Aix-en-Provence, France — Traveling through the French provinces, one cannot help but he impressed by the quality of life the French have managed to achieve for themselves over the past quarter of a century.
France, it must be remembered, is the country where only 10 years ago the telephone was still considered a luxury and just over half the nation's households had a bath or a shower.
Today, the French are just as much into gadgetry and material consumerism as Americans, except they are more fashion-conscious about it. Modern, transparent telephone booths can now be found in the most isolated of mountain villages, and small-town department stores are stocked with the latest Japanese mini-computers and French-made washing machines.
Even more striking is the proliferation of high quality shops, restaurants, and travel agencies not only in such pleasant Mediterranean town as Aix-en Provence, but also in the grimy, unattractive industrial centers of northern and central France.
In Lens, for example, a town near the Belgian border with more than its fair share of unemployment lines, there were no fewer than a dozen travel agencies within a two-minute walk of each other. For a country where the four-week annual vacation has become indispensable to the Frenchman's view of the world, vacations abroad are ever on the rise.
Despite whining about outrageous prices, high taxes, and inflation, the French appear determined not to abandon what still remains a traditional zest for food, wine, and song (although since the advent of television there is somewhat less song).
In the towns, people continue to find money to go to restaurants several times a week. While in the country, I was surprised to find that local farmers and workers still crowd the village aubergesm (inns), family and all, until late afternoon, the time needed to consume a prodigious six-course Sunday lunch.
More than ever, too, the French are realizing their dream to own their own homes. More than 60 percent of French families have their own apartment or house -- including secondary residences in the country where many hope to retire later.
Another interesting development is the increasing exodus of northerners to the south of France. Although decentralization is one major reason behind this, it is also the quality of life that attracts many people.
"in life, work is not the only thing," observed Louis Chaine, the director of Thermal France, a German-owned air-conditioning company that relocated last September to Aix-En-Provence. "where else can you be so near to the sea and the mountains? Here you can get a quality of life which you cannot find in Paris."
Many more would come were there enough jobs to go around. "We already have a high rate of unemployment here in Aix," noted Jacques Hancy of the city's chamber of commerce. "The region has many advantages but is still difficult to attract enough industries and companies that will create new employment."
It is also said that a notable number of unemployed have floated down from the north in order to draw their benefits in towns such as Aix, Montpellier, and Narbonne. "It is much more enjoyable to be unemployed when the sun in shining," noted one government official.
Fiddling while Rome burns? Not exactly. Despite caustic criticism from the opposition parties, France has fared remarkably well on the economic front during Valery Giscard d'Estaing's seven-year administration, despite the burden of rising oil bills. The economic situation here is better, on the whole, than in other European Community nations.
Among the world's industrial powers, France's 21.1 percent growth rate since the end of 1973 ranks second, after Japan. Against an average 11.2 percent yearly inflation rate since Giscard came to office, the country's overall purchasing power has risen by well over 23 percent, again the highest after Japan. France can also boast the second-best record in consumer spending.
What the figures do not show, however, is that during the past year or so, the French have been dipping into their savings to maintain the standard of living to which they have become accustomed.
But France's most critical problem lies with its 1.6 million unemployed. No matter how often Giscard enumerates his administration's economic achievements in the face of two major oil crises since 1974, which affected not only France but the rest of the world, unemployment remains the leading issue among voters in the two-round presidential election. The situation of the jobless Frenchman is little improved by the knowledge that his country is doing better than its neighbors.