I found this book truly engrossing and informing! If you, like me, find the differences between cultures fascinating, you’ll love it!
The authors of this book, a Canadian couple, first trained themselves to speak French fluently, and then spent three years living in France. They used techniques which are usually employed by anthropologists: ingratiating themselves into the society and talking to the widest variety of people possible. This book is a thorough study of how the French work, but written so engagingly that the reader feels that he or she is living in France along with them and getting to know all sorts of interesting people.
I always had heard how liberal the French were, but the authors have, throughout this book, demonstrated time and time again that the French are actually quite a conservative society. After their three years of living in France and immersing themselves in French life, husband and wife Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow decided on seven main aspects of the French philosophy of life which they felt most helped the reader understand the French.
The first is a strong attachment to the land. Nadeau and Barlow believe that this characteristic explains the French passion and interest in food, especially food from their own region (or “pays”) of France, and loyalty to the produce of that region. They found that French people they met, even people who had lived in Paris for decades, still identified themselves as from one particular “pays” or another. After all, it has only been recently, from around the early twentieth century, that all people in France even spoke the same language! Nadeau and Barlow met French people whose grandparents never learned what is now regarded as standard French.
The second difference which the authors found was that the French have a very different way of looking at public and private space than people do in North America. A shopkeeper’s shop is looked at as an extension of his home (and that is why it is considered rude to enter a shop without saying a polite “bon jour”). People eating in a restaurant (even a cafeteria) use polite, almost formal manners because they are not in private space, they are in a public space. Neighbors might know each other for years and yet never ask each other’s name, as that, one’s income, and other family matters, are considered private. And yet one might barely know someone, yet immediately launch into a spirited argument about politics (which in the U.S. would be considered rather “iffy” behavior).
The third difference the authors found is that the French have a love for something the authors call “grandeur”. They admit that this is a difficult word to define. Here in the US we value, in our leaders, an ability to relate to “the everyday guy” and tries to let the electorate feel that he or she is “one of them.” Nadeau and Barlow found this way of doing things to be completely foreign to French society. The French expect their leaders to act like leaders, and they approve of the right of their elected leaders to freely use their power. A French politician is rarely criticized for lavish spending of funds, because it is expected that a grand person will do things in a grand way. The citizens are happy to have a lot of money spent on their public buildings and love showing them off. In conversation and in the media people debate selecting the “finest” or the “best”, whether it be a fashion house, a film, a restaurant, or a scientist. On a deeper level, this tendency to love “grandeur” also means that the French love winners, and can sometimes favor “form over substance”.
Politicians are still more immune to charges of corruption than in the US or Britain.
Much has been written about the cafe culture of France and the lively conversations that are an important part of it. After observing and taking part in many conversations in so many situations, the authors realized that their French friends the goal of French conversations seemed to be to win the point, not to reach a consensus as often happens in the U.S. They also noticed that in French discussions, people almost always followed the same rhetorical formula: they repeated the other person’s point and then said, “Mmm, an interesting question, and then brought up their own view.” After experiencing this conversational strategy time and time again in their conversations with French friends, how surprised Nadeau and Barlow were to find that this style of rhetoric is actually taught as a subject in schools, from the elementary level on up!
That desire for trying to find “the best” way for everything coincides with the “top down” structure of the French educational system, which was the fifth quality which the authors found in France. Those in French society who are the “movers and shakers” do not attend the Sorbonne, oh no! There are special schools, called “Ecoles” for lawyers, for ambassadors, for the sciences. It is true that it is possible for French citizens to rise from “out of the ranks” to attend these schools, through very difficult entrance exams, but what it does mean is that all lawyers attended the same school the ecole for law, all diplomats attended the ecole for statesmanship, all prominent scientists attended the ecoles for sciences.
At the beginning of the last century, most Frenchmen still did not speak what we recognize as French. The different regions had their own dialects. An academy was set up to decide what would be included in the language, which was then only spoken around Paris! This academy decided which French words would be used, how they would be spelled, and even were allowed to decide, for many decades, which names were acceptable for French people to name their children.
The sixth quality which Nadeau and Barlow described was a tendency to give an important place in society to creative types. They found that as authors, they were invited to innumerable dinner parties! Artists, actors, fashion designers and others are interviewed on TV talk shows as though they are automatically experts on everything.
The seventh is an ability to succeed in business. In spite of their reputation as being against globalization, French firms are active all oer the world.
I will end by quoting an entire paragraph towards the end of the book, in which Nadeau and Barlow summed up French society:
“French history, their attachment to the land, ideas about space, privacy, language, grandeur, intransigence, and recent historical events like WWII and the War of Algeria all affect the way the French think and live. The weight of history means that the French don’t wipe the slate clean to make way for progress the way Americans do. Because of their age-old attachment to the land, restriction is their second nature, not expansion. The French have completely different ideas about what’s public and what’s private, and those ideas influence how they think about money, morality, eating, manners, conversation and even political accountability. The French glorify what’s elevated and grand, not what’s common and accessible. They value form as much as content. And finally they created many of their institutions to try to deal with the after-effects of two major wars. These factors don’t add up to a neat picture that diametrically opposes the French and Anglo-Americans. They just explain a lot about why the French think and act the way they do. Unless Americans recognise these differences, they will never understand the French.”
Further Points which I found Interesting
(For those who just can’t get enough info about these Gauls)
1. France’s actions in WWII fit right into the concept of grandeur, a way of viewing authority with respect, the authors feel. Marshall Petain had been a French War hero during the first World War, and he had a huge amount of influence in French society. When he recommended cooperation with the Nazis, most of France went along.
2. Algeria, the “Vietnam” of France, is rarely mentioned at all.
3. The authors do point out, “North Americans, who never faced a comparable situation to what the French experienced in WWII, can hardly imagine the kinds of terrible choices the French had to make just to survive.”)
4. Another interesting quote: “De Gaulle gave France the solid and durable institutions it would need to become a functioning democracy.” They claim that the French government is still undergoing changes brought upon by the De Gaulle contitution of 1958.
5. After WWII, De Gaulle refused to let the US take over currency, transport, civil service, as they did in other liberated countries.
6. Protests in France are very common, very staged, and the organization who is protesting expects the protest to be covered in the newspapers and for the police to show up in full riot gear. Anything less would cause the organization to lose face!
7. The authors believe that the French accept their high taxes because the private sector is actually given a lot of leeway in how to operate.
8. France’s overseas territories mean economic involvement all over the world, and the authors found that France’s press gives excellent foreign coverage. Although France is thought by most in the US to be anti-globalization, “they are actually extremely active global players across the world stage” Carrefour is second in the world behind Wal-Mart.
9. France is the second biggest Muslim nation in the world, if you look at the percentage of the population which is Muslim. The “Beur” (children of North African immigrants) have become star soccer players and pop stars, rai music popular across France, Beur words entering mainstream spoken French. But there are problems in the Muslim suburbs, huge blocks of public housing on the outskirts of Paris. There is still much racism, the author’s local grocer, a Tunisian, ran into it when he was trying to find a nicer apartment to move into.
10. French census does not ask what race a person is, an immigrant’s child is an automatic citizen at 18. (This is not true in Germany until very recently) The authors estimate that the percentage of immigrants is 20%.
11. During the three years they were in France, the authors write, “We very rarely heard anyone say anything positive about multiculturalism”.
12. The local regional governments still have much less power than state governments in the US. or regional governments in Britain.