|La French Page|
|By Finn Skovgaard Follow @Finn_Skovgaard|
- or What Mother Never Told You About the French
This page is about France, French culture, mentality, politics and what the Brits call the Frogs. This page is for those who want to get behind the tourist brochures and know what France is also like. According to many Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, France would be so much better without the French. When you've read this page, you'll know why.
This page is not meant to be a source of immigration or travel information. Its contents are based on real experiences or knowledge and a bit of exaggeration and added a dash of sarcasm. The views expressed are my own and cannot be considered objective. I hope you will have a good time reading the stories, even if you are French. If I talk about "the French" doing so and so on this page, it doesn't imply that all the French - or even a majority of the French - match the description, but rather that there is more of a tendency for that sort of behaviour than elsewhere. Also, France and the French and their mentality and culture vary with the region. Some of the experiences described on this page may not apply everywhere in France. They are mainly based on life in the greater Paris region and Provence.
I have lost track of the exact moment the first version of this page was published, but it must have been around 1999. Although the page has been regularly updated, there are many things I would have written differently today. A particular French trait is notably that the leading class of France, politicians, governments and other decision makers are almost totally disconnected from the views of the majority of the population, whether it is the 'left' or the 'right'. Hence, an increasing number of Frenchman have concluded that it doesn't make any difference if they vote socialist or conservative, so they don't bother voting any more. If they vote, it is often simply to get rid of the last incompetent president, no matter who they get instead, well knowing that the chances of improvement are about as high as the chances of sunshine in Hell. In many ways, it can be said that the average Frenchman is a victim of a corporatist-big-state all-controlling Big Brother system where real democracy has been lost, since no candidates represent voters' views.
Den der kun tager spøg for spøg og alvor
kun alvorligt, han og hun har fattet begge dele dårligt.
(People who take fun only as fun, and serious matters only seriously, haven't fully grasped either one).
Table of Contents for This Page
Recent updates are indicated in red.
"[The British] are people who have a great sense of humour. It is the French who are cretins."
Gérard Dépardieu, October 2005
"I think he [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] is a bit like all the
French, a bit arrogant.
Gérard Dépardieu, March 2012
Source: Le Parisien 14 March 2012: "Je pense qu'il [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] est un peu comme tous les Français, un peu arrogant. Je n'aime pas trop les Français, d'ailleurs."
Swiss employers about French employees:
To avoid French employees, employers set up criteria to filter out the French, such as perfect German, even if German isn’t needed.
Source: Le Matin, 28 July 2013
"The Czechs are the most selfish, obnoxious, unfriendly, envious, covetous, lacking in any kind of empathy kind of people, they are xenophobic, racist, not funny, they are very depressing to observe just by taking the public transportation, only interested in themselves and I could go on."
Source: A known Czech expat living in the USA, February 2007
Now, replace "Czechs" with "French" and you have a quite eloquent description of many Frenchmen. We could add haughty, arrogant, cunning, hateful, false, self-righteous, formalistic, inflexible, and feeling superiour to refine the image.
In 2012, five years after I quoted him, this kind gentleman got back to me to tell me the following:
"I said the above because we had just come back to the US from a stay in the Czech Republic. I didn't believe you then when you said that the French were just as bad as the Czechs, I thought that they were more sophisticated and much nicer than the Czechs since we spent about a month in France back then in 2006 before returning to the States. But now, after 2 years in France, I know what you meant. The similarities between the Czechs and the French are striking. What an unpleasant mentality these French, self-centeredness that is out of this world, lack of humanity, and I could go on and on. Our kids speak French fluently, but putting them through the French educational system is very painful, both for them and for us as parents. You watch your child stress out over the most ridiculous things, and lose self confidence because of the system's "it's never good enough" mentality and the lack of encouragement from the teachers whose only concern is how well the child follows what they ask of them. The teachers are for the most part not only incredibly backwards but also anti-progressive in their methods. There is absolutely no creativity anywhere, school or life in general. Just thought I would let you know that you were absolutely correct."
I am not talking about clichés here. This is really how many of them are. Contrary to what many somehow politically correct observers claim, the more you integrate in French culture and society, the more you discover the full, unpleasant range of the French character.
Some expats claim they are happy in France, and who am I to contradict them? I believe them. But many of them are retirees who don't have children at school, who have no contact with French employers, and who only have a minimum of interaction with the public administration. Many of them don't speak nearly enough French to fully understand what is going on. Many of the British expats bring the British attitude of having to suffer in silence and never complain. They frown on what they call whining. As Pink Floyd sung on Dark Side of the Moon, "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way". Hence, while one must respect others' right to have this attitude, one would also be ill advised to only listen to these people before deciding whether or not to move to France.
How on earth did France get such an poor image? Well, let's have a look at an extract of Charles de Gaulle's speech the 25 August 1944 after he liberated Paris, apparently all by himself, or almost, judging by his words:
Pourquoi voulez-vous que nous dissimulions l'émotion qui nous étreint tous, hommes et femmes, qui sommes ici, chez nous, dans Paris debout pour se libérer et qui a su le faire de ses mains.
Non ! nous ne dissimulerons pas cette émotion profonde et sacrée. Il y a là des minutes qui dépassent chacune de nos pauvres vies.
Paris ! Paris outragé ! Paris brisé ! Paris martyrisé ! mais Paris libéré ! libéré par lui-même, libéré par son peuple avec le concours des armées de la France, avec l'appui et le concours de la France tout entière, de la France qui se bat, de la seule France, de la vraie France, de la France éternelle.
Eh bien ! puisque l'ennemi qui tenait Paris a capitulé dans nos mains, la France rentre à Paris, chez elle. Elle y rentre sanglante, mais bien résolue. Elle y rentre, éclairée par l'immense leçon, mais plus certaine que jamais, de ses devoirs et de ses droits.
Je dis d'abord de ses devoirs, et je les résumerai tous en disant que, pour le moment, il s'agit de devoirs de guerre. L'ennemi chancelle mais il n'est pas encore battu. Il reste sur notre sol. Il ne suffira même pas que nous l'ayons, avec le concours de nos chers et admirables alliés, chassé de chez nous pour que nous nous tenions pour satisfaits après ce qui s'est passé. Nous voulons entrer sur son territoire comme il se doit, en vainqueurs. C'est pour cela que l'avant-garde française est entrée à Paris à coups de canon. C'est pour cela que la grande armée française d'Italie a débarqué dans le Midi ! et remonte rapidement la vallée du Rhône. C'est pour cela que nos braves et chères forces de l'intérieur vont s'armer d'armes modernes. C'est pour cette revanche, cette vengeance et cette justice, que nous continuerons de nous battre jusqu'au dernier jour, jusqu'au jour de la victoire totale et complète. Ce devoir de guerre, tous les hommes qui sont ici et tous ceux qui nous entendent en France savent qu'il exige l'unité nationale. Nous autres, qui aurons vécu les plus grandes heures de notre Histoire, nous n'avons pas à vouloir autre chose que de nous montrer, jusqu'à la fin, dignes de la France. Vive la France !
Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris that stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands?
No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives.
Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!
Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights.
I speak of her duties first, and I will sum them all up by saying that for now, it is a matter of the duties of war. The enemy is staggering, but he is not beaten yet. He remains on our soil. It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors. This is why the French vanguard has entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the great French army from Italy has landed in the south and is advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley. This is why our brave and dear Forces of the interior will arm themselves with modern weapons. It is for this revenge, this vengeance and justice, that we will keep fighting until the final day, until the day of total and complete victory. This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!
Now, how on earth is it possible that such a modest general could have earned France and the French a reputation as arrogant and self-centered? Can anyone understand it? Someone just arrived from Mars would have thought that it was France that had liberated Europe from the Nazis nearly all alone, just with a helping hand from some allies.
The unpleasant fact is that Charles de Gaulle shamelessly abused the huge sacrifices of the Allies for his own glory.
Les Masters of Europe
Many French politicians believe they are the masters of Europe and that their country's importance cannot be overestimated. The rest of Europe is there to serve their French masters and pay for French overspending. Half the EU's agriculture budget goes to French farmers, for example. Just before the second Gulf war, President Jacques Chirac told the leaders of 10 Eastern European states, some of them about to join the EU in 2004, that they'd missed a good opportunity to keep silent, and that they'd been behaving childishly. Regarding the Iraq crisis, they'd dared to state in public that they agreed with the USA and not France. That lese-majesty made Chirac threaten to block their entry in the EU. Chirac could just as well have said "Europe, c'est moi !", crowned himself as Chirac XIV of Europe and moved into Versailles. When some European leaders support the American position, it's called manipulation by the French politicians. When Chirac makes his gang of African friends sign a declaration he's written, we must all keep silent and listen in awe. Whether you were for or against the war is irrelevant for demonstrating how French governments function. How France has managed to get away with it for decades without being stopped by the other member states could seem a mystery, but one must admit that the French master diplomatic skills to excellency.
Not the entire leading class like this behavour. In an article in le Figaro the 22 April 2006, Gérard Longuet, conservative Senator for Meuse and former minister, said: "La France est en Europe un voyageur qui n'accepte pas de régler son billet." (France in Europe is a traveller who refuses to pay his ticket.)
Le Government and la Street
France has a government and a parliament like nearly every other country. They also have a president and a senate. These brilliant institutions have the power to vote laws and regulations if they are not disputed by the street and socio-communist unions representing 10% of the labour force. Anything that is not accepted by the street, be it students or workers and their manipulating unions, will not survive, even though governments will occasionally put up a facade during a few weeks during which they insist that they govern the country, well knowing that the real rulers are those in the street who block, demonstrate, shout, strike and vandalise. As a result, France is facing economic ruin and mass unemployment, but the French prefer being unemployed rather than having a job where they risk being laid off before they reach pension age. Who can blame them? Like zombies, they are brought up to think they can claim all necessary comfort from the state. Like blind sheep, they are running after an utopia of eternal employment, comfort, retirement and other benefits, not realising that the money to provide all this is not there. 75% of youth consider it attractive to get a career as civil servants, administering each other, paid by money that is miraculously dripping in from nowhere. France used to devaluate their battered franc regularly, when overspending had undermined its value too much. Since introducing the euro in 1999, that is no longer a possibility, and that has accelerated France's economic problems.
La Press & Television
Foreign languages on French television are systematically dubbed in French so that the French are lulled into a cocoon of never hearing any other language than their own. This has the side-effect of making it easier for the government and the press to control the flow of information. Also, it makes it very difficult for the French to take up work abroad if they're not satisfied in France. To make the population go along like sheep, the ever-present bogeyman of the barbarism of the Anglo-Saxon culture and language invasion and their threat to French language and culture is frequently taken out of the box. This situation is called l'exception culturelle française by the French snobs - the French cultural exception.
As an example of the nearly Orwellian 1984-style manipulation to pretend that reality does not exist, a French news channel promptly declared on the 15 March 2004 - while commenting on the loss of power for the Spanish Popular Party that had actively supported the US-led intervention in Iraq - that the Spanish government in that aspect had acted against its European partners. Let's step back and recap: France and Germany and a few others were ferociously opposed to the intervention in Iraq. About half of Europe, including the UK, Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark and many more actively supported the intervention. As George Orwell would have said it if this episode had happened in "1984": The whole of Europe has always been against the intervention in Iraq, except for the mentally deranged Spanish Popular Party which has now paid the price for setting themselves up against Big Brother - or the French political elite. France is Europe. Who is against France is against Europe and an enemy of the people. Again, this demonstration of French media manipulation is valid whatever your personal views on the war. This question is not about the Iraq war. One can be legitimately opposed or in favour, and there seems to be more and more arguments for being opposed. The question here is about the manipulative way French press sometimes present things.
On the 5 March 2005, after the liberation of the Italian hostage in Iraq, Giulina Sgrena, ended with an episode during which the car driven by the Italian secret service approached an American checkpoint, the American forces opened fire against the vehicle for yet unknown reasons, and one Italian secret service agent tragically was killed, French state-controlled TF1 and the Gaullist propaganda newspaper Le Figaro quickly presented the American action as a "blunder", without further need to understand what actually happened. What really happened doesn't matter for the French media if the Americans can be blamed. It may or may not have been a blunder, but it was unknown when it was reported. The Italian secret service cannot have been unaware that approaching a military checkpoint at high speed could at best be risky, but let us not judge either party without actually knowing what happened.
On cnn.com, the following provisional explanation was offered:
"In a written statement, Multinational Forces said that at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT) they opened fire on a vehicle that was approaching a checkpoint at a high speed. U.S. troops "attempted to warn the driver to stop by hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car," the statement said. "When the driver didn't stop, the soldiers shot into the engine block, which stopped the vehicle, killing one and wounding two others." CNN's Nic Robertson said coalition forces' rule of engagement permit them to use escalating levels of force if they felt threatened. They can use lethal force, for example, if a car refuses to stop for a checkpoint. The road where the incident took place, near Baghdad's airport, was particularly dangerous, Robertson added."
