French attitudes (#1)

And also :

  • Is there a French humor ?
  • Are the French happy ?
 
 (no, this is NOT a horde of Frenchmen)
 Only in France : examples of curious (for Americans) French behavior!    The French and change

Sometimes the French act in such unexpected and unpredictable ways that foreigners think they are crazy! Their attitudes toward pleasure, work, their pets, other countries, sex, and money are indeed very different.

Are they crazy ? No ... they're French! Here are a few examples.

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The French are said to refuse change. At the same time, they always demand reforms and hope for (or fear) a major revolution. This illogical attitude toward change can be summarized in a few often-heard statements :

  • « If I have to change, it means that I lost....» : the French do not believe in the possibility of a win-win situation. Therefore, if I change, it means that someone forced me to do it and is winning over me : therefore I am reluctant to change !

  • « I changed, but don't tell anybody ....» : in fact, the French society does change. From rural to urban, from traditional to modern, from protectionist to global, etc... But since I do not want to admit that changing is good in itself, I change and expect nobody will notice it !

Epicurian or just crazy ?

  • They put their personal enjoyment above their professional duty (at least you can say they are not greedy....) : A Saturday afternoon at 5 :30 ; I called a person who advertised as an Art Repair and Restorer at the number indicated in the ad ; her answer " Sir, I am now having tea with a girlfriend and you are bothering me " (Oct.9, 2004). More about French work ethics. Here is antother example : Berthillon (on the Ile-Saint-Louis) is by far the best ice-cream maker in Paris, with amazing flavours. All year people queue in line in the street to buy his wonderful ice-creams and sherbets, except in Summer : until recently, the shop closed from July 13 to September 2. Why ? In Summer, there is too much work and Mr.Berthillon and his family were on vacation, like everybody ! This is why a large majority of people think that it is normal that shops are closed on Sundays.

  • "Work more to make more" was Sarkozy's motto : in 2007 he announced that, among other changes, he would make it easier to work on Sundays. Contrary to what people might think, only 53% of the French support this idea. Read more about it.

  • They love animals (more than work).... My wife asked one of our neighbors, unemployed for several years, when she would resume looking for a job. Answer : "Not yet : I have to take care of my dog...". See about unemployment benefits.

Idealist or just crazy ?

  • They can share things that do not exist (at least you can say that they are not too Cartesian.....) : only in France can you see huge controversies about " how to share the kitty " when, a few years ago, the deficit of the state was smaller than anticipated. The few politicians who said :"let's reduce the deficit : there is nothing to share" were considered boring. More about strange behavior in politics.

  • They prefer ideas to reality and the classical joke "The facts and the theory do not match, let's change the facts" is actually seriously grounded if you deal with the French ... It is probably for this reason that they love strict Freudian pychoanalysis.

  • How to turn down a 150-million-Euro-gift ? In 2000, French billionnaire François Pinault (Le Printemps, Christie's, etc) decided that he would give his private collection of modern art (the largest in Europe) to a new museum (the size of Pompidou) to be built on the site of the former Renault factory, in Boulogne-Billancourt. A major symbol of the history of the working class in France, the place is on an island on the river Seine and is expected to be one of the most prestigious locations in Paris after the old factory is destroyed and replaced by fancy buildings for well-off Parisians. Pinault's offer in 2000 was followed by several years of bureaucratic procedures, accompanied by a few legal lawsuits against the project by various environmental associations. On May 9, 2005 Pinault gave up and said he would transfer his collection to a palace he just bought in Venice. It is not the first time (Giacometti, Newton, etc) that a private donator is not welcomed and the benefactor (or his heirs) considers he is not treated with the consideration and the gratitude he would get in the USA. Read about charities in France.

 
  • « Small changes are not good : they are a pretext not to make major changes... » : Peyrefitte gives a clue : « revolutionary or immobilists because the French never see themselves as in a situation where they can be actors of the change ». Since they do not believe they can be associated with any project of change, the only options are either to change everything (revolution) or nothing (status quo). Read more about the French revolutions in history.

