Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong

Most discussions in the United States about France and the French are more heat than light, which makes this enlightening book especially welcome.

The authors are two Canadians who moved to France for two years (1999-2001) in order to understand how the French are different from North Americans. Some of the points they made:

• Most North Americans (or our ancestors) moved to North America within the last 400 years, and altered the continent to suit our purposes. The French, on the other hand, are in large part descendants of the ancient Gauls. The idea of starting anew and making sweeping changes is natural to us; the idea of continuity and tradition is natural to them.

• A related point to the above: History is alive for the French in a way it is not alive for North Americans. The French still use 12th-century churches. Many of their roads were once Roman roads. The distant past is a part of their everyday lives.

• North Americans often get poor service in France because we don’t realize that the French consider stores and restaurants to be the private space of the owner, whereas we consider them to be a public space. Walking into a store or restaurant in France is similar to walking into a private home: You greet the owner, and perhaps make small talk. To not do that is rude, and rudeness (as the French see it) begets rudeness.

• Eating is also different: In France, eating a meal is a public act that is expected to follow rigid rules of decorum; whereas in North America, eating is a private act that can be done wherever, whenever, and however each person chooses. The French don’t snack.

• “Americans are definitely irked by the French habit of contesting the United States on every issue, but what really bugs the French is that the Americans seem to expect everyone to agree in every instance. […] Americans want nothing more than a perfect show of harmony among allies. The French think that if a relationship is strong enough, it should be able to withstand strong differences in public.”

• French unions complain when the administration does not send out enough riot police to keep order during union protests, because it makes the union look as if it were too weak to make trouble.

• “The French expect people in power to run the country, not set moral standards.”

Those are just a few items out of many in this fascinating book. If you have any interest at all in France, it’s worth your time to read.

%d bloggers like this: