John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for twenty years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

You are watching: What does it mean to be french

May 2, 2019


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All nations are superior but some are even more outstanding than others.

The British, the Americans – and no doubt the Luxembourgers – are led to believe that they are blessed and distinctive among the individuals of the civilization. And then tright here is France. French exceptionalism is superior.

The French are taught, choose Americans, to think that their nation represents, and also invented, global worths. Like the British, they are steeped from a very early age in historical accomplishment and also national entitlement. They gain effortlessly an Italian sense of cultural superiority.

When President Emmanuel Macron sassist freshly that it was time for France to “redevelop the art of being French”, tright here was merriment abroad and also puzzlement at residence. When did the French ever soptimal being French? Why is being French an “art”? Is Frenchness not likewise an limitless capacity for protest, department and complaint?

After living in France for 22 years, and bringing up three children in the French school mechanism, I have actually involved adore France and likewise to despair of France. I think that tbelow is a unique top quality of Frenchness – a way of dressing, an aggressively teasing sense of humour, a commitment to great food and pleasure yet above all a details French way of reasoning.


France is a country which has many kind of successes – from cars, to planes, to trains, to wine, to cheese, to wellness treatment, to garments, to high-end goods, to perfume, to footround – but loves to dwell on its failures.

France is not one area yet many areas, some hugely successful, others struggling. France sometimes confsupplies myths about itself via reality and also often looks for to recreate the myth instead of the reality. The Gilets Jaunes are guilty of that; so are many type of French politicians.

France is a country which is, en masse, prone to anger, pessimism and also self-damage but individually devoted to the quest of happiness. France is a country which is (mostly) proud of its previous but regularly distrustful of the future.

So what did Macron mean?

Context is everything. He was talking 10 days after the calamitous fire which disfigured Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. He was announcing adjustments to his redevelop programme which he labelled “Act Two” of his presidency. He announced, in sum, that he planned to contain the 5 months old Gilets Jaunes rebellion by adopting a more “human” strategy to doing what he planned to perform anyway.

Here is a complete passage from his comments in the time of a two and fifty percent hour Elysée push conference:

“We must rebuild together incredibly profoundly what I would favor to speak to the art of being French, which is an extremely certain method of being what we are. The art of being French is both deeply rooted and also universal, to be attached to our history and also our roots yet able to take on the future.”

“It’s an capacity to argue about everything endlessly and it is, exceptionally profoundly, an capability to refuse to adapt to a civilization which escapes us, to refuse to yield to the regulation of the survival of the strongest and also to pursue a plan of resistance and ambition, for today and tomorrow.”

Some French commentators shelp that this was not around the art of being French so much as the “art of being Macron” – a delight in spinning verbal webs which dissolve on contact. Maybe. But the abstractivity of such comments is also quintessentially French.

Abstraction – love of the theoretical, the sweeping and also the best – is hard-wired into the French language and also the French character and also therefore into French politics. It is a critical component in the “art of being French” and likewise a part, I will argue, of the “difficulty of being French”.

What Macron was attempting to attain with these comments was three-fold. He was making use of the Notre Dame calamity to wrap himself in the cloak of France’s long history. He was implying that the restoration of French self-confidence and also creativity was a sacred duty, like the restoration of Notre Dame. And he was trying to respond to the impression – when urged by himself yet now caricatured by the Far Right, the Far Left and also the Giallows Jaunes – that he is a globalist who regards French nationwide legacies and habits of mind as handicap and a misfortune.


In another part of his push conference, Macron called on the French to “work harder”. He suggested that component of France’s problem was that, on average, the French put in less time producing wealth than various other nations.

With impeccable timing, a story arised to backed this up. Australian designers sent to France to occupational on a submarine programme for the their navy have been astonished by the lengthy lunch breaks and extended holidays of their French countercomponents. The Australians are provided to taking a sandwich at their desks or drawing boards. The French insist on 90 minutes or two hrs in a local brasserie.

An OECD survey last year confirmed – unsurprisingly – that the French spent more time eating and drinking in an average day, 2 hrs and also 13 minutes, than any kind of other country. The average is one hour and also 30 minutes; Americans take one hour and also two minutes.

And yet, the watch that the French are someexactly how lazy or unfertile is wrong, as Macron himself has actually admitted. In regards to individual efficiency, according to the OECD, French employees produce more wide range per hour or per day than the Germans.

France’s genuine difficulty is that it has a smaller sized propercentage of its adult populace in abundant job-related than various other developed nations. Early retirement, high youth joblessness and also interminable studies intend that France has badepend 70% of its 16 to 65 populace in work – compared to almost 80% in, say, Britain and Germany kind of.


Macron said that he was not expecting individual French employees to put in much longer hrs by abandoning the main 35 hour week or to retire later than the existing tarobtain age of 62. But he did not grapple through the core difficulty of just how to enhuge France’s narrowhead, productive work-related force. Either pointer would have created an angry reaction from the moderate trades unions whose collaboration Macron demands to respond to Gilet Jaune anger and rise economic recoextremely in the next 3 years.

