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March 23, 2007

Ile St Louis: The French aren't like you and me--and they may even be superior after all.

Like their natural enemy, the English, Parisians are wonderful--but neither nation's citizens are openly "friendly". When the English and French encounter Yanks abroad, they just can't get why Americans are so outgoing, or why they would even want to be. Most Americans are openly curious and warm everywhere they go. Both the English and the French, however, would rather choke to death than ask a question about something they don't know, and they bristle at at the overly-familiar tone they associate with American tourists and businessmen. True, the reserved English are getting better at customer service. But a Parisian retail-level employee is still likely to treat basic customer service as horribly degrading to his or her person-hood: "I know it's my job, I know you aren't like the other Americans, but you are still bothering me, sir."

Despite my own English roots, the French are my still favorite: flirtatious and playful, volatile and complex, educated and civilized. The teach their children of all social classes that education and being steeped in the best of Western culture is not something like, as Julian Barnes once suggested in Something to Declare, an optional feature to a car. Art is a necessity, not a luxury. The French are

designed by God to seem as provokingly dissimilar from the British as possible. Catholic, Cartesian, Mediterranean; Machiavellian in politics, Jesuitical in argument, Casanovan in sex; relaxed about pleasure, and treating the arts as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels.

So the humanities, ideas and old verities from great men and women now gone are essential for living and enjoying life as a Whole Person. Art isn't just for the rich, the elite or the intellectual. Moreover, the French are not runners and cowards--don't make the mistake of buying into the notion that they shrink from adversity. Throughout most of their history, they've been calculating, competitive, courageous and war-like. They are intelligently patriotic. And they'll beat you with argument, and arms, if they have to. But their real gods are Reason and Art. My sense is that, in the next few decades, the French will manage to save us all from ourselves, as they can be counted on to remind humans of what's important--and who we all really are. Just watch.

Posted by JD Hull at March 23, 2007 06:11 AM


Dan...excellent post... have you gone 'Native' ?

Posted by: Charon QC at March 23, 2007 12:23 AM

Interesting view.

As much as Corporate Blawg likes the French, he finds it hard to believe that the French are quite as wonderful as this article would make out (and the British quite as ignorant).

After all the French do, in their culture, have institutional xenophobia which causes the largest riots this millenia, corruption which keeps ailing politicians in power, and the desperate clinging to the remnants of a conservative culture which refuses to join the global age.

Accordingly, Corporate Blawg's response would be that the British are:

"designed by Darwin to seem as provokingly dissimilar from the French as possible. Protestant, Practical, Productive; cynical in politics, Aristotelian in argument, experimental in sex; intense about hedonism, and treating the arts as peripheral to life, being more focussed on science, global responsibility and the issues that make humanity prosper rather than celebrating being part of a catatonic clique of inward-looking patriots."

Just a view, from a Brit.

Posted by: http://corporatelawuk.typepad.com/corporate_blawg/ at March 23, 2007 10:18 AM

Charon--I am a bit French by blood from 3 generations ago, even if strains English and Celtic seem to dominate. But I've been a student of French history and literature (I love Villon and Flaubert and more) for years, I love Paris, and I think even that we ruffian, pushy and grandioise Americans are more like the French than we are like Brits. I've even outlined a larger work about that triad--but my practice comes first. More on that thesis some other time.

Posted by: Dan Hull at March 24, 2007 06:10 AM

CB: Well done, sir. You hit the French inward-looking thing right (for years French children were taught little about non-French history). But I think in the next 100 years we'll all need more reminders about older verities and art than we'll need about science and tech. The French can do that for the West. And I'll give the French higher marks on hedonism and being on good terms generally with the human body. A lot higher marks.

Posted by: Dan Hull at March 24, 2007 06:20 AM

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