The French drink, smoke and eat more fat than anyone in the world, yet they live longer and have fewer heart problems than the English and the Americans. They work 35-hour weeks and take seven weeks' paid holiday each year, yet they are the world's fourth-biggest economic power. So how do they do it? From a distance modern France looks like a riddle. It is both rigidly authoritarian, yet incredibly inventive; traditional (even archaic) yet modern; lacking clout on the international stage yet still hugely influential. But with the observations, anecdotes and analysis of the authors, who spent nearly three years living in France, it begins to makes sense. 'Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong' is a journey into the French heart, mind and soul. This book reveals French ideas about land, food, privacy and language and weaves together the threads of French society, uncovering the essence of life in France and giving, for the first time, a complete picture of the French.
The result reads like a guide book to French social habits. For example, in France a couple that won't disagree in public (when it is known they disagree on the debate) is considered far more in danger of breaking up than one that does. The culture of debate and passionate opinions is so accepted in France that such an act would seem like trying to cover up a larger problem. It is also so accepted that many if not most news stories are written with an acknowldged slant - but the virtue of this lies in the word acknowledged. Rather than secretly skew the facts one way or the other, the journalist comes out at the begining of the article as having an opinion on the issue that will probably inform his writing. With that in the open you can believe the rest of the story (or not) informed of potential bias.
It all adds up to a truly unique mixture, one that the authors and the audience enjoy coming to understand.
It starts out with French history and how the French people are ingrained in their history even when they are moving forward and becoming more modern. The French hold their elite up and expect them to be better (grandeur); going as far as to create elite schools just to make some people better than others. The book also covers the wars France was involved in, including WWII where they persecuted their Jews before Germany could. Explanations of the various forms of government explain why the French are more than ok with one large governing body and ok with being taxed on everything. Overall, the system works even if it looks unwieldy to everyone else. Most people are covered for medical and unemployment and retirement in France.
This book doesn't explain everything about France but it's pretty close. A good introduction into why the French are the way they are and why they are not necessarily what we think they are.
Tricky to grasp, but important, is how the Revolution eliminated many social structures with emphasis on égalité. Result: you are defined as a citizen of the French state with all that demands and provides. Ethnicity, religion and the rest are cleared away. This has created special difficulties for the Muslim population, which is both large and unassimilated, clinging on to a separate identity. The book is now more than a decade old but this accounts much for current difficulties.
A chatty conversational style makes for easy reading in what is really quite a complex and fact-filled analysis. A few facts inevitably miss the mark: e.g. Novartis is a Swiss company, not french at all, Tarot is not a card game.
The book really is as interesting as the title would lead one to believe, though honestly it plumbs such depths that I still don’t feel as if I have begun to grasp all of its implications. But it has provided us with a helpful framework to begin to understand how the French are different from us as Americans, and why we can’t begin to understand their thinking and perceptions by analyzing them through our “American glasses”.
The French Spirit
Written by a Canadian duo, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, which spent two years living in and studying France, the book is divided into three main sections: spirit, structure and change. In the first section on the French spirit, the authors undertake the task of explaining some of the intricacies of French culture and how so much of France’s modern orientation and worldview is derived from her long history. How her passion for the land and her sense of nobility go all the way back to the days of feudalism (when, I might add, no one but some Indians were running around in North America).The authors relate how attached the French are to rhetoric and how much they value the process of developing thoughts more than the ultimate goal of getting to a solution. In a chapter titled “Private Space,” the authors describe the French notion of public versus private, including what sorts of things the French would consider acceptable for public conversation (e.g. politics) and what topics would be considered completely taboo (e.g. religion) to their way of thinking.
The authors also dealt with World War II and the Algerian Conflict and explored the many ways in which those major events have defined more recent French culture and thought.
The French Structure
The second division of the book identified the basic governmental and sociological structures upon which modern France is built. This section was especially helpful to my understanding of how France operates. Though it may seem paradoxical when one considers the significance of the French Revolution, the authors recount that the French have kept an undeniable attachment to absolutism. “The French, it seems, can’t resist making kings” (p. 118). The authors also observe how, unlike North Americans who build entire platforms around the notion of keeping the government out of their business, “the French look to the State for answers to everything” (p. 127). This section contained descriptions of the French judicial system, educational system, and their view of their own language. (“Anglo-Americans consider language a tool, but the French regard it as an accomplishment, even a work of art. … It’s their national monument” (p.162).) As a future immigrant to France, I found the topic of assimilation to be especially interesting. The authors explain that because the French are so committed to the concept of the State (l’Etat), they are consciously committed to ignoring facts like one’s ethnic origin or religious affiliation. “Once you’re French, you’re nothing else. This attitude means the State doesn’t give—or really permit—anyone to have any other identity” (p. 139). Of course, where the rub comes in is in the fact that if one’s devotion to one’s ethnic origin or religious affiliation is perceived to be stronger than one’s commitment to the State, then you may be perceived to be at odds with the State, which necessarily puts you at odds with the common good of the entire French people.
The final section summarizes the French worldview as presented in previous chapters. Here are some highlights (taken from pp. 283-85):
-Because of their centuries-old attachment to the land, restriction is their second nature, not expansion.
-The French glorify what’s elevated and grand, not what’s common and accessible.
-They value form as much as content.
-The French don’t just glorify their élite; French society needs a clearly identified élite.
-They affirm the State’s role in virtually everything—culture, language, welfare, and the economy.
-The French have learned to live with the idea that they are neither the biggest, nor the strongest, power on earth. But they still believe they are the best.
The authors conclude by showing that the French are becoming more flexible than they used to be, recognizing the necessity of change in order to accommodate relationships with the European community and the world at large.
“One thing is certain: France is not what it used to be. France has never been what it used to be, and it never will. So we might as well enjoy it while it lasts” (p. 343).