  • « Only unstable people or societies change ...» : an ideal world is stable and rooted in history. An anecdote : in 2004, the Invest-in-France Agency wanted to show that France has very good scientists. It showed a film starring two highly respected French Nobel Prizes, both in their 80s. It does not mean that there are no young scientists (there are even younger French Nobel prize winners) but those two were the most well-known and unquestionable. Of course the result was highly counterproductive and the audience was led to believe that the days of French science were in the past !

  • « if it changes, it must change everywhere...» : experiencing change is unthinkable if not everywhere : this is why, in the name of equality, regional powers cannot experience anything if it is not a general rule.

  • « It's Houdini, not Thatcher," writes The Economist, "France is spectacularly good at saying NON.... but behind the scene, more quietly and with no discernible romance, France can and does say OUI. In Germany and Scandinavia, change happens after considerable debate and lengthy analysis. In France by contrast, it tends to be convulsive and born of conflict : one violent leap backward followed by two surreptitious steps forward.".

  • Best examples of the attitude toward change

    • In 2000, tens of thousands of high school students marched in the streets to protest against a project of changing the baccalaureat which was to replace this 3 or 4-day nation-wide exam (passed by more than 80%...) by a single validation of the grades of the school year. Reason : it would not be a national and anonymous exam and therefore equality would not be guarranteed. The project was dropped.
    • Change is unpopular : Sarkozy had appointed Jacques Attali (a Socialist), advisor to former president Mitterand, to identify the main obstacles to economic growth in the French society ; he submitted his report Jan.23, 2008 with 316 propositions ; as always lazy, prejudiced and incompetent, the French press mentions only the most anecdotal ones (like suppressing the obligation of a license for hairdressers) or the 3 of them President Sarkozy did not agree with (like suppressing the "departement", one of the SEVEN layers of local authorities). Nobody discussed if the propositions were good or bad but only who would be against them. Then .... nothing happened!
    • Read a column about students striking for two months to oppose a change in labor laws.
    • Read about demonstrating in the street
  • But there are Good News about Change in France!

  • More to come

Many authors have tried to explain why the concept of change is so difficult to implement in France. Among them, the best are probably :

Michel CROZIER (La société bloquée)

and Alain PEYREFITTE (Le mal français).

Overprotective or just crazy ?

  • They think it is more important to protect the weakest than to encourage the strongest : this is why there are so many social programs and benefits paid by companies (see the anatomy of a paycheck) and weighing on their profitability. This is why education is quasi-free for everybody. Business people or taxpayers complain about it but the whole French society, in fact, supports it. Contrary to Americans, people do not think that it is (only) the responsibility of a person to protect himself / herself. This is why the majority of the French do not think that mrket economy is a system for the future.

  • They consider having a job a constitutional right : after a (very brutal) shut-down of a factory by Michelin in 1999 (Wolber, near Paris), the 450 laid-off workers sued the company and asked the court to have Michelin re-open the factory (demolished in 2001...) and re-hire them.

Irresponsible or just crazy ?

  • The French and accountability : The French do not take it the way Americans do. For them, reporting to one's constituents or to one's boss is a dangerous adventure which can only lead to criticism and never to praise. Auditing and controlling bodies are feared (Cour des Comptes, Conseil d'Etat, etc...) and, globally, the French society does not feel comfortable when reporting (politicians to voters, management to shareholders, etc) : it probably goes back to the old days in school, when professors only correct mistakes and never praise progress. That's probably why you get so often the answer "It's not my fault"....

Ignorant or just crazy ?

  • The French universalism : in a conference (Nov. 2007) about the future of the French university, which is in a very difficult situation, one of the orators (a professor!) said : " the French university makes citizens and we all know that, whereas the American university makes only consumers ". It is fair to say that he was crucified by the main speaker with the support of the audience. Read about anti-Americanism and about the French and the world.
 

 WHAT HAS CHANGED IN FRANCE ...? Contrary to its image, the French society changes. The difference with other societies is that every change looks difficult and generates sometimes violent reactions like strikes and demonstrations. But changes do happen :

  • more shops are open on Sundays
  • the French state is less omni-present and the French economy is completely open to the world economy with many big firms which are leaders in their field
  • the private life of politicians is no longer a taboo
  • the Communist party has almost disappeared
  • willing or not, the French must abide by European rules (less state, more competition, etc...)
  • in everyday life : people shake hands much less, they drink fewer aperitifs and hardly ever indulge in after-dinner drinks!
  • they speak more English (sometimes, Americans complain that the French answer them in English...)
  • more and more obese people
  • more to come...

