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Those French—Yes or no??
Or maybe both??
For admirers of France and the French there are seemingly dozens of patented clichés and descriptions about the way the country works and how its citizens act and react.
Are they, as often described, simply ill-tempered Italians? Do they grumble and groan about virtually everything? Are they constantly in a state of resistance to any kind of change that affects their status or lifestyle? Do they have an exaggerated sense of their country’s and their own importance? Are they unstoppable lesson-givers? Etc.
But are they also, by and large, gifted, well-educated and conscious of the fact that their country has an incredible history, a globally admired culture and cuisine and a much envied social-welfare system?
Yes, that too.
The list can go on and on, but, eventually the answers, for one familiar with the French, wind up not just as “yes” or “no” but more often “well, sometimes, maybe often, but not always.”
And that’s exactly what inspired Michel Musolino, a noted French economics professor, to write and just publish a book, “150 Idees Recues sur la France.” (150 Common conceptions about France.)
In fascinating fashion it takes the seemingly endless list of stereotyped ideas about the country and its citizens and analyses how they evolved and how true or not true they happen to be.
Musolino warns at the start that the many ideas he takes on, often give France and its inhabitants an image that can be distorted and contradictory to reality.
That wouldn’t be so bad, he says, if it weren’t for the fact that prominent public figures (intellectuals, journalists, politicians, economists, etc.) often use and treat those distorted conceptions as fact in their arguments.
Not a good thing, he says.
Musolino’s book, published this January, tries with great erudition, to set things straight. Although, for the moment, it exists only in French, each of the 150 preconceptions about France and the French that he treats start with a simple one or two-sentence statement describing the problem.
Then he adds a quick “yes,” “no,” or “not always” type of judgment followed by the justifications for his conclusion.
So even an essentially English speaker can get the basic message pretty quickly.
Just a few of Musolino’s examples and judgments:
“France” and “revolution” are two irrevocably connected words—True
France simply can’t be reformed—False. A lot of changes in the educational and social welfare system have been made—even though it’s never been easy.
The French are the world’s greatest lovers—“Probably” true.
They are drinking less and less but still too much—True
France needs to get out of the Euro zone—False (and dangerous). A likely result, claims Musolino, would simply be higher prices, less growth and a possible descent into a global economic crisis like that of 1929.
‘Impossible’ is not French—False. Even if Napoleon is supposed to have claimed it, France, particularly in its initial World War II defeat, has missed some historic chances to triumph by “audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace, as Cyrano de Bergerac would have put it.
The most common site for philosophic discussion in France is at the counter of a French café (with a glass of red wine in hand)—True
The French use and abuse many non-French expressions in their daily language— True, and so shocking!
The Louvre in Paris, with some eight million entrees each year is the most visited museum in the world—True. But it’s not the most popular tourist site in France. That’s Disneyland Paris with 14 million visitors annually.
Paris is the world center for women’s high fashion—True, but. (As Musolino points out: “There’s a good chance that the very fashionable young woman you cross on the street is wearing a dress made in India, designed in Barcelona from a model conceived in Paris by an English designer and photographed by an Italian for publicity in an American magazine.“)
With some 75 million coming each year, France is the most tourist-visited country in the world—True but, as Musolini notes, nearly a fifth of those tourists are just passing through for a day or so on their way to their real vacations in Spain, Italy or Portugal.
There still are 139 common conceptions to go but you get the idea…
Not all of Musolino’s judgments are uncontestable, far from it, particularly when they concern the French economy. But they are pretty smart, well-grounded, frequently very amusing and well worth the effort to check them out.
To make it easy for you Musolino has arranged them into four categories—politics, social issues, the French economy, and French culture—with an index in the back that provides quick access to any pre-conception of interest.
Almost certainly, if you think you know France and the French you will be comforted to find out you are in good company. However, almost as certainly, you will be a bit surprised to discover that some of what you took for granted isn’t as simple as all that.
The book, in hard cover costs 19.90 Euros and is published by FIRST Editions. It should be available at major French book stores. If not, check out www.editionsfirst.com or [email protected]