Questions about France and the French (#1)

And also :

 A few questions about France



Are the French anti-American?








No, they're pro-French! Seriously speaking, the French are "damned if they do" and "damned if they don't". If they disagree with U.S. policy, they are seen as anti-American. If they agree, they are seen as valets of U.S. imperialists. What a conundrum! Felix Rohatyn, former U.S. ambassador to France said recently : "The anti-Americanism today encompasses not a specific policy like Iranian sanctions but a feeling that globalization has an American face on it and is a danger to the European and French view of society. There is a sense that America is such an extraordinary power that it can crush everything in its way. It is more frustration and anxiety now than plain anti-Americanism." For more : click here.


Why are the French so cold (or arrogant or distant) ?












In the absence of any relationship, silence is neutral (in the street, in an elevator, etc...). Franco-American anthropologist Raymonde Carroll writes: "It is indeed in public places that Americans in France for the first time have the experience, at times amusing, but often unpleasant and even painful of cultural misundrestanding. They feel rejected, disapproved of, criticized or scorned without understanding the reason for this "hostility" and they can only draw one of two conclusions : the French hate Americans" or the French are cold (hostile / unpleasant / arrogant / despicable)"... This is essentially due to the fact that Americans and the French do not attribute the same meaning to verbal exchanges.... together in a limited space ...the French person will recreate distance with silence, the American with conversation..." . For most French, Americans are over-communicative and too familiar and they are always very disappointed to see that this American who was so nice and friendly does not even remember their name. For the French, if you are not a friend, you must be not cold but neutral. If your are socially too friendly with them, they think you are unsincere.... See also Pascal Baudry who gives a psycho-analytical explanation of it and read what Roman authors wrote about the Gauls.


 Are they rude?
















When they disagree, the French express it verbally much openly than Americans, who are more controlled and they are not at all afraid of a verbal fight. They even enjoy it. One of the best explanations for this was given by Nick Yapp and Michel Syrett in " Xenophobe's Guide to the French " . It's simply a factual matter. The French, they point out, are rude when they want to be. Their rudeness is neither unthinking nor forgetful, they say. They're rude when the occasion warrants it. Are they rude only to innocent foreigners ? Of course not ! " Among friends ", write Yapp and Syrett, " insults are also frequently traded, but with no permanent damage to the relationships. Quite a different case from England and the U.S. where if you get to that level, the friendship is condemned for life ". The point of all this is that if foreigners freak because they detect rudeness, irony, or a slight, they should feel flattered. They're being treated as if they were French !. A typical situation where Americans consider rude a Frenchman who is sincerely surprised by this reaction is the case of an instructor who treats you as if you were a French student, whatever the money you paid. Read more about it. Body language, which is very different, may also explain why Americans often consider rude a French person when he/she is not. The French love to bawl each other out ("s'engueuler") and it can be just a game and in any case totally harmless : Americans hate it and consider it rude.

During the German Occupation, why did the French support the shameful Vichy government ?

Regarding the Vichy government and the behavior of the French, Americans are generally very severe : they like black and white. If your country is occupied by a foreign power you are either AGAINST it (a resistant) or FOR it (a collaborator). In fact, in such a traumatic situation, most people are IN BETWEEN and just try to survive. This is not specifically French, due to a particular weakness of this nation. In the Channel Islands, 25 miles from the French coast, which was the only part of the United Kingdom occupied by Germany, people behaved exactly like the French : very few collaborators, very few heroes, a huge majority of people trying to survive. Read more about life in Paris in WW2 in Rosbottom or Riding.

Why is "customer service" so mediocre in France ?

Many visitors (and all French people) have stories of poor customer service. The reason is probably rooted in the constant quest for equality, since the French Revolution. If you complain about the service, the answer will probably be "I am not your slave", "I am a citizen like you" etc.... For the French,serving customers is (often) considered as being a servant.

Which countries colonized France ? For historians, France exists as a country (i.e. one power, one army, one culture) since the Middle-Ages only (13th-15th centuries), before, it was more a conglomerate of small kingdoms, with one of them becoming stronger and uniting them.In the French culture, it is considered that France became what it is now when King Clovis (end of the 5th century) became Christian and started uniting the smaller kingdoms around his own. Before, the territory which is now France consisted of many Gallic kingdoms and it was invaded by the Romans (remember Julius Caesar) to become part of the Roman Empire. One can say that it was "colonized" but it was not yet "France". By the way, the Gauls integrated very well into the Roman Empire, adopted its language and its laws, called themselves Romans and never seceded from the Empire (it was the Empire which disintegrated !). You can say that France is a former Italian colony, but this statement would be a very serious anachronism ! In its long history, France has been invaded several times, but never colonized.
   More questions ?

