All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Why don't I want to be French?

A debate is taking place on what it means to be French, inspired by the minister dealing, or not, with immigration, Eric Besson.....whose ex wife's book details his refusal to vow fidelity at their wedding ceremony, a refusal validated by what she has to say about his serial infidelities during the marriage. Perish the thought that a politician could be inconsistent, so one can only suppose that he thinks marital infidelity is one component of the French identity he wishes to promote among native French and immigrants alike. I knew that he opposed women wearing the burqua, but his wife's revelations now lead me to suppose that it might not be a cultural question as such, but more of an objection to an obstacle to his ability to size up the talent.

Wanting to have your cake and eating it might well figure as a more general French characteristic.....contestants in the Koh Lanta television 'reality' show - a designation which has always puzzled me given the nature of these programmes - have claimed that they were not participants, but, get this, employees! Furthermore, a court agrees with them, and they have been awarded their entitlement - a few days paid at the minimum wage, the SMIC, and their social security payments made for the period. The television company concerned has, following the logic of the ruling, decided that as the winner was in fact an employee they don't have to pay him the prize he won by eating beetles and suffering the humiliations inseparable from reality shows, just a few days' pay on the SMIC. Not quite what he bargained for, but then, anything to do with eating cake in France has been a bit risky ever since the days of Marie Antoinette.

As part of Monsieur Besson's campaign to emphasise French identity, it has been proposed that children should sing the national anthem, 'La Marseillaise', at least once a year in their schools. A brief perusal of the words reveals a certain lack of warmth toward those other than the native French.....are the French to support the presence in their country of foreign cohorts who would impose their own laws upon the French? Well, bang goes the European Union then. Impure blood shall flow in the furrows of the fields.....we get the message, thanks. France is for the French.

Which brings us full circle. What is it that makes someone French? Born in France...perhaps, in terms of nationality, in formal terms, but what makes someone shout for the French team in the Six Nations rugby tournament, or for 'les bleus' - the national football team? I don't qualify, that's for sure. In the last rugby world cup, held in France, France beat England in the preliminary rounds.....all around us, deep in the country, the night air resounded to 'La Marseillaise' bawled from every farm - impure blood had appropriately been made to flow, no doubt. When England beat France in the semi finals, no sound whatever rent the firmament, except for 'Rule Britannia' blasting out from the speakers on our terrace. If I'd had 'Hearts of Oak' I'd have played that too. I'd never pass the Tebbit test, any more than would the north african immigrants and their families who whistled down 'La Marseillaise' at a football match between France and Algeria in Paris.

Perhaps we should be posing a different question. Why is it that people who come to France to live and work don't want to identify with the country? Let's start with why I was playing 'Rule Britannia' during the rugby world cup as I am more at ease and, shall we say authoritative, in the examination of my own reactions than in pontificating about others.
I cannot say that I ever thought of myself in terms of my nationality...I had a culture and the associated assumptions and I thought that these were common to Europe....our shared christian, post Roman heritage. Then I moved to France.
I cannot claim either that I swiftly became aware that it was not just a question of language...I was living out in the sticks among ordinary people, learning to communicate, imbibing their customs and adjusting to their mentality. Except that I could not adjust. Why should decent, upright people feel that
'Nous sommes pour rien'........'We count for nothing'?

I began to learn. The French Revolution of 1789 mght have overturned royal power, but it was instigated and shaped by the French middle class, much more adept than the 'aristos' in exacting the last sou from the peasants living on the land these lawyers and merchants bought at the auctions of the property of those who had emigrated from France as the old order crumbled. Nothing much changed in the countryside until the German occupation in the 1940s when the farmers found that they could sell their produce at top prices both to the occupying power and to the starving people from the towns, so that at the end of the second world war, the farmers could afford to buy out the leases from their bourgeois landlords, impoverished by the war, and could become independent. Post war food policy and the Common Agricultural Policy further strengthened their position to the point where their interests began to mesh with those of the bourgeoisie proper, with whom they began to assimilate and to inherit the fruits of 1789. If you're not part of that group then, truly, you count for nothing.

I think that it is this fruit from a rotten tree that sets on edge the teeth of immigrants...the fanatical nationalism, the sense of superiority, the wish to impose, born of an era when the new France was surrounded on all sides by enemies......the vision of the state as embodying the will of the people - and woe betide any sector of the people who disagree........the obscene lust for money and the pursuit of the last brass farthing, the actual religion of the bourgeoisie who came to power at the fall of the monarchy.

As an immigrant, all goes well while you play the game. While you accept that someone incompetent will be appointed because they are French even though your qualifications are superior.....while you see your daughter, with a gift for languages, being directed to a career as a secretary rather than as a graduate level translator, because you were not born in France....while your children learn from newly qualified teachers, sent to the sink schools in the largely immigrant suburbs by an administration that doesn't consider it worthwhile to send in experienced staff to improve the life chances of children of non French parents.....while you accept the third world standards of service.....while you accept the rip offs from French artisans because you bear a foreign name....

