A class act

Every day my daughters enter and leave their school through a door over which is suspended the tricolore, with the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité emblazoned above it. Collecting them one day, I fell to musing aloud about the improbability of finding a Union Jack at the entry to every British school, let alone a national motto, if indeed one existed. I should know better than to muse aloud. On this occasion I found myself face-to-face with a Frenchwoman wearing a particularly unforgiving look. Mais bien sûr que non, she said, before going on to explain that in England we could not have cette devise (freedom, equality, brotherhood) parce que, in England, we had le class system.

The existence of le class system is, of course, undeniable. It is there in daily references to the “silent majority”; in our recriminations over Brexit; and even in our designation of the littlest room as “toilet,” “loo,” or “lavatory”. We all spend a great deal of time publicising our position on the class ladder by emitting subtle signals decipherable only by fellow Brits. There are those who proudly climb a few rungs by “bettering themselves”. There are also those who are intent on clambering down, starting by announcing, in an accent devoid of consonants, that they were born on a council estate to parents who were only recently out of the mines (it being generally accepted in some circles that the area of intersection in the Venn diagram of high birth on the one hand and personal integrity on the other is vanishingly small).

So, yes, we remain ensnared by le class system even in the twenty-first century. Suggesting that France lacks a socially-gradated system, however, would be misleading. Here, as everywhere else, égalité is all very well so long as the moneyed can be privately equal behind the walls of their maisons de maître, and the poor will content themselves with being equal in their high-rises.

It’s not just a matter of money, either. In France, as in the UK, a distinction is made between the picturesque working class of garlic- and beret-wearing paysans and the urban poor, who are routinely suspected of being lazy and scrounging. At the other end of the scale, there are those who proudly vaunt their aristocratic heritage, living in dilapidated piles and driving ancient Renaults, but who would shudder at the thought that they might be placed into the same category as the nouveau riche, with their Porsche Cayennes and their Swarovski crystal.

The problem for any British interloper is that the code in France is subtly different, as Eadred the Bald and I recently discovered. One night a few weeks ago our serious, literary-minded elder daughter (let’s call her the Reader) surprised us by asking to have her ears pierced at the tender age of nine.

According to my well-thumbed British code book, pierced ears before secondary school come under the same social heading as Coca-Cola in baby bottles. As a British parent, you can be certain that, if you allow your child to have their ears pierced at a tender age, sooner or later you will overhear some tight-lipped parent loudly telling their child that they can’t have their ears pierced too because “it’s just not something we believe in at your age”. It is the same phenomenon that attaches to childhood bikinis. I have lost count of the number of times that my children’s two-piece swimsuits have given rise to a frosty silence on the part of British visitors.

The Reader with middle class ears
The Reader with middle class ears

When the Reader made her request, therefore, my instinct was to turn her down. She deserved a reasoned answer, though, and it was here that I stumbled. Yes, letting her have her ears pierced would place us amongst the settee-sitting ranks in the UK, but in France a canapé is just a canapé, and here, pierced lobes are viewed not as a mutilation but as an adornment. When discussing the issue with French mums they could not understand my hesitation. Wasn’t it just a little bit déplacé, I ventured. Pourquoi ? came the baffled response: c’est très joli.

Concluding that our only objection was based on the prejudices of a class system masquerading as a moral code, Eadred and I eventually decided that there was no good reason why the Reader should be prevented from emulating her French peers. So it was that, a week ago, she developed earrings. Her little studs have been greeted with admiration here in Lyon. I am, however, bracing myself for our social descent when we first unveil her disfigurement in the UK…

The Reader with lower-class ears
The Reader with lower-class ears

10 thoughts on “A class act

  1. My daughter wanted her ears pierced, too. She was a bit older, but not secondary school. It was difficult because all her friends had pierced ears since they were babies. You said it perfectly: like Coke in baby bottles. Why? Because it’s gilding the lily, decorating what’s already perfect. Doing it implies that they aren’t perfect as they are. We don’t do that to boys. Same thing with the bikini (my poor kid not only didn’t wear a bikini but had to wear a long-sleeved rash guard, and all kids who came to our pool had to wear shirts–reduces the greasy film of washed-off sunblock). Let kids be kids. Not girls and boys but just kids.
    That said, peer pressure is fierce, and I don’t want to sound harsh on The Reader. Good luck to her! At least SHE decided; it wasn’t foisted on her by adults.

    1. I would have agreed wholeheartedly before, but being here has made me question what kids being kids means. I think that we all foist our ideas of what being kids might mean on them, and usually that comes with a pile of cultural, social and moral assumptions. I think a lot of English-speaking nations see earrings and bikinis as something almost sexual. French people don’t. In a way just expressing taste without all the adult cultural baggage is the ultimate expression of childhood. It’s fascinating to think about, at any rate! Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Hope the unveiling has gone well and the Reader isn’t damaged, I’m sure she won’t be and I’m sure there will be more peculiarities along the way too. Thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo and for linking up throughout the year, hope you have a fab 2017 x

  3. Reading about these cultural differences fascinates me – makes me feel really thick about British culture though! I admit that I don’t really understand the significance of “toilet” “lavatory” and “loo” (apart from the fact that they are all words for what I would call the “bathroom” and what Canadians apparently call the “washroom”.) Anyway, I think it’s nice that you decided to let her get her ears pierced – it’s not always easy to adapt to certain aspects of local culture when they conflict with the customs we grew up with.

  4. It’s interesting, in Australia the ‘acceptable’ age for getting girls ears pierced seems to undergone a transition over the years. When I was growing up (a while ago now) earrings on girls before they were in secondary school was definitely frowned upon. These days though, following years of European immigration we seem to have moved to the French approach – which I personally think is a good thing!! I think the Reader looks lovely in her studs! #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thank you for dropping by Janelle. It is interesting that in Australia, (presumably continental) European influences seem to have changed attitudes. It may be a while before the same thing happens in the UK… The Reader will be pleased that you like them. #AllAboutFrance.

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