Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The French Stereotype

In French class today, the teacher asked us to list our country's stereotypes of the French and our preconceptions before arriving. My friend from Bosina and I glanced at each other with a knowing look and a roll of our eyes. We've been asked to do this excercise numerous times already this year. But even with a classroom full of different nationalites the same general idea of the French comes out: fashion, cheese, Eiffel Tower. There are, however, some amusing differences, like the guy from Mali who thinks the French are wonderfully punctual while the Japanese scorn (in a very polite fashion, of course) their inefficiency and penchant for strikes. 

In my leisure time too, I've also been reviewing the typical French stereotype. I'm reading "Le Divorce," a novel about two American sisters who find themselves in Paris. Not a book I would particularly recommend, but I find it interesting because it's filled with all the standard characterisations of the French and the idealized life of an American in Paris. I find it interesting to juxtapose these ideas with my actual experiences here in France. Do I feel more cultural and artful? Do I know people who act like the well-bred French characters in the book? Do I feel romantically bewildered by the general (but pleasant) confusion of everything being slightly off-color from my own culture? No. Not really. Nope.

That is, until a few days ago. A few days ago, my Russian friend Lana invited me to a Russian party on a boat in the Saone river. It was there that I met Dina, a Russian, and her French fiancé, as well as Richard, Lana's French boyfriend, and their friend, Fabrice. Fabrice, in his own words, is an independant film director, spends most of his leisure time in poorly lit pubs drinking cocktails, and loves the couple weeks he spent in New York. When I laughed lightly saying he fits perfectly the "arty French" stereotype, he said "Oh yeah?" "Yeah," I said, "and here you thought you were all 'independant' and 'counter-culture.'" He took this good-naturedly.

The next day I went rollerblading to the park with Lana, Dina and their francophone significant others. It was in spending the afternoon with them that I realized I didn't spend much time with many actual French people, and maybe that's why I didn't see the stereotypes around me. (Richard was even wearing a blue and white striped shirt, for Christ's sake.) I noticed that, for instance, the two French boys had the same sense of humor as Gillaume, the only other French man I know very well. What I found to be more or less unique personality traits in Gillaume, I then realized were just part of being a 20-something French male. Going back to Richard's apartment afterwards for tea, the differences became even more apparent. The overdeveloped sense of taste in decor and the rather expensive possesions in a college student's (not to mention male's) apartment, harkened back to the descriptions of "inherited faience" and "savoir-vivre" in the novel I'm reading. 

So yeah, I guess I don't really hang out with that many French people. This fact then leads me to wonder whether my experiences are therefore less valid as a commentary on French culture? What is being French? 
Is it being descended from generation after generation of Frenchmen? Nicolas Sarkozy, a rather Bush-like, third-generation Pole, would be a shoo-in if presidential elections were held today, so I guess even the French don't count that far back (but they still notice). 
Is it just being born in France? French law says any child born here is French, but I met a self-described half-Tunisian, who was born in France and has spent his entire life here. In America he would probably say he's American, period. Is it his fault or the fault of the reigning culture around him that makes him feel foreign in his home country?
What about just being in France? If the French bougeoisie are one sector in France, surely the sizable population of foreigners here, either fixed or temporary, or the lower-class French make up the same quantity of people, or more. But those people are definitely different than the stereotypical French and ignoring their roots ignores a large part of who they are. Does this diversity, what the French call "mixité," then still count as an element of French culture?

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