Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France (But Not the French)
© 2003 Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
351 pages




France stymies Americans. They eat what they want, but seemingly don't get fat. Their government is happily involved in health, education, industry, and business, but they have one of the most robust economies in the world. How do they do it? What makes them tick?  Jean-Benoît Nadreau and Julie Barlow were dispatched by a government foundation to find out just that very thing. Having lived in France for several years and made a study of it, they represent their findings in  the fascinating Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

All of Gaul, Julius Caesar wrote, is divided into three parts -- and so is this book. The first examines the personal aspects of French culture:  notions of privacy,  the importance of language,  the art of cuisine, the deep connection the French have with their land. Part II, "Structure", examines the culture of civics and governance,  and part three demonstrates how those elements of French culture are adapting to the future.  Although it covers a wide range of topics, the editing is such that the three parts fit neatly together to present a solid and comprehensive picture.  That picture is formed in part by the centrality of the State. Although Americans might interpret a central state as a an overwhelming powerful central government, the State is more fundamental in France. It is not an outside thing that people relate to: it is the environment. France is the state: its very creation, a pillar of order erected from the chaos of feudalism.  The French republic is not a federation of provinces and cities it is the Public Thing in itself, wielding enormous power and expressing that through a strong military or money but through the way it enmeshes itself in the lives of the French, creating in part the French culture itself. Most striking for me was the use of language:

When French mayors talk about their constituents, they never use the word 'citizens'. No one talks about the 'citizens of Lyon' or 'the citizens of Toulouse' Mayors speak of their administrés, (literally, their 'administereds'). The French can only be citizens of one thing, the one and indivisible Republic, and that entity 'adinisters' them at the local level through mayors." p. 146

Although in America the state mostly exists as an apparatus for economic interests, in France it seems to exist more for the public welfare, not just business. The idea is at least easy to take seriously, as the French government takes an interest in the lives of its people, providing plenty of support for new parents.  What a delightfully exotic idea to American ears, that the state is there to enhance the quality of life!  Quality is another strong theme --- the opening sections address the French fondness for grandeur and eloquence. Life is to be savored, not merely purchased. Another choice quotation:

‎"The way the French see it, the economy should serve the social well-being of the country, not the other way around. Former prime minister Lionel Jospin is famous for having said "Oui à l'économie de marché, non à la société de marché" (Yes to a market economy, no to a market society)." (p. 276)

The powerful State and the emphasis on quality are joined in the French attitude toward education: there exist in France several academies which exist just to produce an elite caste of people to ensure that this powerful state is being run correctly. The civil service is fashioned along the lines of an army, and this elite is its officer corps. Americans who see higher education as elitist would be positively scandalized by the idea that the French seek to create it deliberately, but in France governance is too important not to be taken seriously.

In general,  the French way is presented as neither better nor worse than the English and American systems, but simply different. I for one am both attracted and disturbed by the aspects of French culture revealed here because of the varying attitudes I have for individualism and the role of the state. One can't deny the results, though, and after reading this and various other works about French culture I can't help but think they have better priorities.

And with that, my reading and reviews for Bastille Day is finally done. Until next year, anyway!


1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I saw that you reviewed our last book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong and thought your readers might be interested in the follow up book we published last spring: The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed. We wrote it after returning to France for a year (we have 10 year-old twin daughters now who went to French school). It’s similar in spirit to the first book, but explores just one particularly mystifying aspect of the French: how to communicate effectively (and enjoyably) with them. Yes, it did take a whole book to unravel the mysteries of French conversation…

    We’re getting good press (the New York Times called it “light as it is substantive” and the Times Literary Supplement, “fascinating and delightful”; Rick Steve’s Europe will be featuring us December 10).

    You can ask for a press copy from St. Martin’s Press in NY, (or Duckworth in the UK). And please feel free to contact us directly if you have any questions.

    Au plaisir de vous lire!

    Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

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