French specificities In this page, I try to gather what exists in France and not in the US : specific institutions, traditions, etc...
 
France has it....    
  • A Minister of Culture in the Government. Few countries have a minister of Culture and none of them with such a high ranking in the Cabinet (André Malraux was #2 after the Prime Minister in de Gaulle’s governments). This member of the cabinet has an important staff of more than 30,000 (in State museums, castles, etc…), a significant budget (between 0.8 and 1.2% of the total budget), and important duties. He oversees State subsidies to maintain architectural heritage (for the 300,000 listed monuments), to encourage artistic creation (particularly for cinema) and many others. Among its most surprising activities (for Americans), the ministry of Culture owns and operate a theater (the Comédie Française), protects the French language (Académie Française), creates events (Fête de la Musique), distributes a highly appreciated medal (Médaille des Arts et Lettres), etc…. When a new cabinet is formed, the press comments the nomination of the Minister of Culture at least as much as the nomination of more important ministers (Finances, Foreign Affairs, etc…). Does that mean that French culture is alive and well ? Not sure (read more) but it means that it is considered important. Read about the "exception culturelle".

  • Viager : do you know what the "viager" is ? Americans do not use this particular way to buy a house but it is common in France. You buy a house for a life annuity and you can use it only when the seller dies. The buyer generally pays a flat sum (the "bouquet") representing 10 to 20% of the value of the property (but it can also be 0%) and an annuity based on the life expectancy of the seller. A "viager"sale can be on "one head" or "two heads" for a couple of sellers (in this case, you can use your property only when the second "head" dies...).This contract is rather common for people with no heirs (or people who do not like their children....). It is a contract which leads you to quite immoral thoughts : you feel bad when your financial partner looks good ! In French families everybody has a story about "viager" with the seller dying one week after the signing or, on the contrary, twenty years above his/her life expectancy. The funniest story is the story of Jeanne Calment , the oldest Frenchperson, who died at age 122, several decades after her buyer, whose children and grandchildren had to pay her the annuity....

  • The principle of precaution ("principe de précaution") was formarly included in the French Constitution in 2005 (the only country in the world!). Under this principle Edison and Ford would have acted unconstitutionally and the Academy of Medicine would have forbidden Pasteur to discover and implement vaccination. France is the only European country (with Bulgaria) which forbids by law any exploration of shale gas... (as well as GMO, etc).

  • "Garde à vue" : there is no habeas corpus in France and police can keep you, without any request by a judge, for 24 hours, extendable to 48 (or 96 hours in case of suspicion of terrorism). It is called "garde a vue" (literally "kept under sight"). It can happen to minors and people are often kept is very shameful conditions in filthy places, with little sleep, no phone, little food, etc… It happened to more than 900,000 people last year and France is the only country in Europe (with Belgium) with such a system. France does not satisfy European rules regarding human rights and is constantly criticized by the European Court about "garde à vue". Only since recently, you can call a lawyer (but only after the first hour) and he/she is not allowed to witness the interrogation. Police do not have to remind you of your rights. The situation becomes "normal" and you benefit from the same legal protection as in any other civilized country only after the "garde à vue". (In July 2010, the "Conseil Constitutionnel", following the European Supreme Court ordered the French government to improve the situation). More about French police.

  • The "Comédie Française" is a very specifically French organization and, like many French things, it should not work (by American standards) and, in fact, it does work ! The actors are among the best, the staging is often creattive, etc... It is a State theater, beautifully located near the Palais Royal (and a couple of other locations), founded in 1680, which has been codified by Napoleon. Its role is to maintain and give access to the best of the French theater and as of today its repertory includes more than 3,000 plays which are regularly re-created with a troop of actors, recruited among the best graduated students from theater schools (they are called "pensionaries"), some of them becoming permanent members ("sociétaires"). The "sociétaires" elect a "doyen" and behave a little bit like a group of civil servants (they have a lifetime job if they wish) and a soviet (they share the income of the theater). They can perform outside the "Comédie Française" (in other theaters and in movies) but under strict limitations.

  • Pétanque : a ball game with 2 heavy iron balls (the size of tennis balls) each and a small wooden ball (the "cochonnet" i.e. piglet) ; the game is to put your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet ; you can "pointer" (roll the ball) or "tirer" (throw the ball) ; you can play on any surface, smooth or not ; the fun is to argue about the distance, measure it and find different values etc... A typical Southern game played by everybody.

