gets to know the FRENCH

Getting to Know... INDEX

A good understanding of a country may help you to make the most of your trip by giving you an insight into the minds of the nationals. That is the purpose of this series.

Christian Arno

The author is a fluent French and Italian speaker and is founder of UK translation company Lingo24

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Getting to know... the French

Christian Arno

Article © 2011 Christian Arno

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The French do like to tease, but it’s not normally malicious.

Manners. When tackling the subject of French national traits, it’s probably worth discussing one of the most commonly perpetuated French stereotypes. Are French people rude?

That’s a complex question and it’s important not to generalize. Parisians generally don't like tourists and can see them as a bit of a pain. But any more so than locals from other big cities, such as London? Probably not.

French people are not rude as such. They certainly have a unique way about them and they are very direct and matter-of-fact. Whilst British people tend to skirt around a subject if it helps them to be more polite, French people are more willing to express displeasure or impatience.

But it’s not all a one-way barrage of negativity. French people can also be very nice and will give praise when praise is due. It's more about up front honesty and directness. Surely that’s a good thing?

It can be difficult to make friends with French people but once you do, you do become good friends.

Language. French is spoken natively by almost 90% of the population, and most of those that speak minority languages will also speak French.

Minority languages include German (spoken in the eastern provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and Moselle), Flemish (north-east), Italian (near the Italian border), Basque, Catalan, Breton and a few other vernaculars.

It’s worth noting these tongues hold no sway from a legal/official perspective. And if you want to get by in France, don’t consider enrolling in any language course other than French – French people are immensely proud and protective of their language. And you will go a long way in the country if you make the effort to get really good at the language – it will ultimately shape your experience.

Generally, French people really like it when you speak their language well. Similarly, they will also often try to practice their English with you. However, if you don't make an effort to speak French, they'll often not speak English back, even if they can speak it... just to make a point!

Nationalism. French people are really proud of being French and think France is the best at everything - particularly when talking about culture, intellectuals and food! France is very self-reliant and the general feeling is that the French way is the best way.

Within France, there is a bit of a north/south divide, which is mostly good-spirited, but often you get a sense that there is genuine emotion behind a verbally-expressed condemnation of another region. And people in Paris think everyone outside of Paris is parochial.

Politics. Where to start with this one? First, let’s get the basics out the way. France is a semi-presidential democratic republic. The President is head of state, whilst the Prime Minister is head of government.

To use another often-cited French Stereotype, French people really do like a good strike. If the French workforce doesn’t like a decision from the powers-that-be, they will down tools and refuse to work. This is their god-given right as a French "citoyen".

With politics, the French people are remarkably easy-going and tolerant about things that would be unimaginable in the US or UK. In France, it’s less about acceptance than it is about expectance and French politicians have a long history of sexual promiscuity. Among mourners at President François Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996 were his mistress and the daughter they had together. And his wife.

Here’s another illogical attribute: French people often seem to be very averse to change. But simultaneously, they’re very vocal about reforms.

Drink. France has a big cafe culture, with countless coffee shops and patisseries dotted around most towns and cities. And the French do love a good wine. But it’s all about moderation in France, a nice bottle of red with a meal is about the norm, and drinking ‘to get drunk’ isn’t part of French culture. Though of course, there are those who do love to drink to excess.

Families. In France, the family unit is the adhesive of the country and each person has their own duties and roles. The extended family is usually on-hand to provide both emotional and financial support. However, since the 1960s, marriages rates have decreased and divorces have seen a sharp rise. And same-sex marriage is still not recognized in France.

Although the French have a reputation as being a romantic bunch, it’s probably fair to say that their attitude towards marriage is a little more practical. And families generally have fewer children than other countries – but parents do take their duties as guardians/providers seriously.

Religion. Before the French Revolution in 1789, Roman Catholicism ruled the roost in France; this is no longer the case. 1905 heralded the official split of ‘State’ and the Catholic Church.

At the turn of the twentieth century, France was a predominantly rural country with very conservative, Catholic values, but in the century or so since then, people have moved more into the cities and the population, on the whole, has a more secular attitude. Some polls have indicated that about a third of the population in France are agnostic, whilst another third are atheist. And France is home to the biggest Jewish population in Europe.

Sport. As a very patriotic country, sport plays a massive part in France’s national identity. Football (soccer) and rugby union are probably the two most popular sports, with cycling, tennis, handball, basketball and sailing also popular. The French national football team has enjoyed a lot of recent success, winning the 1998 World Cup on home soil, followed by the European Championships two years later.

