From political machinations and getting the hang of thinking like a local to freedom of the press and a love of flirting, our writers reveal what makes France tick.
Not for nothing do the French regard their nation as the cradle of revolution. The British may have beheaded their king 150 years before Louis XVI was guillotined, and the Russian and Chinese communists may have staged much longer-lasting regime changes, but for France the events launched by the storming of the Bastille in 1789 bequeathed a very special legacy that has resonance to the present day.
The revolution turned subjects of the Bourbon monarchy into citizens with the right to challenge – and overthrow – their rulers. Despite the quasi-religious devotion felt towards the state, that spirit of revolt has endured in the national psyche. Standing up to power in defence of republican values, as defined by the protestors, transcends left-right divisions.
The republic that Charles de Gaulle established in 1958 gives the president the most extensive powers of any ruler of a developed democracy. The general thought that the French really hankered after a monarchy and he gave them a 20th-century version of that, aiming to rule above squabbling political parties in the interests of the nation. But, in a country that cherishes political divisions and individualism, unity is rare. The need for reforms may be acknowledged in principle but their implementation is opposed by interest groups claiming that they would destroy the social progress achieved by successive republics over the past century and a half. So the president becomes a partisan figure, blamed for all the causes of popular anger.
The result is a particularly volatile political mix in which voters are always hoping for meaningful change and improvement but feel endlessly disappointed by those they elect to rule them. De Gaulle ended up out of touch with the country, blindsided by the 1968 riots and forced to resign after losing a referendum vote. Presidency by presidency, his successors have been unable to live up to the scale of the job and the expectations it breeds. Again and again, demonstrations and strikes have led them to abandon much-needed reforms as they yield to the power of the street. Most recently, Emmanuel Macron set out by seeking to rule in “Jupiterian” fashion; 22 months later he finds himself tripped up by down-to-earth concerns.
The two-stage electoral system adds a further complication. It produces a clear winner in the run-off ballot for the Élysée Palace but the multiplicity of candidates at the first round means that the eventual winner usually gets only a quarter to a fifth of the votes – and the decisive factor is often a vote against one of the two surviving runners, a negative rather than positive choice. This ephemeral support, by its nature, leads to disappointment.
The top-down system instituted by De Gaulle six decades ago provides little space for meaningful opposition outside election periods. The disdain felt for politicians – fuelled by corruption scandals, their failure to deliver on promises and the clannish nature of the ruling caste – has undermined the system. This dynamic facilitated Macron’s demolition of the traditional parties. But he is just the latest politician to lose his sheen in a country which, as the commentator Alain Duhamel puts it, “hesitates between fury and reform, between rejections and projects – always unstable, often surprising, generally unhappy, always fascinating”.
About the writer: Fenby is author of The History of Modern France and The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about France today is the diversity of its media landscape. As both print and digital outlets struggle in the Anglo-American media, in France numerous media initiatives have launched in the span of a decade. These publications experiment with formats and ways of addressing specific audiences.
There is Mediapart, created in 2008, which focuses on investigative journalism. Slate.fr, which launched in 2009, publishes longform features. In 2010, marsactu.fr debuted, reporting on the city of Marseille. Three years after that came the creation of Contexte online, about politics and policy, and L’Opinion, a daily print newspaper with a circulation of 41,000. Le 1, a weekly newspaper, which goes deep into one topic per issue, arrived in 2014. There is Spicee, launched in 2015, followed in 2017 by Loopsider, both specialising in video reports.
One of the reasons for the plethora of new outlets is down to French journalists wanting to blaze their own trail. But huge thanks is also owed to the French state, which allocates significant subsidies to the press – 396 publications received a grant in 2017 alone – to support their innovation and allow pluralism. It is a long tradition extending back to the French Revolution when the first subsidies took the form of discount postal rates to boost circulation. But ultimately the diversity of French media is down to the French public, which still has an appetite for knowledge.
About the writer: Antheaume is a journalist and the executive dean of Sciences Po Journalism School in Paris.
I don’t know the statistics but it seems to me quite likely that all kind of love affairs (both imaginary and otherwise) blossom in the office. Just like at school or university, flirting provides a glimpse of hope within these strange and dreary environments, places where you toil away but, nevertheless, retain a certain freedom.
I may not have statistics but I have some stories to back up my theory. That’s my job: I listen to anecdotes, I collect them, pile them up and sometimes I resell them. Nobody has ever told me about one of those lightning-strike encounters in a metro carriage or on the deck of a ferry. Only in French New Wave dramas such as Ma nuit chez Maude (My Night At Maud’s) does an opening line, spoken to a young blonde on a VéloSolex moped on a snowy street, sound elegant. “I know I need an excuse but excuses are always so idiotic. How do I go about getting to know you?” It doesn’t charm in real life.
