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What makes French people so typically French?

About the author: Maciamo Hay is a Belgian-born historian, population geneticist, and travel writer. His interests also include economics, philosophy, evolutionary biology, bioengineering, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and linguistics. He has travelled in over 50 countries and spent at least a few months in 10 countries, including France, during which time he attentively studied the language, customs and cultural traits of the locals. He has learnt 10 languages and achieved fluency in six of them in addition to his native French.

As a native French speaker with a culturally French education, and having been countless times in France, I know France almost as well as a French person. Not being French helps me see the country as an outsider and clearly seeing what is typically French from what is not.

I will start with insights from two excellent books about European cultures by Richard Hill. I have met the author, bought the books from him, and I can say that I agree on almost every sentence he wrote: EuroManagers & Martians and We Europeans.

I will proceed point by point, sometimes introducing a comparison, to define what makes the French what they are. Please understand that when talking about cultures, we have to generalise, and that the view given is what is regarded as normal in a particular country, rather than unusual. It does not work for everyone. It's just a trend that is valid for a big part of the population now, but may change with time (over generations).

1) The French like complicated things.

In a political debate on French TV, it was once said "In France it is simple to complicate things, but complicated to simplify them". This summarises to the perfection one of the fundamental aspects of French culture.

  • Illustration (quoting Richard Hill): «The American mistrusts complex things and tends to oversimplify. The Frenchman, by inclination and education, mistrusts simple things and tends to over-complicate. It is for this reason that no Frenchman, by American standards, can ask a simple, straightforward question when speaking in public. By French standards, no American speaker can give a full, sophisticated answer.»

  • Example : The Economist describes the French tax system to be of 'fiendish complexity'. They cite, for instance over 40 deductions in the French pay-slip, as opposed to just 2 in Britain.

2) The French are theoretical. They prefer rhetoric, abstractions and ideas to facts and practical thinking.

  • If Shakespeare had been a Frenchman, he would have said : "To be or not to be, that is the question. But the question is badly formulated."
  • The French favour design over practicality. They like innovation for the sake of creativity, even when there is no practical need for it. (incidentally, this is the polar opposite of the Japanese mindset).
  • The French raison d'être is "measured intellectual performance".

3) The French political dilemma : an autocratic egalitarian society.

They claim to follow the 18th-century Revolutionary values of "liberty, equality and fraternity" (written on coins, stamps, etc.), but France is actually one of the most hierarchical and vertical society in the Western world. The political and economical systems are extremely elitists. A few chosen ones study at the Grandes Ecoles (elite universities), then join the administration at a high-level from the start to "learn how the system works, and make connections", then become top executives in major public (or private) companies. There are very close ties between big businesses and the government in France, and executives are criticised for knowing better how the government and administration works, than how their own company does. This creates a huge gap between the top of the company and the rest.

French society and language are also exceedingly formal compared to most other countries.

4) The importance of forging relations.

Like the Spaniards, the French like to create relations with someone over a long lunch before starting making business with them. They need to get to know what kind of the person they are dealing with, and create an emotional bond.

Richard Hill: «Disregard for the customer is a way of life in the French business world. [...] Indeed, in French eyes, putting oneself readily at the disposal of a total stranger is an affront to one's self-esteem : like the Spanish, the French have difficulty in recognising the difference between service and servility.»

5) The decision-making process

French people (e.g. managers) typically make a quick decision that they might revise later on. This is the opposite of the Germans who think carefully about all the possibilities then make a decision that they will not change afterwards.

6) The râleur character

This also came up in debates on French TV. A Swedish journalist said that one of the first things he had to learn when he arrived in France was râler, a difficult term to translate as it is so typically French (the word doesn't exist with that meaning in Quebecois French), and which we could translate as "complain about all and everything, not always with justification". The Swedish journalist explained that he had never met people who complained more than French, anywhere in the world.

French people like to strike, protest or demonstrate to voice their discontentment, while the others complain about people striking and demonstrating...

One ironic example of the French râleur is the commuter in his car who complains in the traffic jam about the fact that other people have also decided to come to work by car : "Why don't they all come by public transports ?" In other words, they are never satisfied and don't try much to understand the other person's point of view.

