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Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

by Jean-Benoit Nadeau, Julie Barlow
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402200458
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 04/01/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 313,433
Product dimensions: 8.28(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Canadian journalists Jean-Benoit Nadeau an Julie Barlow have spent the last decade working extensively in both their country's official languages.

Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1964, Jean-Benoit Nadeau holds a bachelor's degree in political science and history from McGill University. A journalist since 1987, he has written for L'actualite, Saturday Night Magazine, National Post Business, and Quebec Science. The holder of seventeen journalism awards, he was granted a two-year fellowship in 1998 by the New Hampshire-based Institute for Current World Affairs to study why the French resist globalization. In 2001, he published a humorous travelogue, Les francais aussi ont un accent (Payon, Paris). He has also traveled in Mexico, the UK, New Zealand, and Algeria.

Born in Ancaster, Ontario, in 1968, Julie Barlow holds an honour's degree in political science from McGill University and a master's in English Literature from Concordia University. Over the last decade, she has written for Saturday NIght Magazine, Report on Business Magazine, L'actualite, and other Canadian magazines. In 1998, she worked as Editor-in-Chief of English-language projects at Montreal-based publisher Ma Carriere. In 2003, she published Same Words, Different Language (Piatkus, London) with international gender expert Barbara Annis. She has traveled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa, Israel, Turkey, the Caucasus, Mexico, the UK, and New Zealand.

The couple is now based in Montreal, where they are living happily in French and English while producing their next book, The Story of French.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Meet the Aborigines

When we arrived in Paris at the beginning of Jean-Benoît's fellowship, it was only the second time we had set foot in France. We were tourists, and at the outset we looked at France through the eyes of vacationers. Whenever we could squeeze some free time out of the jumble of immigration, housing, and banking predicaments that monopolized our first few months in Paris, we strolled the streets in awe. The city and its monuments seemed ancient beyond belief. We visited a park in the Latin Quarter that was the site of a Roman arena from the first century A.D. In the very place we were observing smartly dressed, well-behaved little French children chasing balls under the watchful gaze of their nannies, ten thousand citizens of the Roman Empire once watched gladiator combats. The idea made us giddy. Everywhere we went we saw remnants of a past we could hardly imagine. We scrutinized rows of fifteenth-century houses on the left bank whose facades still slanted backward according to medieval construction techniques. The proud owner of a restaurant next to the Paris city hall led us down to his basement to show us the building's thirteenth-century foundation.

But one of our most acute time-warp sensations came months later, after a hike along the Seine river that ended in La Roche Guyon, a small town built on a bend of the river twenty miles west of Paris. The founders of La Roche Guyon chose a spectacular location for their village, nestling it between the river and a four hundred - foot cliff of white chalk. The more we looked around, the more La Roche Guyon impressed us with its historical layers. On the highest spur, right over the town of La Roche Guyon, there was a twelfth-century dungeon. At the base of the dungeon there was a Renaissance castle. In the cliff behind the castle, we saw the bunker where the German Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891 - 1944) defended Normandy against the Allies in World War II (the way he saw it, anyway). Then, as we walked across the town, we noticed several dozen houses dug straight into the cliff. The houses had neat French facades and Peugeots parked in front of them. We asked the nearby shopkeepers about them and were told that the houses were actually ancient cave dwellings, updated with modern amenities, and still inhabited.

Like many North Americans, who live on a slate wiped clean of history, we never got over the thrill of carrying out our modern lives among Roman ruins and medieval churches. Even though a lot of the monuments and structures we saw predated the founding of America, they were just part of people's daily lives in modern France. Sometimes we found them in completely unsuspecting places. East of La Rochelle, the utterly uninspiring city of Angoulême boasts nothing less than a Gothic city hall. In Provence, Avignon's massive Palace of the Popes, built in the fourteenth century, sits smack in the middle of the city's bustling downtown. To top off this effect of strange historical juxtapositions, we noticed that in many French cities, modern and ancient structures were built out of stone the same color as the gravel in the alleys. In other words, French cities looked like they had gradually grown out of the soil over the centuries, or in some cases, the millennia. Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral (the part they've cleaned, anyway) is the beige color of the city's native stone, and so is the Louvre, the Versailles palace, and even twentieth-century apartment buildings.

Later, this helped us make one of our first breakthroughs in understanding France: it is impossible to disassociate the past from the present. There is no clear line to divide ancient from modern in France, and what goes for architecture, goes for the people, too. As a society, they slowly grew out of the soil. It's as if they live in the past and the present at the same time. Yet it took us a while to figure out what that actually meant.

