The typical French person is artificial, elitist, hedonistic, enigmatic, idle, civilised, insular, a hypochondriac, bloody-minded, spineless, a suicidal driver, misunderstood, inflexible, pseudo-intellectual, modern, lazy, disagreeable, seductive, complaining, a philosopher, authoritarian, cultured, gallant, provincial, educated, sophisticated, aggressive, flirtatious, unsporting, egocentric, unbearable, paternalistic, insecure, racist, an individual, ill-disciplined, formal, cynical, unfriendly, emotional, irritating, narrow-minded, charming, unhygienic, obstinate, vain, laid-back, a socialist and a conservative, serious, long-winded, indecisive, convivial, unloved, callous, bad-tempered, garrulous, inscrutable, ambivalent, infuriating, anti-American, incomprehensible, superior (inferior), ignorant, impetuous, a gastromaniac, blinkered, decadent, truculent, romantic, extravagant, reckless, sensuous, pragmatic, aloof, chauvinistic, capitalistic, courteous, chic, patriotic, xenophobic, proud, passionate, fashionable, nationalistic, bureaucratic, conceited, arrogant, dishonest, surly, rude, impatient, articulate, chivalrous, brave, selfish, imaginative, amiable, debauched, boastful, argumentative, elegant, a lousy lover, egotistical, cold, a good cook, sexy, private, promiscuous, contradictory, political, intolerant, inhospitable, brusque, handsome, an Astérix fan, and above all – insufferably French!
You may have noticed that the above list contains ‘a few’ contradictions (as does life in France), which is hardly surprising as there’s no such thing as a typical French person. Apart from the numerous differences in character between the inhabitants of different regions of France, the population encompasses a potpourri of foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, while it’s true that not all French people are stereotypes (some are almost indistinguishable from ‘normal’ people), I refuse to allow a few eccentrics to spoil my argument . . .
Living among the French can be a traumatic experience, and foreigners are often shocked by French attitudes. One of the first things a newcomer needs to do is discover where he fits in, particularly regarding class and status. In many ways the French are even more class and status conscious than the British (it was the Normans who introduced class into the UK), with classes ranging from the aristocracy ( les grandes familles, otherwise known as the guillotined or shortened classes) and upper bourgeoisie, through the middle and lower bourgeoisie to the workers and peasantry.
The French class system based on birthright
The French class system is based on birthright rather than wealth and money doesn’t determine or buy status (so ploucs nouveaux riches needn’t apply). As in most Western countries, there’s a huge and widening gap between the rich and the poor, e.g. business tycoons and the lowest-paid workers, particularly those living in rural areas. The best way to become (and remain) rich in France is to be born with a platinum spoon in your mouth. However, the French don’t generally flaunt their wealth, and many find the subject of money distasteful (especially the seriously rich).
The French are renowned for their insularity (worse than the Japanese!) and cannot stand foreigners. The butt of their jokes (not that there are many) are the Belgians and Swiss, whom they poke fun at out of jealousy for their linguistic versatility and superior cultural heritage. However, if it’s any consolation, the French reserve their greatest enmity for their fellow countrymen (everybody hates Parisians – even other Parisians). The French are Alsatians, Basques, Burgundians, Bretons, Corsicans, Normans, Parisians, Provençals, etc. first and French second. Parisians believe that anybody who doesn’t live in Paris is a peasant and beneath contempt. Paradoxically, most Parisians (half are interlopers) have a yearning to live in the country ( la France profonde) and escape to it at every opportunity. Fortunately the French don’t travel well, for which the rest of the world can be truly thankful.
A love–hate relationship between the French and Germans
There’s a love-hate relationship between the French and Germans (the French love to hate the Germans), although they reserve their greatest animosity for les Anglo-Saxons, i.e. the very same foreigners who rescued them (twice) from the dreaded Hun. France owes its liberty, independence and status as a great (small ‘g’) power to American and British intervention in two World Wars, a humiliating fact they would prefer to forget (although it doesn’t hurt to remind them now and again!). Although it’s understandable when you’ve had your butt kicked by the Krauts three times in succession that you prefer not to dwell on it, they’re still an ungrateful shower (next time the Germans can keep the damned place!).
Every setback is seen as part of an international conspiracy (naturally concocted by les Anglo-Saxons) to rob France of its farms, jobs, culture and very identity. The French bemoan the American influences seeping into their lives, such as le fast food (known as le néfaste food – ‘unhealthy food’), American English, and worst of all, US ‘culture’, symbolised by Disneyland Paris (which patriotic French people are praying will go broke – again) and McDonald’s ‘restaurants’ (known as ‘macdos’), which have become a target for self-styled cultural ‘guardian angels’, battling to prevent the Americanisation of France. However, French youth devours everything American including its clothes, films, music, food, drinks, toys, technology and culture.
