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FRANCE, more than any other of he great nations, is a land of thrift. The habit of economy is well-nigh universal. A French‑man saves as naturally and with as little effort as he breathes. Of course those who waste and the unprosperous are not wholly lacking, but they are a very small minority. In town and country the story is the same — every‑where savings gradually accumulating. Money never slips away carelessly, even for pleasures. It is said that the hotels at the resorts of fashion could not begin to sup‑port themselves on French custom. They depend largely on the inflocking of other nationalities; and among all these foreign seekers after health and recreation, none make the money fly and rejoice the hearts of the French landlords like the English and Americans. Except by those who have an eye to the profits, the expenses of the average Anglo-Saxon tourist are regarded as a sacrifice of good money without adequate return. Nor do the French quite believe that this lavish expenditure is a sure indication of wealth. “The Americans,” they say, “like to make a show. They would have us think they all possessed a fortune, and so they spend foolishly — far more than they can afford in many cases — and when they return they have to pinch to make up.”
However that may be, we as a nation could well take lessons in the art of saving from our neighbors across the sea. To spend freely part of the time and, when the “rainy day” comes, to be obliged to stint and scrape to keep up appearances, is too apt to be the American way, but it certainly is not the ideal way. In France these violent fluctuations are for the most part avoided. Hard work, careful spending, and, more than all, the general possession of a bank deposit tide the people over personal reverses and carry the state unshaken through trials that at first seem to portend national disaster. The persistent economy, it is true, has a tendency to degenerate into selfishness and avarice, but it necessarily results also in habits of rigid sobriety and self-respect.
The savings of the rural folk are largely deposited with the government. Interest is allowed, and on dividend day the people flock in such numbers to the local branches of the state bank that the countryside is depopulated. It is a motley crowd — important functionaries, fashionable ladies, laundresses, laborers, and artisans, all with their coupons awaiting their turn.
Often there will be several bank accounts in a single ordinary farm family; and the servants are almost as likely to be depositors as the rest of the household, some of them to a considerable amount. You may find, for instance, an elderly woman servant, who has worked in the same family for fifty years, with money enough in the funds to live on without further labor if she chose. She began to work at an annual salary of thirty dollars. By the end of twenty years the remuneration had been increased to fifty dollars, and that is the sum she has received ever since. From this and the gifts it is customary to make the servants at New Year’s, she has laid aside steadily until she has a very handsome sum to her credit.
There are many like her in the French country. I remember once when I chanced to inquire about a new house that was nearing completion on the borders of a village, I was told that it was being built by a coachman. Some time he would live in it, but not till his own working days were over. For the present it was to be rented. The wages of the coachman and his wife together were probably about twenty dollars a month and they each very likely had something left them by their parents. They spent little, for they lived in their master’s household, and the donation of their master’s and mistress’s old clothes saved them nearly all expense for wearing apparel. They not only could, but did, lay up a large part of their salary, and as a result they were becoming people of property.
I do not know that there is anything in French character compelling to save, but it is the habit of the country, and from childhood the people grow up with that dominant idea in their heads. No hardships or reverses can quell it. Taxation in France is higher than in England or in Germany, yet the solvency and accumulative thrift of the French continue phenomenal.
I could not discover that the farm folk in their work showed any marked tendency to excessive labor. They are much less apt than we to worry their lives short with haste or with the weight of many cares; and, however humble, they are almost never involved in that steady, hopeless grind which for so many of the English laborers has the workhouse at the end. To a very great extent the land is owned by those who till it, the people are content with the plainest living, and every member of the family is a worker. Distribution of labor lightens the burden, but I thought it bore heavier than need be on the shoulders of women. In the lighter tasks it is all well enough, and it was pleasant to see the women helping in the hay-fields, working in the wheat, or in some byway or grassy pasture knitting while they watched a grazing flock of sheep. One could not but fancy that tasks like these, with their accompaniment of sunshine and air and exercise, were wholesome and invigorating. Yet when I saw women bending their backs all day long weeding, or caught glimpses of them blowing the bellows and helping in the blacksmiths’ shops, and noted how exposure to the sun and weather made their complexions as they aged turn leathery and yellow, it seemed a little too hard.
