Those Were the Days! – France and The 50s

Those were the days … when Italian cinema screened Fellini not Berlusconi, when French chanteurs won Eurovision, dinner was fait maison and the Petit Train was both a songwriter’s inspiration and a community network, unlike the high speed TGV techno-triumph of today.

Viva progress but ... those were the days

Ah,as George Wildman Ball reportedly told the now (nostalgically) defunct US magazine Newsweek: “nostalgia is a seductive liar.”  That notwithstanding the current wave of national nostalgia has prompted a recent cover story in Marianne magazine which says the 50s-70s remain a glorified fixation – and a favourite era for the French – who are said to be decidedly gloomy about the present and despairing about the future.

Indeed the latest polls show four fifths of French voters believe President Francois Hollande would fail to win any re-election bid in 2017. “Raging unemployment, anger with tax hikes and rows within his government and party have pushed the Socialist president’s popularity to its lowest since he was elected in May last year and among the lowest ever for any French head of state. In a further blow, 76% of those surveyed in a Harris Interactive poll for Le Figaro daily and LCP Television said they did not see Hollande as someone who keeps his promises and 68% did not consider him competent”  according to a Reuters report.

Warming to its nostalgia look-back Marianne notes that fifty years ago:

  • Men got married at 25.1 years of age and women at 22.8. Today those figures are 31.9 and 30.1 years respectively;
  • The most popular Christian names then were Sylvie, Christine, Marie, Catherine Brigitte (for girls) and Jean, Patrick, Phillipe, Pascal and Alain for boys. Today they are Lola, Chloe, Ines, Emma, Lea (girls) and Lucas, Leo, Enzo, Nathan and Louis (boys) ;
  • Life expectancy for men then was 66.8 years and for women 73.8. Today its is 78.5 years and 84.9 years respectively;
  •  The best selling car was the Renault 4L today it is the Renault Clio;
  • GDP growth between 1950 and 1974 was 5.4%, but between 1990 and 2012 it scraped along at 1.6%;
  • Box office hits were La Grande Evasion selling 8,756,631 million tickets and La Cuisine au Beurre which sold 6,396,529 tickets while today Moi Moche et Mechant sold 4,471,349 tickets and Iron Man 4,384,663;
  • L’ecole est Finie by a crooner called Sheila was top of the pops in record sales 50 years ago shifting 70,000 discs, today the Daft Punk track Get Lucky manages 330,000 sales ;
  • Back then 11% of a representative school class managed to pass their baccalauréat or high school diploma while today 73% do.


The Citroen DS19 1959 version (Credit: Citroën Communication)

The Citroen DS19 1959 version (Credit: Citroën Communication)

Today’s cars that drive themselves and boast onboard computers GPS, air conditioning and DVD players were nowhere as good as the mythical Citroën DS (the famous presidential fleets of the 5th Republic of which the best example was that used by Charles de Gaulle) and its revolutionary suspension system.

Progress says Marianne no longer interests the French; their preference is to regress. More than half those polled (opinion poll BVA for 20 Minutes in January 2013) say they would prefer to live in the past than in the future. The 18-34 age group its suggests, might just have attenuating circumstances for these views given that they are the first generation to be worse off than their parents. If this age group had access to a time machine 59% of those polled by BVA said they would prefer to live in the past than in the future compared to only 37% of their over 65-year-old grandparents.

Nostalgia is not the sole preserve of the right either. For, says the poll if 58% of right wing voters regret the passing of the good old days 48% on the left hold the same view. When the present is morose and the future inspires no-one, the past becomes a cosy refuge. Everything was better before. But ‘before’ what asks the magazine? Simply ‘before’. ‘Before’ the crisis, ‘before’ the end of Les Trente Glorieuses (the strong period of growth between 1945 and 1973). ‘Before’ when there were seasons; summer was great; schooling was better; children were more polite and better educated;  there was full employment; we talked with our friends rather than writing on a Facebook page; France was still a great world power; we had real values; we turned the pages as we read books rather than sliding fingers across a screen; Tour de France cyclists were not all dope heads; football was not big business; the older generation were not all shovelled off into old age homes; we were not all in danger of contracting Alzheimer’s etc etc. Ah yes before before…


However the magazine’s writer Clotilde Cadu goes on: “If we have a really good memory we will likely also remember that in those nostalgic days of yore we used to wait several years for a telephone line to our homes; women did not have the vote; they could not open a bank account; nor did they have access to the pill. Construction workers died from terrible lung diseases caused by the asbestos used in the building boom of the period. Connections to electricity and water were little luxuries available only to those not living in rural areas or urban slums. A bathroom and even a toilet in the house were a grand luxury.