Our first impression of the French was that they were busy living modern lives. When we got to France, people were starting to moan about the troubles the new euro would cause them. Life didn't look that different from what we were used to in North America. People drove their Renaults to work and heated up frozen lasagna from Picard for supper. Even while we were starstruck by castles, churches, and dungeons, many things about the country struck us as incredibly modern. "Smart cards" - cards with microprocessor chips that carry personal information and an ID code - made modern commerce feel space age to us.

At the same time, there were moments when we felt like we were living in the past. Smart cards worked well in automated machines, but when we went to the bank in person, the clerks could not use them to access our accounts. We had to give them our name and account number (which we learned to carry around on a little slip of paper in our wallets). In restaurants, waiters tallied our bill and processed our payment with little remote control microwave radios - very advanced technology. However, when we asked for the directions to the rest rooms, they sometimes showed us to an outdoor Turkish toilet, essentially a glorified hole in the ground.

Other mind-boggling customs left us scratching our heads as we were impatiently tapping our toes. Our baker individually wrapped every pastry she sold no matter how many people were waiting behind us to place their orders. Our dry cleaner meticulously (and slowly) wrapped each article in paper, gingerly, as if our shirts were St-Honoré cakes. At the grocery store in our neighborhood, people still paid by check, even for five-dollar purchases.

We got the finishing touch when we rented our apartment and the rental agent handed us a set of oversize keys straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo. Just what era do the French live in, anyway? we wondered. We started to get the answer to this question nine months after our arrival, during a visit to the Périgord region, east of the city of Bordeaux. Périgord is the destination of choice for the world's gourmands. It's the land of foie gras, truffles, and duck confit. The area's most beautiful city, Sarlat, is a jewel of preservation with its narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, perfectly restored medieval houses, and stunning collage of Romanesque, Gothic, neoclassical, and Renaissance architecture. But preservation is perhaps too strong a word. Until the 1960s, the residents of Sarlat actually lived in medieval conditions, with no electricity or running water. It was the Minister of Culture of the time, André Malraux, who saved them. In 1962 he created a law for the preservation of historical monuments and Sarlat, a twenty-year renovation project, was his several hundred- million-dollar guinea pig.

Table of Contents


Part I: Spirit

Chapter 1: Meet the Aborigines
Chapter 2: The Land on Their Mutual Mind
Chapter 3: Private Space
Chapter 4: Grandeur Is Better
Chapter 5: The Art of Eloquence
Chapter 6: Until-the-Bitter-End-Ism
Chapter 7: World War II: The Unforgotten War
Chapter 8: Algeria: The Unacknowledged War

Part II: Structure

Chapter 9: The Penchant for Absolutism
Chapter 10: The State: One for All, and All for One
Chapter 11: Dogs, Towns, and Local Governemt
Chapter 12: Strong Language
Chapter 13: Elite Education
Chapter 14: The Enarchy
Chapter 15: In the Name of the Law
Chapter 16: Civil Society: Invisible Helping Hands
Chapter 17: The Choreography of Protest
Chapter 18: Redistributing Wealth
Chapter 19: Economic Interventionism: The State Will Do

Part III: Change

Chapter 20: The World According to France
Chapter 21: The French Melting Pot
Chapter 22: New Checks and Balances
Chapter 23: The Meaning of Europe