When an immigrant doesn't accept his or her lot, the solids hit the fan.
I remember the employee of France Telecom, when upbraided for total incompetence, telling me that if I didn't like it, I could go home - not just to my house, but to my country of origin.
The railway clerk who refused to issue me with my prepaid and prebooked ticket responding to my request as to what I was supposed to do to get home with the lapid statement
'Vous etes foutue, Madame.' 'You're f.......ed, lady.'
The plumber who came in with an estimate for putting in a stop cock that would have paid for a last minute holiday in Turkey who became a red as a Turkey cock when it was queried, announcing that he had had enough of British clients....they shouldn't ask for estimates when they couldn't pay.

I have and have had a number of French friends, ordinary people, just trying to keep their heads above water. I have a few immigrant friends, not all of them British, either working or retired in France. The common denominator is that we all try to see things as they are, not as they are presented, and, in my case, that means playing 'Rule Britannia' when the England fifteen hammer France because I don't appreciate being treated as a second class citizen in a third rate society.

Now........let's just have cricket in the Olympics and I'll have to go looking for a recording of
'Advance, Australia fair.'


  1. A very interesting post.

    Identity is multi-faceted. I am English, fostered by Wales. I am also British and European, though Brits too think they are 'special' in the European sense. I identify more with Europe than with the US, though arguably the UK culture (oh, I forgot, I'm from the UK too) is nearer to the States.

    One thing we are all are is capitalist - even the Chinese are capitalists now.

    And being an outsider is an identity of sorts.

    Small bit of feedback about your blog, which I hope you take in right spirit - because you know I read it and enjoy it a lot. Have you tried putting line breaks between all the paragraphs, and making them shorter? It makes reading on screen much easier, and helps the reader follow. I could bore you with all the research and reasons why, but trust me, it is so. Not very British to say that sort thing, but hey, I mean well.

  2. Mark, first, thank you for the advice...I have gone back and tried to divide the paragraphs and will certainly bear you point in mind when posting again. I appreciate your help.....taken in the same spirit as offered!
    Identity is something that intrigues am I defined and by whom? I do get annoyed at rampant chauvinism, wherever it is, though.

  3. We're starting another business here in the US and so the topic of French lack of customer service came up. It really is an amazingly weird way of running businesses. Here, you have to do everything you can for your customer, and we do. And then those customers tell everyone else how good you were and you get more business. But it's also what we want to do, we want our clients to be happy with us, it's a big part of our reason for being in business. When our clients are happy, it is meaningful to us, we then feel satisfied with our work.

    I have to think that part of it is that employees can't be fired easily. So they do as little as they can get away with. Here, no employee would last a day if they talked to you like the railroad agent. You would complain to their office and they would be fired or at the least, warned.

    I find our young French friends love the culture in the US where, if you can do something, you are free to go out and do it. On the other hand, in the US, it is also easy to fall through the cracks and lose everything you have. People don't understand that about the States. There is no nanny state here, even though we have a welfare class who subsist on handouts. However, an immigrant who is capable and willing to work like crazy and who has family support can make it here and be accepted in a way that is impossible or very hard in the French system. And we do have a culture where good customer service is a crucial part of running a successful business. In the last few years, here in northern NH, which is all WASP, we have suddenly gotten genuine Thai and Indian restaurants. And they are thriving.

    One French friend says there is no upward job mobility in France. I think that leads to a stagnant attitude, why care if you're not going to get anywhere.

    Money grubbing is probably universal!

  4. Zuleme, money grubbing characterises the French bourgeoisie....hours of productive time spent working out how to calculate the value of an inheritance. I could tell stories.....
    As to customer service, forget it. If I were a boss whose workforce treated clients in the way I describe, I would be, at the least, having a few training days. Complain to a boss here and he will back up his staff!
    Your point about immobiity and lack of opportunity in France rings true to me. I have seen many talented young people unable to start out in business because of the financial barriers.

  5. Lots easier to read now - especially for those of us have difficulty reading from screens (though oddly not from an e-reader).

    If you don't like rampant chauvinism I'd suggest never going to somewhere like Nepal - when we were there it was common to see a line of women at a store / tea house only for the men just walk to the front. One of the few countries in the world where women's life expectancy is lower than men's.

  6. Mark, glad it's better, will work on presentation in the future.
    Nepal sounds dreadful....for women.

  7. Do you think the French have a way of dealing with bad customer service? Why did the clerk refuse to give you your ticket? I can just imagine what my French friend would have said to that.

    When we were catching the TGV to Avignon from Paris this August it was a few minutes late and she said we should complain to keep them on their toes. Would you say there is a more combative attitude to things in France than in a more reasonable society?