Our selective memory,  the one that ensures we look back not in anger but in fondness for the past, erases the negatives of the “good old days”, she says. The wallowing in nostalgia adds Clotilde Cadu, ignores the fact that today we cure one cancer in two, children are no longer crippled by polio and life expectancy advances in leaps and bounds. Sure the rumbling, slow, old trains were, for many, a dream way to travel. But getting from Paris to Marseilles in just three hours is surely progress? Smart phones and the Internet are surely a communal good?

Yet she says, clearly when the present is gloomy and filled with fear as it is for many, nostalgia for the good old times as retained in our minds, are natural and understandable. So with that as justification the magazine goes on to indulge in full-on nostalgia, helping its readers through the dark times in the hope of a surely brighter future!

Those were the days when cinemas screened Fellini rather than Berlusconi (Credit: Wikipedia)

Those were the days when cinemas screened Fellini rather than Berlusconi (Credit: Wikipedia)























Marianne’s flashes of nostalgia include such gems as:

A baguette was not “a l’ancienne’ or ‘tradition’, a baguette was just a (true, proper, traditional) baguette!

TT pa cole a ton tel pdt ldine” text speech as unintelligible in French as it is in English was non existent. We spoke to each other face to face or on the phone, it was great.

Beach resorts ‘before’ had Belle Époque charm and character, sea bathing enclosures, casinos, operettas and music halls.

Anyone who traveled to the United States really did go a long, long way.

Tucking into fresh fish was not overshadowed by guilty fears about mercury.

Tête au veau (calf’s head) bought from the local tripe butcher like andouillette (sausage) with chips or potato mash were cheap dishes enjoyed by the working man. Today they are found only on luxury bistro menus.

Bar-tabacs were decorated with mechanical flippers and baby football game tables, today they drown in high-powered noisy electronic wizardry.

Les Routiers – the transport cafes of the day – were despite their reputation, still better than the self services on the autoroutes today.

Letters were delivered twice a day and a letter posted in the morning on one side of town would be in the adressee’s post box after lunch the same day for no express surcharge.

Cinemas were local and present in every neighbourhood. Everyone went the movies and films stayed on the circuit for far longer. It was the days of Ben Hur, Charlton Heston, Jane Fonda, Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Bourvil and Funes. The cinema was an afternoon out with a main film preceded by an hour of shorts, newsreels, cartoons and coming attractions.

A driving license did not cost the same as the monthly salary of someone on the minimum wage.

Wild camping under the stars was tolerated just about anywhere , hitch hikers proliferated and many were the poetic adventures that ensued. Today’s motorways mean hitchhikers are relegated to deserted byways dogged by the paranoia and fear of others that pervades our lives and makes hitchhiking nigh impossible.

The youth that lived in degraded urban neighbourhoods and bidonvilles have always been turbulent and problematical. But in the “good old days” when the Communist party was a party of the masses and a power in the land, their youth wings brought organized leisure activities, and community order to the lives of many in these areas, discouraging sterile violence and revolutionary firebrands. The party may have been accused of indoctrinating the youth but at least one could walk the streets in relative safety.

Meals were home made , and there was a proper order to eating — a starter, a main dish, cheese and a dessert. Mum or Dad prepared the meal as the kids did their homework or watched  Zorro. Meals were taken in a kitchen enriched by the delicious smells of freshly cooked tomato sauce or apple tart. Today if families eat together they tend to share an plastic pizza delivered by scooter, or frozen fish cakes heated in a microwave. As a result 6 million French are classified as obese while 20 million are overweight.

If all that nostalgia has left you well  nostalgic, tune into Radio Nostalgia here (click the image) and catch some of the golden oldies:

Radio Nostalgie

Radio Nostalgie

or try one of the other nostalgia stations available around the world on the Internet 

Story: Ken Pottinger

(Article from Marianne No 859 print version only available)



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4 Responses to Those Were the Days! – France and The 50s

  1. pepin le bref October 28, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Unfortunately, there is at least one big mistake : De Gaulle gave women the right to vote immediately after WWII….

    • admin October 28, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you for your comment. The Marianne article does make clear its piece refers to the period from the 50s onwards which means perhaps it is five years off on the vote issue. Perhaps the magazine’s reporter was being a just a little flexible with the dates!

  2. Annh June 23, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Good evening, I have a question, why the petit train was the songwriter’s inspiration?

    • admin June 23, 2014 at 7:36 am

      Thank you for your comment. offers a range of references about Le petit train inspiring songwriters, try “Le petit train inspire chansons”

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