Today in France: Commenting on the French

This past Sunday, March 23rd, The New York Times published an article by Elaine Sciolino entitled,

A Guide to the French. Handle With Care.

Go ahead and read the article, but be sure to come back here afterwards. I’ll leave a light on for you

Done? Great.

So, to rapidly summarize (New York Times articles have a nasty habit of rapidly becoming pay-for), Ms. Sciolino was an American correspondent/bureau chief for the NYT during five and a half years stationed in Paris. She has apparently returned to the States and decided to publish her thoughts on “understanding France”. She proposed eight “lessons learned” during her stint in the French capitol.

Hmm-hmm.

Eight lessons for understanding the French. Efficient.

One thing that ticks me off enormously is when people spend a week visiting a country, en l’occurence France, and go home saying, “oh the French are like this, the French are like that”. Just for info, a week in France taking pictures of pretty buildings does not qualify you for analyzing the French. So don’t do that.

The preceding paragraph however, is not a description of Ms. Sciolino. She spent five and a half years living and working in France. That’s the kind of commitment it takes to start to have a faint glimmer of a beginning of an understanding of a people. I’ve been living here for nearly nine years and I’m just now starting to get a handle on why the French are as they are. Thus, I think I can allow myself to take a close look at her article, which isn’t without interest, but as is often the case, there’s a few things that are presented a bit too simply for my tastes.

So here’s a completely subjective ‘True/False’ analysis of here eight lessons learned. I hope that this will give you a more complete view of the French. The irony of course is that I can’t possibly “summarize” the French either, but what’s essential is that we all understand that our perceptions of a culture are built on only what we perceive around us and how much we are willing to go exploring not things, but people.

But before looking at her eight points let me get this off of my chest.

What the hell is the deal with the title of this article? “A Guide to the French. Handle With Care.” ?? What’s that? Just for information the French aren’t made out of porcelain. This is the kind of title that’s designed to pander to Americans’ love of French-bashing. Absolutely ridiculous. I’m betting that this title was not Ms. Sciolino’s choice but that of an editor who’s never set foot in France and wanted to make sure that the article made it into the most e-mailed list, which it did; for a moment it was even number one. No worries though, the same thing happens here. I can easily imagine an article from the French New York correspondent who comes back to France and publishes an article, “Les Américains: attention à ce qu’ils ne mangent pas trop”.

Ok, so let’s look at the details now.

Sciolino’s lesson 1: “1: Look in the Rear-View Mirror”

Here take: The French are obsessed with their history. She also makes sure that there’s that not-so-little pinch of suggesting that the French are “cling(ing) to lost glory”.

W.E. judgment: True and False

History is a major cultural subject in France, but it has nothing to do with holding on to past glory. It’s not so much the history itself that interests the French, but how it explains aspects of life today, and furthermore how it gives lessons that need to stay active in the mind; the French have made their fair share of stupid mistakes, but they rarely make them twice, like, well, some counties.

However, having witnessed all the anniversaries she spoke of in the article (and more), I can attest that a week doesn’t go by without something being celebrated.

Sciolino made a rather tepid tie-in of history and current integration problems. She’s referring, I suppose, to the impact that the French colonial period had on current immigration. This is a huge subject and I won’t go into the details here, but this too seems to be stretching a bit what can be blamed on history; it has more to do with France’s very strong attachment to republican ideas and the need for cultural integration… History? Yes, but I’d probably put this into the “current affairs” category.

In any case, make no mistake about it: the French are resolutely turned toward the future. It’s us touristy outsiders that are crazy-in-love with “la vieille France“.

Sciolino’s lesson 2: “An Interview Is Sometimes Not an Interview”

Her take: In France, interviews with political figures are often reviewed by the figure in question before being published, who has the right to “correct” as it were the contents of the interview. She argues that this leads to a false rendering of history.

W.E. judgment: Mostly true but a lot of false too

This practice does exist for major political figures and I agree that it could have untoward affects on the “official” history of France. However it is important to keep in mind that France has a free press. All of the examples she cites were heavily covered in the written and televised news. So, I don’t know if the fact that the President can officially go back on what he said has any real importance when the facts are already out there.

As an aside, I find that her translation-which she qualified as ‘polite’-of what Sarkozy said at the agricultural fair is quite accurate. What he said was, “Casse-toi alors, pauvre con!” (Watch the video here (in French (duh))). “Get lost, you stupid jerk!” is a good translation. The original sense of the word “con” has been pretty much lost in modern French and it is now used in France as English speakers use the word jerk.

Look it up in a French dictionary if you absolutely must know.

Sciolino’s lesson 3: “The Customer Is Always Wrong”

Her take: French merchants cannot admit that they are wrong and will try to turn the facts so that it suddenly becomes the customer’s fault that there’s a problem.

W.E. judgment: Was mostly true but is becoming false.

Here you have two Americans talking. Costumer service in the United States is just so incredibly good. Problem? Just return it! “Why certainly sir! you can return those shoes that you’ve been wearing for a year. We’ll gladly refund your money!” (I know what I’m talking about here). So for an American arriving in France there is just no understanding the French interrogation-based approach to ‘service après vente‘.

However, these days, this phenomenon is pretty much limited to the small family-run boutiques that are fighting tooth and nail just to keep the doors open. The larger chain stores are now evolving toward the American model of making the customer happy even if (s)he’s abusing the system, although in this latter case you will receive a lecture; accepting abuse in the name of anything is just not French.

And returning shoes that aren’t working out is still nearly impossible.

