Ten-hour journey to chalet in the Alps takes its toll
By Brian Masterman
BY the time you read this, Mme Masstairmann and I’ll be sipping mulled wine in a cuckoo-clock Alpine chalet on our annual attempt to break a leg, and slowly getting over being severely ripped off, yet again, by motorway tolls on the ten-hour drive down from Dinan – proof once more of the French proverb that man is the only bird that can be comprehensively plucked several times.
The charges have just been hiked again, as they are every 1 February, just before the ski season peaks at half-term, when half the nation surges back and forth to the mountains. No wonder the companies’ profits soared 25% last year and shareholders pocketed five billion euros in dividends.
Expressways are free in Brittany, though. When Duchesse Anne de Bretagne married Louis XII in 1491, uniting the country with France, she made it a condition of their betrothal that Paris would never impose any road tolls here. Which, as any Breton will proudly tell you, is why she’s still a much-revered regional icon and you can’t move for Duchesse Anne bars and hotels and streets and squares and so on.
Now that’s all good stuff to feed the tourists perhaps, the only problem being that it’s nonsense, I’m afraid. The person to thank is the rather less sexy General de Gaulle. In the 1950s, Brittany was a remote rural peninsular – it still is to a certain extent – well off the beaten tracks sweeping up and down the continent and extensive toll-free dual-carriageways was his way of opening the region up to the rest of Europe.
It’s just a pity succeeding governments have neglected the minor-road network ever since, as they have all over France. And the transport minister’s just announced that he’s going to ‘rationalise’ the railways, too, axing the uneconomical branch lines that are essential to the survival of so many smaller communities.
But Monsieur Macron’s tightening of the national belt goes much further and deeper. In recent months, I’ve mentioned the discontent in our cash-strapped gendarmeries, schools, prisons, hospitals and retirement homes. Now we’ve got judges, greffiers and advocates uniting on the steps of every palais de justice to cry Haro!, too.
The French judicial system gets only 1.8% of the national budget and ranks a pitiful 23rd out of the 28 EU nations. I’m a court translator and they increasingly send me stuff as email file attachments, so I have to print the originals off myself. And they now want duplicate, signed and stamped, hard copies of my translations, too.
When I phoned to ask why, the greffière said they were having to ration paper and ink. Now I don’t mind donating the odd sheet here and there but I cried Haro! myself last month when she emailed me 200 pages of witness statements.
No wonder the court’s still out on Fañch, which is Breton for François. You may remember me saying that the little lad was born last spring but the prosecutor refused to register his name because the tilde, the squiggle on the N, isn’t on Paris’s official list of permissible accents. The parents are now seeking crowd funding to finance their appeal.
And their MP is demanding that the justice minister explain why, on the grounds of a decree handed down in 2014, France refuses to recognise Fañch, which is hundreds of years old, but allows names like Corléone, Alkapone, Euthanasia and even one Clitorine, for goodness' sake.
Equally damning was Le Monde’s verdict on Darkest Hour. The film is a pious tribute to Winston Churchill aimed at the USA and its Oscars, it said, just like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Where is the historical accuracy? And what about the French? After all, we are talking about the war in France, aren’t we?
But then ‘Dunkerque’ remains a blue-touch-paper subject here. Seen from this side of the Channel, the British ran away, saving their own skins and leaving France’s brave lads to face death on the dunes – not a view often heard north of the White Cliffs, of course.
As a 38-year, dual-national, Anglo-Francophile expat, I must confess to feeling uncomfortable as I watched Heures Sombres here in Dinan. Yes, Churchill, the Brits and the evacuation were undoubtedly magnificent in many ways. But equally clearly, Darkest Hour only tells their version of the story and it’s not one that the French will ever accept without serious reservations.
Anyway, enough of all that, eh. Fancy another mulled wine? Big day on the slopes tomorrow.