In 2012, a sample of French women were asked about the most important events of the past ten years : see the results.

Disinterested or just crazy ?

  • They do not want to make (what they consider) "unearned money" (at least you can say they are not selfish....) :

    • from a letter to the daily newspaper Liberation (Sept.30, 2004) : "Four years ago, I bought an apartment in Paris, in the XXth ; I need now a bigger one but the price has doubled. I have always voted for the left-wing and I would like to sell it for the price I bought it but I cannot afford it because I need the money for a new one. At this price, I'll have to sell it to a wealthy person: It is very unfair that real estate values have doubled and not salaries and I think the government should keep the price from going up".
    • Another example : in Sept. 2005, the unions of the SNCF (the French train operator) refused to sign a contract proposed by the company, which offered to share the profit between the company and the employees. Reason : a state-owned company must not make any profit and it would be immoral to share the profit (it is fair to say that many SNCF workers were very mad at their unions....).
    • Alain Peyrefitte tells the following story : when he was the Minister of Scientific Research, he organized a party in the honour of French physicist Alfred Kastler who had just been awarded a Nobel prize for the discovery of optical pumping which led to the laser. Someone said : " Too bad he did not patent it : he would be rich by now " and a young brilliant scientist retorted " It proves that he is honest ". Read a similar story about internet.
    • For this reason, many scientists refused the very principle of a bonus for the best achievements (Oct. 2009) : read about it.
    • In January 2007, a petition was set up and signed by more than 3,000 prominent artists, writers, curators, etc... to protest the new policy of the major French museums (the Louvre, Pompidou, etc..) to develop a cooperation with foreign museums (Atlanta) or countries (Abu Dhabi) and raise money by renting them some of the thousands of pieces they have. The argument : it is shocking to sell or rent a work of art.
  • They are not impressed by winners ! They prefer the friendly small (shop, for instance) to the the cold big department store), the nice loser to the arrogant winner (in the 1960s the most popular bike champion Raymond Poulidor never won a race and the winner was always Jacques Anquetil : the former was - and still is- loved, the latter was hated : too boring). Read about Vercingetorix, one of the top French national heroes....

Complicated or just crazy ?

  • French galanterie is not machism : if you are a woman, and a Frenchman holds a door for you, helps you put on your coat or serves you wine, DO NOT rebuke him ! He is trying to be nice, respectful and courteous and you would offend him seriously if you slam the door on his nose, say that you are a big girl and you can put on your own coat or refuse the wine. Many American women do that and it is considered extremely rude ! Read about the French and sex and about the French woman.

  • They like a mutually-dependent relationhip : in France, everything depends on the relationship you have (or have not) built (see in business relations). For instance, when you share the bill in a restaurant, Americans always go into detail, so everyone pays exactly for what he/she had : nobody owes anything to anybody. The French do not like this and consider it the sign of sheer miserliness : if you divide by the number of guests, some will get more, some less : there will be a link between them.

  • They see plots everywhere : The French see a plot in everything and never believe what they are told ; for example, the ridiculous theory that no plane crashed on the Pentagon on 9-11 was successful in France and the book about it sold more than 100,000 copies. They will always try to find the most complicated and ambiguous explanation to a situation and, if possible, a plot. Conversely, Americans see everything black or white and trust what they are told : for example most people in America believed the "a sole killer and a magic bullet " theory in Kennedy assassination or the story of massive destruction weapons in Iraq. The French think the Americans are very naive....

 

 Are they crazy ?

The French, who pride themselves on being " logical ", are profoundly irrealistic and passionate. " We express ourselves logically in order to explain the illogical things that we do ". Among many examples, they value :

  • Being different : they do not feel uncomfortable being alone against everybody else (they would not think " maybe the others are right ") and do not value consensus

  • Being synthetic (as opposed to analytic) : they do not like "weighing pros and cons" : it is mediocre. They prefer broad ideas and the big picture. They write differently their business memos.