    We just set up a machine shop here to make custom camera parts. In less than a week my husband had everything he needed and found suppliers for parts. One supplier took a few days to ship something and he dropped them from his future list.

    I bet in France it would have driven him crazy to get everything he needed let alone the paperwork. We do have a young friend starting a software business, he must know how to deal with the system.

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  9. Intriguing as ever, and I learn that little bit more about you after every visit.

    I loved this..."As an immigrant, all goes well while you play the game."

  10. Zuleme, the treatment you get depends on your perceived status.....mine, as a foreigner, somewhat dishevelled after a long journey, was about minus 20.
    Appear tarted up like a dog's dinner and the treatment will differ.
    He refused to give me my ticket because he thought he could, that's why. I cannot tell you on this blog what I called him for reasons of decency, but I did get his colleague to call the supervisor who sorted it reprimand for the clerk, though.

    Jimmy Bastard, it is a dirty game, with rules you cannot control.
    Looking forward to the day when I'll be loooking for a copy of 'Flower of Scotland' to play after the match.

  11. Ineresting post. I enjoy comparing our experiences in different countries. I would say that in genral, the Spanish are less jingoistic - in fact, many still have a deep sense of inferiority compared with other European countries, as not so long ago they were well behind in the "development" stakes thanks to Franco's closed regime. Although now I'd say they've pretty much caught up, there's much less sense of being the centre of the world or world leaders, and many Spanish people are far more critical of Spain (in an idealistic way) than I am.

  12. I have no clue on where I stand on these identity debates issues.

    I don't feel French and I can,t sing the Marseillaise. I don't feel patriotic. I had to go for national service for a few days when I turned 18 (we were the first women to do it, under the new law) and I hated it. I can't imagine myself fighting for France.

    Only when I left I realize I was a bit French, whether I wanted it or not. Not that I mind. I was educated in France, my parents are French etc. it's normal.

    I do feel the French haven't realized yet they are not the center of the world and don't have to "civilize" people. French are a bit like American in this matter...

  13. Pueblo girl, Mr Fly knew Spain under Franco, when he was a student in Madrid, and loved the fact that he was just accepted as a foreigner without anyone trying to push how wonderful Spain was down his throat.
    I can't say I thouht about nationality unil coming to France, where it always seems to be an issue.
    Thus the musical retaliation.

    Zhu, yes, you#re right...where and how you're brought up forms you but you don't have to adopt all the tarradiddle of nationalism that politicians force on people for their own ends.
    This identity debate serves political ends and has no value at all.

  14. First of all, I cannot say what I really think of Mr Besson and Mr Guéant without taking the risk of prosecution. This being said, I am sure you can imagine...

    There is always a danger in thinking that politicians in power represent what real people are or think, regardless of the country.

    Now, I guess experiences and perception vary from one person to another.

    Concerning the "fanatical nationalism" and the feeling of superiority etc, I think the Brits, and the English in particular, are way ahead of every one else in Europe...
    What I hear and read every day here is sometimes just bewildering, eventhough it can be subtle enough to almost pass unnoticed... the English certainly don't see it that way, as it feels perfectly normal to them.

    Concerning customer service, well, having spent 30 years of my life in France, it was not that bad for me, even though I hear "stories".
    At least I never had any serious problems, whether being with the administration or artisans or shops.
    In 3 years in the UK we had a few cockups happening, so I guess it's more or less the same everywhere.

    "While you accept that someone incompetent will be appointed because they are French even though your qualifications are superior.."
    I hear a lot of "British jobs to British nationals" on this side of the channel, so ...

    Adultery? Funny you mention that, because there were two cases of adultery amongst our freinds recently. Both almost happened at the same time which feels a bit creepy. Our friends aren't French.

    There was some box ticking, and learning by rote (for languages) in UK schools too last time I checked.
    Uk schools probably prepare our children better for real life but the other side of the coin is that the words "culture" and "intellectual" are regarded with suspicion and disbelief and are almost swear words, which might explain why millions of people read nationalistic populist rags such as the Daily Mail and Co. every day.
    But maybe I'm wrong.

    See, we're not that different in the end. :)

  15. Raphael Mour, nice to see you over here.

    Yes, I can imagine what anyone with a brain and a sense of what's what would like to call M. Besson and M. Gueant...except when I lived in the U.K. I could have done so without fear of prosecution. Things have changed since Blair, I know, but there is certainly greater freedom of expression in the U.K.

    However, this is not a bitchfest about France versus the's a commentary on how I felt while in France, although it is interesting to hear of your experiences in the U.K.
    I certainly did not grow up with a sense of fanatical nationalsism...more like pessimistic irony!
    By the tone of your comments about the U.K. you mix in circles which differ from those I frequented...but I must say that some of the British expats in France are people I simply didn't recognise...I never met people like them when in the it could be just a question of geographical or social location for both of us!

    Adultery did not figure in this post, though it might be fun to consider fanatical nationalist adultery!

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