Strange how often France is closed

CHARLES ROBERTS Even the most devoted of Francophiles amongst us goes through moments of spitting exasperation with the country we have chosen to live in. It's only human.


Even the most devoted of Francophiles amongst us goes through moments of spitting exasperation with the country we have chosen to live in.

It's only human. At one moment we can be simmering with frustration at the nation's foibles. Then, somehow, somewhere, an emergency laughter button clicks in. We find ourselves chuckling at having given so much energy to such a less than major provocation.

Just occasionally, however, patience is snapped and very rude things are said about France, its curious customs and its still odder working practices. At the top of the heap comes - French closing times.

A few months ago I wrote in this column of a little two-car convoy, on it way back from an event in Poitiers, and in search of supper. “No problem”, I'd assured my companions. “There are at least four café restaurants in a string of villages. We're bound to find them open. After all, it is Friday evening.” All four were closed!

Just a fortnight ago I was, for three out of four days, on “voluntary duty” as minder of a stand at a regional Fair. It was brought together to promote regional produce, manufacturing, local life and culture. Its setting, the attractive and typically French main square of a small market town.

Most Read

The Fair was under one spacious tent, sub-divided into sections. Providing a frame were the buildings of the largely 18th square itself - the local Tourism office, a Pakistani bar/restaurant, two insurance offices, an estate agent, clothes shop, baker, charcutier, pizzeria, three opticians, a tobacconist, a branch office of the regional newspaper; and a bar.

Needless to say that, save for the two bar/restaurants, the greater part of this cavalcade of local business remained firmly shut. The Fair, meanwhile, attracted on average only a modest turnout.

How, you ask yourself, does French business survive?

Stand by, while I relate to you a comfortable little domestic tale, culled from a set of scribbled pieces set down more than 30 years ago. Its setting is a small French town, where an English woman, Mrs Jones, has made her home in the same apartment block as a French lady, Mme Lamerie. They meet by chance on the stairs:

Mme Lamerie: Good morning, Mme Jones. You've been to do your shopping?

Mme Jones: There are a few things about that subject, which I don't understand in your country, Mme Lamerie.

ML: Don't worry about that. I too don't always understand, and I'm French.

MJ: What I want to talk about is shops, their opening and closing times. For example, the grocer's, the butcher's, the baker's . . .

ML: And everything was closed?

MJ: Exactly. Why?

ML: Well, it's 2 pm in the afternoon. The food shops close between one and four hours.

MJ: Ah, so that's it.

ML: You didn't know that?

MJ: No. But yesterday, it was the same thing at 10am in the morning.

ML: Yesterday, you say?

MJ: Yes. Yesterday. Monday.

ML: Ah, Monday, of course!

MJ: And what does that indicate?

ML: Mme Jones, these shops are closed on Mondays.

MJ: But I don't understand. They are always closed?

ML: They are, nevertheless, open on Sundays.

MJ: On Sundays. Goodness me. Even the baker's?

ML: The baker's, the grocers, the pork meats shop. But what's wrong, Madame? You look sad.

MJ: So you're saying . . . that I could have bought croissants and cakes last Sunday?

ML: Those at the Pâtisserie Royale are delicious. It is so crowded on Sunday morning. You'll find everyone there on a Sunday.

MJ: How stupid it is. . .that today, Tuesday, we've eaten the bread which was left over from Saturday?

Since this anecdote was written, supermarkets have entered the scene - though not all of them are open on Sundays. In my department, there is an extra cause for confusion: On the personal orders of the regional Prefect, the supermarkets may not bake bread on Sundays. This is, we assume, designed to give small bakers a chance to make some extra money without Big Brother Supermarket getting his size 12 boot in the till.

Vive la France!