French society : profiles, etc... (#4)
| French profiles...
||Historical roots of some French attitudes
There are many profiles
of Frenchmen ! When in France, do not think that all French are
alike. As in the USA, there are many different kinds of people
in different regions, different social classes, etc.. This is
not a sociological point of view but just keep in mind some of
the differences that are familiar to the French (Politically
Correct Warning : I am NOT saying that I share the stereotypes
that I cite, I am reporting stereotypes that are widely known
by anybody French !) :
The " altermondialiste " is a typical
character of the French society. A high-school teacher or a clerk
in an administration, he/she is very active in many actions such
as the legalization of illegal immigrants, the destruction of
fields of genetically modified plants, providing tents for the
homeless or demonstrating against new labor contracts (CPE,
2006). He/she is actively anti-American, pro-Third World,
pro environmental policies
(but against the government policy in any case), anti-European
integration (he/she voted " non " to the 2005
referendum). He/she is not interested in religion and thinks
that the French " social model " (35-hour work week,
social housing for 25% of the population, unemployment benefits,...)
cannot be compromised, that education must remain free and that
no selection to be admitted to college is a constitutional right.
He/she votes for the Left, generally for the Socialist Party
but most of the voters for extreme-Left parties (Trotskyist,
members of ATTAC have
this "altermondialiste" profile. A pleasant, friendly
person, very altruistic, the " altermondialiste " enjoys
vacations, hiking, traveling, is a member of many associations
and reads leftist newspapers such as Charlie-Hebdo and
The Parisians are not the only the people who live
in France and certainly don't represent all the French ! Most
of the characteristics attributed to " the French "
by foreigners are actually characteristics of the Parisians.
For instance, being rude, aggressive, always rushed, indifferent,
snotty, arrogant, scornful, etc... (you name it). Other French
people (" les provinciaux ") often share this view
and sometimes you experience it outside Paris when you drive
drive a car with a license plate ending with " 75 "
(i.e. Paris). It is a fact that people are different in a very
big city (see New York.). Most people living in Paris were not
born in Paris but had to adjust to the life and the speedy rhythm
of Paris, just to keep up with the pace.
Do you know
who the "pieds-noirs" are
? Pieds noirs (" black feet ") is the name which was
given to the Europeans living in Algeria before independence
and of very different origins (Spanish, Maltese, Italians, Alsatians
emigrating after the 1870 war, Jews, etc) ; in 1962, almost all
of them (nearly one million) came back to France, which was an
unknown Northern country for most of them ; most of them were
not rich colonialists but ordinary hard-working people, like
the parents of Albert Camus, one of the most illustrious of them
; one generation later, many have been very successful in business
; they are friendly and outspoken (and exuberant...) and constitute
a community with a strong culture, particularly the Jewish (Sephardic)
which now outnumber the traditional French Jewish
For a funny picture of this community see the film "La vérité
si je mens". Read my personal view on Algeria through
a little fable.
Read about the history of the French colonial
The "fonctionnaires" (civil servants) are more than 6 million
(see detailed figures)
; they share very strong common values, like "service
public" and represent a major political and social force.
Most people working in Education and Transport are civil servants.
They have, practically, a job for life and many benefits that
workers in the private sector have not, including an earlier
retirement age. For many families, and of course for all those
who experience or fear unemployment, working for the state
is a very well-regarded position for their children.
Many aspects of the French society
and traits of the French mentality are deeply rooted in history
and you cannot understand them if you don't know what their roots
are. Among them :
Arrogance is often associated
with the French and this national trait is probably an established
fact ; part of it comes from education
and from the fact that the French value purely abstract
and theoretical ways of looking at things and tend to think the
other people should do so ; another reason is that France has
been a dominating country for many years or centuries, typically
in the XVIIIth century, for everything : culture, philosophy,
art, science, political influence, etc... Since the French Revolution,
the French sincerely believe that they have a mission to accomplish
and a message to deliver to the world. Later, the colonial empire,
second after the British empire, was also a matter of national
pride. The French are proud of their history and it shows in
their behaviour ! Do you know that Roman authors already described
the arrogance of the Gauls
Communism - The attitude (for or against) Communism often
results from the shock of the Commune de Paris in 1871
: during a 3-month revolution, an utopian leftist rebellion against
the republican government which had signed a treaty of peace
with Germany after the lost war, tried to build a communist society,
persecuted priests, burned the symbols of power (including the
City Hall which was destroyed with all the archives) and finally
terminated in a bloodbath ; the (ugly) Sacré Coeur Basilica
in Montmartre was built by the conservative government "to
expiate the sins of La Commune". Nowadays, the left wing
looks at La Commune with nostalgia (every year on May 28rst,
there is a ceremony at the " Mur des Fédérés
" in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, where
thousands of insurgents were shot) and the right wing evokes
it with hate (the student riots in 1968 reminded the conservatives
of it). Although decreasing in votes from 30% to 5% or less (see
the evolution since WW2),
the Communist party is still very influencial on the whole left,
particularly on the French Socialist party which is the only
one in Europe which has not formerly given up marxism (when most
of its voters did...).
