Not so crazy, these French
So say the Canadian authors of a book about what makes the French so French and why Frenchness can drive North Americans so crazy. The book just came out in French, but the original in English counts as a must-read on the topic.
"Americans have thin skin and that's not the fault of the French," said French-speaking Canadian Jean-Benoit Nadeau, who wrote the work with his Anglophone Canadian wife, Julie Barlow.
"Some say that Americans are elephants with the skin of mice... and the French are mice with the skin of elephants," he told reporters with a chuckle as they presented their book, 'Pas Si Fous, Ces Français' (These French Aren't So Crazy).
The book is the French edition of an English-language best-seller they brought out in 2003 called 'Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong', updated and tailored to the French market.
In it, the duo -- both magazine journalists -- try to get to the bottom of French characteristics that have stumped observers, particularly those from North America.
The result is an essay on the cultural differences that set the French apart -- and which go to sustain the long-standing rivalry between the United States and France on the world stage and the frequent diplomatic disputes between the two countries.
Why makes a Frenchman French
Initially started as an attempt to explain why the French are supposedly opposed to globalisation (a theory quickly disbunked by the authors in 1999, at the start of their four-year stay in France to carry out their anthropological analysis), the book became an anecdote-filled quest to answer the question 'Why are the French are so French?'
The English version came out just weeks after the start of the US-led war in Iraq, sending its sales soaring as Americans tried to work out why their erstwhile ally wasn't participating in an invasion to look for weapons of mass destruction.
Brought up-to-date and modified to better explain US cultural perspectives, the French version follows Mandarin and Dutch editions already in print. Russian and Japanese versions are being prepared.
Asked how the French are expected to take to reading about themselves as study subjects, Barlow said French media reaction to the English version so far suggested two extremes: "Some think we're too American... and then there are many who are very, very flattered, who appreciate the perspective of a foreigner."
The original, which is more scholarly than the title implies
By their own admission, it's a fond look at France, even if often critical, and markedly different from the unremmitingly caustic books sometimes found by US or British writers.
The change in the title for the French version was to avoid confusion with a defunct French television programme about household pets called '30 Million Friends' and to exploit a familiar refrain in the Astérix comic books known and loved by virtually every French child and adult, they said.
It also put distance between the new edition and the subtitle imposed against their will on the US version, which read 'Why We Love France But Not The French'.
The cultural confusion that Americans experience about France when they visit, or even when they generalise about it without visiting, stems from several sources, among which the difference between the Protestant and Catholic religions that inform so many values and choices in each society, Barlow and Nadeau said.
Thus, Americans who are used to hiding relationship problems from the public gaze find it disconcerting when the French put their tensions on display, and seem to revel in turning them into dinner-table disputes.
"I don't really think that the French and the Americans are friends," said Barlow. "They just share some common interests."
On a personal level, the perceived arrogance of the French might be the result of the different way they use the space around them. An American walking into a French shop, for example, will browse in silence, thinking of such places as "extensions of the public space," according to the book.
A French shopkeeper, though, sees the shop almost as part of his home and, offended by the absence of a simple "bonjour", might dismiss the potential customer as too rude to deserve service.
AFP / Expatica
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