Ever since I started university, I have been scrutinising the French quite harshly. Whereas in high school we merely learnt (or tried our hardest not to learn) the language, in uni we started looking at how and why everything works as it does in France. In short, we studied the French psyche and the history which makes up said psyche.
However, it has only been the experience of living here that has opened my eyes to a lot of the French mindset. I also give a big nod of my head to Steven Clarke’s book ‘Talk To The Snail’ which posited a very convincing idea behind why the French are so… well, French.
So here they are, the reasons why the French don’t rule the world, or why you aren’t stuffing your face with baguette:
The French are proud, I don’t think many people would dispute this. Not that this is necessarily a bad or an inhibiting characteristic in itself, but the French are proud in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons.
First of all, instead of being proud corporately – they are proud individually. They have little notion of national pride in the same way as the Americans for example. Talk to any yank about their country and they just begin to beam. I don’t blame them, it’s huge, there is so much to do, and they invented Ben & Jerry’s. The French think that their country is fantastic but they’re not proud of it. They’re far too busy trying to get the rest of the population to see things their way.
Essentially, the bottom line in Steven Clarke’s book is that the French live for their own pleasure or lifestyle. If something should step in the way of said happiness, they will steam roller over it or drive crazily around it and honk their horn.
A prime example of this is the lunch hour *cough* hour and a half *cough*. The French want a period of time when they can sit down in the middle of their busy day and eat lunch. Sounds fair enough you say, ah yes – but they do this to the exclusion of saving a kitten stuck up a tree. Their view is: “I have four twenty and ten (that’s how they say 90) minutes off to eat and relax and this is what I want to do so I will do it and nothing else. It is my allotted time and it cannot be regained.” This becomes most infuriating when the need to deliver paperwork arises. You’re working all day and you need to get a form in, so the logical time to do it is when you have free time – your lunch break. Non! If you get to the desk where you are to hand over whatever it is (it could be the cure for the common cold for all they care) you might be unfortunate to be able to see the lovely office workers chowing down on their food. You can see them, they can see you. You attempt to grab their attention – mais non! We are not working now monsieur! How dare you use our free time!
Everything in France is about getting what you want and, to some extent, learning to live this out without stopping other people in their quest for what they want.
If they’d use up half of their lunch break each day to cure cancer, they could do it, sell the cure for trillions and then rule the world. They would, but their cheese course has just arrived.
As a product of pride, the French don’t really have that much of an idea what the rest of the world wants, nor how it works. French TV quiz shows are bizarre. They appear like a painting of a lion by somebody who has never seen a lion, you see what they were aiming for and you know that they missed it big time, the problem is, you just can’t put your finger on where they went wrong.
In each French quiz show I have seen, at some random time in the programme, a song will start to play and everybody, and I mean everybody, will start to dance, clap and/or sway to the song. After about 16 bars, the music stops and they get on with the show as if nothing had just happened. It’s just unnerving.
French superstars are also a bit off. The prime example is Johnny Hallyday. He is undeniably awful, each to his own I suppose, but everybody in France worships him like a god. There aren’t really that many big French stars so it’s as if they give the same amount of adoration reserved for a plethora of celebrities to the few – thereby elevating them to Mount Olympus.
The French also think that everybody thinks like they do – the whole pride thing. And so they’re astonished by 24hour supermarkets “Mais!- When do zey ‘ave zer lunch?” The shift system hasn’t really dawned on these people yet. I’m actually willing to take a guess that the Germans managed to march into Paris so easily because they did it between the hours of 12 and 1:30. “Mais!- We cannot fight you now, the cheeses are stiill arriving!”
Stubborn Old Fashioned-ness
As a combination of the above two points, the French (or at least the French who are in power) don’t want anything to change. L’Academie Francaise exists solely to propagate the idea that the French language is the best and it MUST NOT BE CHANGED at all. This, of course is grade A baloney.
As all linguists and grammar fanatics will tell you (no matter how much they grit their teeth when they say it) language is always changing and cannot be tied down. Even though the grammar nazis may try (I used to be one of them) some functions of language wither and die. The hyphen is one of these, instead of typing to-morrow or to-day we type today and tomorrow. The hyphen is quite useless if we’re totally honest, it only serves to help us not get confused when words get mashed together like coworker which looks like something to do with cows but is in fact a co-worker. I digress.
The French have yet to learn this lesson. They hold valiantly to the circumflex (â ê î) even though it serves to purpose in pronunciation. It is utterly useless* but it must stay because it is French.
If they actually moved forward a bit more, they could become actually overtake Britain in terms of Global importance. When contemplating this fate however, there is a phrase which pops into every Englishman’s head: “Over my dead body”
So there you have it. Just some of the reason’s you’re not called Jean-Claude or Elodie. There is the common myth that the French army couldn’t fight off a cold, this is quite wrong. Ok, we Brits smashed them at Agincourt, Crécy, Waterloo, Trafalgar, Sluys, Vitoria, Auberoche, Calais, Mauron, Poitiers, Valmont, Rouen, Badajoz, Fuentes de Oñoro, Bussaco, Aboukir, Cape Ortegal, Orthez, Roliça, Salamanca, Albuera, and Vimeiro, but the French army is one of the most successful military forces ever. Under the Napoleons, they conquered vast swathes of the globe, from Vietnam to large portions of Russia, the Caribbean to the depths of Africa. The Crusades were also often spearheaded by French forces.
*Well, not entirely. For us Anglophones, it’s a bit useful when spelling or translating. The general rule is, if there’s a circumflex in the French word, the English word will look the same but with an S after the circumflex.
For example: forêt = forest, hôpital = hospital, fête is almost like festival etc.