DID YOU KNOW
THAT ......? Contrary to Americans, the French do not think that
communities of various origins (ethnic, national, etc...) should
keep, even momentarily, their way of life and traditions within the French society.
A country of large immigration, France wants to merge
immigrants within French society and culture and what is called
"communautarisme" is considered racism, segregation
and exclusion. This is why every exception to common rules is
always very controversial (the current one is on the Islamic
should Muslim girls be authorized to wear it in French schools?).
During the colonial period, young Africans in French colonies
learned history with the same books used everywhere else in France,
starting with the famous phrase : "Our ancestors, the Gauls..."
It is now, of course, considered ridiculous but at this time
it was seen as a proof that , becoming French, they were not
be considered different from other French people. Nowadays, the
French society does not encourage ethnic minorities to keep their
language and their customs, in the name of equality.
The "intellectuels" (i.e.
scholars) are highly regarded in the French society. Contrary
to the USA where they remain in their university, in France you
see them everywhere in magazines and newspapers, on TV and not
only on the literary programs. They give their opinion on matters
in which they are totally incompetent and the public always seems
happy to learn what Georges Charpak, Nobel prize in physics,
thinks of the Iraqi war or how Philippe Sollers, novelist, feels
about genetically modified corn. Among many others, Bernard-Henri
Levy, philosopher, Pierre Arditi, Actor, Alain Finkelkraut
or Pascal Bruckner, philosophers, etc... They often (but not
always) belong to the political left wing. Illustrious examples
from the past are Jean-Paul Sartre,
Raymond Aron or Albert Camus. Strangely (for Americans), the
French expect their politicians to be "intellectuels"
or at least close to them (François Mitterrand was very
good at that). Anybody with national political ambition MUST
write books, not necessarily on political matters (in the middle
of the Franco-US crisis about Iraq, Dominique de Villepin, the
French minister of Foreign Affairs published a 800-page book
on poetry). Read the authoritative book by Winock about "le Siecle des Intellectuels").
The "beurs" are
French citizens born in France to Algerian parents ; very often
they have been raised in a very difficult economic context and
in remote suburban public housing ; it is a large community (more
than one million) and if many of them face unemployment, crime
or drugs, there are also many success-stories and their integration
is progressing much better than one would think by only watching
TV News. There is even a new word for their moving up the social
ladder : "la beurgeoisie". Most of them keep their
traditions, and particularly Islam, the second religion in France.
Unfortunately, some of them (relatively few) are tempted by radical
islam, and the islamic
veil is a very controversial issue in today's France: read
about its impact in schools.
Some of the "beurs" are children of " harkis "
and this brings us back to the drama of the Algerian war and
to a historic tragedy. The " harkis " were the Algerian
soldiers in the French army, which always had had many Algerian
soldiers, called Spahis, Zouaves (see about the statue on the
Pont de l'Alma),
Tirailleurs Algériens etc After the independence of Algeria
in 1962, the French Army, which had promised never to abandon
them, took back to France over 50,000 (and their families) but
thousands were slaughtered by the new Algerian regime. In France,
the harkis were given housing, often in camps, and generally
but not always a job. Although French citizens, their children
are often as much the victims of racism as the other Algerians
who consider them, even now, children of traitors. Life is hard
on them too
Do you know what "bourgeois" means in France ? It refers to a stereotype
of a traditional family, often church-going, politically conservative,
attached to family links, etc... They dress BCBG
("bon-chic-bon genre "), which means sober and classy,
unless they are BO-BOs (" bourgeois bohème ")
in which case they dress as if they were students (but they are
well off). When they are rich, they do not show it : it is very
vulgar to talk about money and
to show it. In Paris, BCBG bourgeois live in the 7th, 16th and
17th Arrondissements, and Bo-Bo bourgeois in the 5th and 6th.
