Checking through all my material from my year abroad and compiling a ‘language portfolio’ has proved more of a task than expected. In combing through various notebooks, memos and diaries I kept while abroad, I found a few notes about my discussions with colleagues over lunch. Apologies for any pretentiousness:
I feel that French people, whilst ready at any moment to quote republican values on which France was founded, do not necessarily uphold the principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité* unless there is a law that requires them to do so. In other words, while they may not be acting against these ideals, they are not necessarily actively engaged in promoting them. In discussion with Alexis, the subject of racism came up. When he explained why France was not a racist country, he pointed first to the laws against racism, and then the immigration statistics. It wasn’t until much later that we discussed integration, mixed marriages (his wife is Chinese) and opportunities available to immigrant population groups.
I have found it hard to form a social circle, even among younger interns and PhD students who don’t have families and established life patterns to keep them busy. He said this was down to the attitude of the French towards authority and direction in general. Because the people make their voices heard (strikes being the most obvious and oft-quoted means) and have input into, and therefore a sense of ownership over, the law, there is a sense that anything that is not enshrined in legal obligation is not something that would necessarily warrant any thought or action in day-to-day life. This is summed up in Alexis’ gently mocking amendment to France’s famous motto – ‘liberté, égalité, légiférer’.**
I have undergone many a confused grilling over lunch about the British governmental system, the character of the population and the nature of the press. All this in the hope of answering one question: why don’t we strike?
I think the fundamental tendency of the French is to go through life without grumbling. They take it easy, don’t work too hard – two-hour lunch breaks, company perks, public holidays and generous amounts of leave make sure of that – they pop their pills from their over-numerous pharmacies and watch their lamentable television. They eat well, drink sensibly and live at a good pace, balancing work- and home-life to an enviable degree (the French attitude to the family seems to have remained stronger and more deeply ingrained than it has in Britain) and generally try to enjoy life. Their humour is based primarily on smut and farce, and they are proud of their country. When the government takes a decision they don’t like, they take to the streets and make their voices heard. I think this partly has something to do with the ownership they feel over the law and the Constitution, mentioned in the paragraph above. Contrast this with the Brits.
We love to complain. We work hard, often to the detriment of our families and employees, we support the underdog and mistrust the success stories. Our press is full of scandal and scaremongering, and our humour, whilst subtle and witty, is based on self-deprecation and satire. We grumble about the government but very rarely take action. We don’t trust our politicians, we don’t like them and we don’t expect them to achieve much more than keeping the economy stable and not messing up too badly. If severely provoked we may occasionally write a strongly worded letter. It takes something big to move us into action (see the student marches on tuition fees for the first big example in a while) and we don’t keep it up for long. Our press does a lot to pressurize the government in our stead.
There are benefits to both approaches, but as I am commenting here on the French, I will conclude: while the strikes have been inconvenient, I do admire the French willingness to contest government proposals, and the ownership they seem to feel of their country and their laws.
* freedom, equality, brotherhood
** freedom, equality, legislation