A French farmhouse interior is an odd mixture of squalor and solid ease, if not comfort; and the housework is simple to the point of primitiveness. A farmer may be independently rich, and yet a fine house and a multiplication of wants and responsibilities are by no means a consequence, and the living-room may continue to be the big kitchen with its wide fireplace, its beds and wardrobes. The furnishings are rarely so elaborate as to require much time or attention. Neither is the cooking burdensome, though the food provided, even in the poorest families, is sure to be good and abundant. The French are clever in their cookery, and no people understand better how to prepare a palatable and satisfactory meal with infinitesimal expense. They never throw away anything. From what would be table waste in America they are always able to contrive some viand that agreeably helps out in meals following. Complicated dishes are avoided, and everything is served with only as much table-setting as is absolutely necessary.
A FARMYARD GATE
There is a tendency now among the well-to-do farmers to travel more than formerly, live better, and pattern after the gentry. Some have their fast horses, their valets and grooms, and they no longer closely supervise their farms and work with their hands among their laborers as was one time the universal habit. The wife has jewels, and the children acquire a polite education and extravagant tastes. Such farmers complain that they cannot make money as their fathers did, and blame the times or something outside of themselves. They do not consider that they neither work nor spend as the fathers did. Luckily for France, farmers of this species are as yet exceptional.
Farms vary greatly in size. The humblest type of a peasant proprietor has only two or three acres. He keeps a goat, a pig, and some poultry, but in large part must depend on outside work for the family support. A man with a dozen acres, a horse, and two or three cows can spend his whole energies on his farm with the prospect of accumulating money. Any holding under 125 acres, however, is considered small. Medium-sized farms range from that to 250 acres. In some sections there are farms running up into thousands of acres, but in most districts the man who controls an area running above 250 acres is accounted a large farmer. Statistics prove that small farms are the rule practically everywhere, the average size of holdings throughout the nation being only sixty-three acres. In England the average is 400 acres and in America the figures run still higher. It follows that as three-fourths of the French population is rural and as the agriculturists in the main own the land they till, the small farmers constitute the most vital and characteristic life of the republic.
One of the most attractive agricultural regions I saw was in the fertile valley of the river Oise. The land spread away from the borders of the stream in a great open plain that stretched as far as the eye could see, unbroken, save by now and then a group of trees or a huddle of plethoric grain stacks. So fertile was the soil that, if report was correct, it had made all the farmers of the district rich, the little farmers as well as the large ones; and those who rented their land were often more wealthy than their gentry landlords. This being the state of affairs, I was curious to see what the villages of these rich agriculturists would be like, and I paid an investigating visit to one of them. It was not at all palatial, but a gray, sleepy old place presided over by an ancient, mossy church with a brazen weathercock looking down from its spire. The houses were big and antiquated, and there were high walls about the farmyards, and the entrances were hung with heavy gates, so that each home had the air of being a fortress built to repel invaders.
On the top of the wall next every farm gate was fastened a withered bush, and tied to it was what appeared to be a few rags and a bedraggled handful of straw. This bush was reminiscent of the end of the harvest of the previous year. When the last of the hay and grain had been gathered into the ricks and barns, the old bush, set up a twelvemonth before, was taken down, and a new bush, full of leaves, trimmed with ribbons, and hung with a sheaf of yellow grain, was put in its place. The ceremony of installing the decorated bush on the walls at the portals of the farmyard occurs at noon, after a morning spent working in the fields. The afternoon is given up to pleasure, and the laborers and the farmer’s family join in celebrating with feasting and a generous flow of wine.
The pay received by a French laborer is ordinarily not far from seventy to eighty cents a day, but in winter will hardly rise above sixty cents. A woman gets about half as much. During the six weeks of harvest time a good worker is allowed special pay, and can earn a dollar a day and his bread. The city has a strong attraction for those who do not themselves own or rent land, and it is not easy to get good help. In northern France much of the farm labor is done by Belgians. They come across the borders in great numbers each spring, and are hired for a term of six months. They are paid, however, not by the day or week, but by the job — so much an acre for hoeing the sugar-beets, so much for mowing, cutting the grain, etc. The farmer furnishes them all the cider they want to drink, and at noon serves them with vegetable soup; while at night he gives them a place to sleep in the barn. Otherwise, they take care of themselves. They buy bread, and they get bacon to use in making soup; and on Sundays they perhaps indulge in a piece of beef. They go barefooted; they work like slaves; and in economy of living they could give points to the Chinese. They come year after year to the same farms, and at the end of each six months of labor they take home a goodly sum of money.