This is a perfect instance of how France finds its troubles tough to name or specify, and therefore to settle. The nation prefers to argue about myths than to challenge fact. And the Giallows Jaunes are as guilty as anyone. They have some legitimate grievances yet one of their primary complaints – that the rich don’t pay their means in France – is absurd.

Over 56% of French GDP is declared by the state. The greatest taxes burden drops on the well-off. France has actually even more “social transfers” from affluent to poor, and also wealthy locations to poor areas, than any kind of various other EU country. How successfully such transfers are spent is an additional question.

Other nations elude troubles. France mistakes what its true troubles are. The French – and also not just the intellectual French – prefer to construct a concept and also then use it to describe the facts. Other countries choose to research the facts and also then construct theories.

Sudir Hazareesingh, in his book “How the French think”, traces the phenomenon to 17th-century philosopher-mathematideserve to Descartes and also the 18th-century idealist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. British 17th and also 18th-century thinkers believed in founding via observable facts. Descartes trusted just the deduction capacity of the mind. Rousseau thought in a perfectible right.


In France, Hazareesingh suggests, the theoretical construct is all. This describes, he says, why French of both Right and Left become so angry about somepoint so seemingly unthreatening (to British eyes) as a muslim headscarf. The concept of the secular French state and also the separation of state and also faith is inviolable. Therefore, a muslim girl wearing a headscarf in a state school or a muslim womale wearing a ‘running hijab’ to go jogging becomes an existential threat to the Republic.

There are, of course, exceptions to French abstractivity and also idealism. The French are great engineers and also you don’t resolve engineering troubles by theories alone. The French commitment to l’art de vivre is far from abstract. It is physical and prompt – a rather sepaprice strand of Frenchness which goes much beyond the wealthy and leisured classes.

My neighbors in Normandy, a reworn down car-worker and also a retired cleaner, drive 40 kilometres to buy the ideal kind of mussels, or eggs, or item of charcuterie. The beforehand Gilets Jaunes roundabout protests turned into festivals of saintake grilling, via sheafs of fresh baguettes and a multiple option of sauces.

But the abstract French actors of mind is also something which can be discovered throughout all classes and also all regions. It suffsupplies the French education mechanism, wright here kids are taught just how to deconstruct sentences from the age of eight.

In all opinion surveys across France, the country en masse is even more pessimistic and dissatisfied than its people. Asked if their own stays are going well, French people are likely to say “oui”. Asked if the nation is going well, they are nearly certain to say “non”.

Personal life is about the immediate and also tangible. Politics is about the theoretical and the ideal, which deserve to never be attained. I am not sure that the French halittle of mind can be blamed on Descartes and Rousseau alone. Why did French thinkers think the means that way in the first place?


The ideal explacountry that I have actually heard came in an intersee that I performed a couple of years back through Professor Michael Edwards, the only Englishguy ever elected to the Académie Française. Professor Edwards is an acclaimed poet in both languages.

He states that he thinks differently – that he becomes a various perboy – as soon as he is thinking or speaking in French.

English, he sassist, is a language which “grips reality”, which adheres to the contours of occasions simply as an “English nation lane adheres to the contours of the landscape”. France is a language, which “hovers over events choose a hot-air balloon” – a more passive language, a much more abstract language.

Let me press the argument further, at hazard of becoming dangerously abstract myself. I believe the French language and French actors of mind produce a prejudice for the appropriate and the categorical. This feeds – and probably partly describes – the French attractivity to political violence and also social anger.

In France, tbelow is constantly a principle which has been betrayed; an ideal which has actually been trampled; an injustice to be fought; a heresy to be exorcised.

Charles de Gaulle famously shelp that it was impossible to govern a country which had 248 forms of cheese. He underestimated the trouble. Tbelow are over 500 kinds of French cheese – some people urge that there are over 1,000. What De Gaulle possibly supposed to say is that it is impossible to govern a nation which is perpetually, perversely disappointed, a country which constantly needs change and rejects all alters.


If you look aobtain at the passage from Macron on “reproducing the art of being French”, he is wrestling via precisely these difficulties. How can you persuade such a quarrelsome, demanding nation to square globalism and Frenchness, legacy and modernity, protection and enrepreneurship, threat and continued social guarantees?

In the 50 years because De Gaulle disshowed up from French political life, the French have voted for change, one method or one more, in eincredibly national election yet one. Their distrust of all politicians and all reforms has currently been intensified by on-line halls of mirrors in the develop of ‘anger sites’ on the internet.

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But the problem is not new. The ‘art of being French’ and the ‘problem of being French’ were always dealing with mirrors. Rather than “reconstruct” the art of being French, Macron demands to find a means of debuilding France’s myths about France, convincing France of its very own success and reconciling France’s political pessimism with its everyday joie de vivre. Good luck via that.