France: what I like about you

France: what I like about you

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You really know how to….President Jacques Chirac in his New Year's Eve address told the French they should believe in France. I'm not French but here are five reasons why I do.

Remember the Groucho Marx line "I don't want to be part of any club that would have me for a member"?

Well, it reminds me of France these days.

It's 'meilleurs voeux' time in France and last week's news — aside from the rampaging youth gang that attacked a Lyon-bound train — was dominated by the President's New Year's messages to the press and public. And the big message: it's okay to be French.

Specifically, here is the quote from his New Year's televised address (my translation):

"We must believe in France. We must find again the motivating strength and the profoundly modern sense of the word 'patriotism': to love one's country, to be proud of it, to act for it. Together, we must accelerate our activity and commit ourselves to a collective project…and this project is the Republic."

In other words, even the president is his annual pep talk couldn't escape admitting that 2005 was a drag for France:

Paris loses out on the Olympics (and to London!); voters reject out of hand the European Constitution when it had seemed like a 'strong Europe' was the one thing everybody agreed on; the best the economy has been able to hope for is stagnant growth and a teeny-tiny drop in unemployment; and an explosion of urban resentment not only hurt a lot of French people but made the whole country look rotten to the core to the rest of the world. And let's not forget the embarrassing spectacle of the national football team barely, barely qualifying for the World Cup. No one even drinks French wine anymore!

It's hard to be a foreigner living in a country feeling so down on itself.

First, it's just depressing to hear. I had written back in August for Expatica's annual Survival Guide that France was suffering a 'coup de blues' in 2005 — but even I didn't expect it to get worse after that.

Second, part of my integration here is deciding for myself what I appreciate and admire about France and the French and all this doom-and-gloom makes it hard to maintain my excitement about having decided to move here.

Third, it feels silly to be in a fan club where the founding members have stopped paying dues. And I actually do believe in France, although not particularly because of the technological innovations the President cited.

If I were to give an expat version of the New Year's speech, here are the talking points I would have added:

— I admire French discipline, a quality instilled very young by a grueling educational system and bolstered by a highly ordered lifestyle where you eat lunch at lunchtime and not before or after and vacations are about relaxing, not catching up on email.

It's true that this quality can verge on rigidity, even conformism at times. But the French devotion to the idea that there is a 'correct' way of doing things is responsible for a lot of its successes, from an efficient and relatively affordable mass transportation system to the real reason why French women don't get fat.

— I admire the French respect for erudition. I come from a country, the US, where it's not fashionable to be smart; using 'big words' or being an 'egghead' inspires mistrust. Here it's the opposite: the French love language and its correct usage and to speak well is to earn a fair hearing under any circumstances.

Yes, this quality can verge on pretension in some individuals. But being smart is its own reward in France and, despite all the criticism of the French political elite, no dummies get into or out of a grande école

— I admire the French dedication to principle, a quality on view recently in the creation of a new airline tax to raise money for third-world health programmes. Even if you think this particular principle is wrong-headed, I ask you to believe that the gesture is sincere.

Yes, the French can sometimes carry their principles to illogical extremes and, yes, they can come off as holier-than-thou. But I believe that France's modern interpretation of la gloire is at least in part a real desire to do good in the world, whether or not you agree they've achieved anything in this department. The US gives itself credit for good intentions; I think France deserves them too.

— I admire French 'solidarité', a word, and perhaps a sentiment, that can't be adequately translated into American English. It is the force, for example, behind the French healthcare system, which — while imperfect and deserving of recent reforms — still seems to me like more or less a miracle every time I go to the doctor's.

Before moving here, my husband was laid-off from an American company and our 'guaranteed' healthcare coverage was costing us nearly USD 600 a month. But we were quite simply terrified to go without; one broken arm for my school-age kid and that's it, his college fund is wiped out. Yes, the French are spoiled enough to complain about their system and its recent petty cost increases. But they still created it in the first place, a fact that is explained largely by 'solidarité'.

— I admire the unending French capacity for the big, stylish gesture. One of the Mitterrand stories I've heard this week is how, for his last meal, he ate an ortolan, a tiny songbird said to embody the soul of France. The bird is drowned in Armagnac before being roasted and consumed whole and is actually illegal to eat in France. But Mitterrand had one last feast on New Year's Eve and then refused to eat again; he died eight days later.

I don't care what you think of Mitterrand or ortolan-eating: that's an exit. And it's the kind of supremely symbolic gesture that seems to me uniquely French — think Cyrano de Bergerac and his panache — and that leaves me, for one, feeling like a richer person, even just to have heard the story. 

Maybe, as an American, I'm just trained to respond automatically like some kind of Pavlovian dog to any call to patriotism, even for a country not my own.

But sure enough, in a poll conducted January 6 and 7, Chirac's approval ratings are up 11 points since their rock-bottom low last June. Could it be his bleu/blanc/rouge appeal?


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