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.”