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.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


at least i'm not a bullyImage by Miss Blackflag via Flickr

A part of the French experience that doesn't surface in the books and articles about France, but I think it underlies what we, foreigners, might class as discrimination, as we see it only from what happens to ourselves, without a wider picture.

I have been brought to thinking about this by reading a discussion about discrimination on the Survive France network, then an item  on Marilyn Z Tomlins' blog about the assault on an autistic child by his classmates a side angle... by a post from A Year Down the Line about something which may or may not turn out to be a problem.

A participant in the Survive France discussion, Sarah Hague, who has a super blog at St. Bloggie de Riviere, made the point that you are all right in France until the moment you stick your neck out at which point the knives come out too and I think she is right, but I also think it reaches across the whole of French society, not just, as was the focus of the Survive France discussion, in relation to the French reaction to foreigners.

Before I start, do just bear in mind that my experience of France has been garnered from living out in the sticks and what I say will necessarily reflect that experience, though from the little I've seen of the urban beaufs and bobonnes they seemed pretty similar to their rural counterparts.
Neither am I in any way a social scientist, so what follows is purely anecdotal.

Talking to French friends' children, especially those working in the private sector, the amount of harassment and bullying in the workplace related by them would not be tolerated in the U.K.....yes, just as in the U.K. there is legal resource to combat this, but there is a culture of resignation.
That's how things are.
If you're lucky enough to have a job, then you just shut up or get out....
The pressures can be appalling and the results tragic, as in the case of the multiple suicides at France Telecom, but that is the workplace culture.

The union structure in France does nothing to protect the average worker...outside the previously state run sectors unions hardly exist, after all. The unions exist to look after themselves and any attack on their position is met with crippling strikes.....the dockers want to be included in the 'exceptions' to the raising of the retirement age, so they strike, bringing France's maritime commerce to a halt.
Forget it.....just bully.

It happens in other spheres too.
I blog frequently about the scandal of the septic tank inspections...the hidden quotas, the inequality of treatment...(here)..... where the response of the water boards to the legitimate complaints of  those concerned is to put up two fingers...or rather, this being France, just one finger... and threaten to send in the bailiffs.

A crooked politician wants to underpin the garden wall of his town house.
Does he pay for this himself?
He causes damage to the wall on his side and calls on the neighbour on the other side to assume both the fault and the cost.
The neighbour is undergoing treatment for cancer.
The politician harasses him and his wife, night and day, with threatening telephone calls.
Bullied, they give in.

You do not, in your right mind, speak truth to power in France.

Didier has a phrase which sums it all up...
'Nous sommes pour rien...'
We count for nothing.

He knows.
An electricity line ran across the field behind his house to service an outlying house in the hamlet.
Then EDF decided that they wanted to re route the line via the roads for ease of access and proposed to run it round past Didier's house and garden. This would involve felling his plum trees, which were on the boundary.
The plum trees which supplied the raw materials for his eau de vie.
The owners of the house on the corner of the road, next door to Didier, protested.
If EDF put up new poles, they would block the drain that ran round their house and their walls would become damp.
The EDF subcontractors agreed to put the line underground to meet their objections...after all, the long term aim was to put all lines underground.
Didier asked them if they could not just extend the underground line past his property, another fifty metres...if the lines had to go underground anyway at some point.
Why not?
Because they weren't obliged to do so. And who was he anyhow?
Not to Didier.
And the whole thing was an eyesore in a pretty hamlet.

Conformity is dinned into the French from their schooldays....individuality is not appreciated.
Not only is there only one answer...there is only one question, and woe betide you if you run over the lines of the box provided for ticking.
I don't and didn't have children going through the system but I noted with French friends' grandchildren that it suited the plodders and tended to bore the pants off the imaginative.
No wonder it produces a culture of box ticking and inflexibility.

So, kept in their place and that place well defined, is it any wonder that the French need an outlet for their frustrations?

A friend told me that in Iran the only place people feel that they control any part of their lives is when they are at the wheel...and that the driving is wild!
Well, let's look at French driving habits.
Tailgating....infuriated hooting when the lights change and the first car hasn't gone off at Mach 1...overtaking on the inside lane...overtaking on the brow of a hill...and revving their engines at full blast to do so....the coup de poisson....speeding......and as for filtering one and one at a lane closure...doesn't sound unlike the friend's description of Iranian drivers.

