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.”