No such details were found relevant by French press, which deliberately avoided to present any explanation at all, leaving the French public with the impression that the American military are incompetent cowboys who are shooting uncontrollably all over the place. That's what the French think about the Americans anyway, so it's much easier just to confirm it. Why inform if you can misinform? In the evening edition, TF1 presented a brief version of the American explanation after first having presented a statement from Ms. Sgrena, who was of course very surprised about the shooting. Would anyone have expected a just liberated hostage to systematically observe everything on the road in a foreign country?
No single mainstream news media in France dares tell the full, objective truth. While a few writers still dare to speak up and are even admitted in print, the overall policy of the entire French press follows the Gaullist view of the world to a great extent, some with a more socialist flavour than others. Inconvenient truths are left unmentioned. Inconvenient truths that cannot be left unmentioned are contorted. A brilliant article by Raphaël Stainville in Le Figaro, titled Sexe, mensonges et médias, retour sur l'affaire DSK and published on the 1st of March 2012, elaborates in detail how politicians and press are just two sides of the same community in France, the French press almost systematically keeping embarrassing information about politicians away from the public. the French press thus primarily serves the ruling class and not the public.
Systematically allowing readers' comments to newspaper articles have become the norm in France. It has the advantage of drowning any serious comments in the crowd of comments without any serious value. Still, every single reader's comment is scrutinised by a panel of moderators and only published if approved. Many readers are complaining about censorship if their comments are not politically correct when the subject is immigration. What I have also noted is that comments that are too precise in exposing exactly how the government or president or authorities are violating international or French law or doing exactly the opposite of their public announcements are censored. It is all right with the general comments from people who are unhappy, but the comments must not contain documentation that contradicts the official line. In short, these online readers' comments are a waste of space. The only comments published are what Big Brother allows.
To further maintain control and filtering of which information is allowed to pass to the public, in May 2011, the audio-visual surveillance authority CSA issued a ban on mentioning social networks such as Twitter and Facebook by name when for example news channels mention that further information from their channel can be found on one of these social networks. The CSA based their decision on Article 9 of a decree that makes hidden commercials illegal. This decree bans mentioning brands when the mentioning is made for the purpose of commercials. That clearly is not the case when referring to a news channel's profile on a social network. The CSA's decision is clearly an action to limit access to information and to counter information channels that are not French. They act like a dictatorship would.
It can come as no surprise that it is France that is attempting to introduce global regulation of the Internet. They have severe difficulties accepting that France cannot control and filter all information arriving in France, just as the old communist tyranny of East Germany had.
Of course, the ordinary French person is not as stupid and ignorant as the leading political class would like regardless of the heavy control of the information flow and the censorship. He or she knows very well he/she is being manipulated and controlled by the State, and that democracy has effectively been suspended, since there is no real alternative. As a result, fewer and fewer electors bother voting. They know it makes no difference. They cheat back when they can, and I wouldn't be surprised if France ends up as Tunisia or Egypt. In February 2011, it became known that 58% of the French population supported a revolution as in Tunisia or Egypt.
A large part of French television programmes consist of a live audience around a few people who are babbling away about something that's not interesting and laughing at their stupid attempts to make jokes - and sexist remarks about the single, young, good-looking woman who has been invited just so they and the viewers have a good-looking woman to look at. You find this banter on the main channels TF1 and France2.
The channel M6 produces more interesting documentaries, but they know there is a line not to cross in terms of not disturbing the interests of those in power.
The conclusion is that French television is largely unbearable, except for the M6 documentaries and that the Franco-German Arte uses subtitles instead of dubbing, and that their choices of movies are based on cultural factors instead of mass entertainment. If you sign up for French cable or satellite TV, then you get five times as many unbearable programmes.
The French are diplomatically described as individualists. That is to be understood as egoists. For a Frenchman, he or she comes before anybody else, whether justified or not. If the French government see France's or their own interests threatened, they shout out for respect for the law, treaties, conventions or whatever. If it suits the French government, they break the law without hesitation. If French politicians are trying to build a political union in Europe, it's to further what they consider to be their own interests. French politicians see the Single European Market as an opportunity to expand French business into other countries while keeping the others out of France. In an excellent demonstration of this, French state-owned EDF used the opening of electricity markets in other countries to buy into companies there, while they still enjoyed a monopoly in France. Sharing a meal with a Frenchman means to him that he eats and you do the dishwashing. This "grab what you can for yourself" mentality permeates everything in France and that is partly what makes France and the French so infuriating.
It is easy to blame this mentality on the individual, but that would be too simplistic. France is a paternalistic state that puts its nose in all its citizens' matters from early childhood and grabs a large part of their earnings in taxes, leaving little room for initiative and little money for the citizen to build his own life. The French are suffocated by the state. They don't have freedom to do what they want without first going through 10 kg of paperwork over 2-3 years to get permission. Somehow, as human beings, they need to let the steam off, and it seems to be through selfish behaviour and by not being a good citizen towards the state and fellow Frenchmen. Those who reach the top keep this behaviour intact and apply it to governmental affairs, thereby assuring the perpetuity of the individualism, not least through setting bad examples.
The trouble is that this pattern of behaviour generally leads to irresponsibility. It is common to observe that the French do not think about the consequences of their acts - or inaction. For example, I warned my landlord in Provence, a farmer, that the oil burner (a model that must have been installed shortly after the second world war) could blow up because it had no thermostat to lower the flame if the water got too hot. He didn't take me seriously, and then one day it blew up. When he came to inspect the shattered pieces of the burner, I mentioned that it would have been cheaper to install a thermostat. He didn't comment. The ad mentioned that the house was renovated. Judge for yourself on the photo of the exploded boiler to the right.
This pattern also leads to a firm belief that nothing can be changed, and that it is therefore pointless to waste any efforts trying to change or improve anything. This can be seen in low participation in elections. Why bother voting when you know very well that the country will remain in the same poor state as before the election? You will only get trouble if you suggest any improvements or changes in France, and you will hit a brick wall of resistance and a zombie-like disinterest. That is the human reaction to a system that has left its citizens powerless. There are many similarities to people who have grown up under a communist regime. The French mentality is the exact opposite of the American go-get-it and the Asian work attitude.