Domestically, Marseilles, Lyon, Bordeaux, Auxerre, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain are the main ‘big’ teams. And with the Tour De France and French Open tennis at Roland Garros, it’s clear that France is a big sporting country.

Foreigners. This is where France’s reputation as ‘rude’ may arise. Unless you make a good effort to speak the local lingo, French people may not be so inclined to be overly friendly. But remember that Paris can be particularly bad for this, because of the large number of tourists. With large immigrant populations arriving from the north of Africa over the past half-century, some tensions have also arisen within France. There have been a number of riots in recent years, particularly around housing estates with large immigrant backgrounds. Many believe that the riots were sparked by rising anger at discrimination and racism, particularly within the police.

Food. French cuisine? Magnifique! French food is good, but French people can be particularly snobbish about food and if it's not French, then it can’t possibly be good food. Despite the fact MacDonald’s is now the order of the day for millions of people across the country, there is a real notion that British people eat junk food and don't know anything about food or wine.

It’s important to mention waiters. Waiters can be really rude - it's seen as a skilled profession in France, and the whole ‘have a nice day’ concept hasn’t caught on yet. Many would say that’s no bad thing, however.

Driving. Firstly, France is a lovely country to drive around. But avoid driving in Paris if you can – it’s a nightmare. The minimum driving age in France is 18 and if you’re taking kids, remember that children under ten must ride in the back seat.

Speed limits are:
• Built-up areas 50kph
• Ordinary roads 90kph
• Toll-free auto-routes and dual carriageways 110kph
• Toll auto-routes 130kph.

And whilst the French do love a good wine, drink-drive regulations are strictly enforced. Oh, and if you’re buying fuel, petrol stations at supermarkets are normally a lot cheaper than regular ‘standalone’ ones.

Queuing. Trying to accomplish anything in France will normally involve registering with some government office, and then you'll have to trek from one queue to the next collecting stamps and forms – France love a good bit of red-tape.

Greeting. As with most western countries, handshakes are a common form of greeting. Friends may greet each other by kissing on the cheeks (once on each cheek). When entering a shop, ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ should be followed by ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’, and a polite ‘au revoir’ will suffice when leaving.

Fashion. Similar to Italians, French people are a pretty well dressed crowd. And their idea of ‘casual’ is not as relaxed as it might be in the UK or US. Casual will probably still involve a shirt, and maybe shoes. But this will only really matter if you’re going to be in a semi-formal environment, such as a restaurant. Otherwise, your ‘baggy pants’ and ‘sneakers’ will be absolutely fine.

Business. French people would much rather carry out business in French. If you can’t speak French, then at least learn a few key phrases and perhaps learn how to apologise for not speaking French – it may help you build some foundations. Appointments are usually necessary and should be made up to two weeks in advance. Meetings are normally for discussing issues in depth, rather than for making decisions. And don’t exaggerate anything – French people aren’t overly fond of overstatement, especially in business.

In terms of business dress, this is normally understated but stylish. And French people do appreciate the finer things in life, which is why good accessories will always make an impression.

Europe. There is strong consensus amongst French people for the need to preserve the various French cultures at a local, regional level, as long as the French national identity doesn’t suffer. The influence of foreign cultures and languages on French culture is a big issue in France, in particular American culture and the English language. From a European perspective, there is certainly an undercurrent of anxiety over how the French identity will be influenced within the EU set-up.

France, however, has played a major part in the forming of the European Union, both at the initial stages and in the ongoing policies. France has been accused of putting its national interests ahead of Europe... but then what country hasn’t?

France’s stance on ‘Europe’ can best be summed up by former President François Mitterrand’s statement: “France is our homeland, but Europe is our future”. Ambiguous? You bet.

Humour. French people do value ‘wit’. This can be intellectual, sarcastic or hostile. French humour tends to be very much about ‘others’ – so self-deprecation isn’t common, but combative mockery aimed at others is. And this may be where the ‘rude’ stereotype stems from. The French do like to tease, but it’s not normally malicious. French people also love a good ‘ethnic’ joke – often at the Belgians’ expense (for being stupid). Or about ‘lazy’ southerners.

Language is also an important part of French humour - they do love a good pun. But to understand it you really will need to speak exceptionally good French!

One last word of warning after this insight — be careful of the stereotypes! Whilst you can always draw a thread of similarity between the nationals of a country, the extent and size of that thread may vary widely!


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