The behaviour I came across most often took place on a hump backed medieval bridge on the back road to town.
There was a right of way system, but just how many times, coming from the disfavoured end with nothing on the bridge, my little A3 would get half way only to find a white van, which had been invisible when I started to cross, just advancing and blocking the way.
Common sense would tell you that if you arrived at the favoured end when something was already on the bridge you would wait for it to clear, but common sense had nothing to do with it.
The white van was bigger and demanded right of way.
I have had threats of violence from the drivers of the white vans when I did not immediately reverse and this is nothing to do with discrimination...the car had local plates so until I replied they had no way of knowing that I was foreign.
It was the wish to dominate.
The wish to bully.

In relation to the threats of violence I cannot say that my replies, when being told to get off the bridge, were such as to turn away anger....more like grievous words to stir it up....but I don't like being bullied and I won't stand for it.

It strikes me that if, in France, you are not born into a family who can make your way for you in society, you are frustrated at every turn...and, if you are not of a naturally peaceful temperament, you take it out on those further down the pecking order.
Thus a frail elderly man, like my husband, was natural prey (here) for a bunch of louts encountered at a vide grenier.
If you have any sort of power, you use it, you demonstrate it, in order to maintain your status.

Now, turning to the sense of discrimination felt by immigrants, add to the mixture of ticked boxes and the pecking order the intense chauvinism of France..the land where the French believe that the best of everything is to be found...and you find a very volatile situation.

The foreigner, just by not being French, is inferior, as is his or her culture.
His or her knowledge and experience counts for nothing as not being French.
Thus, in whatever situation, the French view should prevail.
Even if the French view as presented is totally illegal in the French system and would be laughed to scorn by any other French person...particularly a Parisian. (here)

There is an underlying feeling that a person who does not speak the same language is stupid...and is thus a mark, to be taken advantage of.....and how annoyed are the partisans of this view when the 'mark' refuses to have advantage taken.
How, I might wonder in passing, is one to speak the same language when it is a patois unintelligible to people living only a hundred kilometres away, but this is a problem which does not trouble for one moment the speaker of patois concerned.

I had a problem of this sort years ago with the contractor who was installing a septic tank at a house I was renovating. He was weeks behind schedule and the only way to get him on the job was to track him down every week and nag him.
He didn't like it and neither did I.
Just before Christmas, job still not finished, he turned up at my house demanding payment.
I told him he would be paid when he finished the job.
He looked round at my house and its setting and said

'I see where your money goes, keeping up this wonder you can't pay poor men's bills...'

It was like having a conversation on railway tracks diverging at the points.
He genuinely thought that he could shame me into paying him for something he had not done.
I had money, he wanted it...despite not having finished the job.
It was like dealing with a very primitive organism.
But at least the hostilities remained at the verbal level; he did not try violence, which is what happened to a friend (here) in similar circumstances.

The other side of this coin is the refusal to understand anything you, the immigrant, might say.

One part of this is that common phenomenon....
'This is a foreigner, he or she doesn't speak French - even when you are addressing them in that language - so I can't understand.'
A sort of panic.

The other part is a refusal to believe that anything the immigrant might say could have any value.

I had asked for a speed limit sign on the stretch of road by my house, where the local hillbillies used to come screaming off a bend into a short straight just before running into the ditch on the next bend at the limit of my property.
Formalities and begging letter to the President of the Conseil General completed, a road engineer turned up and so, by sheer coincidence, did the Maire.

Me to road engineer

'You can see the problem...they pick up speed coming out of that bend and lose control on the next one.

Maire to road engineer

'There's no need for this at all, the road is perfectly straight between here and St. Ragondin.'

Me to Maire, pointing with both arms to the bends at either end of the straight

'What are those then? Scotch mist?'

Maire to road engineer

'The road is perfectly straight.'

The matter was resolved by producing the letter from the President of the Conseil General authorising the work..a copy of which had been sent to the Maire in any case, but it was an interesting experience.

There is also the commonly held view that economic life is a pie diagram...and the more fingers in the pie (immigrants) the less plums there are for the French.
Following on from the chauvinism, where everything French is best, it is clear that immigrants only come to France to take advantage of what it provides, thus taking what rightfully should be available only to the French themselves.

Chance would be a fine thing!

The hoops you have to jump through to get anywhere with what is laughingly called a system in France would baffle all but the most hardened benefit cheat....there are times when it baffles even the French!

Like a lot of things, you have to be able to understand French and how France works - not in order to avoid discrimination, but to understand how and why it operates.

It is not universal, luckily, but it does exist and it seems to me that some of the people who claim never to have been discriminated against are those who could be said to have integrated well......

In that they are as supine and unquestioning as the majority of those of their host nation.

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  1. It makes my blood boil just reading about it. Not the bullying or unfairness - that is, alas, as common as humanity; it's the tacit acceptance, the "this is the way it's done put up with it".