This mentality is particularly destructive in the massive public administration where an army of zombies are paid not to do anything useful. Why should they bother learning to do their job properly when they cannot be fired and they are guaranteed a safe and tranquil career? Why even get to know the laws for the little area they deal with? Well, they don't, and that's why you will get any sort of nonsense as a reply when you ask the administration about anything. But try to print out a page of the law and go and show it to the civil servant dealing with your file, and he will look confused at it, only to invent some vague remarks like they don't do like that there etc. The truth is, it's not his problem, it's yours, and he or she doesn't give a damn. Hence, the French administration move at a snail's pace.
The DIY chain Castorama used a symbolic slogan in their ads in 2007: "Castorama ; il y a tout pour moi", meaning "Castorama; there is everything for ME". The advertising agency got it exactly right by focusing on ME, as that is the one thing that is sure to interest every Frenchman.
Le Right to have une Life Comfortable
If you can't change anything and everybody is thinking about himself, then you can just as well concentrate on the available pleasures and on minimising the unpleasant parts, such as work and responsibilities. Hence, the French now firmly believe they have a right to all comforts of life, for example a steady income (which unfortunately in many cases means they have to work), holidays, and Sundays without work. With that comes a right not to take the consequences of their actions, a right to make mistakes, and a right not to apologise for their mistakes.
Of course, the French are not stupid, so they know very well that there could be unpleasant consequences of certain actions. Thus, they build up each their personal moral code for acceptable behaviour. The criteria for acceptable behaviour is whether they believe they can get away with doing any particular thing without getting in too much trouble.
unfortunately, a large part of the French population who do not enjoy their
right to a steady income, because they are unemployed, only get the occasional
short-term job or are in a similarly difficult situation. In 2006, France
counted about 7 million persons living in poverty, or close to 12% of the
population. These persons are paying the price of the comfort of those in
permanent job contracts in the public administration and mostly large
corporations. These permanent contracts cannot be broken by the employers,
unless the company is about to go bust or the employee commits a serious
error. So long as these employees behave just reasonably well, they are
therefore assured jobs for life. The price for this extensive job protection
is paid by those who cannot get these permanent contracts and therefore go
from short job to short job or unemployment. There is a lot of work to do in
France, but many smaller businesses will not hire anyone on the restrictive
permanent contract type, so they either take someone for a short period or say
no to customers to avoid hiring anybody. The right to a protected, comfortable
income for the privileged middle class is thus paid for by someone else. While
the socialist party is protecting the comfort rights, there is no workers'
party to protect the rights of those on unstable jobs. Neither is there any
political party to improve the very bad conditions for the small businesses
that could employ many people and increase economic output if they were not
often destroyed by heavy taxes and a very unfavourable employment law. These
people - both the casual workers and the small employers - are left to fend
for themselves. No one is interested in this segment of the French population.
Some of these people would be Arab immigrants piled up in concrete towers in
concrete suburbs. When people go around having nothing to do, some get
involved in crime. In a certain way, they are thus sending back the bill for
having been excluded from society to the middle class population that look on
in shock and horror when youth run riot and burn cars. But the majority,
whether Arabs or not, just suffer in dignified silence.
French schools are run by tyrannic cows that try to force education into the poor children already from the age of 4. Although school is only mandatory from the age of 6, working parents have little other choice than letting their children start in maternal school early. Where other countries let children be children, the French cannot help but trying to stuff learning into their heads so early and then complain to the parents that the children will not sit still in the classroom. Of course they won't, they are only 4 years old, but try explaining that to the staff. Motivating the children, even when they are 6 and have to go to school, seems of little importance to the teachers, who seem to think they work at a military academy. Given the record low results French schools produce in terms of foreign language capabilities, you can't even defend the tyrannic system because results are fantastic, because they aren't. It is during these tyrannic school years that the French start building up a mental defence against the tyranny by doing the opposite of what is expected when it's possible. Hence, you have a country full of ill-disciplined Frenchmen who only care about themselves. It would be wrong to blame the individual, because he is simply a victim of a hopelessly old-fashioned system that is still not taking into consideration that the 21st century will need a highly motivated, multi-lingual and independently thinking workforce. French thinking is stuck in a time warp around the industrial era that ended in the early 20th century. In France, conformity is rewarded, not innovation. Hence, the French can build technologically demanding industrial projects like the high-speed TGV trains, but they rarely invent anything new.
There are snobs all over the planet - and then there are French snobs. The latter think they own the whole country, which is superiour to all other countries on the planet, and that everybody else are their slaves.
Hierarchy is important in France. Those who have managed to get high positions, whether by merit, bribery or exchange of favours, expect that their own importance be expressed at all times. To such an individual, it's an insult to address him as simply Monsieur; someone cleaning the toilets is also a Monsieur. How disgusting. Instead, the proper title must be used, for example Monsieur l'Ambassadeur, Docteur, Maître, for an ambassador, doctor and a solicitor respectively. Correspondence to such important people must end with a greeting that is suitably adapted. Otherwise, those people might think that you were addressing them as if they were simple people. My wife worked temporarily at the Foreign Office's health insurance office, dealing with claims. One day, she received a phone call and addressed the caller as Monsieur. The caller immediately corrected her and said "I'm an ambassador". My wife's English teacher told her that another of her pupils was a doctor. He refused to begin with the simple stuff, because he found that would be much too simple for of person of his education. Never mind that he's terribly bad at learning English. A cleaning lady can tell about company directors so important that they could never humiliate themselves to say "hello" or "goodbye" to a being so low as a cleaner.
Unfortunately, too many of these fine people with fine titles start believing that the title is a carte blanche to do whatever they please while fending off any criticism with a shield of arrogance and aggression, a shield that also in many cases covers an astonishing lack of intelligence, tact, common sense or knowledge about their profession. For example, after courteously and in due form having contested a document sent by an huissier, a ministerial official, I received a letter from him in which he used the word "stupidity" about one of my arguments concerning proof of the date of posting. Lawyers are equally sensitive if you dare question or criticise anything they are doing - or much too often why they haven't done something yet. One sometimes wonders how some of these people managed to obtain their titles, but anything can be bought with money or favours in this corrupt country.
The snobbery extends to legal specialists, or at least that's what they call themselves, doing voluntary work, for example for the consumer association UFC. Once they have made up their mind about a question, they may refuse to review it even when told precisely where they went wrong. They will rather keep sending annoyed replies over and over again, sweeping the question away, but stubbornly as an ass refusing to discuss the part of the law that concerns the problem. The last thing they will do is to admit that such a low-ranking creature as a common consumer could have discovered something in the law they haven't.
