Having referenced Hugh Schofield's thoughts recently on 'the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded,' I spent most of the past week in southern France. I'm just unpacking and found a few loose thoughts about public space. I'm certainly not in a position to imply any conclusions about cultural differences, these are just reflections.
When I first went to France, it must have been about 1967, I remember commenting on the constant background sound of emergency sirens in urban areas. I'd make the same observation now, it's so dominant. Who knows, there may just be some connection to the extraordinary French appetite for minor road collisions: there were four within metres of me at various times over four days.
So it's a relief to observe that the French seem far less likely than the English to use their mobile phones while driving. I saw only one instance. In terms of offensive behaviour in public space, using a mobile while driving displays stark disrespect: it says unambiguously, 'my conversation is more important than your safety'. That's one reason why it's depressing to be returning to the British public realm.
Public space in England is mcuh more information-intensive. In France there are fewer advertisements and signs - in train stations for instance, which can be remarkably dull - and on the trains and buses there are far fewer announcements. If you get on an inter-city train in the UK you are bombarded with announcements, about your ticket validity, destinations and bacons burgers, along with concerted attempts to catch you out and criminalise you. When you look out the window at a station, all sorts of information competes for your attention. Perhaps it mirrors the difference in food cultures. In France, the public realm doesn't rush you.
And the more restrained approach to information provision may have subtle social consequences. If you need to know something, you ask - that is to say, you engage with others around you. Perhaps we have here an instance of Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions. Information overload in the UK could be doing something similar.
Uninvited encounters on the street seem far less frequent in France. If I walk through a town in England I know I will be accosted by people thrusting pieces of paper at me, people asking me for money or opinions or time. It could be argued that this is an acceptable part of the bustle of the urban public realm. I did note however that on the one occasion last week when I was offered a leaflet in the street, the lady said 'Bonjour m'sieur' as she held it out: that reflects a fundamentally more respectful attitude to the Other's retractable right to privacy in public.
What else? Smoking and dog shit. Smoking seems still to be far more prevalent than it is in England, a phenomenon that continues to surprise me. Given that it's a great way of trashing your taste buds, how explain its popularity in a nation of people who pride themselves on taking food seriously?
It seemed to me that there is far less obesity in France. If nothing else, that helps make sure there's enough public space for everyone. But then I wasn't always looking around me because it really is necessary to keep an eye on where you walk. The ubiquitous ladies with lapdogs, they're probably the experts at negotiating the pavements.
Just as we've taken a regulatory approach to smoking in the UK, we also use the law against dog-owners who allow mess. Apparently not in France. Maybe it's just another of many apparent contradictions in the French 'vive la similarité' love-hate relationship with regulation and universal standards.
But having been away from France for some years, what struck me afresh was the sense of generalised respect in the public realm. When you go into a shop, you say bonjour, and merci au'voir when you leave. When you sit down on a train or get into a lift, likewise you acknowledge the Other. This was emphasised with perfect clarity for me on the train home, as a loud party of Brits got on at Avignon, oblivious to the way they disrupted others' space. I'm inclined to agree with Schofield, the French really are more socially-minded, and there are things we should be thinking about.