  2. Steve, can't see bullying and unfairness ever being eradicated either...but the acceptance is unacceptable.

  3. "bullying and unfairness... as common as humanity" - as is viewing other cultures as inferior in my experience.

  4. Another Day of Crazy, can't say that I accept other cultures unquestioningly...
    Do you know the Flanders and Swann song 'The English are Best' echoes the point you make rather well.

  5. Bullying is everywhere unfortunately. I see it here in many situations...and indeed the acceptance and refusal to rebel against it. In particular it happens in the tourist industry where employees have no rights. If they are bullied unmercifully by being shouted at or physically abused, they just put up with it because they know they will just be told "if you don't like it just go". Simply because there are plenty more desperate people ready to take their place. They suffer this and often don't get paid what they are promised..or they don't get paid at all.

    The resentment and frustration bubbles beneath the surface, and I now wonder if like the French, this may be one of the reasons why the Turks drive so fast and recklessly. I hadn't considered that before you mentioned it.

  6. Arthur Koestler wrote well about the acceptance and resignation of the French - though he was strange man; a brave and passionate campaigner, yet also a bully and misogynist.

    I'm sure that all societies have their hypocrisies.

  7. Fly, there is also bullying in the world of medicine here in France. A patient is given no choice as to which specialist to consult or which hospital or clinic to go to. One must go where the GP sends one, and the GP sends one to his/her friends. I have experience of this. If one refuses to consult the specialist the GP recommends, you are told that you are free to consult another GP. If you do consult another GP it will only be to start at the beginning again, have a whole series of tests again and you will just end of with another medical click. So, one accepts the GP's bullying.

  8. I think a lot of the negativity towards strangers comes down to plain old fear. If you replace thinking somebody's arrogant with thinking they're afraid, because they have so little experience of the outside world (their way is the "right" way, because they've never been exposed to, can't conceive of an seems to be the rare French person who strikes out into the world where they would have to toss out their very specific rule book and adapt which we all know leads to many instances of feeling foolish and ill at ease but that's the only way to learn). i don't know if pity is any easier an emotion to deal with than anger in response to the bullying behavior (I'm thinking of our local supermarket checkout girl, her nervous laughter when my husband called attention to her nasty, rude behavior - in one way my blood was boiling thinking "you nasty bitch", in another way I felt "you sad little pluc, if you ever stepped out of this hole you might find that there are places where it's okay to have a good time, even if the job's not so great"). But the views are lovely, I keep telling myself.

  9. la Fourchette, nice to see you here. Thank you.

    Ayak, it was a friend who gave me the comparison with Iran...and then having moved to Costa Rica, where American expats think the driving is terrible, I'm surprised by how co operative it will arrive from all sorts of unexpected angles and be let in to traffic...undisciplined, certainly, but much more relaxed, even in the capital.

    Mark, Koestler was a mix, like a lot of passionate and gifted people...and you're right that all societies have their hypocrisies, but it always interests me that the very hierarchical structure of French society isn't recognised as one of the sources of discrimination.

    Marilyn, I remember when you could go to any GP you wished and to any specialist you wished...and the behaviour of some patients was one of the causes of bringing that to an end.
    I had a friend who visited ..I think six but it could have been eight...dermatologists until she got the diagnosis she wanted...and all this by long distance taxi refunded by the social security budget.
    It didn't affect us...we had private health insurance which was cheaper than signing on to the state service.

    Amy, I'm sure you're right about plain fear...but how come the expression of that fear is usually aggressive?
    And how many French people will not try their English for fear of making a mistake....the legacy of their educational system.
    The reverse of this is that when we branch out, making our mistakes, in France we are regarded as being low on the branch....because we make mistakes.

  10. My boss has been told her son (8 years old) must see a physcologist, because he is easily bored in class and she sees him as difficult. The teacher keeps threatening him with dropping back a year which would mean spending another year with her. She has even been marking his work incorrectly. It's a shame as he is a bright intelligent lad.

  11. Roz, there was something similar years ago...a Swedish couple...retired diplomatic service..were for whatever family reasons looking after their grandson..father Swedish, mother French.
    The little boy had grown up in France, spoke French like any other French kid, had been through the maternelle in Paris, but once out in the sticks he was marked down, was referred to as having psychiatric problems..because he was a bright little boy and grew bored very easily.
    The teacher told the grandparents that the little boy had to learn to be less go at the pace of the class...or he would be put back a year.

    The grandparents upped sticks and moved to Tours where they found a school more accommodating...but a shame for the little boy who had friends in the village.