an article about B.C.B.G.s, published in Time
The "nobles" (aristocrats) are a very particular social group, with its own codes, its way of life and a very strong feeling of being different. Not necessarily rich (some of them are, but not all), they share the same values : the importance of the family, a strong Catholic faith. The duty of each person is to transmit to his/her children the values received from the ancestors, etc... They are very present in certain activities (farming, banking, diplomacy, ...) and quasi absent from others (anything commercial). Unlike the "nouveaux riches" (new money), they are never arrogant, generally extremely courteous and respectful to others (but people look at them with awe). Some sociologists have studied them as an ethnic group (see Pinšon).
More about nobility in France.
If you travel in France try one of the "sleep-in-the-castle" chains.
Regional : People are very different from one region to
another, from Alsace (they are said to be solid people, serious,
duty-oriented, etc...) to Provence (not always reliable, outspoken
and cheerful,etc...) ; other traditional stereotypes are that
the Bretons are stubborn, the Parisians arrogant, the Auvergnats
cheap, the Normans undecided, the Northerners very welcoming,
- More to come
Conservatism - the French
society can only change through violent crisis. Eventhough they
keep agreeing there is a strong urge for reform, in any domain
(political, social, busines, you name it...), it always takes
a small or big revolution
to achieve it. Unlike the other European countries, it is difficult for France
to change and to adjust progessively, without big fights,
riots, sometimes revolutions etc... French conservatism
is often linked to the fact that France is still a rather rural
country, a major agricultural producer, the first in Europe.
Almost everybody has agricultural roots and farming is often
associated with conservatism. One can also link it to religion
and to the consequences of the policy of the kings to refuse
Protestantism in France (see Peyrefitte).
- Islam - Attitudes toward Islam may be explained by the
colonial past of France, the history of Algeria from 1830 to
1962 and the presence in France of a very large community of
Muslims (see : beurs) and people
of European origin who were born in Algeria (see : pieds
noirs). For the French, the Arab world is not completely
foreign. Islam is the second religion in France and with more
than 5% muslims, France is high above the European average (around
3%). However, the relation with the Muslin community is currently
one the the major
French issues. See European
figures and read my personal
Wars - After 9-11,
Americans can understand better the burden of wars on French
territory ; just have a look at the Monument aux Morts (Monument
to War victims) in every French village and you will be amazed
by the number of names on it. It is as if one out of five or
six of your high school friends had been killed. The losses represent
3,5% of the total population for WW1 (and 1,5% for WW2). Detailed figures show
that WW1 killed proportionaly 58 times more in France than in
the USA and WW2 killed 7,5 times more. For UK, the figures are between
France and USA. The German occupation was also a trauma which
is hard to imagine for Americans (read
about it). This is why the building of Europe, which put
an end to Franco-German wars is such a fantastic historical achievement.
This is also why "We're not cowards.
It's that we know war", as Fletcher Crossman (an Englishman)
More to come
DID YOU KNOW THAT......?
In Paris, the vacation dates of your baker are set by
the State ! This anecdote merges three French passions : the
bread, the vacations and the State. In order to avoid a situation
where, in August, it would be difficult to find your daily baguette,
the fatherly figure of the State determines which bakery is closed
in August and which one in July. In any other country, it would
result from the customer (who would complain if unhappy) or from
a professional organization who would help the bakers to reach
a consensus on the date of their vacations. The bread is a national
symbol and in France, since1790, it is the "prefet"
who decides for the 1,200 Parisians bakers, who studies and make
the decision about the 200 dispensations : only the State can
make an impartial decision. It is fair to say that this situation
is largely criticized and the government could put an end to
it soon. However, most bakers prefer that the decision be taken
by a higher authority because they are convinced they would not
be able to agree on such a sensitive issue ! More about bread.
|To related pages : more about French
society (#1), religion
(#2), women in
French society (#3), French institutions (#5), French attitudes,
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Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French.
Order her books:
- "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
- "French Toast, An American in Paris
Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press,
New York, 1999
- "French Fried, The Culinary Capers
of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001
More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming
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