That’s my point. In real life, love turns out to be much more like a gloomy Michel Houellebecq novel than a romantic French New Wave film. It happens in neon-lit open-plan offices, I know that much, or on business trips to towns like Tours and Angers, or in elevators, corridors and at business lunches.
At work, we feel bored like school children who have to keep themselves amused by making up games and fabricating obsessions. We’ll wait for a passing step, or a side glance, that we can spend the rest of the day reflecting on. You’ll dwell – probably at length – on the meaning of a sideways glance in the elevator. It’s mystery and excitement added to the ordinariness of the everyday.
I tend to work in cafés. There are counters and terraces where you can sit and watch the pretty girl who walks down Rue du Château d’Eau. Maybe one day you’ll end up saying hello and maybe even chat to her. For people like me, who are ritualistic about going to the same café every day at the same time and sitting at the same table, these encounters make a café feel like a real workspace. There’s something about flirting which, how should I say, feels a bit long-winded. The girl on the Rue du Château d’Eau is like Sandra from the accounts department. There’s no need to rush into anything with her since she’ll be there every day and so will I.
Do the French flirt more than others in the office? I don’t know. But we flirt in the office for the same reason we would in our neighbourhood café: because that’s where we are.
About the writer: Coop-Phane is a French writer, born in 1988 in Paris. He won the Prix de Flore in 2012 for his debut novel Zénith Hôtel. He published Le Procès du Cochon (Editions Grasset) in January.
“France is back!” This was Emmanuel Macron’s message to the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. A year on, the young leader skipped Davos, embroiled in the crisis of the gilets jaunes and unwilling to appear as a member of the global elite. Still, his popularity on the global stage is much higher than at home.
That’s even as the bromance with Donald Trump has proved to be an illusion. The world watched their virile handshakes, hoping Macron could influence Trump and cajole him to stick to the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate agreement. But the “friendship” was overplayed: it became clear to Trump that Macron actually held an opposite vision of the world and the French president even lectured him on the dangers of “nationalism”. A few tweets later, the friendship was over. The lesson was that transatlanticism was no longer an easy option for European leaders, with an unpredictable and isolationist US president. Instead, they would have to rely more on their own strengths.
That is precisely the role that Macron has embraced: to lead the EU and implement reforms to make “the club” a real strategic power. This would entail a common foreign and defence policy, an old dream yet to be fulfilled. Macron has thus advocated the idea of a European army in times of conflicted relations with Russia. The French president is also trying to reform the economic governance of the EU, convincing Angela Merkel to adopt a common budget for the eurozone – a timid first step. He’s also sought a co-ordinated European policy on migrants to handle the influx of refugees.
As Brexit looms, Merkel prepares her exit and the Italian government antagonises the EU, Macron’s enthusiasm is a rarefied thing on the European scene. These days defending multilateralism makes Macron somehow isolated, with few allies around ready to take up the fight. That makes it more difficult for him to achieve spectacular results. At least, with his efforts to advocate “humanistic values” and his rejection of nationalism, he managed to become the enemy of the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini. A badge of honour.
When it comes to security and the fight against Islamist terrorism, Macron has followed in the steps of his predecessors. For years France has been involved in the war against extremists – and Macron has maintained troops in the Sahel, as well as Iraq and Syria, as part of the coalition fighting Isis. Being continuously involved in this war is the only possible choice for a country that has been the target of several Islamist attacks on its soil.
Macron’s programme of disruption was aimed more at the domestic political and economic system than at the international stage. But nearly two years into his presidency it’s clear that his aim is to leave his mark on European construction. Not an easy task but if he succeeds, not only France, but also Europe, will indeed be back.
About the writer: Biedermann is a French journalist and has been Agence France-Presse’s London bureau chief since 2015.
I have an epiphany about the way French people think – and how this differs from the way Americans do – when a friend who grew up in California says her Korean parents often complain that she lacks nunchi. Nunchi (rhymes with moon-chi) literally means “eye measure”. It’s the ability to notice things well. People with nunchi can pick up on unspoken signals and infer other people’s states of mind. They’re good at reading situations and social cues.
One needn’t be Korean to have nunchi, of course. My British husband has it and I can see that our daughter does too. But she may have picked up this skill in France. I’m starting to think that my adopted country has its own version of nunchi. Here it’s both external and introspective. You’re supposed to be able to read the room in France but you’re also expected to have a very precise understanding of your own mind. Someone who can’t see the world clearly is said, pejoratively, to have la confiture dans les yeux: jam in the eyes.
