You win some and… you win some

As a person who prides myself on my (relative) eloquence, moving to France has been a useful daily exercise in humility. Even though my French is pretty good, if I want to contribute to a conversation I have to accept that my speech will emerge clumsy and misshapen, and that, quite possibly, I will never quite succeed in getting my point across on any given matter. If the experience of responding to questions with a degree of gormlessness I would never before have imagined possible were not humbling enough, however, I have recently become aware that there is a side to the French character which thrives on watching people get it wrong, and then on pointing out their mistakes.

I am reminded of this vitriolic aspect of French life each morning when leaving the house in the car. The gate through which the car has to exit opens directly onto our narrow busy street, at a right angle to it. The sharp angle means that it is impossible to see anything of the road until the bonnet of the car is already out of the gate, and thus the driver is always obliged at first to edge out blindly. I won’t be killed, I reassure myself, because the French have that crazy priorité à droite rule, which surely can be interpreted to mean that I have priority over cars already on the road and coming from my left… Invariably, just as I succeed in peering gingerly round the gatepost, I will hear the roar of an engine approaching at 80 kilometres per hour (the 30 kilometre per hour sign being purely ornamental) and, more often than not, some furious beeping. I can assure you that such beeping is not intended as a friendly warning. This morning, the approaching car took the time to brake sharply in front of the gate and to wind down the window in order to give me the benefit of a loud and unpleasant discourse on the subject of my driving failures and the extent to which my idiocy put innocent lives at risk, before departing in a cloud of superior dust to recommence its defiance of the speed limit.

Apart from alerting the medics of the world to a potential hypertension crisis amongst the motorists of Lyon, my purpose in recounting my daily brush with death on my doorstep is to illustrate the fact that, in France, you have to become accustomed to having your shortcomings pointed out to you on a regular basis even, and perhaps especially, when you have done nothing wrong and it is your interlocutor who is really at fault.

Is it fair of me to describe these tendencies as being peculiar to the French? After all, I could name plenty of British individuals who have difficulty in confessing their mistakes, let alone apologising for them, and who like to believe that they always have the right answer (my five-year old daughter for one). The difference is, though, that in the UK, the antics of such people are generally held to be rather unsporting (not wanting to win being the unspoken entry requirement for sports clubs across our green and pleasant land), whereas here in France, one-upmanship is an accepted part of the culture. Furthermore, instead of resenting the unfairness of it all, as I do, despite my best attempts at insouciance, most of my French friends simply shrug off the day’s unpleasant exchanges. C’est la vie.

My friends are quite right of course. If you took every incidence of one-upmanship to heart, you would soon become irredeemably downcast. Just today, for instance, my flailing attempt to greet one of my daughter’s five-year-old friends in French was mockingly taken apart by the beneficiary of my warmth, its faults analysed without compassion and with a heavy emphasis on the superiority of their own linguistic abilities. Or yesterday, my husband returned from the boulangerie with a flea in his ear because he had asked for two brioches au sucre, and was told firmly that this was incorrect and that he should have asked for two tartes au sucre. Never mind that in the next door village the very same item can only be purveyed by asking for a brioche au sucre. Never mind that there is no label anywhere to be seen that would have enabled my husband to get the nomenclature right. He was wrong; he had been told this in no uncertain terms; and he had taken it to heart. Even French people are regularly pulled up for their ignorance of the correct vienoiserie terminology. Unlike us, however, they do not seem to find the resulting routine dressing down at all perturbing.

There are indeed entire professions in France that are founded on the principle of finding fault with other people. This becomes apparent as soon as you have to complete any sort of process here, from registering a car, through getting married, to applying for tennis lessons for your child. The scenario is always the same: you compile the obligatory dossier, replete with ID, proofs of address, grade one viola certificates and any other machins on the list you have been given. You stagger to the specified airless office, take tickets and queue for hours in order to have one short interview with a bored looking official. The only time that a smile will flicker across their face is in the moment that they discover the flaw in your bulging wad of paperwork. Non, they will say whilst staring you down with now undisguised satisfaction. If you are a novice like me you will start stammering out apologies and will accept the merest and least comprehensible explanation with absurd gratitude. By contrast, friends who have more experience of the system that I do, admit to deliberately withholding one obscure piece of paperwork, waiting for the official to spot it, and then, after a moment of silence, smugly producing it from the bottom of their bag, to the chagrin of the official, who had only seconds ago believed that victory was theirs. Pamela Druckerman has pointed out that there is even a verbal expression of this air-pumping moment: bim you should say, just to make it abundantly clear that it is you who has triumphed.