What a paradoxical country! Have you ever wondered how France can be the fourth or fifth industrial power in the world when people take to the streets on a regular basis to go on strike? Or why the streets of this country of wonderous monuments and museums are marred by dog poop? Or, speaking of dogs, why there are large signs in restaurants and butcher shops showing that dogs are not allowed, and dogs are in the restaurants and shops anyway? Or why little French children look (and are) so disciplined in school but when "let loose" are so rowdy? Or why, when you try out your French, people look at you like you're crazy? And the question of all questions: WHY DO THE FRENCH LIKE JERRY LEWIS?!

First question : Are The French Clean ?

Read about Turkish toilets.... and visit a site devoted to public street toilets (!) in Paris

Commenting on this famous painting by David, "Marat, the Revolutionary leader stabbed in his bathtub", a humorist (who? I read it's Mark Twain) said "Too bad, for once, a Frenchman was taking a bath"  

DID YOU KNOW THAT. ? A key-concept to better understand the French : France and the US have a very different vision of friendship. In France, when you are close to someone, you have to share his/her problems and give your opinion : this is being a good friend. You are committed ! Not giving it would be the sign that you do not care about him/her. This is why the French love very animated conversations in which they strongly disagree between themselves, when Americans try to avoid it to protect friendship. With a friend, you can talk freely and express openly your disagreement : it doesn't affect your friendship. This is why the French are sincerely surprised when Americans say :"You disagreed with our foreign policy : therefore, we are not friends". It is also important to know that for the French, if it is more difficult to create a contact, friendship is expected to last longer ! A common idea in France is that, for Americans, friendship is more superficial than for the French and it is difficult to make an American friend : try to make a French friend.











Other questions... (read the answers in this site)

  • More to come....





An excellent book by Pr. Rosbottom to answer questions such as : What was everyday life in 1942? Are the French ferociously anti-Semitic? Was Vichy a Fascist state? Were all Frenchmen resistants from day 1? And many others.









You surely have many more questions such as these about France and the French. Harriet has tried to give an answer to some of them in her books. If you have other questions you'd like to have answered, please contact us. Your question might be selected for our "Question of the month" section! See 50 questions on France (US State Department).



 Best possible answers to some good questions


Many questions about France and the French refer to French history : here are a few examples of Over-Simplifying Answers (O.S.A.) to (frequently asked) good questions (G.Q.) :

  • G.Q. Why is France such a bureaucracy? O.S.A. Just an example to illustrate WHY some aspects of French life are indeed bureaucratic. It is much more complicated to create a company in France than it is in the USA. One of the reasons is that to hire people (or be self employed) you have to comply with French labor rules, one of them being that any person employed MUST be adequately covered against hazards of health, professional life and old age. You are therefore required to go through a rather complicated process with several agencies (Securité Sociale, Urssaf, etc) to benefit from health coverage, retirement plan, unemployement benefit etc.... The French view is that if this coverage was not mandatory, the poorest, the weakest, the most stupid and people lacking foresight would NOT be covered : the responsibility of the society is to expect that some people will not be responsible and must be protected against themselves so they do not die in the poor-house or rely on the the " generosity " of the wealthier. It is the role of the State to ensure it. Conclusion : if creating a company is more complicated, it is not (or not only) because the French are stupid and lazy, it is also because they have a different (not better, not worse : different) vision of life in society. When they learn that 40 million or more Americans do not have health coverage, the French are sincerely horrified (as much as you are when you talk about the French bureaucracy !). See how to deal with a bureaucrat. Read my column : "Socialized medicine? Give me a break".

  • G.Q. I was in France and everyone was nice to me : how come ? O.S.A. Many Americans believe that France is violently anti-American and that Americans will be ill-treated when in France. Nothing substantiates this prejugé and this question is just irrelevant. Remember that criticizing American policy is not criticizing individual Americans. For this reason, comments like " the last thing the French would want to see is the crowning of a Yank as Tour champ.. " or " There were, for example, few signs of war-related anti-Americanism at the French Open. " (both in Time magazine, July 7, 2003) are just as stupid as saying " I had a cup of coffee with my neighbour and he did not try to kill me ". I receive many messages or questions of this kind (see one) and it is extremely depressing for me that they can even be formulated.

