The 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, altermondialist,...) and 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 Libération.

  • 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 community (Ashkenaz). 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 empire.

  • 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 veil : 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).

  • 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. Read 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, etc...

  • 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 view.

  • 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) recently wrote.

  • 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, French values, French issues, etc...

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Harriet Welty 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

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