André Gide, a French writer who received the Nobel Prize of Literature, said that "French people are Italian people in bad mood".

The French viewed by themselves

Here is something I heard on LCI (a French news and debate channel) and I thought was spot on:

«Paris is hell, but that's still the place where Parisians prefer to live.»

I have watched a popular weekly debate programme (called "Ça se discute") on a French TV channel with topic "Why do French people have such a bad reputation abroad?" The people invited to the debate where three Americans, one Irishman, one Pole, one Afghan and one Québecois, all living in France, and three French people living abroad.

It was a very interesting debate, and served as a good self-criticism for French people. Many agreed that the main defects of the French are that they are:

  • 1) Argumentative and râleur. They mentioned that French people were not afraid to say what they thought, even if it led them into trouble. This is even true in politics (e.g. argument about the war in Iraq). No wonder that the adjective "frank" comes from "France".
  • 2) Pretentious/arrogant/chauvinist (about their country and culture). This is especially true of Parisians. Many people tend to confuse Parisians for all French people. However, even the French themselves agree that Parisians are much more arrogant and unpleasant than average. Unfortunately, most visitors to France get their first (or only) impression of France in Paris.
  • 3) Irrespectous of rules and laws. The debaters mentioned that when a new law passed, an average French would determine him/herself whether it was reasonable enough to respect it. That is why even some police officers do not bother fining people smoking in non-smoking areas, if they disagree with that law, which is unthinkable in most of the English-speaking world.
  • 4) Bad at speaking foreign languages. Especially English, although most English speakers cannot criticise them on this. More specifically, the French tend to be unfriendly to people who do not try to speak French - but so are people in English-speaking countries about English in my opinion. Once again, this is especially true of Parisians.
  • 5) Dirty (e.g. dog turds in the street; no shower before sex...), while at the same time being elegant and charming.

Among the other, either positive or neutral things they mentioned:

  • 1) The image of the French lovers - although many women interviewed agreed that it often meant a lot of baratin ("sweet talk") uttered too lightly. The three Americans also agreed that French people are much more open about sex than Americans. People are not ashamed to talk openly about it, or to display nudity at any time of the day on TV (in commercials, series, movies...). French men also flirt more easily with anyone in the street, and are generally not afraid to have their advances turned down or "lose" (no fear of being a 'loser' like in the US, or 'lose face' like in East Asian countries). Another interesting remark was that French women flirt less than American ones, and expect more initiative from men. One guy said that French women over 30 years old will rarely call a man if the man doesn't call them.
  • 2) The relaxed and enjoyable lifestyle (the art de vivre). On this point, one American guy said he hadn't got used to French timetables yet. He explained that when you want to make a business phone call (especially to a government office), you shouldn't do it before 9.30 to 10.00 am as they only get started with their day and may be a bit grumpy or disorganised before that, but then not between noon and 2 to 2.30 pm as it is lunch time, and many place already close at 5 or 6 pm, which leaves little time available. On many points, French-speaking Belgians are like the French, and this one is no exception. Despite being a Belgian, I also found it difficult to adapt to this system after becoming used to live in punctual countries like Japan, the UK or Germany.
  • 3) The importance of feelings over money in relationship The Americans agreed that in the US, no matter how good or sincere a person was, money typically came as a determining factor in a relationship, because people had to be "winners" with ambitions and money. They said it was normal to ask someone you were dating "how much money do you earn ?", which is unthinkable in France. People in France tend to hide how much money they make. In France, someone with a nice car get it scratched by envious people who think they'd deserve it too. Contrarily to the USA, in France people who succeed are not more respected.

