20 December 2009

Suis-Je Français?

Often I’ve been known to say, “I’m French,” but usually as an excuse for my reflexive impulse to kiss both cheeks when I’m greeting a friend, or for my failure to recognize some megacelebrity of U.S. pop culture. (You can’t imagine my bafflement when I arrived in the States last spring to find “Jon & Kate” on the cover of every magazine.) On a more serious level, I do love this country passionately, and I can envision circumstances in which, yes, I would die for France and proudly. I may some day apply for citizenship. But do I consider myself truly French? No. Do my neighbors consider me French? Non.

In the context of the current debate on l’identité française, however, many people are asking what it is to be French. Having considered the question at length (two decades), I now propose a handy list of the most important traits that identify a true Frenchman.

To be French is to be born knowing all things — most especially that, if anything goes wrong, anywhere in the world, it is the fault of an American.

Hallyday: Le Plus Grand Français de Tous les Temps
Celui qui a dit “Yé yé yé!”

To be French is to be more interested in the health of Johnny Hallyday than in the Copenhagen conference, wars in the Middle East, world hunger, national politics, the weather, or, for that matter, the current debate on l’identité française. That Hallyday is partly Belgian (and until recently lived most of the year in Switzerland) makes no difference.

To be French is to go on strike at the least provocation, in a way designed to inconvenience the greatest number of people. At any rate, that seems to be the thinking of the transit workers, who voted to continue snarling up the suburban commuter rails through Monday at least — making it impossible for many people to do their holiday shopping.

Désolé, Madame, you will have to take the next train …
some time in January, peut-être.

Similarly, to be French is to profess tremendous faith in the collective wisdom of the state, but to take to the streets in protest any time the government actually attempts to wield power.

To be French is to expect that everyone else in France will uphold a rigid code of personal conduct, a combination of le respect and la politesse, without being told precisely what that code entails. The code differs from Frenchman to Frenchman, and by the way, it’s unlikely that he will uphold it with regard to you. (Especially on motorways.) But you, vous les autres, you’d better mind your manners.

To be French is to defend tradition from threats abroad: French bakeries and French cinema enjoy the “exception” that permits them to compete more advantageously both at home and on international markets. Meanwhile, it’s increasingly difficult to find an edible baguette, and the French line up to see every Hollywood blockbuster that comes down the pike.

Objet Volant Non-Identifié

Just so, to be French is to uphold the importance of la cuisine du terroir and the charm of the béret basque — while dining at McDonald’s and wearing a Yankees cap.

To be French is to enjoy Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey movies in the confident belief that their behavior is typical of all Americans; and to enjoy Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies more in the years since we discovered what sexual deviance they’re capable of.

Un Américain Typique

To be French is to mistrust one’s neighbors while spending as much time as possible with one’s family. They are the only people with whom one will ever discuss religion, politics, or money. The reason being that, in generations past, one’s neighbors have been prone to denounce and to inform on each other over questions of … politics, religion, and money. (Since there is no record of anyone’s ever being cast into the Bastille for supporting a football team, the French do discuss sports quite openly.)

However, with all that reverence for family, to be French is nevertheless to be perfectly willing to trade one’s grandmother for a really good truffle.

En avant, mes enfants! There’s a special on offal at the butcher’s!

To be French is to believe so fervidly in the Rights of Man that one believes with equal fervor that those rights extend to dogs, as well.

And on the subject of rights, to be French is to ignore any distinction whatever between entitlements and rights, or between rights and privileges, so long as we are talking about one’s own entitlements and privileges, and not somebody else’s. (See “Motorways,” above.) Indeed, this is the second-most important qualification for French identity.

The most important qualification is this: to be French is not to be American.

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