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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10 thoughts on “Variety is the spice of life

  1. Nice post, and very true comments about the blind-eye the French can turn to discrimination.

    I’ve taught a course on French/American relations at the university, and we talk about the use of ethnic/racial statistics in the US. It’s always a tricky point to discuss because we obviously have our own problems and tensions in the US, but my French students also have a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of taking such statistics: in their minds it is completely taboo and brings up images of WWII.
    I try to emphasize the very different histories of our two countries so they can at least see why we could have such different social policies.

    I don’t know if I change their thinking on this, but hopefully get them to see things from a different perspective.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Yes, it would be lovely if you could at least help your students to see things from the other point of view. Good luck!

  2. Going back to spice, rather than deeper themes, I am puzzled about why the French sometimes put dishes which supposedly include curry on their menus, spicing chicken or what have you with the mildest generic curry powder imaginable. As a lover of spice I always avoid any hint of curry in France as being just not right. Do the French like this stuff or do they offer such dishes for us Anglo Saxons?

    1. Mark, I think they like it, and I have heard the “curry” you mention being described as “hot” on occasion. Perhaps they are right about the genes…

  3. If the French really have a “fierce determination to integrate all newcomers,” they have done a pretty lousy job of it…

    On the food issue, we had a little take-away/sandwich restaurant near my work and for the “plat du jour,” at first they made a lot of slightly spicy, or “sucré-salé”, dishes. I thought they were great — finally something original! But later she had to tame them because of complaints — what a pity!

    I have to say though that lately France has been terribly keen on American food. Even here in the deepest depths, about every bistrot has a hamburger on it now.

    I really enjoyed this post and will subscribe to you in the future! #AllAboutFrance

  4. Such a complex issue with positive and negative arguments for both the French and Anglo side. I agree with Betty that integration has been lousily done. French chauvinism in all areas of life drives me mad: my family in law who live an hour from another European country but have never been because “why would you want to leave France, we have everything here?”, my French friend who surprisingly went to Thailand on holiday – though I later found out it was to Club Med of course – who complained the French food wasn’t good there! etc. BUT French who have travelled lots and especially lived outsde France are different! They espouse spicy food and cultural differences. Living in a very international community I am surrounded by wonderfully open-minded French – they do exist! (My hubby for one!!) Like I said, though, it’s complex (and fascinating) and obviously not just about spicy food. Thanks for linkinng up to #AllABoutFrance again Emily.

    1. Yes, Phoebe – most French people are as cosmopolitan as everyone else. And after all, why should you embrace world cuisine when you have such a wealth of good food right here…?

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