Some Thoughts About the French
by Joel Shepherd
I like them. Yeah, believe it or not, I managed to spend nearly six months in Paris without coming to dislike its inhabitants. And I found many (though by no means all) of the cliches to be untrue. For one thing, I found the Parisiens actually MORE polite than average... though I suppose that depends on what you define as average. Average for a big western city, anyway. They’ll make way for you on the sidewalk, while some others I could name will just barge through. They’ll say hello and goodbye when you enter or leave their shop. And, after much cycling on the roads, I found their drivers remarkably courteous where cyclists were concerned.
I think there are mitigating circumstance with me, though. For one thing, I speak a little French, and improved a lot while I was there. Being able to speak some French, or at least making an effort, will dramatically improve attitudes, even if the person in question speaks good English. But the French HATE being jabbered at in English straight off the bat... which if you think about it is not surprising, how would any of us Anglophones like it if a Chinese tourist started asking questions in Mandarin in our home town, just expecting you to understand? I did see a few Anglophone tourists doing that, pretty cluelessly, and I can’t say I was all that put out at the snooty reaction.
Also, on my bike – I ride a road bike, so a lot of the time I’m going as fast or even faster than Parisien traffic. It’s the slow bikes they don’t like, the ones that get in the way. Those are also at the most risk of being hit, because they don’t linger in the driver’s vision, they just appear suddenly, like a road obstacle. But I was treated like another car, and given a wider berth than most Australian drivers would bother with – cyclists are just a part of the culture over there, and no one questions their right to use the road. Better yet, dodging through heavy Parisien traffic can be kind of fun. I played tag with some motor scooters through rush hour jams several times – first they’d get ahead, then I’d find the small gaps they couldn’t fit into and I’d get ahead, and the drivers of the less powerful scooters would get annoyed that I could nearly match them for acceleration if I really sprinted off the lights. Certainly bikes and scooters are way faster than cars in heavy traffic.
On the other hand, it’s nice to be back in Australia, too. There’s something about a culture where “tu” and “vous” (informal and formal address) are concerns in every interaction that will always make my informal Australian brain feel like a foreigner. Australians never quite got the hang of formality, as a concept. Of all the Australian flaws, this is my favorite.
Some other observations of interest about France and Paris; don’t believe this stuff about “low European birth rates”, there’s kids everywhere in Paris. I read somewhere France is the only Western European nation with a positive birth rate, and I believe it. The only thing more common in Paris than kids, is dogs. They’re not all ratty little poodles either, walking in the parks you can come across great packs of bigger dogs that would be quite intimidating if in Australia, where lots of dogs seem to have a meaner streak. But in Paris, they all think they’re people, and behave accordingly. With the exception of sniffing each others’ backsides. But then, I’m sure a lot of people would if they could. Annoyingly, many Parisiens don’t believe in leashes. They practice screaming instead. Many peaceful walks with the family pet involve screaming “Arrête! Ici! Ici!” at the top of their lungs. The dogs, of course, pay no heed to French threats. Like most world leaders these days.
Also, with racial themes emerging lately in Paris, I was interested to see lots of mixed-race couples – black and white, but also Asian, Arab, you name it. Many had kids, other young and sexy couples were publicly intimate on park benches or at cafes in that very Parisien way. But Paris has always been like that, I recall the stories about black American jazz musicians who went to Paris in the 1930s, back when they weren’t allowed to buy a drink in many of the clubs they played at in America. And in Paris, they were treated like stars, were invited to all the big soirees, had affairs with pretty Parisien socialites, etc. And found it so depressing upon returning to America, they hit the drugs and booze even worse than jazz musicians of that period were usually reputed to. The recent troubles aren’t about race or racism as such – they’re about Frenchness. Which is not necessarily a racial concept, although it can be. I think the best way to look at it is this – the French are culture snobs. If you’re black, and play the trumpet well, they’ll love you. Arab, and dance the belly dance, ditto. Whatever colour you are, and whatever nation you’re from, if you have a strong attachment to a culture of some description and attraction, France will always be friendly. The poor urban Arabs of the riots, however, are stuck – they’re no longer Arab, and would probably hate to live in most Arab nations, but also they’re not particularly “French”, at least not as white French people would define it. Their culture is reactionary, contrary, and mass-market popular – rap and sports gear, real fodder for culture snobs. And the result is like oil and water. Or should that be oil and fire? It’s not racism in its most simplistic form. It’s culture-ism.
All in all, though, I hope France gets its act together someday soon. It really is a nice country, and its people really are good people. It doesn’t make it any less fun to make fun of them, of course, but it’s always sad to see good things decline.