Something I have noted in France is that solicitors and other people with fine titles nearly always have exceptional names. You rarely find anyone names Dupont, Martin or LeBœuf in that profession. Here are just a few examples I found by searching the yellow pages for solicitors: Fontibus, Lapalu, Delpla, Namigohar, Gaudric, Delaitre, Montgaudon, Barthélémy, Waltregny, Fantuz, Griseri (this will make Danes laugh, meaning "dirtiness"), Semiaticki. I know of no explanation for this. One could get the impression that once qualified as a solicitor, anyone with a common name is given the option of making up a snobbery-sounding name.
If you dare speak in direct terms to one of these French snobs, they will remind you that you are not very polite, regardless if they haven't themselves fulfilled their obligations towards you, such as for example paying your salary. Right after having reminded you that you are not very polite, they then start becoming vulgar themselves, interrupting you, and they will most likely end by hanging you up. They are the worst hypocrites you will find on the planet. The most wealthy of them will hire domestic staff but refuse to declare them, forcing them to work black if they want to work, regardless of the fact that French tax law gives these people a 50% tax credit on the cost of hiring domestic staff, meaning it isn't more expensive to declare it than to pay black, since they effectively get all the social security contributions back. But that is not enough for them. Still, they think they can obtain the same loyalty from someone hired black as from a legally employed person. If a staff should dare terminate the job at a moment that is inconvenient for the employer, regardless of the absence of any form of contract, the employer may become furious and refuse to pay the last hours worked, as it happened in the case of a wealthy owner of several tourist shops in the tourist hot spot of les Baux de Provence. For an amount of €57.75 of unpaid salary, she prefers being disturbed by endless phone calls rather than to pay what is due.
Provence for the provençaux
Many people may think the double feature movie Jean de Florette - La source en Provence and Manon des sources - is about the beautiful landscape of Provence. It certainly is, but it also shows the devious character of some of the people having been born there - the provençaux. A real provençal is first provençal and then French. Don't even mention Europe. In the movie, we see how an apparent foreigner - a foreigner for a provençal meaning anyone not from Provence, whether French or not, Parisians being the most hated of all - who has inherited a farm and arrives with his family is driven to despair and finally death by the scheming provençaux who are all against him. For those who have not yet seen this beautiful film, I will not reveal the rest of the plot.
It was in fact only when I arrived in Provence myself that I discovered the film's hidden meaning. I can now see how exact the author Marcel Pagnol's description of the provençal character is. For the old provençaux, the natural resources are everything, and if you know where to find wood, water and other resources, you keep it to yourself and try to prevent others from getting to it.
Apart from the farmers, many provençaux in more modern jobs genuinely don't like foreigners either. Only after arriving in Provence have I been told: "Why don't you just go back to your own country"! Never in Paris. Never in Lille. Never in Luxembourg. Never in Germany. Never in England. In Provence, the little racists or xenophobes are everywhere: I've been told by a lawyer, a magistrate, a civil servant and by a France Télécom hotline operator. That's right, for some operators in the country's leading phone company, getting rid of paying foreign clients is apparently more important than providing customer service. But it's not because it's France Télécom, it's because such is the provençal character. From school age, children are taught the provençal language in parallel with French in some schools, while foreign languages are of course as neglected as everywhere else in the Republic. Very useful for these children when they grow up and need a job and is asked by the prospective employer if they speak English - "no, but I speak provençal". That will help France increase exports!
The provençaux are of course very happy about all the money that tourists are throwing around during summer, and tourists are not staying long enough to be felt as a threat to the pure character of Provence.
Many provençaux are of course too clever to succumb to such primitive behaviour, and they can on the contrary be extremely friendly. But the presence of the character described above is undisputable. I now understand why our former neighbours in Lille said that they didn't like the character of the provençaux.
France, the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries have immigrant populations and native populations of non-European ethnic origin. In the Anglo-Saxon world, as the French like calling the rivalling English-speaking world, businesses and individuals have seen the opportunity to provide products and services for these ethnic groups where their particular features require different products and treatment than the ethnic European population. Not in France. People of Afro-Caribbean or mixed origin will find it extremely difficult to find notably hair styling products suitable for them, and French hairdressers are taught to take care of European hair only. In the United States, you will see one marvellous Afro-Caribbean hair style after another, created by competent and creative hairdressers. In France, you will see badly kept Afro-Caribbean hair, because the French simply cannot bother learning how to deal with it or import suitable hair styling products. In a few cities, though, you may find a few hairdressers able to do it, but due to the lack of competition, they are very expensive, and the results are often disappointing.
While it can be argued that hair is harmless, the real issue is one of attitude towards the ethnic population. It is not by accident that the extremist National Front party with Jean-Marie le Pen as leader gets so many votes as it does.
Many French males have a first name starting with "Jean-", for example Jean-Jacques, Jean-Michel, Jean-Louis, Jean-you-name-it. Similarly, an awful lot of female names start with "Marie-", for example Marie-Françoise et Marie-Claire. The combinations are endless.
Note that the name Peter is rarely used, since it's pronounced as péteur, which is someone who's farting. So, if your name is Peter, and you try to pronounce it in French, don't be surprised to be met by giggling people who look like they're about to crack up. If that really is your name and you live in France, for God's sake keep pronouncing it the English way.
Some last names reflect the fact that the French are generally smaller than their neighbours to the north. Thus, you'll find Mr. Petit (small), Mr. Mignon (cute) and Madame Mignonnet (a variant of "cute") in huge numbers in France.
The French being small, you can expect huge difficulties buying beds, mattresses, bed linen, and clothes in France if you're taller than 180 cm. As for shoes, most shops will only have a few models to choose from if you need 46 or larger. Clothes sizes normally stop at XL.
The French wheelie bin - poubelle - got its name from the prefect of the Seine who imposed its use. You still find the family name Poubelle in the French white pages, though not many, so the chance of stumbling upon a Mr. Dustbin is microscopic.
Nom in French means "surname" while "First name" is prénom - literally "before name". Quite logic - it's what you put before the nom. Nevertheless, the logic stops there, as it's very common in correspondence, on envelopes, in files, lists and whatever that the French put the nom before the prénom. While this may be useful for filing and sorting, I've never found a good reason for putting the nom first in correspondence, or why you never find the nom first in newspaper articles. You'll never read about de Gaulle Charles or Chirac Jacques in a newspaper.
Once I was in a hospital for an appointment, the nurse told the doctor that they couldn't find my file. Only when I suggested that they might have filed it under my first name did they find it. The good doctor had made the faux pas of writing my prénom before my nom.
Don't try to understand this. It's all part of le paradoxe French.