  • The "Livret de Caisse d'Epargne" or "Livret A" is the preferred saving account of the French : 9 out of 10 have one. It is the kind of gift you present to your new-born grand-child. It is a very attractive form of saving : totally tax free, immediately available. Today's rate is 2,25% and the government changes it every 6 month according to the inflation rate. The maximum amount you can deposit is around 15.000 Euros.

  • Vacation homes : 3 million French own a vacation home. This is one the highest (if not the highest) rate in the world (12 times the German's). Sociologists explain it by the strength of rural roots in the French psyche..

  • More to come......
 
DID YOU KNOW THAT....? In France, a city hall must display a representation of the French Republic, whose symbol is a woman called "Marianne". The mayor can choose among a few recommended models. Some of them give a very serious image of the Republic, others a sexier one.....
  Brigitte Bardot, as a symbol of the French Republic
  • Do you know what an "intermittent du spectacle" is ? This French concept is unique in the world. It is a system which makes it possible for people who work for the entertainment industry and who, by definition, work intermittently, to be protected against unemployment. It applies to both technicians (electricians, etc…) and artists (comedians, dancers, musicians, decorators, …), in the whole field of entertainment (cinema, theater, television, circus, …). Under the condition of having worked more than approx. 500 hours in the past 10 months, they are entitled to a daily allocation which gives them a salary and the benefit of the national health program and a pension. Created in 1936 (under the government of Front Populaire) and extended in 1969, this very advantageous program is of course extremely costly for the taxpayer but it was created to help and support artistic creation in France. Artists and workers in the entertainment industry are very attached to it : in 2003 when the government tried to reduce the deficit, they went on strike all over the country and almost all the summer programs (concerts, theater,…) had to be canceled. In 2012, they represented 0,8% of salaried employees, 3,4% of beneficiaies of unemployment benefit and 5,9% of total expenses of the whole unemployment program. There were125,000 "intermittents" in 2003 and the deficit of this program was already more than 800 million Euros in 2002. (Source : Centre d'Etudes de l'Emploi, Mars 2007). More about French movies.

  • Lunch vouchers. Food and social benefits are equally important to the French. In France, employers must, by law, offer a solution to their employees for their lunch. It can be a kitchen on the premises, a cafeteria or access to a cafeteria. It can also be a "ticket restaurant" : a voucher you can use for payment in any restaurant, bistrot or sandwich shop. In 2009, more than 460 million were given to employees, who pay only 40 to 50% of the face value (maximum 5,21 Euros in 2010).

  • In France, heirs are protected by law ! According to the number of children, they inherit a minimum of 50%, 66% or 75% of what's left by the loved one. It is called "part reservataire" and no will can stand against that. If the deceased gave too much of his/her money to charities or people before he/she passed away, the heirs can go to court and ask it to re-estimate (over a period of 10 years) what should be their share !

  • Ma tante : The Crédit Municipal or "Mont de Piété" (literaly : Mount of Faith) is a six-century old institution of the City of Paris (and some other big cities) where you can get a loan up to a few thousand Euros secured by an asset you deposit at the counter and which is appraised on the spot by an expert. Your deposit can be a jewel, a painting or an antique, a home appliance, a fur coat, a car, anything… If you do not pay back your loan, the object is sold. In Paris, hundreds of people use it every week. Its nickname is "ma tante" (my aunt) because, in the 1840s, someone asked a young aristocrat where his watch was, and he answered "I left it at my aunt's" when in fact he had used it to borrow money. More about the French and money

DID YOU KNOW THAT ? In France, you must follow labor rules, even if you're dead. When you die, your cleaning lady loses her job. Unfair. This is what your heirs must do, according to the Code du Travail : it is considered a dismissal and you must follow the general rule. 1/ An "entretien préliminaire" i.e. an interview in which your heirs (or yourself, if you are a ghost) announce the person that she will be dismissed, 2/ they (or your ghost) pay her two months of salary as "préavis" i.e. notice, 3/ then they pay an "indemnité de licenciement" i.e. dismissal indemnity of 1/2 months of salary per year of activity with you when you were alive, 4/ finally they pay to the Health and Retirement administration the usual tax on salary, i.e. around 40% of §2 and §3 (see taxes on salary in France). But being dead, you don't have to worry about all that. Do you have anything like that in the US ?

