x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A letter from Le Lavandou, where grim reality is about to hit

Each summer, people from all walks of life flock to the Mediterranean resort of Le Lavandou, but even those lucky enough to holiday in this idyllic location can't escape the euro-zone crisis for long.

Along a little strip of the Mediterranean coast, half of France seems to have arrived in search of sea, sunshine and some respite from the grimmer realities of life governed by economic crisis. And not one but three presidents have joined the travelling army.

Francois Hollande - the occupant of the Elysee palace since May - is at the official presidential retreat Fort de Bregancon, close to the picturesque hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas and the resort of Le Lavandou.

The man he defeated in the May elections, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a few kilometres away at Cap Negre, the Riviera home of the family of his wife, Carla Bruni. From there, Bregancon is just out of sight across the bay

And in nearby, ultra-chic Saint-Tropez is Jacques Chirac, still frail but much perkier than during his last visit, which immediately preceded the corruption trial that brought him a suspended jail term.

Among men who have served as president of France and live to tell the tale, only Valery Giscard d'Estaing is missing.

The lure of this place for men of influence, past or present, is not so different to the attraction for lowlier souls. This is, after all, one of the world's favourite holiday playgrounds.

For a politician, being on holiday no longer means a rest from the cut and thrust of public life.

Mr Sarkozy last week broke his own long post-electoral silence to deplore the lack of action by his successor over the continuing bloodshed and the absence of French diplomatic advances in Syria.

Mr Hollande felt obliged to respond. Interrupting his break to attend the funeral in the Alps of France's 48th soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, he pledged the country's support for the Assad regime's opponents, for a transition to more democratic rule and for humanitarian aid for refugees crossing into Jordan.

Mr Chirac, vastly more popular among the French - despite that brush with the law - since he left office in 2007, contented himself with another agreeable stay with his millionaire industrialist friend, Francois Pinault. He observed the French custom of pre-lunch aperitifs on cafe terraces and, it is rumoured, dined with Mr Hollande on the same evening his wife, Bernadette, accepted the hospitality of the Sarkozys.

The president and his predecessors are in plentiful company. The rotten weather afflicting the north and west of France earlier in the season helped to propel even greater numbers than expected to travel south.

Le Lavandou, where Mr Hollande and his first lady, Valerie Treirweiler, have made appearances along the promenade, is a charming little resort with 6,000 inhabitants out of season, rising to 120,000 at the height of summer.

On the streets, many languages otherthan French can be heard, including Spanish and Italian - representing the closest borders - but also German, Dutch, a little Arabic and a lot of English.

Holidays traditionally divide the French. An estimated 42 per cent will not go on holiday this summer, according to a poll by the market research institute Ifop.

This proportion, steadily growing, reflects near-recessionary conditions and falling purchasing power. Many on stretched incomes who insist on going away, come what may, learn to make economies.

Le Lavandou's small traders are agog with the story of the four people who stormed out of a popular restaurant when only two plates were placed at their table. They had ordered two meals between them and objected to paying cover charges for the two sharing.

It may have been an isolated case but a bank official confirmed the impression that while holidaymakers were numerous, they were spending less.

By common consent, August visitors are more vulgar, with frequent displays of aggression and an acute absence of courtesy - although French vulgarity probably contrasts well with the British variety witnessed in some European resorts.

In France, the July-August behavioural divide can be traced to times before heavy industry retracted, when big factories and most businesses and offices in Paris closed for most or all of the second month of high season.

Provincials are looked down on but Parisian manners are loathed as much as Parisian money is coveted. One asked a hairdresser with decades of experience: "Are you any good? My coiffeur in Paris can do whatever I want." A beauty salon owner complained: "Only the foreigners are polite."

The presidents, of course, endure little of the stress of holidaying in crowded places. Even Mr Chirac and Mr Sarkozy remain entitled to bodyguards, while Mr Hollande's fort, at the tip of a beautiful, rugged promontory, could hardly be more secluded.

He is persevering with efforts to live up to his campaign promise to be Mr Normal.

Having ordered ministers to take holidays no more than two hours from Paris, he travelled south by train, a journey that takes twice as long.

He has pumped the hands of tourists on the beaches and on the streets, happily posing for tourist snaps.

But the business of state is never far away. Having attended the military funeral last week, he visited the inland town of Pierrefeu yesterday to meet colleagues of two female gendarmes shot dead by a petty criminal during a routine inquiry in June.

By the weekend, Mr Hollande will be back in the Elysee and a sunny, relaxing holiday by the sea will seem a world away as he confronts a backlog of pressing issues.

He will do so in the knowledge that opinion polls show his honeymoon period to be over - France's share of Europe's financial crisis took no holiday at all.