I didn’t move to France to have the jam wiped from my eyes. I came here for my husband (who had himself come to escape London’s inflated real-estate prices). But after a few years in Paris, and gradually improving French, I realise it’s no accident that the English word “clairvoyance” comes from the French for “clear-seeing”. Figuring out what’s happening – within your family, your workplace and your friendships – and understanding your own response to all this is one of the central pursuits of French life. It’s considered critical to a person’s wellbeing.
This starts in childhood here too. French schools are a lesson in naming and ordering experiences. My children don’t just learn how to read a clock; they have to define what time itself is. In the hands of French education, human history seems like an orderly procession of events. Primary schoolers learn history in chronological order, from prehistoric times onward, and graduate with a sense of their own place in human events. Report cards rate them on dozens of specific skills, including their ability to “adopt a critical distance from the language”.
Parisians also notice visual stimuli with far more precision than I’m used to. When I bring a poster to my local framing shop, the salesman describes the exact effect that each frame would have on the poster. It’s similar in boutiques when I try on clothes. Whereas salespeople in America might make vague comments like “that’s adorable”, those in France usually explain why an item succeeds or fails. I’ve been told that a certain colour sweater looks more “luminous” on me, that a pair of tan sandals clashes with my skin tone (this was true but it hadn’t occurred to me) and that the glasses I’m trying on “eat my face”. I’ve never heard a Parisian resort to saying that something has je ne sais quoi.
French adults describe the social dynamics in their lives with the same novelistic precision. I’m used to American celebrity interviews in which actresses boast about how hard they work and how they’re devoted to their children. In equivalent French profiles, actresses barely discuss their jobs or their offspring. Instead, they boast of having achieved an exact understanding of their own minds and organising their lives to accommodate this. This is especially true after age 40. When French Elle profiles the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg after she moves from Paris to New York, Gainsbourg is blunt about her limitations. “I’m not an easy person. I don’t think I’m very open, I don’t speak easily,” she says.
Gainsbourg, 47, says that she hasn’t made any new friends in America but that she didn’t socialise much in Paris, either, because “I don’t think it’s in my nature to be very festive”. She spends a lot of time walking around New York alone. “I also love to be a little bit unstable.”
This might sound morose but in the French context, it’s high status. It’s proof that Gainsbourg observes her own life clearly and that she has organised it to correspond to who she is. People start to have this ability in childhood too. I realise that my younger son is truly French when, after I’ve been bugging him to wear a jacket, he turns to me on the street and says, “Mommy, I like to be a little bit cold.”
Of course, one reason the French are so intent on figuring out what’s happening is that they assume hardly anyone says what they mean. France’s mannered culture values elegant façades over transparency. Jean-Jacques Rousseau complained about this in the 18th century, noting in a letter that “the only frankness of your polite society is never to say what you think except with qualifications, civilities, double meanings and half-truths”.
Rousseau didn’t manage to change much. “Being too explicit can be perceived by the French as being naive or impolite,” the French academic Pascal Baudry explained more recently. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. You’re supposed to know yourself precisely but you only reveal this knowledge selectively. People expect artifice in some contexts and precision in others. “Live hidden, live happy,” the French expression goes.
Becoming attuned to when to expose your true self, and when not to, is a big part of growing up here – and of learning to adapt as a foreigner. It’s crucial to be precise among your friends and in selective magazine interviews. But Parisian real-estate advertisements highlight apartments that have no vis-à-vis, meaning that people in other buildings can’t see through your windows. Your home is private and it’s best when strangers can’t see inside.
After a dozen years in France, my nunchi improves. I can now tell when I’m boring someone and when they’re treating me with contempt. And I’ve learnt to compensate for my own limitations. Whenever I think a handsome man is hitting on me I remind myself that he’s probably a solicitous homosexual. And when I have the urge to lend a new friend my apartment, I consider this evidence that the person probably has a personality disorder.
But more and more, I feel like I have a handle on what’s happening. When I’m walking up the stairs of our apartment building with my husband one day, we pass a neighbour who’s standing outside his door. He doesn’t greet us, then he dashes inside.“Unfriendly,” is my husband’s analysis. But I see it differently. “He was wearing his bathrobe and he was embarrassed,” I explain. My husband thinks about it and concedes the point. I’ve finally started to see.
About the writer: Druckerman is an American writer and journalist who lives in Paris.