Friday, January 16, 2004

Jean-Benoit Nadeau & Julie Barlow. Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France But Not the French.

Silly titles notwithstanding (and no one really minds the odd Cole Porter reference), I quite enjoyed this book.

The basic premise advocated by Nadeau & Barlow is that North Americans expect the French to behave just like North Americans:
The typical traveller to Japan, China, or Africa is more open-minded than the typical traveler to France. The fascinating rites of the Chinese, Japanese, or Zulus may cause travelers considerable discomfort and inconvenience, but travelers in these countries tend to accept the obstacles stoically, reasoning (rightly) that things are just done differently in foreign cultures. For some reason, when it comes to the French, North Americans drop this reflex. (9)

After putting aside my aversion to their paternalism, I agree with their point.

What the book attempts to do is to explain to a North American audience what those differences are, and how they’ve emerged from the history, culture and territory of France. The authors do this in three sections: “Spirit,” exploring concepts like grandeur, eloquence, conceptions of private/public spheres; “Structure,” exploring the institutions, laws, and politics of France, and the development of those structures; and “Change,” exploring how France is changing and relating to the world’s increased globalization.

While the authors frequently seem pretentious, portraying themselves as amateur ethnographers, they do present a coherent—if occasionally repetitious—view of what France is like, and why it’s like that. They even manage to be funny, from time to time. While I’m (sadly) unable to comment on the veracity of their assessments, I’m sufficiently convinced by their presentation that I’m going to read a couple of other books to which they refer. The book was a good read, and what it says makes sense in light of recent events (The book refers in passing to the UN Security Council disagreements, but doesn't treat them in depth; it doesn't need to, because its explanation of the French view of how issues and relationships should be considered explains in turn the French viewpoint that so annoyed those Americans.)
I'm happy to recommend this book to others.

And wish that I could go to France. Or at least that my French was in better shape.