Which brings us to a subject dear to every French person’s heart – food. As everyone knows, food was a French invention (along with sex, the guillotine and VAT) and eating is the national pastime (more important than sex, religion and politics combined). The French are voracious carnivores and eat anything that walks, runs, crawls, swims or flies. They’re particularly fond of all the nasty bits that civilised people reject including hoofs, ears, tails, brains, entrails and reproductive organs (the French are anything but squeamish). They also eat repulsive things such as snails and frogs’ legs. The French are also partial to barbecued British lamb, which they prefer cooked alive over the embers of a burning truck. A nation of animal lovers, the French are particularly fond of the tastier species such as horses and songbirds, which are usually eaten raw with garlic (it’s essential to develop a tolerance to garlic if you’re to live in France). The French have an ambivalent attitude towards animals and those they don’t pamper as pets are often treated abominably.
The world’s most prolific consumers of alcohol
The French also know a thing or two about drinking and are among the world’s most prolific consumers of alcohol (only the Luxembourgeois drink more), although you rarely see a legless French person. As every French person knows, intelligence, sexual prowess and driving skills are all greatly enhanced by a few stiff drinks. Not surprisingly, they are obsessed with their livers (when not eating those of ducks) and bowel movements, both of which have an intimate relationship with food and drink. The customary treatment for a liver crisis ( crise de foie) and most other ailments is the suppository, used to treat everything from the common cold to a heart attack (the French are a nation of hypochondriacs and, when not eating, they’re popping pills).
French people are never happier than when they’re complaining about something, and protests ( manifestations) are commonplace and an excuse for a good riot. Civil disobedience is the national sport and the French take to the barricades at the drop of a beret. France has numerous self-help groups (called anarchists in other countries) and many French people, e.g. fishermen, hunters, farmers and truck drivers, are a law unto themselves. Observing senseless edicts such as motoring laws, prohibitive signs (e.g. no parking, no smoking, no dogs, no riots, etc.) and other trivial rules is a matter of personal choice in France. Although France is ostensibly a country of written rules, regulations and laws, they exist solely to be waived, bent or adapted ( système débrouillard or système D) to your own advantage.
Kind-hearted French farmers are famous for their love of animals and they often take their cows and sheep for a day out to Paris and other cities (they also regularly distribute free produce on the city streets for the poor town folk). The French, who are difficult to govern at the best of times, are impossible to rule in bad times. France always seems to be teetering on the edge of anarchy and revolution, and mass demonstrations have a special place in French political culture. The CRS (riot police) are the only people capable of communicating with rioting people, which they do by whacking them on the head with a large baton (while looking the other way). Not surprisingly, the French are the world’s leading consumers of tranquillisers, not to mention aspirins to counter the effects of being frequently bashed on the head.
The French complain loud and long about their leaders and the merest mention of politics is a cue for a vociferous argument. They’re contemptuous of their politicians, which isn’t surprising considering they’re an incompetent, licentious and corrupt bunch of buffoons who couldn’t organise a soûlerie in a vineyard. They rate lower than prostitutes in the social order and the service they provide (prostitutes have morals and principles and do a sterling job – ask any politician!). French politics are a bizarre mixture of extreme left and extreme right, although paradoxically most French people are extremely conservative. The French (through Jean Monnet) invented the European Union (EU), a fact which should be patently obvious to anyone, considering it’s one of the most bureaucratic and dictatorial organisations in the world. The French believe that the EU was a splendid institution while it pursued French ambitions and was led by France, but are ambivalent about it since all the Eastern European rabble were admitted and are positively hostile to Turkey’s accession. General de Gaulle was adamant that the intractable British should never be allowed to join and the French have since been doing their utmost to keep them at arm’s length (the French call the Channel ‘the Sleeve’).
France is the most bureaucratic country in the world
France is the most bureaucratic country in the world, with almost twice as many civil servants as Germany and three times as many as Japan. In order to accomplish anything remotely official in France, 98 forms must be completed in quintuplicate, each of which must be signed by 47 officials in 31 different government departments. Only then do you get your bus pass! When dealing with civil servants you must never show your impatience, which is like a red rag to a bull. It’s the fault of all those French cheeses; as de Gaulle so succinctly put it: “It’s difficult to rule a nation with 265 cheeses” (or possibly 365, 400 or even 750). It’s even harder to govern a country that has no idea how many cheeses it has!