I have been reflecting on why it might be that in France so many people seem to find it satisfying publicly to vaunt their own perceived superiority in this way. I can’t help wondering whether it has something to do with an education system, which (and more of this in a future post), from the earliest conceivable age, is focused on what you have got wrong rather than on what you have got right. If the British started with a total of twenty marks for each piece of work, only to have them systematically removed for each and every tiny error, perhaps our world-famous ability to lose well would come under some strain. Who knows? I’m probably wrong about all of this anyway…

Variety is the spice of life

This morning, lacking anything better to say in a desultory conversation, I expressed delight at the discovery of a Korean restaurant in Lyon that served excellent spicy food. My interlocutor looked a bit taken aback. Je ne peux pas supporter la nourriture épicée, she said. So far so French. But when I expressed the view that you simply had to get used to spices in order to begin to enjoy them, she looked at me with something bordering on disdain and declared that, non, par contre, the French were genetically incapable of digesting such food and consequently could never make it part of their diet.

It was a moment of sudden illumination. There I had been, in my Anglo Saxon way, thinking that, given sufficient practice, it was possible to embrace any change in habit or custom. But in fact, no. In France there are but two categories in life: things that are French and things that are not French. Whilst as an interloper it may be possible to insinuate yourself into the French category by beeping your car horn intemperately and eating a diet of near-raw meat, you can never blur the boundary, which is monolithic and immutable. French food is French food. Non-French food is non-French food. London can keep its culinary fusion, merci.

My frivolous anecdote is thrown into more sinister relief by events that unfurled live on France 2 on Monday night when Robert Ménard, the Front National mayor of Béziers, declared that 64.6% of pupils attending schools in his town were Muslim. Though we may have been repulsed by the arguments in support of which this figure was being deployed, those of us used to seeing “National Statistics” popping up in the news on a daily basis would have seen nothing particularly unusual about a mayor discussing the composition of the schools under his jurisdiction. It then transpired that Ménard had arrived at the figure by making a study of the first names of all the pupils and separating out those he deemed to be Muslim in origin. Doubtless, faced with such an admission, a British audience would have condemned the dubious manner in which the information had been collected as lacking scientific rigour and being open to accusations of racial and religious stereotyping. In the UK there might even have been, scandal upon scandal, calls for the UK Statistics Authority to investigate.

In France there has been an uproar, with a succession of illustrious people booming forth about how Ménard should be condemned for atteinte aux valeurs de la République, which is not much short of treason. Is this because of his racism and xenophobia, or because of his deplorable methodology? It is because of neither really. Why the furore, then? The answer is that it is because Ménard had the temerity to try to compile these statistics in the first place. As it turns out, collecting statistics on ethnicity runs counter to the values of the Republic and, indeed, belongs to the category of things that are decidedly not French. One radio interviewee today even denounced the collection of statistics on ethnicity as being, in and of itself, a racist, Anglo Saxon practice, an accusation which made me choke on my mug of Anglo Saxon tea with milk.

At first I could not puzzle out how the mere fact of collecting statistics could possibly incite such outrage. Of course, though, I was starting from the assumption that the only reason for the UK Government to collect such statistics would be to try to help ensure greater equality of opportunity regardless of race, creed or colour. Evidently, this had not been the purpose of the statistic generated in Béziers, but I cling to the hope that, whether successful or not (and unfortunately ultimate success is mixed), this is at least the intention of such number-crunching in the evil Anglo Saxon countries. So why all the vitriol about it here in France?

The answer came to me when, whilst talking to the person genetically incapable of eating spicy food, I had the realisation about French life being divided up into those two absolute categories of French and not French. If you are not French, it is possible that you have six heads and eat raw chilli for breakfast: on s’en fiche. If you are French, however, you are the same as everyone else: undifferentiated and indivisible from all the others in that bracket. If you are French, you are part of a fiercely-protected laity, which means that nobody is at all interested in your religious practices, unless you go public about them by wearing a headscarf to school, at which point you are told to conduct them in private. Thus the French Republic does not count its Muslims because it does not deem such subdivisions to be relevant to the central question of whether they are French or not. Any count is a direct challenge to the homogeneity of the French, which in turn risks effacing that beautifully clear, straight line between everything French and everything not French.

I have a grudging admiration for such fierce determination to assimilate all newcomers into the absolute French-ness of the French. How else does this country manage to preserve its language and its traditions so beautifully in the modern world? The problem, though, is that to plough on with this dualism is in fact to ignore the very real and growing diversity of the people who now belong to the French category. It is to retreat from the actual to the ideal. Furthermore, if you refuse to collect any statistics on ethnicity, how on earth will you be in any position to detect discrimination where it occurs, which, sadly, it surely does, here as much as in any other country in the world (look at Ménard). To combat discrimination the very first step has to be to admit that it is possible and, consequently, that people differ from one another.

All in all, I think that I prefer the British attitude, which embraces cultural diversity rather than seeking to peg everyone to a single British standard. Yes, when we tick those boxes describing our skin colour, race and religion, we may be a bit cynical about how effective it will be in tackling discrimination against minorities in school, at work, and in life in general, but at least I feel that someone is trying to take note of, and to protect, our differences. And of course, a significant benefit of this melting pot approach is the widespread availability on our shores of spicy food from every conceivable world cuisine. After all, just occasionally it is possible to tire of steak frites.




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