La Language French
Moi ! Moi ! Moi ! ...
As we have seen above, each Frenchman likes himself a lot because no one else does. This is sometimes reflected in daily speech, typically when someone expresses his opinion:
Moi, je vais me coucher, moi ! (me, I will me lay down, me, meaning "I'm going to bed")
The person mentions himself 4 times. Most frequently, the trailing moi is omitted, to be fair, but it can occasionally be heard. To be fair to the language, the correct way to say it is
Je vais me coucher !
But as fairness is not a part of French culture, what is fair doesn't matter. The excess of moi is thus an individual expression to highlight that it's all about moi.
The arithmetic of numbers
The French like to do things their way, so the words for the numbers 70-79 and 90-91 have been creatively elaborated to confuse foreigners.
"Sixty" is soixante in French.
The same system applies to "ninety", which is quatre-vingt-dix
in French, literally eighty-ten.
In fact, quatre-vingt, which means eighty, literally means four-twenty. That is short for the calculation 4 x 20. So you see, ninety is 4 x 20 + 10 in French.
The French Academy are responsible for defining the French language. Their most important task seems to be inventing French words for new English words such as for example courriel instead of "e-mail" as it was published in the Official Journal of the French Republic number 141 of the 20th June 2003 on page 10403. English words have already polluted French enough. It's hard to disguise the origin of French words like hamburger, tramway and ferry-boat. Of course, the members of the Academy could never dream of doing anything useful, for example by making the numbers more logical, or simplifying the complicated and redundant French grammar.
Anyway, despite this official order to send courriel instead of e-mail, the French disobey, and the word "e-mail" remains the most commonly used in daily life. You are unlikely to find the word "courriel" outside official correspondence and other documents that have nothing to do with daily life. Writing lois, ordonnances, décrets, arrêtés, bulletins, circulaires and other official documents that serve no practical purpose remains a pastime for the French administration.
One wonders if the Academy should not rather protect the French language against the French themselves rather than the hated Anglo-Saxons, as the French are the first to deform their own language.
In Paris, you will notice that some Parisians instead of saying "oh r'voar" for au revoir (goodbye) say "aarrhvoar". I never understood where the "a" sound came from, and never did my French wife, by the way.
The prefix "re" means "again". "entrer" means "enter" and "rentrer" means re-enter or returning home and many more things related to returning to or repeating something. However, many Frenchmen seem to think that it is more literary to say "rentrer" than "entrer", and so, you can observe that many have banned the word "entrer" from their vocabulary and have replaced it with "rentrer" in all cases. You can hear people discussing if something they just bought will "rentrer" (re-enter) in their car when the item cannot possibly have been near the car before. When discussing whether this or that country will join the European Union, many will question whether or not the country will "rentrer dans l'Union européenne" (re-enter the European Union), never giving it a thought that a country that has never been a member cannot possibly re-enter.
Les Names Foreign
L'Académie française has not yet got around to decreeing that all foreign names must be translated to French, so many names such as Spiderman and Batman are left as un-translated Anglo-Saxon invasions of the French language instead of being translated to "L'Homme de l'araigner" and "L'Homme de chauvesouris" respectively. However, the interesting concept of pronouncing foreign names as they should be pronounced in the original language remains an academic exercise. Thus, "Spiderman" is pronounced "speederman", "Star Wars" is pronounced "star waars" when it isn't translated to "La Guerre des étoiles", and "Disney Channel" is pronounced "disney chanel", just like the French perfume brand "Chanel".
In March 2006, GE Medical Systems, a company near Versailles in the General Electric group, was condemned by the appeal court to provide French translations of all internal technical documents to the 1500 employees that encompasses 45 different nationalities. The communist union CGT was behind this attack on companies' rights to manage themselves and to demand certain skills, such as the ability to understand other languages than frog-speak, from the personnel. During a time when everybody are asking for more jobs to cut down the 10% unemployment, did it ever appear to CGT that such actions could be discouraging other foreign companies from investing in France? If people have no linguistic skills, nobody is forcing them to apply for jobs in an international group.
Les Dogs, Les Pigs & Les Crottes
A large number of French dog owners are so happy about their animals that they want to share their joy as much as possible with their fellow bourgeois. Therefore, the little souvenirs that the dogs place on the pavements and elsewhere to remind others of their existence are left untouched by the dog owners - but not necessarily by others.
The Parisian dogs alone produce 15 tonnes every day, that is 5500 tonnes per year, enough to fill 27 average size houses. 650 citizens are hospitalised each year after having slipped in a poo. For some reason that I cannot explain, it seems that narrow streets and pavements are favoured targets for the dog droppings. In such streets, like for example rue de Félicité (literally "Bliss Street" - which I used to call rue de Félicité des Chiens - "Dogs' Bliss Street") in Paris' 17th arrondissement, it can be hard to find a place to step without walking in a 'souvenir'. In this street, which is only 300 metres long, I once counted at least 15 'droppings'. The dog 'souvenir' pastime is not limited to Paris. I found a street in the centre of Tarascon in the département Bouches du Rhône, rue Edouard Millaud, that has apparently decided to take up the competition with Paris. They are doing a good job, and with some more training, they might rival rue de Félicité.
For a real Frenchman, it's only normal that everything is a bit dirty, and he wouldn't really feel at home in France without a dog poo here and some dirt there. In fact, it's part of the particular charm of France that it's a dirty country where you're not stressed by orderly people frowning upon everything you do like in Germany. In France, you can do as you wouldn't want visitors to your home to do, and everybody will be happy.
Here is what an American friend told me right after returning home after a holiday in Germany:
Really nice there with a high standard of living. No litter anywhere until we got to Saarbrücken which is 5 miles from the French border.
In French, "pavement" is trottoir, and "dog poo" is crotte; trottoir is thus a code that really means crottoir, namely a place for les crottes. Tourists in France are faced with the dilemma of either watching the sights and slipping in a 'souvenir' or returning home without such incidents but having seen only the pavements and their 'features'. It's of course illegal not to clean up after your dog, but nobody seems to bother about what's legal and what's not in France - except if it's about criticising other countries for not respecting the law. Someone who always sticks to the law is regarded as a bit of a weirdo by the French.
Not all the French appreciate the 'extras' left by dogs. The photographer Gilles Guérin has even photographed them and made them available to the public. Savour Gilles Guérin's poo gallery here.