The French aren’t exactly noted for their humility and variously describe France ( la Grande Nation) as the most cultured of countries, the light of the world, and a nation destined by God (who’s naturally French) to dominate the continent. Not surprisingly, Paris is the capital of civilisation and the city of light. France lives on its past glories ( la gloire) and clings tenaciously to its colonies (which it uses as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons) long after other colonists have seen the light. French history is littered with French delusions of grandeur ( la grandeur française), which spawned such infamous megalomaniacs as Charlemagne, Napoleon, de Gaulle, and the most famous Frenchman of all, Astérix. France yearns for foreign adulation, the predominance of the French language and culture (Johnny Hallyday aside), and to be hailed as the undisputed leader of Europe. The French person’s favourite word is appropriately supérieur (nobody ever accused the French of being modest).
The French language has divine status in France and is the language of love, food and the Gods. The French cling to it as their last vestige of individuality and its propagation by the foreign service is sacrosanct (mock it at your peril!). The French love their language and habitually use it as a blunt instrument to intimidate uneducated foreigners, i.e. anyone who doesn’t speak it (only in France are tourists treated with contempt for not speaking the language). To fully understand the French you need an intimate knowledge of their beautiful and romantic language, which is the key to their spirit and character. In practice this consists of learning just two words, merde! and NON!, which can be used effectively to deal with every situation, as was aptly demonstrated by General de Gaulle (see also le bras d’honneur below). The French say no to every question and only afterwards (may) consider possible alternatives.
Typical french mentality and sexuality
Most French people pretend not to speak English, usually because they speak it excruciatingly badly and have a gigantic inferiority complex about the English language, which they blame for the decline of the French language and empire (the ability to speak French is no longer the sign of a civilised person) while eagerly adopting English words, especially those ending in -ing (in fact, often inventing words ending in -ing that don’t exist in English) in order to demonstrate their sex-appeal.
If you’re unable to make yourself understood in English, you should resort to sign language, a scientific and highly developed art form in France. The supreme gesture is le bras d’honneur, meaning ‘up yours’ (or something less printable!): hold your right arm outstretched and smack your left hand against your right bicep, simultaneously bringing your right forearm smartly upwards. It isn’t advisable, however, to make this gesture in the general direction of a gendarme or anyone with a gun.
When not eating, the French are allegedly making love. They’re obsessed with sex and have a long tradition of debauchery. French men think they’re God’s gift to women and are in a permanent state of unbridled eroticism. Every attractive woman is a potential conquest, especially foreign ones, some of whom have a reputation for being ‘easy’ (if you want to know how good your wife is in bed, ask your French friends!). The French use sex to sell everything from cars to mineral water (what others find sexist, the French find sexy) and lack modesty in all things, discarding their clothes at every opportunity. French women enjoy being objects of desire and most care little for women’s liberation and indulge their ‘macho’ (i.e. selfish) men, most of whom couldn’t change a nappy if their lives depended on it. Flirting is an art form, where sexual overtones are part and parcel of everyday life.
The French are renowned for their sexual peccadilloes and are credited with inventing sadism (the Marquis de Sade), brothels ( bordellos), French letters (Condom is a French town), masturbation and adultery. In France, c’est normal for a woman to seek lovers and for a man to have mistresses. If a married man is a philanderer it’s a source of pride, a mark of respect and nothing to be ashamed of (a real vote-catcher for politicians!). A mistress is a status symbol, the absence of which casts grave doubts on a man’s virility and sexual predilections. As a by-product of this rampant free love, the French have record numbers of illegitimate children, whom they have been forced to legalise (along with their concubines). They even have the gall to call homosexuality ‘the English vice’ ( le vice anglais), although everyone knows why Paris, which is famous for its transvestites, is called gay Paris (France is the only country where the men wear more perfume than the women!).
Despite not washing, living on garlic and wearing their socks for weeks on end, Frenchmen have amazingly established a reputation for suave, seductive charm (surely women aren’t still attracted to Alain Delon and Gérard Depardieu). However, despite his formidable reputation, the Frenchman’s performance in bed is similar to his performance in the battlefield: lots of pomp and ceremony, but when the pantaloons are down he empties his cannon out of range and rolls over. Fittingly, the national symbol is the resplendent cockerel, which seduces and impregnates the submissive hens and then crows ( cocorico!) triumphantly, even when it has nothing to boast about (after which it’s cooked in wine and eaten). However, despite the fact that the rooster services many hens, the evidence is that he doesn’t satisfy them (around half of French women declare their sex lives to be unsatisfactory).
