of more and yet more, life truly be­comes sim­pler. Maybe not con­stantly hap­pier, but cer­tainly eas­ier when the bound­aries are firmly drawn.

Which is why my friends, who found the same, and I are sad­dened by the French dis­cov­ery of the joys of cap­i­tal­ism.

“But then,” said A, “why shouldn’t they have the chance to use credit the way we all did? In­ter­est rates are low; the banks are en­cour­ag­ing them and now they’re trav­el­ling more, their eyes have opened to all they could have. And now, should have.”

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