Sciolino’s lesson 4: “Make Friends With a Good Butcher”

Her take: Finding an attentive local butcher can make your life easier and better.

W.E. judgment: True.

Even a distracted butcher is better than buying your meat in the large supermarkets where quality is a hit or miss affair. We once made the mistake of making a boeuf bourguignon with supermarket meat and serving it to guests. It was like eating rocks. Oh the embarrassment! This kind of thing just doesn’t happen when you buy your meat from a good butcher. But the real trick is to become a “habitué“, a regular. As Sciolino suggested, reaching the point where your butcher recognizes you, or even better, knows your name, is to enter into quality nirvana. The local butcher is of course more expensive than the supermarkets, but that’s the price of eating at French standards.

Sciolino’s lesson 5: “Kiss, but Be Careful Whom You Hug”

Her take: The traditional French greeting, “la bise” (she called it the “bisou”, but that’s not quite correct), can lead to awkward situations.

W.E. judgment: True

I actually quite like “la bise”, meaning the double cheek kiss that (not just) the French do as a greeting. I find that for someone you know, it’s the just right balance for expressing warmth and affection without falling into too much intimacy. What is difficult is knowing who you’re supposed to “bise” (there’s just no good word for this gesture in English) outside of the clear situations.

Here are the clear situations:

  • Family members bise among themselves
  • Men bise women who they know
  • Women bise women who they know
  • Men bise men who they know very well (really close friends) and for special occasions (New Year’s Eve, etc.).

And the less-clear situations:

  • When a friend of yours introduces you to one of his/her female friends or family members that you don’t know.
  • When the number of people to bise starts becoming too large
  • The grandparents of your girlfriend (well at least for me)
  • And so forth

In any case, hugging is usually reserved for couples and really close friends who are having fun. Indeed Sarkozy, who loves everything American has decided that he can hug other world leaders when he’s in the mood – “look how we’re pals!” – and to hell with protocol.

Sciolino’s lesson 6: “Don’t Wear Jogging Clothes to Buy a Pound of Butter”

Her take: Clothes (in other words your appearance) are very important in French culture and you should avoid being seen in inappropriate clothing.

W.E. judgment: True.

How you dress in France says who you are, and the worn-out-Haynes-beefy-t-look just isn’t done. That doesn’t mean that the French are all dressed in the latest Yves Saint Laurent, but their clothes will always be correct, clean, properly matched and in good condition, whatever the desired “look” they’re striving for (which by the way, can include the jogging suit look).

Sciolino’s lesson 7: “Feeling Sexy Is a State of Mind, or: Buy Good Lingerie”

Her take: Sexiness is an extension of your perception of yourself but also how you present yourself to those intimate few.

W.E. judgment: True.

This 7th point is, in fact, just an extension of the 6th point on dressing correctly, which extends to the clothes that can’t be seen and illustrates the importance of caring about your appearance. For the French, striving to be sexually attractive for those they love is not a shameful or vain thing but a simple reflection of one’s self-respect and respect for others. And yes, vulgarity is rarely seen, and when it is seen, it’s usually a chosen “look” and is vulgarity well done. There is an excellent scene in the film “Un coeur en hiver” where Camille, the character played by Emmanuelle Béart is sitting in front of a mirror putting on makeup before going out to confront the man she’s in love with, but who is cold to her advances. The scene illustrates perfectly this idea of chosen and well-done vulgarity.

As for the Paris Match cover-shot of Arielle Dombasle, it can be seen here. Not bad. I agree.

Sciolino’s lesson 8: “When It Comes to Politesse, There Is No End to the Lessons”

Her take: It is important to know and respect the rules of politeness in France.

W.E. judgment: True, but isn’t it everywhere?

For this last point I’ll need to detail.

  • Don’t use the word “toillette”

This is ridiculous. I’m not sure why she would have picked up such an idea. The word “Toilettes” in French does not have the vulgar overtones of “toilet” in English. It is best translated with “bathroom” for American English or “WC” for British English.

  • Try to avoid going to the bathroom

There is some truth to this. The French will indeed try to stay politely at the table during a long dinner, but for heaven’s sake if you have to go to the bathroom, go. If you have to ask where they are, discretely ask your host, “où sont les toilettes?”

  • Don’t say “Bon appétit” at the beginning of a meal

Ridiculous. Although it will usually be the host that says it, feel free to chime in. This may be some “haute bourgeoisie” thing that she ran into at a dinner with diplomats or something like that, but for your average French group of diners, “bon appétit” is not only perfectly acceptable, but expected.

  • Don’t talk loudly

This is true overall. A well-raised French person will tend to speak very softly. However this has a lot to do with how the person was raised and in some groups talking loudly is part of being festive. Watch what those around you are doing and imitate them.

  • Don’t discuss religion or money

True. These subjects will come up in family discussions but should be avoided in general. The money point is slowly changing, once again influenced by American cultural practices, but religion tends to cause very awkward situations.

  • Eat hamburgers, pizza, foie gras and sorbet with a fork

Ridiculous. Once again, this may be true for a dinner with diplomats, but your average French Jaques will use the best utensil for the job, including his hands if need be. However it is true that pizza is eaten with a fork, but this is because they are served ‘Italian style’ in France, meaning that they aren’t precut into wedges.

  • Say “bonjour” to the bus driver and others in an elevator

True, and while you’re at it, say bonjour to the salesperson in the small shop, the server in the café, etc. If there’s just a few people around, you should say bonjour.

  • “Pas mal” can mean “not bad” and “great!”

True. “Pas mal” in French is used as a sort of euphemism for “good”:

What did you think of this post?

C’est pas mal.

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