One thing deterrent to French thrift is the increase during recent years of alcoholism. Formerly the people drank almost no liquors save their mild wines. But the devastation of the vineyards by the phylloxera reduced the amount of wine produced, and its place was in part taken by highly alcoholized artificial wines, which acted disastrously on the habits and life of the people. At the same time, science was revealing new sources of alcohol. Corn, potatoes, and beet-roots began to yield it in large and profitable quantities. Some of the most fertile agricultural districts were allured to alcohol making, and distilleries sprang up everywhere and placed their cheap and poisonous liquors within easy reach of the industrial masses. Self-interest, too, makes the public houses encourage the consumption of spirits; for their profit on them is very large as compared with that on wine. The number of saloons has multiplied, and drunkenness, which formerly was exceptional and individual, has grown common. But the country has awakened to the magnitude of the evil, and it is believed that the tide is now turning.
Another heavy burden to the country is the military system. Up to 1872, lots were drawn in each commune every year to decide who of the young men should join the army. The highest numbers entitled the holders to total exemption; the lowest meant seven years’ service. Only sons, students at the seminaries, and teachers pledged to ten years’ public service, were free from obligation; but immunity could in any case be purchased. However, as the price of exemption was in no instance less than five hundred dollars, and often much more, this means of avoiding military service could only be taken advantage of by the rich; while the breadwinner of the poor frequently had to give up seven years of his prime.
After the reverses of the war with the Germans, the system was reconstructed. At present, every able-bodied citizen of the republic, beginning at the age of twenty, must serve his turn in the army. It is not possible to buy a substitute, and only the sick, disabled, and deformed escape conscription. Theological students, and those whose calling is art, science, or literature, are let off with one year, but practically all others must be in the army for three years. The pay of the common soldier is less than five cents a day, and none but those who must can keep their petty personal expenses within such a sum. Usually a soldier’s home folks furnish him with more or less pocket-money, according to their means. When the service is outside of France, the pay is higher. Such service is done wholly by volunteers, and these are never lacking, partly owing to the attraction of a larger allowance, but moved more by the chance to see foreign lands and to win glory, should there be fighting.
Formerly, it was the custom to quarter the soldiers as far from home as possible, those from the north in the south, and vice versa. The idea was that they would put down local risings with more energy than if they were obliged to assert their military authority over their friends and neighbors; but now the comfort and convenience of the soldiers themselves are more consulted, and they are stationed as near home as is feasible. This, combined with the fact that the railroads are obliged to carry them at one-fourth the regular fares, enables them to often return to the parental roof for short visits.
At best the soldier’s life is a hard one, and most men gladly withdraw when they have served their time, to take up their work where they left it off. Their interests during their term in the army are by no means all military, and on a market day you may see soldiers examining as minutely as any of the country folks the displays of agricultural implements. The fascination of the ploughs and harrows lies in the fact that the soldiers are looking forward to the day when they will be released and back on the farm.
After the one or three years of continuous service the ex-soldiers — peasants, priests, artists, doctors, and all the rest — have to give twenty-eight days from each of the following two years to military drill, and thirteen days from each of the two years after that. Then they are finally free, except that in case of need they are liable to be drafted until they are forty-five.
One of the most noticeable ambitions of the French commercial class is the desire to acquire a competence and then retire from business and live on the income of their investments. That end attained, they are members of the “bourgeois” class, the French gentry. and they really enjoy doing nothing to a degree quite incomprehensible to one from a land where the men of affairs, no matter what their age or wealth, are never content to be wholly separated from their business, and usually die in harness.
The associates which a person may have among the French bourgeois are largely determined by income. A man in receipt of a thousand dollars a year is looked down on by the man whose income is twice that amount, and the latter in turn is regarded from above by the person who has annually a still greater sum at his disposal. To a considerable extent this is the way of the world anywhere; on the amount of income largely depends one’s manner of life and interests, and hence, also, one’s associates. But the separation which money makes, rather than brains and character, is much more marked in France than with us.
