Image by The Library of Congress via FlickrThe giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
An foolish notion'.
Do you think so, Rabbie? I'm not convinced.
English friends came to lunch recently, bringing with them their French architect and his wife and conversation turned to the picture one nation is supposed to have of another. It's a handy device, the stereotype..it removes the need to think about the person to whom you are speaking and substitutes a pre programmed response to whom you assume that person to be.
My father's stereotype of the French was as follows..
'Buggers let us down in 1914...buggers did it again in 1940...can't trust them as far as you can kick them.' He also used to refer to the French army as the Comedie Francaise. He applied the faults of the higher echelons of French society to the entire nation and regarded every Frenchman with suspicion, while as for the women....!
My tutor's stereotype of the French differed from that of my father..
The French were civilised, concentrating on the good things of life, the leisurely lunch, the wine, the foie gras and indulging in sophisticated conversation in cafes about philosophy and literature.
While as for the women...!
While the two views are not mutually exclusive, they would lead their proponents to behave in radically divergent fashions to any Frenchman...or woman...they encountered.
It would not have occurred to my father that a war time generation Frenchman, having been conscripted, would have spent almost the whole of the 'phoney war' period being bussed from one garrison to another only to find his regiment in entirely the wrong place when the German blitzkrieg roared across the frontiers, thanks to the miscalculations of his superiors, despite the fact that my father spent a great deal of vocal energy on the idiocy of those responsible for having the big guns at Singapore facing the wrong way when the Japanese came visiting, a lot of his friends having gone into captivity as a result. I don't think a post war generation Frenchman existed for my father.....his view was formed by two world wars and stayed in that frame.
My tutor thought that every French citizen was a Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre in miniature....if it is possible to be smaller than Jean Paul Sartre.....thanks to their education system which demanded an exam in philosophy as part of the bac...the French equivalent of 'A' levels. It probably never crossed his mind that the majority of French kids just about scraped through the 'brevet' - a sort of leaving exam taken at the age of 16 - and went on to manual work, because he had his fixed idea of French civilisation which firmly excluded anyone not from the leisured classes.
My own stereotype was based on the novels of Georges Simenon.....only to discover later that he was Belgian and had his own twist on France!
Our friends' stereotype was based on the French rural idyll....unspoilt countryside, the grape harvest and the bucolic peasant in his blue overalls enjoying a drink at the bar. I know where that particular view came from...the magazines pushing property and services!
The architect was astonished by these stereotypes...none seemed to him to be how he thought the foreigners thought of the French. Based on what he had read, he thought that foreigners assumed that the French were logical, serious, hard working people with a glorious military history and unique civilisation. I don't know what he had been reading, but it doesn't astonish me...you do read an awful lot, even these days, about France's civilising mission in the world.... well, you do in France.
In his turn, he gave us his stereotype of the British. We had let the French down in two world wars and at Suez. We were pawns of the americans and only joined the Common Market, as it was then, in order to let the americans and japanese in by the back door. We were unintellectual, operating on instinct, not reason, and, moreover, we had burned Joan of Arc.
Now, I cannot say that seeing ourselves as others see us made any great change in any of our perceptions of ourselves...after all, we are all convinced that the stereotype applies to others, not ourselves...but, at least in my case, I picked up a valuable lesson. Find out how you are regarded and it might go some way to explaining how you are treated.
Nomatter how good your French might be, the average French person is convinced that he or she will not understand you because you are a foreigner. Therefore they will not understand you. Inculcated as they are with the notion that everything in France is the best in the world, you will be assumed to have arrived in France to take advantage of this wonderful system...how you possibly could even if you wanted is beyond me, but the matter is past all reason. Your children will go to French schools, you will go to French doctors and hospitals, when you are of pensionable age, you will get eighty per cent of your health costs reimbursed just as if you were French. Thus, you are taking advantage of the French taxpayer...thin though these are on the ground. You are an exploiter, not only for taking advantage of French public services, but because you have bought a run down house, renovated it, then sold it at a profit, thus depriving local people's children of the right to turn it down as being uninhabitable and buy a bungalow.
You, personally, may well be an exception to your neighbours as they get to know you, but, in the mass, that is how you are regarded and no amount of 'integration' will change the overall perspective.
These days, with the large British colonies dotted about France, it is possible to ignore the question of how we are regarded. We can have a social life that only includes French people on the periphery, included on our own terms, and requires very little skill in the French language. When I was first in France, it was very different...you coped with French society and language or you became a hermit. I decided not to be a hermit and learned as I went along the value of the friendship of ordinary people like myself, just trying to make a living, in helping to cope with a state system that regards us all, little French and little foreigners alike, as dust beneath its' chariot wheels.
Still, to return to Burns
'A man's a man for a' that.'