Cycling through France

...and unlearning the mentality of road vermin.

France is exactly the same. Completely different. With the Tour de France just over for another year, you can sense the national respect for cycling in the distance with which cars overtake, the patience with which they wait for safe passing opportunities. In France, a citizen remains a citizen even on a bicycle, you have to unlearn the mentality of road vermin that becomes engrained in London. I buy my pastries in the boulangerie, walk next door and eat them at a table with the coffee I buy from the cafe. It still makes me happy each time a cafe owner assures me that of course this arrangement is fine. You see it in the big, blue elephant that advertises the national car wash chain, in the tractor magazines on sale in the newsagent, and in the shabby, lived-in countryside a million miles from Britain's increasingly gentrified villages, where house prices skyrocket only to lie empty when the new owners are not on holiday. As I cycle slowly up a hill, a white van pulls alongside with the window winding down. In London this tends to be a bad omen, in France the driver starts to shout "allez... allez... allez..." pumping his fist in the air like a directeur sportif with his rider going under the flamme rouge. As always, France seems to have a little more of its innocence intact.
 
I know how all this sounds. Orwell always made fun of the British middle classes for their ability to feel patriotic about almost anywhere but Britain. He has a point. Ten days ago I was cycling through Suffolk, rolling my eyes at the Union Jacks fluttering above lawns. I knew then that in not long I'd be riding through France, completely at ease with the tricolor in every town. And yet I'm comfortable with my preference; republics and equality strike a chord with me that empires and kingdoms never will... the British establishment will have to meet me in the middle if it wants a little more of my patriotism. It goes without saying that France is far from perfect... an 18 per cent showing for Marianne Le Pen underlines an uglier side of the traditional, in the seaside town of Dieppe teenagers ride scooters with loud exhausts that piss off everyone but the rider. The outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his last ditch election effort to court far-right votes showed that France - like anywhere - knows exactly how to betray its founding ideals. When you're only pedalling through, however, all this has a habit of feeling like someone else's problem.
 
It is not surprising that the election of Francois Hollande still dominates the political landscape - the new president remains an unknown entity. From Britain's arm's length you could sense as much in our own election coverage; before the election we had Hollande the unassuming "pizza boy" who insisted on riding his scooter to the office, promised to take a pay-cut, and who had a journalist partner dubbed "Twittweiler". It was easy to create the personality, but now the invented personality of likable underdog needs elaboration. It was depressing that the first step in painting a picture of the man was not political scrutiny, but a look at Hollande's messy separation from former presidential candidate and leading socialist, Segolene Royal. The fractures that this might create within the French left have made for pretty irresistible political gossip.
 
The French seem little more certain about him than the British. A woman in a suit sits down to the next table outside a Paris cafe, just off the metro from La Defense, Paris' finance district. She shrugs as she tells me "the French think the crisis will never come... they will do the ostrich and bury their heads." In expensive clothes and a well-paid career she seems to overlook the resentment of people being told that the party is over, when the majority feel they were never invited to begin with. As ever, it's telling to note her apparent remedy to the crisis - cuts and 'streamlined' job losses - are the very things we are told to fear the crisis will bring. In a bar in Pigalle, a young graduate tells me he's happy Hollande won, "he'll be good for France's social divide." But. And he confesses. "I voted for Sarkozy... he's the man to save us from the crisis."
 
Sarkozy certainly didn't fail to bolster this image on his way out of office. The symbolic but noble "in this together" move whereby Hollande and his cabinet took 33 per cent pay cuts was met with accusations that the increased size of his new cabinet would eat-up any savings. The big government boogeyman remains an effective weapon in the free market arsenal. Hollande maintains that deficit reduction is a priority, but even his supporters question the wisdom in his kept promise to restore a retirement age of 60 after Sarkozy had done the hard, unpopular and dirty work of getting it down from 62.
 
Perhaps it's this issue that sits at the heart of Hollande's election victory. Of course there is no such as a free lunch, but should twenty-first century lives really be so nasty, brutish and short? If deficits are the most important thing in public policy then there is a case to be made for 62... 65 ... 70. If there is more to life than that - and cycling through France certainly makes it feel like there should be - then 60 means something more than two years, it's like a tiny kick against the End of History, and leftists far from France will be hoping this election is some sort of Reaganomics watershed. This week's meeting with Labour leader Ed Milliband, and talk of a European summit of the centre left, will do nothing to dampen these hopes. It's no shock that the markets have been proportionately unimpressed, dipping as trading resumed the day after Hollande's victory. It's a measure of our Stockholm syndrome that despite general consensus that the unfettered powers of financial markets are ruining our societies, we still hang on those same markets for signs of their approval. You can't escape slavery without upsetting a slave master, and the French deserve credit for refusing to return a brash, unpopular president who threatened financial brimstone without him. Hollande must now hold true to the ideals for which he was elected, and his public must resist the very human tendency whereby we make politicians scapegoats when they cannot be panaceas.
 
Over the course of a week I ride south, away from the rains of a summer no better than Britain's, though the French don't seem to share our certainty that we have been cursed by the weather. The road starts to kick upwards as I pedal out of society for a while, first into the Jura, with the Alps waiting on the horizon and Italy just beyond. In the picturesque town of Cluny a woman summarises her take on French politics from outside the laundrette. She tells me that she got to a comfortable life from humble beginnings, and with a smile and gentle uncertainty her words cut to the chase of much debate. "I recognise that you can't just help people all the time, but people need support when they can't help themselves... and for this the state is necessary."
Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era