Under the Swastika

Sidelights of Life and Things in France Today

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 134, Page 110, August 7, 1942.

A celebrated Frenchman of letters, who has written widely in the critical journals of Paris and London and did work of the greatest value to Anglo-French relationships during the War of 1914-18, sends us these interesting notes on values as they obtain today in the France of Hitler and Laval. We give the article here as the first of a new feature dealing with life in the occupied and Nazi-dominated countries.

Misinformation may have many sources other than those fed so bounteously by Dr. Goebbels, and some of them perfectly guileless. Things are said in good faith which by repetition start rumours completely opposed to the facts. I read lately in a popular London daily that many fine villas on the French Riviera are being sold "dirt cheap". It was in a reported conversation with a tennis champion just returned from Unoccupied France. This lady added that English people were extremely well treated there, a point on which all travelers concur.

But I was the more surprised at what she said concerning these dirt-cheap villas, as a few days before I had met a Frenchman recently escaped from Occupied France. He is a businessman, little prone to flights of imagination, and a stickler for realities. We had been talking about trade and finance under the German invader, and he gave me some reliable facts. According to the examples he quoted, there has been an amazing increase in the value of landed property. He told me a various properties which we both knew; one near Issoudun in the centre of France, fat land, fertile in wheat which had been sold for ten thousand francs an acre, and another in Normandy, pasture and apple orchards, which had reached twenty thousand francs, these figures being respectively five and ten times their pre-war values. A whole estate near Lyons with a big house and extensive farm buildings, which had been bought for 380,000 francs in 1936, changed hands a few months ago for two million francs!

Why then, should be villas on the Riviera go for "dirt prices"? It was hard to believe, with all respect of the alleged statements of the tennis star, so I resolved to verify my doubts. As in the case of all wishful thinking, that was easier said than done. For a time I had no notion where to find credible information. I came across that by chance.

There is a place in London where privileged professional people can see quite a number of the current French daily papers. There I go regularly to peruse them, not that I would say I read them, from the "Premier Paris," or rather "Premier Vichy" – i.e. the editorial leader, as they say in England – to the classified advertisements or "smalls". The news is usually out of date and the comments more or less insidious, in the Paris papers especially, and no wonder their French readers hardly believe a word of what they print. Their advertisement columns, however, are revealing and instructive. Indeed, it is there that the future historian may find an exhaustive documentation on many subjects essential to the writing of a complete history of the present economic and political vicissitudes of my unhappy country.

French dailies have never carried a display of advertisements comparable with the English press, although the provincial papers devote a much larger proportion of their space than those of Paris to advertisements. Advertising experts agree that the contrast is explained by the fact that the French public is restive to any sort of propaganda; they smell a rat at any "réclame," any puff or boost.

At the present time there is such a shortage of every kind of goods most trainers have nothing to boost and do not advertise. It is the other way about: the customer asks for secondhand articles. In the provincial papers, which are published in a single sheet, the classified advertisements –and these are very few- concern chiefly agricultural equipment, factory machinery, millwright work, tools and plant that are no more to be found in the shops. Farmers advertise also for farmhands, who are very scarce since most of them are war-prisoners.

In the Paris newspapers employment bureaux insert alluring offers for skilled labour; and the more alluring they sound the more likely they are to be inserted for the benefit of German manufacturers. Sometimes you come upon some queer item when people in want of cash offer such articles as furs, clocks, watches, furniture, "a pair of shoes nearly new, size 9," and "nearly new" also "a lounge suit for a young man." Hotels also advertise unobtrusively for holidays, but none on the Channel and Atlantic coasts, and very few on the Mediterranean coast. All mention "cuisine soignée" and "normal provisioning," whatever it may mean in this time of restrictions and rationing. No doubt the black market comes into play here.

Then, opening the Figaro, I discovered unexpectedly the customary column of special advertisements under the heading "Immeubles á vendre." I turned to the Temps: there it was, too, just as before the war. Remembering the assertions of the tennis champion, I went eagerly through the list of those "real estates for sale," and found that a good many were situated on the Riviera. As the properties were to be auctioned through a law official, an "avoué" or a "notaire," an upset price was mentioned, and it was easy to calculate that it was not "dirt cheap"! Compared with pre-war prices, the proportion was five and six times as much, and no final at that.

What is the explanation? Owing chiefly to the crushing indemnity that France has to fork out daily to the invader, currency is increasing in huge proportions, and the value of money deteriorating accordingly. People who are making profits are chary of keeping their paper money, which when peace comes will not even be worth the paper it's printed on, nor are they trusting transferable securities. So they turn to "real estate," whose value can but increase, especially if it is producing crops, ploughed land, grazing land, woodland and vineyards. That, with manual labour, will remain the real capital, the unchangeable assets, "real estate," as the English term so aptly describes it; that is the kind of investment that appeals to the Frenchman.

A small advertisement which I found by itself among the lot bears out that these cautious people, well advised about realities, have also less material preoccupations. Their intellectual needs are not disregarded, and a well-known circulating library offers "an interesting profit" to "persons" able to canvass for subscribers, promising the prompt supply of all new books. It will be easy work, it says, "as the taste for reading is so readily developing in all social classes." The French may go short of food and fuel, but it would appear from this modest notice that they are whetting their appetite for spiritual provender.