My assignment: to describe the French national character. First, it is contradictory; so one point may be true and somehow co-exist with something at an opposite end. But let’s get into the generalizations, which is of course what they are; and therefore, they are generally true. And, as a (legal?) disclaimer, this will be a lot of rambling…
The French like to complain; this is in French called “râler”. The French are “râleurs”—never happy, and always willing to tell you about it. About anything. From small, unimportant things, like how long a line is in the supermarket (“Oh quel bordel! Rien n’est organisé dans ce magasin!”[What a mess! This store is so disorganized!]) to important ones (“Oh quel bordel! Cette guerre en
At the same time, politeness is very important to them, as are signs of respect like using the formal “vous” or appropriate titles (Every French client I have calls me Maître, the title for a lawyer, no matter how long I have been working with them). For example, when you enter a bakery, you’ll have this exchange (the same as everyone else!) “Bonjour madame.” “Bonjour mademoiselle/monsieur.” [You would not ask “How are you today?”] “Comment pourrais-je vous aider?” “Une baguette s’il vous plaît.” “Très bien mademoiselle, vous desirez autre chose?” “Non merci madame.” “Merci mademoiselle/monsieur. Bonne journee a vous.” “Merci madame. Bonne journee a vous aussi.”
Another point (and by the way, these are in no particular order) is that, for the French, oftentimes there is only one way of doing things, one method. Phrases used very often are “Ça ne se fait pas comme ça. Il faut… Il ne faut pas… On ne fait pas… On doit… On ne doit pas…” [That’s not the right way to do it; one must; one must not; one does not do this; one does not do that…] For example, there is, for the French, one right way to cut certain parts of a cow. A Frenchman in an American supermarket one time said “What is the butcher doing? I’ve never seen such craziness! On ne coupe pas le boeuf comme ça.” [Beef cannot be cut like that.] These rules are spoken in Absolutes and treated like doctrine. There are many rules in French society, especially around food, around culture. You must have learned by heart certain poems or songs by a certain age. You can never eat bread with another starch (rice/ pasta). Children must have a daily snack at 4 p.m. Families must eat dinner together at 8 p.m. You never eat salad before a meal. The list can go on and on. Then there are the things that, while not necessary, are close to required. You must eat yogurt, fresh fruit (and a comment will inevitably be made on how ripe/sweet/good it is), cheese (and inevitably a comment must be made on its smell, taste) after your main course. I don’t believe there exists a vegetarian in
So, this is why the French just cannot accept so many ways of American life. They cannot believe that school children do not recite poetry in elementary school, that they do not learn philosophy in high school, that they eat meals alone in a bedroom (a table is the only place where one should eat) rather than together with family/friends, that they would decide to build a building in a city based on how expensive the building is, not whether it is beautiful or symmetrical with the city’s proportions. They have very high standards and rigid beliefs about what “counts” as cheese (cheddar will not pass!), wine, a sauce to accompany a platter, what is a beautiful city, a well-designed building or well-decorated home.
The Frenchman idolizes the intellectual, not the businessman. The vast vast majority of French presidents have been public intellectuals (great writers, people who attended crème de la crème institutions and had vast knowledge of poetry, history, etc). The French are uncomfortable with money. They are not particularly interested in making a lot of it, and mock those who flaunt it. They’re not, in general, very materialistic, not into buying fancy cars, or showing off flashy symbols of wealth (They think this is tacky.) In general, they’re not entrepreneurial (a recent survey of French youth said a majority aspires to work as bureaucrats in some capacity in the French government)—This also has to do with the security that this type of job provides in an unsteady economy. But in general, culture is very important to the French, reading novels, talking about history.
Heavy emphasis is placed on diplomas and where people graduate from dictates their future to a large extent. At 18, you’ve made it; you’re life is complete and you really don’t need to do much more to prove yourself if you are accepted to the bastion of French intellectualism (L’Ecole Normale Superieure, where Sartre, de Beauvoir and many others went)… There are equivalents in government and science, again getting back to the rigidity aspect. If at 26 you come into your own, and begin showing great talent or spirit in a certain domain but lack the proper diploma, you will be hard-pressed to find a job in that arena. That is where American life differs tremendously: Americans judge people by their results, their product, their drive, their ambition, and give them a chance even if they don’t have the “right” diploma.
That being said, the French love life’s pleasures: low and high—sexual pleasure, the pleasure of the company of others, of intellectual discussion, of wine, food, travel, music, theater, art, laughter, wit, family, reading, political conversation, hiking, exploring nature. As clichéd as it sounds, they always make time to live, to “take the time to smell the roses.” In
Also, the French are known for being romantics for a reason. It has been a tradition since the middle ages to court a woman (beginning with the “Roman de la Rose”), with poetry, flowers, little gifts, compliments, to treat her beauty as sacred, to honor the female, to persuade her to feel emotion and sentiment. The French say “L’homme propose; la femme dispose” [The man proposes; the woman agrees]. Romance, love between two people (whether married or not) is for the French the best that life has to offer, and life to their thinking is poor without it.
To go along with this, the French don’t like moral restrictions. Infidelity isn’t particularly frowned upon (“Ça fait partie de la vie” [It’s a part of life] would probably be the response). They don’t want to be told that cigarettes are bad for their health, or that drinking causes liver cancer (My great uncle, who just passed away at 87, who enjoyed his pastis/ win/ gin used to say “We have to die of something, it might as well be of something we enjoy.” And President de Gaulle said “Americans commit the same sins we do, but at least we enjoy them.” That said, they are not very excessive drinkers, eaters, partiers… At 4 a.m.,
The French are very opinionated and independent. Where an Italian might say “Ah! Uguale!” (It doesn’t matter, either way, whatever…) A French person will debate to the hills, argue a point, political, literary, what have you, he will have something to say. With that comes a bit of a contrarian spirit, so if the whole world is Americanizing, it’s probably not something they’re going to support. They have very clear, strong opinions on most any subject you put before them.
They are contemplative, curious—It is said that “The French are thinkers; the Americans doers.” They travel often, to exotic places, and bring detailed guides to learn about the place’s history and traditions, commenting on the people, the architecture, and appreciating the visit to other parts of the world, but, of course, complaining about the foodJ. They are pessimistic (no “can do!” “Go for it!” “You’re the best!” mentality/ more of a glass half-empty mentality). They are doubters, questioners, and this makes them anxious, depressed, lacking inner peace and complacency as a people. (That’s probably why Woody Allen has always been hugely popular in
They look more towards the past than to the future, to regrets, missed opportunities (lost or impossible love between lovers or even between parent and child is a common theme in French song). If you tell them you are sad about something, they will indulge you in your nostalgia or your melancholy, allowing you the right to be sad (An American would probably try to lift your spirits, or give advice on how to improve your situation); Simone de Beauvoir said Americans had almost made sadness illegal or taboo! The French are very analytical and critical (what they call “l’esprit critique”) of everything, for example, government services, so for example, they are considered to have the best health care system in the world, but you’ll regularly hear French people complain that they have to pay even a miniscule co-pay.
They depend heavily on the government, and expect the government to serve them, to protect them, almost like children. This, I think, distinguishes them the most from Americans. Rather than a situation being an individual’s fault, taking personal responsibility, that American tradition of personal accountability, of the yeoman farmer, doesn’t exist in
So that’s my take. Much more to say, but this is enough for now. Needless to say, in the end, it’s a country I love deeply and which never fails to entrance, enchant and seduce.