Stephen Clarke on the French

Here are two quotes from the book A year in the merde, by Stephen Clarke, that I think characterises well the French mindset, especially in Paris:

  • [After his French boss told a "striking" café waiter that he didn't care that he was on strike and wanted his dessert]
    «I was witnesing an important lesson in Parisian life. I mustn't try to make people like me. That's much too English. You have got to show them that you don't give a shit what they think. Only then will you get what you want. I'd been doing it all wrong, trying to win people over. If you smile too much, they think you are retarded.»
  • [page 96, complaining about the ubiquitous dog turds on the Parisian pavements]
    «Well, yes, it kind of sums up the French philosophy of life. You only ever think about yourselves. Instead of getting together to stop dogs from pooping on pavements, you just learn how not to step in the merde.»
  • [page 38, leaving the office for lunch]
    «We left the building at 12:30 with "bon appétit" ringing in our ears. The people who saw us called it out like you would say "Happy Christmas". Every lunchtime, it seemed, was a celebration. And why not?»

Lucy Wadham on the French

In The Secret Life of France, Lucy Wadham largely confirms my description of French culture and mindset.

Compared to the English, she perceives the French as:

  • Theoretical, obsessed about ideas (as opposed to the pragmatic, factual English)
  • Conformist and conservative in term of clothing (unlike the eccentric Brits)
  • Formal and civil when it comes to language (whereas the English are polite but informal)
  • Relaxed in their attitude to time (a world away from Germanic punctuality)

She rightly points out that French humour is actually more wit, with a heavy use of puns. The Brits, in contrast, like to make fun of themselves (something the image-conscious French can't understand) and have an acute sense of comic, absurd and sarcastic humour. Lucy Wadham writes that the French tend to prefer grandiose tragedy over comedy.

The French and English-speaking definition of freedom differs a lot, Wadham explains. For British or American people, freedom is linked to the sense of property and private space. Being free means owning your own house and having the right to protect it against intruders. I will add that "No trespassing" signs are indeed rare in French-speaking countries (or most of Europe outside the UK and Ireland). The French sense of freedom equates being freed from the burden of working so as to have free time to dedicate to one's hobbies and past times. This cultural difference is best illustrated by the attitude of the French vs British nobility in past centuries. While the French nobles had to leave their castle to attend the King's court in Versailles, the British aristocracy spent as much time (and money) in their castle as possible, because a big castle was the paragon of their status. Freedom for the French meant being able to enjoy your time as you liked, even if that meant staying at the King's court and abandoning their castle.

Gender roles represent another major cultural gap across the Channel. The Brits, like other Germanic and Protestant nations have become strongly feminist, giving rise to a strong tension between men and women. Men go out together, and women together, but the two groups do not mix much socially when they can avoid each others. France, like other Latin and Catholic countries, is just the opposite. Gender roles have not been shaken much by feminism in France, and society has consequently preserved a certain gender harmony, where men enjoy socialising with women and vice versa. Indeed, the French would be very bored without these constant male-female interactions and seduction games.

This relates to another primary cultural divergence. Aesthetics is one of the deepest French values. Beauty, elegance and charm are a national obsession. People have to be beautiful to be valued in France, however superficial that may sound to the British ears. In a society where both men and women put so much care (and artifice) about the way they look, it is only natural that seduction and gender roles should be of primordial importance. Wadham writes : «Paris is all about Beauty. Everything else - including such things as commercial gain, prosperity or efficiency - is secondary.» She goes on saying that plastic surgery is five times as common in France as in Britain.

Seduction inevitably leads to sex, another French forte. According to a Durex survey that I mentioned in the Interesting facts about France on this website, the French are the nation where people have the most sex in a year. Wadham reveals a hidden facet of Parisian bourgeoisie that is much more difficult observe than other cultural aspects of France : adultery. The second chapter of her book is entirely dedicated to it, and the book's title makes a reference to what she calls the Secret Garden, in reference to the French saying that everyone is entitled to his or her jardin secret (meaning "secret love life"). She explains that adultery does not carry the same strong negative feelings as in the UK, or even Italy, and that the French accept it as an inevitable and necessary part of life, as long as it is kept discreet. She says that most married people have at least one secret lover, and that both husbands and wives expect their partner to have one - although they don't want to know about it. France is still a libertine nation.

This was a revelation even to me, as this part of French culture is not shared with Belgium, and maybe not that common outside the Parisian bourgeoisie. French-speaking Belgium would be much more like puritan Britain, I would say, where men and women are jealous and uncompromising about cheating. The figures speak for themselves; Belgium has the highest divorce rate in Western Europe just above Denmark and the UK.

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