Appendix 1: France's Changing Regimes
Appendix 2: ENA Postings
About the Authors

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Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
BigEasyBookreader More than 1 year ago
According to this very interesting book, French attitudes are quite different from those we think of as typical of people in the USA. This results in the two societies talking past one another on many topics, and being nonplussed by the other society. The book's chapters recount a number of the ways French attitudes, opinions, and society are different. Some examples: French people have very different notions about privacy. Imagine you strike up a conversation with a Frenchman previously unknown to you. Soon enough you will with total comfort ask the person his name, and soon enough after that , also what he does for a living. Americans do this without a second thought. The book informs us that a French person will find your curiosity uncalled for, rude, and quite offensive. For us Americans such a response would seem very bizarre. Another: the French love the exercise of power. They expect their politicians to brandish their power. A politician may treat an opponent's stance with scorn or ignore it altogether. Many Americans would consider this arrogance and would be offended. Far fewer French would; they would expect it; a politician too considerate of his opposition would be considered weak. Another example: French governance is unlike that in America. In France, says the book, there is only one government, the national government. Municipalities in France are largely administered by prefects sent to do so by the national government in Paris. There is hardly anything in the way of local police. The institution of police is national. Police are employees of the government in Paris; police are recruited nation-wide, and never stationed around their home towns, to reduce a source of prejudice in performance of their duties. A last example for now: contrary to the tendency in the US in recent decades, the French educational system practices an unapologetic elitism. In fact, there is a national network of specialized schools whose purpose is to identify and train elite students in numerous fields, such as governance, science and technology, agriculture, the military, and so on. That's right, there is an elite school for training future politicians and top-level administrators. You are not prevented from being a civil servant if you did not start in such a school, but you will have to pass examinations to be a civil servant, and undergo considerable retraining during your career as a civil servant. This book covers yet more areas of difference. It is an enjoyable and easy read, with plenty of surprises about how French society has sharp differences with American and other societies.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great read! A manual to the French psyche and the French way and the French world (and yes, they do live in a different world). Not just exaggeration on the differences, but also an analysis on how and why the French and us are so different.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm curious if this English translation of Nadeau's 'Les Francais Aussi Ont un Accent' (literally: 'The French Too Have an Accent') will be as potent for an anglophone audience. As another French- Canadian who lived (10 years) in France, I found his observations about France, from the perspective of a Canadien-Francais, totally on target. The book was originally intended for francophones and when I read one person's critique saying she had a hard time following what Nadeau was talking about, I can see, from an American perspective, how that would be so. We French-Canadians who grow up with ancestral and linguistic ties to France find ourselves completely blown away at the arrogance, condescending attitude, and downright nastiness with which many French regard us, all the while as they profess us to be their 'cousins.' But as Nadeau analyzes the antagonism between 'la Vieille France' and 'la Nouvelle France' as well as with the rest of the world, he does so in a refreshingly witty manner, not holding back harsh criticism, yet tempering it with humour and compassion. This is one of my favourite books of all time and I definitely recommend it to people interested in entering the French psyche (and those interested in how France deals with the rest of the French-speaking world.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a well researched book with a sufficient info on the French. What I didn't really care for were all of the references and facts about French Canadians. One of the authors apparently happens to be a French Canadian and obviously felt compelled to make some comparisons, but what I was really looking for was mainly information about France and it's customs, not on Canada and their French speaking people. If I wanted to know so much about the cultural and language differences between the Canadians and the French, I would have gone for a different book. On the next edition of this book maybe they can add a little Canadian flag to the cover so people aren't misled about the information they are getting. Thanks for sharing about your heritage Mr. Benoit, but you should add somewhere or give some kind of indication that there will be a good amount of info and comparing of Canada and France. As I said in earlier, I do appreciate the info on France in Europe. Most of the info was actually on France, but I could really care less for the info about Quebeckers vs. France.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I found the book informative, I thought it went too much in depth of the political situation in France. I did enjoy the fact that they explain French behavior but that they explained WHY THEY ACT THE WAY THEY DO. You can begin to understand that there is meaning behind everything and there is a reason for not cleaning up doggy poo and all sorts of other quirky things the French do.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was introduced to the book at a talk by the authors at the Maison Francaise in DC. Found the book to be interesting, fun and in general a good review of some of the basic concepts of French culture, notably the state, language and privacy. I am quite familiar with France and for me the book hardly represented anything new but several of my friends who are less familiar with France loved it too. I think the advantage of this book, is that is written with a North American perspective and audience in mind, and that should make it fairly easy for the American reader to understand and compare France and French to America and Americans. Easy to read and to enjoy.