Another source of pollution that foreigners should be aware of is pigeons. If you don't try to avoid walking under trees and other places pigeons find comfortable, you're likely to end up as the target of a pigeon dropping. Town halls do try to get rid of the pigeons, but despite their efforts, pigeons are still around in large numbers. The fact that old ladies illegally feed them doesn't help. Elle met du vieux pain sur son balcon, pour attirer les moineaux, les pigeons ("she places old bread on her balcony to attract the sparrows, the pigeons"), sings the French artist Jean-Jacques Goldman (did you notice the "Jean-" prefix again?).
La Break Lunch
Formally, the lunch break is one hour. But this is intended as an informal guideline, and anything up to two hours is considered normal and quite acceptable. Typically, the lunch hour is spent with colleagues at the local brasseries, cafés, etc., but an increasing number of Frenchmen satisfy their hunger with a sandwich from one of the many bakeries (there's one on every street corner). Thus, the rest of the lunch hour(s) can be spent running errands.
Let's not forget that the lunch hour is a favorite time to meet your mistress. Two hours is enough to relax in between the boring work, and presumably no one finds out, except maybe some colleagues. Office gossip about who's dating who is not uncommon. But as no one wants to ruin any marriages, they usually keep quiet.
Shops are open during the lunch hour without interruption in Paris and other major cities. In the rest of the country, everything is closed for 2-3 hours or more. Do not telephone anyone in an office, unless you know them, between 11:45 and 14:00 if you don't want being snubbed. Even though lunch doesn't start until noon, staff start preparing themselves for lunch a quarter of an hour before.
Le Sheep-ish Behaviour - and Le Work
When you put an ad in the paper to sell for example a car and it's a Frenchman who reacts to the ad, he shows a surprisingly normal behaviour by asking you a few questions about the item for sale. But the normal behaviour ends there, because the first things he asks about are not the specifications you didn't find enugh place for in the ad but the things you've already written in the ad! Let's say you've published the following ad:
"Citroën 2CV, 1970, 200 000 km, blue, 500 €.
A typical conversation would be (translated to English, because as we know, the vast majority French cannot and will not speak other languages than their own):
- Hello, John Carseller speaking.
1) When the French present themselves on the phone, they say for example Jean-Marie à l'appareil, meaning "on the phone" but literally meaning "in the apparatus". Some Frenchmen find that a bit too short and say Allô, oui, bonjour, Jean-Michel à l'appareil, literally meaning "Hello, yes, hello, Jean-Michel in the apparatus" but in reality just meaning "Hello, Jean-Michel speaking". Many don't bother to present themselves, simply saying "bonjour, puis-je parler à Marie-Machin", meaning "hello, I'd like to speak to Marie-Whatever", leaving the family member who picked up the phone wondering whether he or she had missed a career opportunity as switchboard operator.
And so on. The clever car buyer will get on to a few questions about things not written in the ad later.
Job interviews are quite similar. The interviewer will take your CV and start reading up from it mechanically, sometimes asking questions that seem quite irrelevant and certainly not useful for getting to know the potential employee. Creativity is clearly not something they are looking for; rather someone who can adapt to the hopelessly outdated rigid hierarchy still practised everywhere in France; a hierarchy that discourages creative and clever employees from even trying to do a good job and which controls so many decisions at such a detailed level that the employee cannot deal with many more problems himself than organising his coffee break - within certain limits of course, such as notably not starting the coffee break so late that he can't finish it before it's time to go home. So frankly, when it's not wanted, not rewarded and not encouraged, why on earth even try to do a decent job when you can relax and just follow orders, however useless, from the hierarchy. If something goes wrong, you're covered so long as you've done what you've been told. Taking risks such as trying to work in a clever way simply exposes you to the risk of offending the hierarchy - a gang of self-important but often incompetent managers (because the reason for becoming a manager was knowing the right people) - who see their power watered down if you try to think and decide in their place. Logic and common sense don't go into the equation.
And so, as it's the case for the lunch break, the working day for the office worker is more relaxed than in Britain. The manager comes around saying good morning to his or her employees, and up to an hour may be spent discussing the latest news, gossip or whatever, and a few words about what you're supposed to do today. Foreign managers in France could fall in the trap of thinking that they can just line out the target for the French employee and then expect him to get on with it. Not so. If you don't tell them every day - or at least every week - what they are supposed to do, they won't do anything. This is quite similar to the worker mentality in the former Eastern Germany. When the wall fell, it ended there, but there is no similar wall in France (except for the infamous Maginot line that was supposed to protect France against invading Nazis but that never came into use because the Nazis just walked through Belgium instead), so it's not obvious when - or if - it will end in France. The British say the French are lazy and don't like to work. Well, the truth is that it looks like they are lazy, but they are simply covering their behinds by working in a way that won't get them into trouble. They could work harder, but why bother when it's not rewarded.
The scene is a bit different in small businesses where tyrannical owners sometimes harass employees to work hard, work overtime, work nights, work weekends, sometimes without additional salary, and in many cases without recognising the effort put in.
In an article in le Figaro the 22 April 2006, Gérard Longuet, conservative Senator for Meuse and former minister, mentioned "la fuite collective devant le travail" (the collective flight when confronted with work) as a major problem. He continued: "les Français travaillent moins que les autres Européens (ils commencent plus tard, ils s'arrêtent plus tôt, moins d'heures par semaine et moins de semaines par an)" (the French work less than the other Europeans (they begin later, they stop earlier, fewer hours per week and fewer weeks per year)).
In March 2004, I went across the border to Belgium to try a Japanese car model that's not marketed in France because the French chauvinists prefer their national brands of car - Renault, Peugeot and Citroën - that persistently score at the bottom of reliability and consumer satisfaction surveys. The car salesman turned out to be a Frenchman who was fed up with France and had started a life in Belgium 15 years ago. I'd never thought that I should hear a Frenchman say that the French are lazy, but he did it!
Handshaking is a very important pastime in French working life. When you arrive at work, you shake hands with everybody who works in the same department, walking in and out of their offices to disturb their work. If you later in the day walk into an office, the coffee room or somewhere else, you must shake hands and say bonjour to everyone in that room, except if you've already shaken hands that day. It's very rude not to do so. To avoid saying bonjour to the same person twice on the same day, you need to keep a mental table and clear it at the end of the day. People with a bad memory are sometimes the cause of quarrels where one insists that they've already said bonjour and refuses to shake hands, and the other insists that they haven't yet said bonjour and insists on shaking hands. It also happens that two people crossing in a corridor have to stop and think in order to figure out if they've already said bonjour. Two women meeting each other will not shake hands but kiss each other on each cheek. A man and a woman meeting will shake hands if they don't know each other too well and kiss on the cheek if they are closer colleagues. If as a man you find it difficult to remember which woman is in which category, the easy solution is to let the woman take the initiative.