  12. Until I read this interesting post, I had always believed that the reason oncoming French drivers insist on oncoming in places where there is no place to oncome, frequently waving their arms, klaxoning and shouting expletives at those already rightfully in the place where there is no room to oncome was because they are inherently hopeless drivers. Now I see that it may be a result of their inherently bullying nature. Or both. ;)

  13. nodamnblog, I'm sure there's plenty of room for incompetence too.

    I used to wonder about the motor reactions of those whom you would see at the junction of a small road...where they were...with the main road along which you were proceeding.
    At the moment you were aware of them, and I suppose, them of you, there was plenty of time for them to pull outsafely.
    So when did they pull out?
    When you were right on top of them.

  14. My daughter was bullied in France by a group of girls who, up till that point, had been her close group of friends. The bullying was verbal and physical and included saying hateful things on Facebook. One girl even had a vile insult to my daughter on her MSN so every time she posted a message to anyone, this horrible insult was there for all to see. My daughter was too embarrassed and hurt to say anything but fortunately her brother realised what was going on and told us. I took it up with the CPE at school. She promised to look into it but did nothing. This meant that the bullies now knew we had been into school and so the bullying went up a notch. In the end, I threatened to take her out of school, knowing that this would mean a visit from the gendarmes and the whole story would come out. It was only then that they took any action and even then it was half-hearted to say the least. What amazed me most of all was the attitude of the mother of my daughter's best friend (English) who went in and complained that the bullying was upsetting HER daughter. Never mind mine who was on the receiving end of it. Her sports teacher called her 'La Stupide Anglaise' because she wasn't very sportyt. With attitudes like that, well, what hope is there? The French forums are full of stories of kids being bullied by teachers, other students, bus drivers, it's a long and disheartening list. Bullying happens everywhere, I know that, but it is the response to it that defines it. In France I saw little support for anyone being bullied in any walk of life in a way that I simply haven't seen here. Sad.

  15. If you look hard enough you will find bullying everywhere and not just in France. Sadly it is the way society is now.

  16. An American Mom in Paris18 January 2011 at 09:06

    Hi! I was brought over here by Keith at A Taste of Garlic because I was intrigued by your rant award.

    I recently ranty-blogged myself about the way my... err... "active" son is treated in French school. It feels like they're trying to stomp his personality right out of him. Conform, conform, conform.

    I'm from the U.S. where individuality is admired -- I imagine it's the same in the U.K.?

    It's interesting, your take on the bullying culture in France. I don't know much about that, but I do know my husband's co-workers give him hell for dressing "too American." (He's not American) Maybe they'll leave him alone if he gives in and buys some of those crazy French pointy elf shoes?

  17. My eldest son has a darkish skin and when he went to a private collège found himself being bullied in a racist way by a group of Algerian-origin boys (which I thought was ironic). I asked him if he wanted me to intervene because he told me about it and I was, of course, horrified, but he said, no, he'd deal with it. He dealt with it by flattening one of the group and after that there was no more trouble.

    You have to be tough and big enough to fight back. Luckily my son was able to take on his tormentors, but it was hell for him while he worked out what to do.

    Bullying is despicable at all levels, and it obviously starts young. This is not an exclusively French story, but the way bullies can get away with appalling behaviour here shows how society is built on admiring the elite. In the UK we cheer the underdog. In France they queue to trample underdog underfoot.

  18. Wylie Girl, I haven't had kids at school in France, but I do know from French friends the country...just how much individualism is frowned upon.

    A friend who had been a country school teacher told me how it was from his angle...he had to teach all ages at his primary a schedule set from on high....he had goodness only knows how many dumbos in his classes and he had to drag them all up to was all he could do to cope. be fair to him.. he gave classes after school to the pupils who needed more stimulation, but he remarks that these days the teachers knock off on the hour and
    that they tend to think of their careers more than the kids.

    Cheshire Wife, yes how right you are! I was never bullied at school..and only once when working, so France took me by surprise!

    An American Mom in France....the French fear those who do not conform...they know that societal revenge awaits and they do not wish to associate with the 'troublemakers'.
    I have seen so many people thwarted in their development that it sickens me...

    Sarah, what a good guy your son is! But how right you are that bullying is intrinsic in French society.

  19. Really interesting and extensive commentary that captures so much. For a culture that prides itself on its sophistication I find the French amazingly parochial, dishonest, and mean spirited. As I have said to others: I love France but don't much like the French.

  20. mrwriteon, it has always interested me that the heirs of the Siecle des Lumieres behave like mynah birds, repeating what they are told...

  21. Anonymous, I don't post comments made with anonymity....but I'd be happy to discuss it with you...e mail me.