Are the French "normal" ?

In 2012, the newly elected president François Hollande said he would be a "normal" president (as opposed to his hyper-active predecessor). But can the French be normal ? The (excellent) French weekly magazine Courrier International found in the international press 33 reasons to challenge the idea of the French being capable of being "normal" ! (C.I. Special Issue Nov.-Dec.2012 Jan.2013). Over the years, I have tried to address most of them in this site. Among them :

Miscellaneous specificities....

  Vacations!
  • Freud (Sigmund) : the French have adopted psychoanalysis with enthusiasm and, today, France is probably the last country where, for instance, autism is largely considered a neurosis and ABA therapy a passing fashion. Why ? Probably because the French love theoretical systems and complex concepts, more than things that actually work. Freudian guru Jacques Lacan was a national hero and the Société Psychanalytique de Paris is about as open to criticism as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Teheran. Read more.

  • Privacy and computers : the Commission Nationale Informatique et Liberté (CNIL) is an independent body that ensures the protection of privacy when threatened by information systems. Two examples :
    • any computer file created by a company, an institution or an administrative body, containing personal data, whatever it may be (address, age, gender or anything personal) MUST be declared to CNIL, which can veto it ; exceptions are strictly monitored (national security, crime etc.)
    • any cooperation between a public body (such as NSA in the US) and a private company (such as Google) would be strictly forbidden by CNIL which would take them both to court and win.
    More about privacy as a key French value..

  • More to come......

 

More on the other pages of this site....

 

For the French, vacations are more than a period of rest : they are an important part of their culture.

  • In France, the entire year revolves around vacations. A simple question : what is the beginning of the year ? If you answer : January 1st, you're not French! For them, it's September 1st ("la rentrée") and during the whole month of September everyone talks mostly about the end of vacation and the year to come ("will it be better or worse?", "what will mark this new year", "where did famous people spend their vacations?" etc). It is the favorite topic of everyone : people in the street, university professors, concierges, journalists, politicians, experts, you name it.

  • Vacations are structured by school vacations, even for people who don't have kids. They represent up to two weeks every six weeks : around November 1st ("vacances de la Toussaint"), for Christmas ("vacances de Noel"), in February ("vacances d'hiver"), for Easter ("vacances de Pâques"), in May ("vacances de Printemps") and of course in Summer for two and a half months. In any French company or organization, everytime someone says "When shall we have our next meeting ?" the whole debate is about "not during the school vacations". It makes it very complicated because since there are 3 national zones for school vacations with dates which can vary by 1 or 2 weeks between them, there is always an idiot who says "but Zone B will be on vacation" and everybody will understand that it is impossible to have the meeting this day. Conclusion : it is easy to fix the date of a meeting when there is no school vacation, nowhere in France i.e. in the following periods : September 15/October 15, November 15/December 15, January 15/January 31, a few days (unpredictable) in March or April (depending on the date of Easter), forget about May (too many bridges) and June (the month of exams). You'll understand, that in France you can work normally a total of 3 to 4 months per year : in Fall, a little bit in Winter, and that's all….

  • Vacations provide the media with a constant flow of subjects : a good week before each of the above-mentioned periods and every day in July and August, national TV news and all newspapers and magazines lead with vacations (traffic conditions, interviews with vacationers, weather in major vacations areas, vacation places of the famous, etc…)

  • Vacations are the favorite French economic indicator : nowhere else in the world does the institute of statistics regularly publish the proportion of people who left for vacation ; if the proportion of people who leave for Summer or take skiing vacations (including 80-year olds, newborn babies and inmates) decreases by 0,5%, it is more important than any other economic figure (unemployment rate, inflation, etc).

  • Vacations are a major political issue : everyone knows that the first law on two-week paid vacations was paseed by the governement of the Front Populaire in 1936. For most of the French, "vacations" equals "a gift from the Left".

  • Many people have more vacations than they can enjoy (or afford) : with the 35-hour work week, unless you get paid over-time, you get up to 18 additional (paid) days of vacations, on top of the 5 (minimum) weeks of paid vacations. Therefore, a classical comment onTV is "with the crisis it's no fun to be on vacation when we don't have enough money to spend". More about vacations.

  • More to come....
See other pages : French attitudes, intercultural differences, French society, 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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Together or separately, Harriet and Philippe Rochefort speak about Intercultural Differences : click here for information.