  • Being " grands seigneurs " : in many situations (when prestige or image are at stake), money is not an issue and they do not like to share bills the way Americans do.

  • Being negative : criticizing is valued and praising is not : it could lead the praised one to stop making efforts (typically, when a kid gets an B+, the reaction is "Why not an A?"). Read more about the national pessimistic mood.

  • Being happy-pessimists : they pretend they are collectively unhappy but individually happy. Are you following me ? read about "joie de vivre" in France.

  • And also :
    • no taxpayers' rebellion, in spite of taxes being so high in France
    • during public transport strikes, people who have to walk to their work, support the strikers
  • More to come 

IN OTHER WORDS..... The French have a very different system of values, and in spite of their national motto "Liberty Equality Fraternity", the words do not mean the same things. Read more about the French understanding of "Liberté", "Egalité" and "Fraternité".

A short bibliography

  • Richard HILL, Sharks and Custard - The Things That Make European Laugh, EP, 2001
  • Any Asterix & Obelix comic strip book will give you an excellent idea of how the French see themselves...
  • Charles GRUNER, Understanding Laughter ; the Workings of Wit and Humor, Chicago , Nelson-Hall 1978
  • Theodore ZELDIN, The French, The Harville Press, London, 1983
  • More to come

DID YOU KNOW THAT.... The major French symbols are :
- The Marseillaise, the national anthem, was composed in Strasbourg by a young officer, Rouget de Lisle, as a " Chant de l'Armée du Rhin " ; sung for the first time in 1792 in Paris by the voluntary troops from Marseille, it became popular under this name ; the music is quite brilliant but
the lyrics are very violent : if you read a translation, you'd be horrified !
- The Blue-White-Red flag was also chosen (by La Fayette) at the beginning of the French Revolution as a merger between the color of the royalty (white) and the colors of the city of Paris (blue and red), the symbol being that Paris, the revolutionary power, would control the regal power.
- The Rooster is a much older symbol, going back to the Gallic tribes (see more about the
rooster).

Just plain crazy ?

  • Being negative : the French are systematically negative. When offered an opportunity, their first answer is never "Why not?" but "It won't work". When asked to evaluate an achievement, they begin with the defects. All French high-school students coming back home with the (wonderful) grade of 18 (out of 20, a super A+) have experienced the question "Why didn't you get a 20?". Why this constant negative attitude ? A tentative answer is that the French believe that, basically, the other people are bad and the world is dangerous. Anybody positive is considered very naive, underestimating how bad things could become. Another reason is that the French think that it is a proof of intelligence to see the defects or the dangers that could have escaped other people, less smart. This is espressed, for instance, in the innumerable verbal understatements the French use ("pas mauvais" means in fact "very good", "pas bête" means "very intelligent : see more of them). When you discuss a project with French people, particularly in a business relation, never forget that they want to look smart and competent, not naive and childish : to show this, they will try to identify all the risks and inconveniences of the project before they start to discuss it seriously.

  • They know how to make everybody unhappy and demonstrate in the streets : In Summer 2004, the government decided that, in order to fund a program to help elderly people, everybody in France would work for free on Pentacost Monday, one of the (numerous) holidays in May. It did it the French way : top-down, no discussion with business and labor forces. The Church expressed no opposition. In May 2005, major unions call for a strike, the SNCF (the state-owned rail company, world champion for the quality of high-speed trains and the number of days of strikes), decided that, instead, its employees would work an additional 1 minute and 52 seconds a day for free (! ! !), half of the parents' associations urged parents to not send their kids to school, the other half threatened to sue the teachers if they did not teach this day, while the authorities of the city of Nimes proclaimed that without the Pentacost Monday Feria, the noble art of bull-fighting would never be the same. A total mess. At the end of the day : a few more strikes, no additional money for the elderly, everyone unhappy and the government ridiculed. That is what the French call : defending their "avantages acquis".

 

 

More examples ?

You had a bad experience in France ? (it happens : see irksome France). Maybe it's because you did not understand WHY the French reacted this way : read more about it.

To related pages : more attitudes (#2), questions about the French, Joie de Vivre in France, French issues, French history, about irksome France, 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
  • "French Toast - Heureuse comme une Américaine en France", Ramsay, Paris 2005

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