How to be a good neighbour in France

And what about “them next door” in France? Patrick Middleton reports. 

René, an elderly retiree, had lived in the same Strasbourg apartment block for some twenty years. None of his neighbours, it seems, ever gave a thought to him. That changed a few weeks ago when they suddenly heard his radio blaming out France-Info at maximum volume. And it went on and on ... and on. Finally, the next morning, one exasperated resident called the police. They broke in and found René sitting not too far from his radio. To be more precise, what they found was his skeleton.

According to a pathologist’s report the old fellow had died some three years previously. And that radio? The police found two windows were open which had allowed a pigeon to fly in. It had perched on the set and, hopping about, turned it on at full volume. Those open windows, by the way, accounted for the absence of a give-away smell on the landing. And the reaction of the neighbours? One woman remarked to a local reporter, with obvious indifference, “C’est triste ... mais c’est comme ça ...”

Organise a party …  transform the life of a building

La Fete des Voisins - Atanase PerifanAtanase Périfan
Photo: Fête des Voisins
Well, it shouldn’t be comme ça, insists Atanase Périfan. He’s the founder and energetic movingspirit of the Immeubles en fête movement (immeublesenfete.com), which we’ve written about before. He likes to recall its origins: “I was living in an apartment block in Paris. An elderly woman died in her home and it was several months before anyone realised this.”

That was twelve years ago and it motivated him to organise a campaign encouraging neighbours to get together once a year to become aware of each other and to make that c’est comme ça attitude less normal. As he claims, “Organise a party of that kind and you transform the life of a building or a street.”

At one level, Périfan’s idea has been a success: last year across France over six million neighbours raised a glass together on the evening of the last Friday in May; in Cannes alone there were 47 separate Immeubles en fête. A similar number did the same elsewhere in Europe where the event has caught on (european-neighbours-day.com). More recently he has launched Voisins solidaires (voisinssolidaires.fr),a spin-off initiative encouraging neighbours to look out for practical ways of helping each other (shopping for the sick, for example, or feeding a cat when the owner’s away).

All this sounds very good (though it may surprise some people) but there’s another side to the story. Mireille, who with her husband took part in an immeuble en fête in their upmarket building in West Nice, was sceptical about Périfan’s enthusiasm: “It was an agreeable occasion and we spoke to people to whom we’d previously only mumbled a quick greeting but when it was all over things got back more or less to how they’d been before.”

This doesn’t surprise local psychologist Claudine Badoy-Rodriguez: “It’s very commendable, let me say. We’ve lost the knack of spontaneous friendliness and this is a way of trying to revive it. But don’t expect too much, especially the blooming of new friendships. They can’t be forced – as we say in French it’s a matter of parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi. Then with that voisins solidaires concept it won’t always be easy. However well intentioned, some people may find an offer to help intrusive and unwelcome. A lot of tact may be needed.”

As implied earlier, the success of Périfan’s movement is surprising, given the seemingly innate suspiciousness of the French and their defensive self-enclosure in their domestic worlds. This strikes Anglo-Saxons in particular. Robert Adelson, the American curator of the Museum of Historical Musical Instruments in Nice, remarked to us soon after his arrival, “I’ve realised US-style neighbouring and welcoming aren’t on the agenda.”

This cultural reality was highlighted some years ago when A2 (now FR2) gave a trial run to the Australian soap opera Neighbours whose theme song gives this piece its title. It got poor ratings and was quickly abandoned. As a network acquisitions executive put it to us, “Our viewers just couldn’t swallow all those nice people on Ramsay Street.” And an Australian woman, a long-term Riviera resident, once said, “It’s not a place where you make mates.”

Ideal neighbour: the one you never see

Atanase Périfan can’t be easily discouraged. He commissioned a survey to discover what the French would consider an ideal neighbour. Majority answer: “the one you never see”. And yet Dupont, especially in those apartment blocks where so many people live, can’t ignore his neighbours totally. Indeed, he seems hypersensitive to their presence and always ready to complain about something. Commonest grievances relate to noise, disturbances involving kids and pets, parking and – no surprise – people who are too anxious to speak beyond those mumbled greetings. This can be interpreted as being nosey which can arouse instant hostility.

So when you find yourself with new French neighbours how should you behave? Well, forget the convivial worlds of Albert Square, Ramsay Street and Wisteria Lane, advises our Nice psychologist: “Always greet your neighbours, briefly, not effusively, and maybe something may come of it, but don’t expect friendship or anything like it, unless you’re very lucky.”

Périfan, of course, has a more optimistic take on this: “English-speakers should certainly get involved with la fête des voisins. I’ve known cases where they’ve actually taken the initiative. People have got to know them and they’ve integrated well.” He says, by the way, that the Côte d’Azur is a place where these neighbouring events go especially well. So give it a go: this year l’Immeuble en fête is the first Friday in June (the 1st).

If this topic interests you get hold of Emily Cockayne’s new book, Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours (UK: Bodley Head). She recounts how those living next door have related to each other across the centuries. The perennial issues have been “noise, sanitation, intrusion and privacy …”

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