A People of Paradoxes Ask most anyone which country they consider the most "European," and they'll probably answer France. Thomas Jefferson knew France well, dubbing it "every man's second fatherland." Why, in view of these accolades, does one hear unflattering things about the French: that they're rude, unfriendly, impatient, even promiscuous? Every visitor shares this bewilderment.
The Spice of Life To understand any country, you have to suspend judgment for the first few days, but this is especially true in France. A love of personal liberty, variety, individuality lies behind the French way of life. Take the sheer variety of things in France: over 350 distinct kinds of cheeses, more than the rest of the world combined. Each Frenchman has his favorites, and no two will agree. France touches the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and the North Sea — imagine all this variety in a nation roughly the size of Texas. French motorists, pedestrians, and bus drivers interpret traffic rules their own way. If you go into a bakery, the salespeople won't snap to attention; before you can start talking, they may start talking to you about high taxes or their relative's case of neuralgia. In the U.S., a telephone operator has about 8 fixed phrases to use; but a French operator will alternately crack a joke, complain about the weather, or criticize you for calling at such a busy hour.
L'esprit Critique You'll spot the characteristic shrug of the shoulders which is the Frenchman's reaction to all startling news. Some might call it cynicism, but a better phrase is the one the French use themselves: l'esprit critique. It's not something negative; it's simply the way the French use their common sense. They want the best out of life, and to get it they have to know what's worth having and what isn't. The French literary tradition can be viewed as the exercise of this critical spirit, and that's why much of it is, in a subtle way, highly moralistic. A Frenchman can't describe something without adding his own judgment of value — he wants to know if it's good or bad for him.
Keeping Your Distance French indifference and coldness to outsiders is really another virtue seen from the wrong end. If a Frenchman seems cold to outsiders, it's because he reserves his affections for his family and close friends. Family life in France is one of the closest-knit in Europe: it affords the French the "small pleasures" (like the evening meal) which they value above all else. The French consider instant friendliness ("Hi, I'm Bill...") a sign of insincerity. Only after a long time, when you've really come to know a Frenchman, will he invite you to come to dinner: that's his ultimate compliment. This innate discretion keeps the French from prying into the private lives of their politicians (often they don't know whether their mayor is married or what his religion is). Only if there's a juicy scandal that French wits can go to work on will the public show any curiosity at all.
The Political Animal Politics is the real arena for the Frenchman's ungloved individualism. Example: the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly. The seats are arranged to magnify the smallest differences of outlook. In the British Parliament, the Tories and Laborites sit on opposite sides of the room. This encourages party solidarity, dampening erratic displays of individualism. The same party identity is fostered by the aisle-divided Republicans and Democrats in the U. S. Congress. But in the French National Assembly, the seats are arranged in a fan shape, with no center aisle. Guess the psychological effect. Each deputy becomes a party unto himself, with all other deputies his "opposition." He sees a deputy immediately to his right, and another to his left. That puts him squarely in the moderate center.
The Bonds that Unite For all their individualism and eccentricity, the French still have bonds which keep them together as a nation. One is pride in their nation and its language. France is, after all, the oldest unified country in Europe of any size. For centuries, the French language dominated European diplomacy and royal courts. The intellectual prestige in France has not been affected by France's political decline since the death of de Gaulle, and the French take pride in this as well.
Connected with this is another bond which unites: the Frenchman's respect for intellectual distinction in general. The French probably read more than any other people. The leading intellectual figures of the day receive the same media coverage that movie stars, politicians, or sports heroes do in the U.S. The French will often look to the pronouncements of a novelist or philosopher for guidance in everything from politics to love. But (and this is the other side of the coin) it also means that sometimes the French lose sight of a problem in the endless analysis of its details. Some all-too-pressing tasks have a way of being deferred, especially when the experts disagree.
Intellectual distinctions is high up on the list of criteria for any successful politician in France. De Gaulle was considered a master of French prose and oratory, and Pompidou started out as a literature teacher and editor of a much-used anthology of French literature. Every Frenchman is taught from earliest childhood to analyze ideas for himself, to take nothing for granted. He dreads being hoodwinked more than anything else, especially by those inferior to himself. This may have undesirable effects in French public life, but it makes French conversation the most stimulating, and best informed, anywhere in Europe.
A Taste for the Moment There's always the other side of the coin, however. As a visitor to France, you'll have to accept a little inefficiency along the way. France, while prosperous, isn't quite as modern-looking as some other countries in Europe. The brilliant French intellectual record isn't always matched by industrial achievements; France still exports prestige items like perfume and wine, instead of really profitable items like steel, computers, or TV sets. Many Parisian housewives are reluctant to use washing machines or refrigerators. They believe the washing machines damage clothes, and the refrigerators spoil the freshness of the food. In spite of the slow rate of progress, the French are not about to change their philosophy of life. They'll spend an extra hour over lunch, discussing politics or films, instead of rushing back to the adding machine at the office. You may find yourself that this attitude, with all its drawbacks, gives the passing moment a greater intensity, and life as a whole a richer flavor.
Editor's note: this essay was written during the mid 1980s. There are more washing machines and refrigerators in use in France today.
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