  • G.Q. : Why did France lose the war in 1940? O.S.A. : it was the third Franco-German war in 69 years, WW1 had been a massacre (more than 1,3 million French soldiers killed, to compare to 300 000 American soldiers in WW2 on two fronts with a population 5 times bigger: see detailed figures), French governments were corrupt and incompetent, for French leaders the major threat was communism and not fascism, the chiefs of the army were incompetent, their strategy was absurd (building a fortification line, which was bypassed), Germany (80 million) was bigger than France (40 million), etc... Remember Pearl Harbor ? What could have happened if the distance between Japan and the USA, instead of several thousand miles, had been the quarter of a mile (this is the distance between France and Germany) ? France was crushed and this led to the shameful Vichy regime. It is a fact that this rapid military defeat was a shock for the whole world but is it fair to make stupid jokes about "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys" ? After all Japan and Germany surrendered in 1945 (even an American army did in 1942 : remember Bataan?) and Fox News does make stupid racist jokes about it... Read : Tuchman or Paxton and see Kubrick's Paths of Glory If you visit the Normandy beaches, do not miss the "Mémorial de la Paix" in Caen. It is not just another museum of war and military artefacts : it is formidable tool to better understand the origin of WW2 and the defeat of France.

  • G.Q. : Why is France so strongly centralized? O.S.A. : the whole history of France is the building of a state by the monarchy, against powerful local autonomies and cultures (Brittany, Burgundy, Toulouse, etc..) ; the kings and the republic have always been afraid that the country would split and central state persistently reinforced its power, its language, against the rest of the country, its cultures, its languages. Read : Braudel

  • G.Q. : Why aren't the French more grateful for what America did for them? O.S.A. : Americans are very often upset by this. You must consider that it depends on the generation : for young people, WW2 (not to mention WWI) does not mean much. You must also consider that, even grateful, you cannot take into consideration this sort of historical fact in your decisions with no limit in time or in issues (developping a competitor like Airbus or a having a different foreign policy): it is as if the French blamed the USA for not supporting 21rst century French policy because France supported the American Revolution (and actually this was a common thought in 19th century France : read more and see Roger). Gratitude is no synonym for automatic conformity or subservience (read a letter to the IHT). Constantly reminding people how proud you are having helped them shows that you think that you have gained a permanent control on them and it can be very counterproductive : read the story of the immortal Monsieur Perrichon and the guide for the GI's by the US Army. American must understand that the French are BOTH grateful and free to think differently, and they have a different vision of true friendship...

  • G.Q. : Are the French anti-Semitic? O.S.A. : It is a fact that the number of anti-semitic incidents is growing in France (and in Europe). France has the largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the USA. There are anti-semitic people in France and episodes of French history illustrate it sadly (affaire Dreyfus, Vichy regime). However, Americans should keep in mind two facts when they read the US press : questioning Israeli policy is not synonymous with anti-semitism and when young Arabs write obscene graffitis on a synagogue, it is an exaggeration to write that " the French are anti-semitic " : the Israel-Palestine conflict has enormous repercussions between the Jewish and Arab communities in France. The number of anti-semitic threats or acts has risen from an average of 100 (1995-1999) to 600 (2000-2005) and 800 in 2014. There are indeed anti-Semitic acts in France but it is grossly exagerated to say that it is an anti-Semitic country. See an example : Mr. A., a Tunisian indicted by a Tribunal Correctionnel for swindling and various other charges placed a request to challenge the judge using the argument that she was Jewish and would be prejudiced (Nov. 3, 2003) ; he lost his case, was sentenced to a huge fine (the maximum legal amount) for contempt of court and the State is suing him for anti-Semitism. If the New York Times had reported the story without mentioning the whole story, it could make (another) shocking headline such as " Rise of anti-Semitism in France : in Paris, a defendant challenges his judge because she is Jewish ". Beware of what you read (sometimes) in the US press ! (for example : after a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism by President Chirac, the headline in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times Nov.20, 2003 was "A less-than-full condemnation of anti-Semitism" with nothing in the article to substantiate this depreciating headline). Beware also of what you DON'T read : anything favorable related to the French attitude toward anti-semitism : see an example and read an opinion by an American-Jewish in Paris. One must add that French Muslims have a more favorable attitude toward Jews (71%) than UK Muslims (32%) : see a European comparative study ; read my editorial on the bias in the U.S. press, about literature and anti-Semitism and Harriet's column "France without Jews is not France".

  • G.Q. : Why are the French against religious freedom in schools? O.S.A. : We do not mean the same thing by "religious freedom". For Americans, it means "anybody can have his/her own religious belief and show it". For the French, it means "anybody can have his/her own religious belief and NOT show it", not to offend people who have other religious beliefs or no religious beliefs whatsoever. The recent law on the Islamic veil is to protect this French concept of religious freedom and "laïcité". Read more about religion in France.

  • More questions : go to top of the page and see a list of FAQ.

A French Quiz

Who is the employer of professors in public schools and universities ? How do you choose your doctor in the French health system ? What is the French national bird ? What was the main cause of suburban riots in Nov. 2005 ? etc....

Click here to try to answer these questions in my French Quiz (all the answers, and many others, are on that site...) !

To related pages : more (#2) and more (#3) questions, to questions for US diplomats and GIs, etc...

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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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