Category Archives: Reading

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong


Book CoverI just finished Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French. Apart from the title, I found it really interesting. And actually, I think the authors love the French as well, even if sometimes they are delighted with them the way you would be watching monkeys sling shit at you in the zoo.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau made the point that travellers to Africa or Japan expect a certain level of cultural unfamiliarity to be a part of the experience. They are hoping to feel a bit awkward and to question the way things are done. However, when people travel to France, they don’t take into account that the French are a different people, with different instincts, intuitions, history, and culture which combines to form different, and occasionally awkward (for those coming from Protestant-type countries) institutions and practices.

They discuss the French tendancy to be non-abiding, a term my sister coined for her husband when she just couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t follow the rules. This applies to pushing, cheating, taxes, speeding, not paying metro tickets, parking on the side walk, and not curbing their adorable lap-dogs. They believe that these small rebellions are a necessary counter point or release valve in a French state that is quite authoritarian. But that the state grew to be so in response to a general admiration of taking things to the extreme, jusqu’au boutiste. They postulize that the system of government developed to accomodate this appreciation of power, decisiveness, and grandure.

Particularly interesting was the section on Muslim integration in France. France has the largest Muslim population outside a muslim country. Recent changes outlawing overtly religious symbols in schools such as crosses or, more importantly, head scarfs have been difficult for me to understand. This book presents the seaming intollerance in light of the policy France has always had toward regional differences and immigrants. Complete integration. My husband is half Italian. Both his grandparents on one side are Italian. Yet he is completely French, even his mother doesn’t speak Italian, and it wouldn’t occur to any of them to think they were anything but French. This is how the French state was formed, by eliminating regional differences with as much force as the state deamed necessary and accepting immigrants as completely French from the moment they become citizens. It was this way that Bretons, Alcasiens, and others were forced to speak french and regional connections were broken.

Since WWII religion and ethnicity cannot be asked by the state, so a French person is only that, French, nothing else. This policy is not working well with the Muslim community, because they might look different, and have noticibly non-European names, discrimination is rampant. Also, because they arrived in large enough numbers they are having an effect on what it is to be French. I have been shocked by how outwardly racist people will be here, but maybe it is similar to the Irish arriving on the east coast of the US. After a few more generations perhaps the immigrants childrens children will have found positions of power and the balance will shift. Interestingly enough, the authors mentioned that the police have started actively recruiting beurs, which draws a strong parallel to Boston. Anyway, the book is far more interesting and authoratative than I can be on the subject so go ahead and read it, especially the chapter on the french melting pot.

A few rules for Americans hoping to understand the different notions of privacy that the french have:

  1. Always say Bonjour, when entering or leaving a store (Bonjour-nay, when leaving). A store is a private space, more like entering someones home than popping into a Walmart. In fact, say bonjour any time you start talking to someone, especially someone you don’t know well.
  2. Don’t ask someones name, a name is private. Who knew? I’ve been violating this one for three years.
  3. Don’t ask what someone does for work. Also rude.
  4. Resist the urge to talk about money. Especially salaries. You will make people uncomfortable. Even the good deal you got on x, y, or z is off limits. Think up something else, I’m sure you have something more interesting to say than that.
  5. Don’t be afraid of racous political discussions. Very few french will turn down a good fight. But don’t be and idiot. Jesse Jackson sounds like an idiot here. He might be bright, but spouting slogans is frowned upon.
  6. America is actually not the best country in the world, it is the most powerful. There is a difference. Liberty doesn’t live in cleveland, and we didn’t invent or perfect freedom of the press. (okay, so I’ve gone off track here from the book… oops)

The Authors mentioned how the French are convinced their country is going to shambles; the trains awful, the health system failing, and students hooligans.

In fact the trains are amazing. They are almost always on time, are incredibly modern, fast, and comfortable. You can get nearly anywhere without owning a car. You can just take a walk in Paris, not pay attention to where you are going and when you are ready to be done walking find a metro station almost certainly within five minutes. There are at least fourteen train lines, five RER lines, tramways, and countless buses serving Paris. There are so many options it can be hard to decide which route to take between two destinations. And they are CONTINUING TO IMPROVE IT. Let that be a lesson to Boston that seems to think of its train system as finished, and think of public transportation as new highways, to get commuters in and out of the city faster.

The health system is amazing. When I arrived I had no health coverage and doctors and friends were shocked. Practically everyone here is covered. But even without coverage I was better off than with and HMO in the states. Doctors visits were generally around 20€ and considered outlandishly expensive when they are as much as 60€. Prescriptions are almost always reasonable, I never paid more than 35€ or so. When you are covered all this is free. In any case it is easy to see a doctor, and generally takes no more than a couple of days to get an appointment with my favorite general practitioner. My husbands always has appointments available the same day. It is different. No privacy is given for disrobing and nurses will “pop in to ask a question” even during gynological exams, but you get used to that. The authors mention that France consistently ranks first for quality of health care. The US ranked 37th. You really feel the difference living here.

French students may be less respectful than they once were (Are there teachers that DON’T say that?), but the French educational system still turns out top notch graduates and they pay next to nothing. I took a course at CNAM this year in Algorithmic Programming. This is a private university catering to older students returning to school. The french are shocked at the tuition and I was too, for rather different reasons. When I received the bill I honestly thought it must just be a fee, or maybe for books, that the real tuition bill would come later. For 256€ I recieved six hours of instruction per week for an entire year. The class was rigerous, the university similar in almost all respects to the University of Massachusetts. The system may need revising or be too rigid, but it is still a first class educational system almost free to those hoping to better themselves.

There are also a slew of funny anecdotes about living here that will have anyone that has tried it laughing like mad. For example, why do the French religiously open and close their shutters twice a day? I’ll leave the answer for the book.