When a French son or daughter marries, the parents are expected to provide for him or her, as the case may be, a good start in life. There is nothing haphazard about it. Everything is figured out and all parties know just where they stand beforehand. A Frenchman does not marry for love alone. He is never blind to the worth of his bride, — her financial worth, — and some flaw in that will keep him long hesitating. The more money he has himself; the more he wants his intended should have. He is anxious to live as well in the future as in the past, if not better. He must have money — he must have a home. Married life in a boarding-house, which we Americans undertake all too cheerfully, he thinks impossible. A happy-go-lucky future of that sort he would not contemplate for a moment.
As to the women, financiering plays less part in their love. The young ladies are acutely sensitive to the undesirabilility of becoming and staying old maids. They are romantic and ready to love and to be loved. But the woman who lacks the lucre which other girls of her class have, no matter how clever or handsome she may be, has small chance of marrying.
A man of exceptional intelligence with whom I talked on this subject took pains to warn me against accepting the life found in French novels as a true picture of national character. “Courtship with us,” said he, “is very commonplace. There is little glamour about it, and the novelists in order to give their stories interest add spice without limit, and lug in all sorts of wickedness that have little or no foundation in reality. They give foreign readers a very distorted impression of us.”
As an example of the very unsentimental character of French wooing he related to me this story of his village grocer, who had recently wedded. The grocer, it seemed, had passed his thirtieth year and was beginning to feel alarmed to see his youth slipping away and he still single, and likely to remain so if he did not bestir himself. But what gave him most concern was the need of having some one to assist him in his business. How was a man to get on all alone in a grocery store? But what could he do? — he knew of no woman who seemed to him exactly eligible and suited for a grocer’s assistant. So he informed his neighbor, Madame S., of his quandary, and she said she would help him.
In Paris, which was some twenty miles distant, lived a friend of madame’s who had two daughters, and they were poor, and it was difficult to find good mates for them. Here was perhaps a chance to dispose of one of the maidens. She mentioned the matter to their mother, and as the grocer was entirely respectable and industrious she was quite willing he should become her son-in-law. Then madame explained the progress she had made to the grocer, but warned him there would be no dowry. However, considering the pressing needs of his grocer’s shop, he was ready to waive the matter of dowry if the girls were of the right sort. Madame informed him that they were having some work done at her dressmaker’s in the village, and that they would be out to see about it the following Sunday. He could call at the dressmakers while they were there if he chose, and make their acquaintance.
The young man met the two young women as planned, and he told madame afterward that the tallest, the elder one, pleased him very much, but he liked her sister, too. He did not wish to decide between them rashly, and he desired to know when he could see them again. She replied that they would next be in the village on Thursday of that week.
The grocer made arrangements this time, not only to meet the two young ladies he was courting, but to see them back to Paris. “And I shall take with me a white rose,” said he to madame, “and the one to whom I give the white rose will be my choice.”
Thursday came, and the trip to Paris was made — a party of four — the two girls, their mother, and the grocer. From the Paris railway station to the home of the ladies they rode in a public omnibus, and it chanced that the omnibus they hailed had but two vacant seats inside. The mother and younger daughter took those, and the grocer and the elder girl climbed to the roof of the vehicle; and there, as they rode through the Paris streets, he gave her the white rose and told her of his ardent affection and his sincere desire to make her his assistant in the grocer’s business. Six weeks later they were married, and they are living together now as happily and with as few differences as fall to the lot of most married couples, while the improvement at the shop is manifest to all observers.
With the beginning of wedded life French young people take up their work, not only with the intention of making it yield them a living, but a steadily increasing surplus. Some time they hope to retire, and they must besides have the money to give their children respectable dowries when they grow up and marry. The responsibility the parents feel in the matter of providing adequately for themselves and their families makes them desire that their children shall be few. This is not because they are French, but because they are thrifty. The thrifty everywhere regard large families as detrimental to the accumulation of wealth, and to its intactness after it is accumulated. Thus, in France, large families are common only among the propertyless poor, who have no need to think of providing dowries, and who have no hope of a leisure and independence in old age that a numerous progeny might imperil.
That the almost stationary population of the country is due to racial degeneracy I think very doubtful. To a great extent, at least, financial reasons furnish the true explanation. It is not wholly agreeable to find the commercial idea such a controlling factor in all the affairs of life; yet, leave it out altogether and wreck is inevitable. Certainly luck and sentiment would hardly be safe substitutes.