vpfluke on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I enjoyed reading this book. It is written by a Canadian husband and wife team, the first is French and the second is English. They spent two years in France to explore and understand the country. The country is enigmatic for North Americans, with a large bureaucracy and a top-down style but actually results in a very good economy. The most original idea is that the French are the aborigines of France, the sense that the people had a continuous history back to prehistoric times. The authros take you the relationship with the land, le terroir, the existence of privacy in ones life , the desire for grandeur, and their art of rhetoric. Also covered are the problems with wars, algeria, and political stability over the centuries; the legacy of the French Revolution, the training of an elite, the respect for an overarching state, etc. This book should be read for those in the Western hemisphere who cannot penetrate continental ways, particularly in its Gallic form.
manadabomb on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Written by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, this book tries to explain why so many people love France but not the French. An interesting book, although a bit dry at times, it travels through the reasons the French are just worlds away from any other country.It starts out with French history and how the French people are ingrained in their history even when they are moving forward and becoming more modern. The French hold their elite up and expect them to be better (grandeur); going as far as to create elite schools just to make some people better than others. The book also covers the wars France was involved in, including WWII where they persecuted their Jews before Germany could. Explanations of the various forms of government explain why the French are more than ok with one large governing body and ok with being taxed on everything. Overall, the system works even if it looks unwieldy to everyone else. Most people are covered for medical and unemployment and retirement in France.This book doesn't explain everything about France but it's pretty close. A good introduction into why the French are the way they are and why they are not necessarily what we think they are.
trbixby on LibraryThing 7 months ago
by Ruth: The book really is as interesting as the title would lead one to believe, though honestly it plumbs such depths that I still don¿t feel as if I have begun to grasp all of its implications. But it has provided us with a helpful framework to begin to understand how the French are different from us as Americans, and why we can¿t begin to understand their thinking and perceptions by analyzing them through our ¿American glasses¿.The French SpiritWritten by a Canadian duo, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, which spent two years living in and studying France, the book is divided into three main sections: spirit, structure and change. In the first section on the French spirit, the authors undertake the task of explaining some of the intricacies of French culture and how so much of France¿s modern orientation and worldview is derived from her long history. How her passion for the land and her sense of nobility go all the way back to the days of feudalism (when, I might add, no one but some Indians were running around in North America).The authors relate how attached the French are to rhetoric and how much they value the process of developing thoughts more than the ultimate goal of getting to a solution. In a chapter titled ¿Private Space,¿ the authors describe the French notion of public versus private, including what sorts of things the French would consider acceptable for public conversation (e.g. politics) and what topics would be considered completely taboo (e.g. religion) to their way of thinking. The authors also dealt with World War II and the Algerian Conflict and explored the many ways in which those major events have defined more recent French culture and thought.The French Structure The second division of the book identified the basic governmental and sociological structures upon which modern France is built. This section was especially helpful to my understanding of how France operates. Though it may seem paradoxical when one considers the significance of the French Revolution, the authors recount that the French have kept an undeniable attachment to absolutism. ¿The French, it seems, can¿t resist making kings¿ (p. 118). The authors also observe how, unlike North Americans who build entire platforms around the notion of keeping the government out of their business, ¿the French look to the State for answers to everything¿ (p. 127). This section contained descriptions of the French judicial system, educational system, and their view of their own language. (¿Anglo-Americans consider language a tool, but the French regard it as an accomplishment, even a work of art. ¿ It¿s their national monument¿ (p.162).) As a future immigrant to France, I found the topic of assimilation to be especially interesting. The authors explain that because the French are so committed to the concept of the State (l¿Etat), they are consciously committed to ignoring facts like one¿s ethnic origin or religious affiliation. ¿Once you¿re French, you¿re nothing else. This attitude means the State doesn¿t give¿or really permit¿anyone to have any other identity¿ (p. 139). Of course, where the rub comes in is in the fact that if one¿s devotion to one¿s ethnic origin or religious affiliation is perceived to be stronger than one¿s commitment to the State, then you may be perceived to be at odds with the State, which necessarily puts you at odds with the common good of the entire French people.Future ChangeThe final section summarizes the French worldview as presented in previous chapters. Here are some highlights (taken from pp. 283-85): -Because of their centuries-old attachment to the land, restriction is their second nature, not expansion.-The French glorify what¿s elevated and grand, not what¿s common and accessible.-They value form as much as content.-The French don¿t just glorify their élite; French society needs a clearly identified élite.-They affirm the State¿s role in virtually everything¿culture, language, welfare, and the economy.-The Fr
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed every bit of this book. It is well written, and helped me understand why the French feel the way they do. I would hope that a new book is forthcoming.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was just what I wanted. It added another dimension to French News, which I watch nightly on TV. My French is not so good and this book allowed me to penetrate another layer of French culture, which is usually only open to fluent French speakers. Simply and ably written, it moved fast and was a pleasure to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
No, not specialized. However, very interesting reading, even for those of us who know very little about the 'other' country across the pond. As for reading Julian Barnes instead of this work? Only, and I do mean only, if you have a love of Flaubert and French music of the latter 20th century. A wonderful read, but night and day from what I was looking for and found in 'Sixty Million Frenchman.........'