Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Can Sixty Million Frenchmen be Wrong?

Whether it's globalization or education, the French do things their own way

Last spring, while the rest of the world was clamouring over America’s right to defy the United Nations, Montreal authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow were busy unravelling the many idiosyncrasies of the French in their book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France, But Not the French (Sourcebooks, May 2003). Their basic lesson: whether it’s globalization or education, the French do things their own way.


Americans assume France is basically the same as the States—people just speak a different language. This, the authors argue, is the first and most important mistake. Without a sense of otherness or dislocation, American travellers to France are less prepared for differences than they would be in non-Western places like Japan, China or Africa.


Yet the disparities are surprising. Unlike the United States, where development can be characterized as “out with the old, in with the new,” France’s sense of its own glorious past has inspired it to build the new around the old. According to Nadeau and Barlow, the majority of French citizens are aboriginal to the land. In French history, the Indians won—not the cowboys—and went on to develop the Concorde and their own space program. In France, culture is ethnicity. Citizens maintain a strong connection to their land and their food.


Language occupies a similarly disparate position in the two cultures. Eloquence is at the centre of French rhetoric, and widespread respect for linguistic expertise raises the practice of oratory to an art form. For Americans, bad English is still English, and better than anything else. For the French, near-perfect French is still never quite good enough—and poor French is almost worse than speaking English.


War in France is a touchy subject. The country still seems in denial about its half-hearted resistance to Germany during World War II. (What do you call 100,000 French men with their hands up? The army.) In addition, the French have only recently acknowledged that their “law and order” operation against Muslim nationalists in Algeria was in fact a war. Ironically, it’s this very history that has helped shape the French position on Iraq. Americans, it can be argued, are in a similar state of denial about “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”


Perceptions of government also diverge at the most basic level. The French see the state as a benevolent and helpful entity that safeguards the country’s prosperity and security. Americans, on the other hand, tend to distrust centralized authority and many perceive the federal government as at best incompetent and at worst corrupt and tyrannical. Americans have their constitution; the French have l’état.


A famous protest at a McDonald’s restaurant in the French town of Millau epitomizes French-American differences. In 1999, a group of local farmers, led by José Bové, dismantled a McDonald’s to protest a shopping list of grievances (genetically modified and “fast” foods, a 100 percent American surtax on the importation of Roquefort cheese, multinational corporations and the World Trade Organization). Bové garnered considerable fame during this attack on the yellow arches, partly because of his eloquence and partly because his gesture possessed grandeur—a quality the French love even more than Americans.


The French are accused of being anti-globalization, but the French international retailer Carrefour is second in size only to Wal-Mart. When the European Union and the US were globalizing bedfellows at the WTO Ministerial conference in Cancún last September, France played right along. Bové’s grassroots struggle, though, has resulted in a model for globalization that is very different from the American vision.


Each dancing to their own very loud beat, France and the US exist on either sides of an opaque barrier. Somewhere in the middle, Nadeau and Barlow serve up a certain amount of harmony. Although it occasionally struggles to capture both breadth and depth, Sixty Million Frenchmen has that je ne sais quoi that makes it worth reading.