April 13, 2024


Simple Impartial Art

How The Frenchmen Forgot To Be Rude

When I moved to France two years ago as an expat I arrived with no negative presumptions about the french people. No, really! Eight years living in Mexico had on the contrary armoured me with a, perhaps, slightly old fashioned attitude towards the Frenchmen originated in the country’s leading high culture during the European Renaissance. Thus the Latin-Americans in general view the Frenchmen as highly cultivated, intellectual and refined. And while the Frenchmen would probably be pleased and still agree with this aristocratic perception of them, before even becoming familiar with the more tainted stereotypes of the french circulating in the rest of the western world, these latter had crept up on me, and yes, I did positively find the foie gras loving people to be slim, fashionable and – sorry – unmistakably rude. Not only did most french people refuse to help when you politely asked for it or even paid for it in shops and restaurants, they were unapologetic about it too, returning smiles with frowns, abruptly hanging up wrong number calls on the phone, refusing to share public pavement and streets in a cooperative manner and pretending not to know any English language when they perfectly well do (yes, the french do speak good English!), and so on.

Thus, while slowly adjusting and settling for every day misery in enemy land, the world all of a sudden changed in front of me. Whether it happened overnight or gradually over the course of a pregnant nine months never became clear.
However now equipped with one fresh new baby it became evident that french soil was suddenly no more hostile ground to tread. Goodbye sullen looks and pushy arrogant people, and hello sunshine eyes and mega bite smiles. Across gender, age and ethnicity Napoleon’s successors were respectfully bending the pavement to make room for the little newcomer, queuing up to hold doors for a struggling stroller, hushing their toddlers because “shh, the little baby is sleeping”, offering to hold the baby at those desperate moments, and most remarkably; constantly stopping you in the street to admire, enquire about and play with your baby. Just like the miracle of a tiny newborn, the Frenchmen had turned into the most loving, helpful and caring people one could ever wish to be surrounded by.

Why this earthshaking transformation?

Undoubtedly the French have a soft spot for babies because they are also major producers of them. Shortly after the much smaller Ireland, France has the highest fertility rate with 1.94 children born per woman (2005) and is expected to be the most populated nation in Western Europe in 2050 according to a news report published in the french news magazine L’Express in May last year. And since a long way back the Gallic have been famous for their “joie de vivre” and openness toward erotica. Hence what more than a newborn could represent the quintessence of loving live and living love. Another likely reason for the French affection towards infants is that the Frenchmen live in a family friendly society where its members are allowed to reconcile better their professional and private lives than their European counterparts. They work fewer hours (35 hours work week compared to a limit of 48 hours work week in the UK), have more job security, enjoy free day care and medical coverage and not to mention receive a generous parental leave. Furthermore expecting parents are positively encouraged and meticulously followed up on with information and monthly medical treatments throughout the entire pregnancy. On Wednesday children don’t go to schools, and working parents are given the option to stay at home the same day.
Yet there is no way denying the image the French are imprinted with by a large part of their surrounding neighbour countries and foreign visitors. In May last year a British poll published that the French were voted the world’s most unfriendly and most ungenerous nation by a landslide, and just three years ago, in May 2004, Lonely Planet’s made an online survey of independent travellers and found that France is considered the “least hospitable country” in the world. The same year a report published by Bernard Plaisait, a member of France’s upper house of Parliament, concluded that french staff is surly, lacks professionalism and fails to regard the customer as king.

Not surprisingly the french natives will insist that they were never rude in the first place, but suggest that their romantic “moodiness” and refusal to engage in long conversations, which they deem superficial, is misunderstood and confused with snobbery and hostility. They will remind of us their established etiquette that is still sacrosanct on the streets of France, such as greeting politely before initiating any kind of conversations. When such formal codes of conduct are ignored they will be perceived as an insult to the face and thus responded to in the same manner.

An old saying goes that “he who loves children and dogs has a warm heart” (In France, dogs are allowed into most hotels and restaurants and always greeted with a bowl of water), so perhaps it is after all the rest of the surrounding world that is misguided about the Frenchmen.

My own personal faith in the amiable Frenchmen was, once and for all, sealed last week when a tattoo clad young man dressed in army combat pants and eyebrow piercing approached me and my girlfriend in Antibes railway station and insisted on taking the burden from our four hands and proceeded to carry my stroller up two long flights of stairs. What better example of a hard demeanour covering as softer interior!

Soon my expat days will be over and I will leave la Terre Francaise and return to the UK, but I will always remember the Frenchmen with great fondness as the people who at any given time or day would find time to make a stranger’s baby smile.
As a new parent you need fear not, for if you visit France with a baby you will instantly find yourself inside a much more affectionate sphere than the cold and snooty one the French are usually so infamous for. Maybe you won’t be treated as king in France, but you will be treated as the King’s companion, which isn’t bad at all.