Mar 30 2011

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no escaping the stereotypes…

I normally find the journalism in the UK Guardian quite acceptable, and often stimulating, so was pleased to note the other day that they were about to run a series of articles on France: ‘Welcome to France The Guardian’s four-part Europe season leaves Germany and continues this week with an in-depth look at France’.  Readers were exhorted to ‘Stay with us on this month-long journey. Get to know your neighbours a bit better’.

The first article was anything but in-depth, although to be fair, it was titled ‘At-a-glance Guide to France’.  If I had been the sub-editor, I would have chosen something like, ‘Stereotypes of France 101’.

I don’t wish to give this sort of thing more oxygen than it deserves, so I won’t be doing a detailed analysis, but will instead take a quick look at the stereotypes that say more about the English who continually perpetuate them, than they do of the French.  The tone veers from flippantly insulting—‘Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic, bye bye Algeria, a leader among European nations. Cheese-eating surrender monkeys. What more is there to say?’—to the grudgingly envious when speaking of the geographical richness: ‘France just about has it all. This explains why it remains the most visited country in the world, and why the French are so infuriatingly proud of it’.

So when I reached the section on Food and Drink and read that ‘this remains a country where you can walk into a small-town provincial restaurant and confidently expect to find half a dozen men in builders’ overalls sitting down to a three-course lunch, which says something about the importance of food to France’s popular culture’, this didn’t sound to me like a neighbourly celebration of France’s égalité.

Indeed, anyone with a genuine appreciation of France would barely register such a restaurant scene. It would not even show up on the radar. But to the English, it is nothing short of heresy, hence the need to mention the men’s occupation and attire. In England, presumably, ‘men in builders overalls’ are part of the lumpen proletariat, and know their place, whatever that is, but certainly not in any decent restaurant where three-course lunches are served.  In England, builders or their labourers would be calling it ‘dinner’ for a start (the classes are so separate they even have their own vocabulary—whole books have been written on this), and should eat it in the corner pub (providing it hasn’t been gentrified and adopted a ‘dress standard’), or better still a greasy workers’ café. The mention of the number of courses seems to suggest that such people in England very likely wouldn’t have any idea that there should be three courses, unless the third was an extra pint of ale.

Two other sections made me see red. One was Entertainment, which offered this gem of high-class insightful journalism: ‘French television is, for the most part, unmitigated crap: game shows, variety shows, reality shows, debate shows.’ Debate shows! Now there’s an oxymoron. I watch quite a lot of television when I am in France, mostly France 2 and 3 (state-owned, so a bit like the ABC), and have watched some of the most stimulating debates I have ever seen. They make our (Australian) Q&A program look very tame, especially those endless puerile tweets. I have watched debates on relationships, on architecture, on music.

During the 2007 French presidential election campaign, there were many televised debates of the leaders of the 12 parties that were contesting. Most of them spoke eloquently and clearly. All had Ideas, and Things To Say, which may sound as odd to the English as it does to us in Australia. More recently, in February this year, I watched a 2-hour program, ‘Paroles des Francais’, in which a number of French people, chosen from many walks of life, debated with Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now I am no fan of Sarkozy, and the people were very likely hand-picked, with their comments vetted in advance; Sarkozy certainly answered every point readily, as if he had done his homework, and perhaps was even using an autocue. But he talked at length, and I did not hear one mention of the opposition. If this had been an Australian ‘debate’, his responses would have only been about the opposition.  Yes Sarkozy responded to his interlocutors’ concerns in what appeared to be an egalitarian fashion, with ideas and measures that he said he would implement. Of course, whether or not he does is another matter. But it was a style of debate of which we see very little in Australia.

But the absolute worst part of this article was the last: Love and Sex. Here we learn that: ‘French men and women are permanently engaged in the great and grim Gallic game of seduction. Flirtation is the norm, infidelity accepted and very much expected, at least in certain circles’.

This turned my thoughts to French films which, as with films of many countries, deal extensively with relationships and infidelities. Yet in these films, infidelities are not in any way ‘expected’ or ‘tolerated’ although, as everywhere, they do occur.  When betrayed, a partner is usually devastated. These films wouldn’t make any sense to their primary audience, the French, if infidelity was ‘accepted and expected’.  Even in the few movies I’ve just managed to see as part of the French film festival here in Melbourne this point was borne out in films such as Blind Date, Beautiful Lies, and the most exquisite Women on the Sixth Floor.

I have been visiting France since 1968 (admittedly, I was too young then to judge how much seduction was going on), and in recent years have spent an average of three months there each year. I have among my French friends singles and couples ranging from their 20s to their 70s.  Among my friends and acquaintances, I see no more ‘seduction’ and ‘flirtation’ than I see in Australia, which is to say—very little.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.escapetoparis.com/2011/03/no-escaping-the-stereotypes%e2%80%a6/


  1. Véronique Jaubert

    That is what you call being a true francophile. Thank you for being fair. We are not perfect but we are not all that bad. When is your next column in the Guardian? By the way, did you know that French people do not speak English?

  2. A lovely critique of anglocentric stereotypi

    ng of the French. Way overdue!

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