#StopIncivilités is a running publicity campaign that began on the Paris public transport system and currently occupies poster sites across our adopted home town of Montpellier. Ignore the silly hashtag, which reflects the universal delusion of middle-aged marketing goons that the young won't read anything unless it looks like social media. The key word to focus on is 'incivilités'.
Incivilités generally means much the same in French as in English, but what it is actually about here, I'm sorry to tell you, is poo and pee. The aim is to stop people who would willingly pay £800 for a scarf from voiding their bladders at will on street corners or letting their dogs dump dinner all over the pavement. You cannot, it proclaims, parade your chic while behaving like a lout. It is uncivil.
Yes, well good luck with that. There is an urban myth, probably apocryphal but true in every other sense, that the French were quite assiduous about scooping Fido's foulness until some clown in Paris passed a law ordering them to do so, whereupon they promptly stopped. Defying official bossiness is as deeply embedded in the national psyche as sporting lily-of-the-valley on May Day.
So, in place of the usual peremptory public information strictures, the strategy this time is more subtle. It plays on the national schizophrenia that so bemuses foreigners. It sets out to redress one side of the French split personality, not by wagging a finger, but by appealing to the other. Civility – behaving in a polished, erudite, mannerly, dignified style – is a quality on which French people expect to be judged and hate to be found wanting. The hope is that declaring post-digestive profligacy, be it human or canine, to be uncivil rather than merely unlawful, the campaign will resonate with le patrimoine
, the sense of inherited Frenchness that infuses the national identity.
Civility is a massively important quality to the French, seen nowhere more vividly than in their expectations of public policy. Unlike the British, they do not applaud policy-makers who deliver minimum standards as frugally as possible. They expect public policy to make life better: to provide services that people don't just rely upon but actually enjoy using. Services should not just be functional. They should also be civil. And they are prepared to pay to keep it that way.
Consider the word efficiency. Britain's privatised railways may be over-crowded, under-invested, unreliable, filthy, dangerous, unhealthy, and culturally indifferent to the visceral loathing in which their wretched passengers, sorry customers, hold them. But it is acceptable in the UK to describe them as efficient, because the meaning of the word has been systematically shrivelled by four decades of market fixation to mean simply an activity from which all possible extraneous cost has been squeezed.
France's SNCF would never pass the British test of efficiency, and opposition to President Macron's planned reform of the network is fuelled by the suspicion that he would like to try. The French railways lose three billion Euros a year despite annual state subsidies equivalent to around £200 per taxpayer and despite France's expertise in insulating the main pillars of its economy from the chill of competition. Yet the French would have no trouble in describing their railways as efficient.
Why? Because they provide a service that is a civilised pleasure to use. The TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Montpellier St Roch takes barely three hours, the coaches are luxurious, no-one gets on without a reserved seat, the food is excellent, the train glides like silk, the staff are polite and good-humoured, and ticket prices compare favourably with other modes of travel. The 2,000-mile TGV network is being extended all the time: a new line is opening along the Mediterranean coast, and a spanking new station has been built on the edge of Montpellier to serve it.
Nor is it just the totemic TGV that invests in civility. Small-town France is still connected up by rail, like pre-Beeching Britain, with the services pretty reliable and the stations well-maintained. And here's a novelty: French trains generally depart and arrive at the very times predicted in the timetable. Call that efficient?
Without wishing to be cruel, one can make a similar contrast with trams. Montpellier set about creating a tram network around the same time as Edinburgh, opening the first section in 2000. The difference is that it succeeded. Where Edinburgh struggled to get half a line operational years late and millions over budget, the Montpellier network now has four hugely popular lines and is about to build a fifth. The trams are clean, green, safe, reliable, and used by everybody, not least because they connect up intelligently with bus, train and park-and-ride options. The whole enterprise is owned by the city, through a transport subsidiary endearingly called TAM.
In Montpellier, barely a weekend passes without some festival of art or sport or produce or culture, supported and subsidised by the local authorities, and delivered in the parks and streets of the old town where everybody can enjoy it. We are bombarded with 'free' council magazines extolling this activity, almost every page bearing the craggy paternal smile of the mayor, Philippe Saurel.
Who pays? We all do. Households in France pay two separate local property taxes, one for ownership and the other for occupation. Our tax bill for a modest flat combines to a total far above what we paid for a detached villa with a big garden in Edinburgh. The over-staffing of France's multi-layered local government is now recognised as preposterous, even here. And while it is pleasant to have refuse collected daily, is it really justified when more productive parts of the economy have endured a decade of undernourishment? Civic civilité doesn't come cheap.
But it does keep coming, even after a harrowing recession, because voters choose it that way. The tone of local elections here is strikingly different from Scotland. You won't hear much talk of smart procurement, lowest tenders or shareholder value. British local democracy has become a depoliticised managerial beauty contest to pick the party that will salvage most from perpetually shrinking budgets. In France, local elections are a contest of sometimes absurdly ambitious visions and plans. Politicians are judged for the benefits they would bestow, not the bawbees they would save.
Citizens here expect their public authorities to deliver a civilised existence, not a bargain-basement long-stop. They want a city and state that cultivate the same aesthetic finesse they perceive in themselves. But now they are being forced to confront the double standards that couple personal civility with the individual's ancient right to be gross. The deal is that keeping the city vivacious is contingent on renouncing the inalienable right of all Frenchmen to have a wettie up the wall.