The French are formidable sportsmen and have produced a long line of sporting heroes (although their names are difficult to recall). Among the most popular French sports are sex; beating the system (e.g. fare evasion, cheating the tax man, claiming unlawful social security and defrauding the EU); stock-car racing on public roads; corruption, fraud and sleaze; falling off skis; running (away from the Germans); falling off bicycles while following Americans, Belgians, Spaniards and assorted other foreigners around France; losing at football (1998 was a temporary aberration); boules (a form of marbles played by southerners plastered on pastis); rioting; horse riding (to escape from rampaging Germans); shooting themselves in the feet; tennis and sex. It’s widely acknowledged that the French are cheats, poor losers and have absolutely no notion of le fair-play. After all, how can a nation which doesn’t play cricket or baseball possibly be trusted to play by the rules?
Enough frivolity, let’s get down to serious business. Like most capitalist countries, France is a sorely divided nation. While the elite and privileged bourgeoisie luxuriate in the sun, the inhabitants of the poor suburbs and immigrant ghettos remain permanently in the gloom, plagued by poor transport, soaring crime, extremist politics, and an acute sense of dereliction and hopelessness. There’s a festering racial problem with suppressed and disadvantaged Africans and Arabs (enticed to France as cheap labour in the ‘50s to ‘70s) locked in a vicious circle of poverty and deprivation.
The increasingly destitute farming communities and thousands of rural villages are also firmly anchored in second-class France. The human fallout from la bonne vie and high unemployment occupy the streets and métro tunnels of French cities. France also suffers from increasing drug abuse, alcoholism, racism and violence. However, by far the biggest challenge facing France’s leaders is how to reform the economy (e.g. debt-ridden public companies, a burgeoning social security deficit and soaring taxation) without provoking a(nother) revolution.
To be fair (who the hell’s trying to be fair?), the French do have a few good points. They’ve managed (largely) to preserve the splendour of their countryside (when not inviting British architects to build giant bridges across it) and the charm and splendour of their villages, towns and cities. The French enjoy the best cuisine in the world and many of the world’s great wines (although their failure to admit that anyone else can make decent wine is costing them dear). They have good public services, fine schools, exceptional social security benefits (although the country cannot afford them), superb hospitals (with virtually no waiting lists), excellent working conditions and employee benefits, and a first-class transportation system with magnificent autoroutes and among the world’s fastest trains. The country enjoys a generally high standard of living, low inflation and a relatively healthy economy (despite the gloom). The French (unlike many other nations) haven’t turned their backs on their roots and strong family and community ties and loyalties are a prominent feature of French life.
France is one of the most cultured countries in the world
France is one of the most cultured countries in the world and the French are renowned for their insatiable appetite for gastronomy, art, literature, philosophy and music. Paris houses some of the world’s greatest museums, monuments and architectural treasures, and is one of the world’s most attractive and romantic cities, and its cleanest major capital (London and New York please note) – apart from the canine deposits on pavements. France is highly competitive on the world stage, notably in foreign affairs, business, technology, sport and culture, and is one of the few Western countries with the vision and boldness to conceive and execute grandiose schemes. The French are justifiably proud of their achievements (critical foreigners are simply jealous) and France is no longer an island unto itself, its traditional insularity having been replaced by a highly developed sense of international responsibility. It remains one of the most influential nations in the world and a positive power for good, particularly in the field of medicine, where Médecins sans Frontière and Médecins du Monde do exemplary work.
While doing battle with French bureaucracy is enough to discourage anybody, ordinary French people usually couldn’t be more welcoming (apart from Parisians). If you’re willing to meet them halfway and learn their language, you will invariably be warmly received by the French, who will go out of their way to help you – and ‘educate’ you in the finer points of civilised living. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t baby-eating ogres and, provided you make an effort to be friendly, they’re likely to overwhelm you with kindness. Anyone planning to make their permanent home in France should bear in mind that assimilation is all-important. If you don’t want to live with the French and share their way of life, language, culture and traditions, you’re probably better off going somewhere else (or staying at home). Although it’s difficult to get to know the French, when you do you invariably make friends for life.
The mark of a great nation is that it never breeds indifference in foreigners – admiration, envy, hostility or even blind hatred, but never indifference! Love it or hate it, France is a unique, vital, civilised, bold, sophisticated and challenging country. In the final analysis the French enjoy one of the world’s best lifestyles and what many believe is the finest overall quality of life (French civilisation has been described as an exercise in enlightened self-indulgence). Few other countries offer such a wealth of intoxicating experiences for the mind, body and spirit – and not all out of a bottle! – or provide a more stimulating environment in which to live and work.
Vive la différence! Vive la République! Vive la France ! Vive les Français!
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.