French employees in the public sector have 12-14 weeks of paid holiday per year:
Because the French have understood that it's not worth working more than absolutely required, a sick employee must post a doctor's certificate (arrêt de travail) to the employer no later than the day after the first day of illness. The certificate will state the start and end date for the illness, and at what time of day the sick employee is allowed to leave home for necessary shopping, etc.
During the public sector spring strikes in May and June 2003, unions and civil servants were outraged that the conservative government issued strict orders that the law must followed to the letter, which means that strike days will be deducted from the strikers' salaries. Such unfair punishment of strikers who are only making use of their constitutional right to strike used to be unheard of in France.
So, you see, everything in the working life is organised from top to bottom. Everyone has his or her place, where (s)he can keep sitting until retirement or move up in the hierarchy if (s)he has obeyed orders, had sex with her manager or knows someone of importance (the piston principle). It is quite possible that competence could be an alternative criteria, but I haven't found such a case yet. Globalisation and the real competition that comes with it is therefore seen as a fierce and evil attack on French values, to be fought with all the protectionism, manipulation and manoeuvring available. That the French economy is not working is obviously not the fault of the corporatism and its lack of adaptability but the fault of the evil, Anglo-Saxon capitalism and its exploitation of workers.
To be fair, it has to be underscored that the above description does not apply to industrial workers at the bottom of the hierarchy. They sometimes work in inhuman conditions that you might expect in China but not in Western Europe and for the lowest possible pay. They may be treated not much better than slaves. The fresh, crisp salad from Provence that you eat in a Paris gourmet restaurant may have been washed in such conditions. As the French don't want to do such jobs, you will often find that these jobs are filled by immigrants, often of Arab origin. As many French do not like or respect the Arabs, nobody bothers about these poor working conditions.
If you hear something about grève while in France, then prepare yourself to walk, manage without cash dispensers, sit in a queue on a motorway, be stranded in an airport, getting your mail weeks later, or something similar. Strikes and demonstrations are an integrated part of French public sector, semi-public sector and industry culture. Particularly in the transport sector, it is a tradition to strike 1-3 weeks a year. On the public transport networks, the employees normally strike in only one particular district at a time, and a minimum service is kept in place. Next time there is a strike, it's a different district and so on, until all the districts have had their scheduled strikes, and it wraps around to the first district again. One strike cycle is approximately six months in the Paris region. There is a particularly persistent type of strike, where no minimum service will be put in place, and which may last longer than the scheduled strikes. That is if the workers believe that they have a real reason to strike or if it's a political strike (which is illegal, but before a court has declared a political strike illegal, a month has passed). Any change in working or pay conditions can serve as official excuse for striking, such as for example switching train schedules from the summer timetable to the winter timetable. Even if workers are not concerned by some changes affecting other groups, they may go into "preventive strike".
Some of these groups of workers have obtained highly privileged conditions through the years. Here is what Le Figaro revealed on 16 December 2009 about the striking drivers of the Paris RER A metro:
They drive the trains only 2:50 hours a day.
So France has an upper-class of spoilt unionised workers and an underclass of workers in smaller companies who struggle to make ends meet and who never attract the interest of unions because there is no politics involved.
France is a law-abiding country that observes equality between citizens. Wrong! Whenever the members of a pressure group feel they need more money, they go down into the streets, go on strike, vandalise something, obstruct public services or whatever they may find reasonable, until the government throws a few million euros at them to make them shut up. People who are not members of any pressure group rarely get anything. Liberté, égalité et fraternité (freedom, equality and fraternity), as it says on the French coins, should be understood in the sense that French citizens are free to cheat others and rake as much of other people's money in their pockets as possible, that some people are more equal than others and that the fraternity between members of France's leading class - the énarques - will always observe their own best interests.
French males believe that women are there for the sole purpose of pleasing them. Women are advised not to travel in public transport in miniskirts. A foreign hand might suddenly be under the skirt. Particularly during strikes, when the travellers envy sardines in a can, males take advantage of the enforced proximity of their prey. Also beware that if women dress lightly, males may be staring them down throughout the journey and make indecent gestures. Propositions may be encountered anywhere, on the street, in the supermarket, wherever.
Le Christmas & les Barbarians
A Frenchman who doesn't eat foie gras, a pâté made of swollen liver from force-fed ducks or geese, for Christmas isn't a real Frenchman, or he's been the victim of an Anglo-Saxon plot. Little does it help reminding them about the suffering they impose on the birds just for their pleasure. The fat liver is an fact an illness that is forcibly imposed on the birds.
In the last terrifying months of their lives, the birds are kept in cages so small they can't even turn. A metal tube is shoved down their throat into their stomach. Up to 2 kg (4 pounds) of grain and fat are pumped into birds’ stomachs several times each day. This cruel procedure causes birds’ livers to become diseased—known as hepatic lipidosis—and swell to up to 10 times their normal size. Birds suffer excruciating pain throughout their lives, and many birds with diseased and enlarged livers become too sick to stand up.
A real Frenchman only considers the pleasure himself and his family can enjoy. Anyone who can do this or eat this product must be sick in their mind.
This is French 'gastronomy'. Bon appetit !
An interesting twist to this barbaric practice appeared on the animal rights association PETA's web site in 2010 in an article "Is There Such a Thing as ‘Halal’ Foie Gras?". In their quest to earn more money from animal abuse, French foie gras producers have now introduced a "halal foie gras". As the article explains, the Koran is very strict in its prescriptions of which meat a Muslim is allowed to eat. It notably stipulates that animals must not be under stress or experience any discomfort prior to their slaughter, and that animals must not be mutilated, deformed, or diseased when ready for slaughter. As such, halal foie gras makes as much sense as halal pork would. It is a deception. The Muslim author of the article does mention that he finds killing for food cruel in itself.
La Bullfight & les Barbarians
You would be excused for thinking that the 2000 years old Roman arenas or amphitheatres in places such as Fréjus, Nimes and Arles are just monuments left from a barbaric past. Unfortunately, the French haven't advanced in 2000 years, so like most of their Spanish cousins (except the more sensible Catalonians who banned bullfighting in 2010) they still torture and slaughter innocent bulls every year in bullfights in these arenas. They call it corrida to make the torture and murder sound more cultural. As you probably know, this 'sport' consists of sticking knifes in the back and neck of a bull until it either dies by itself or becomes so weak that the butcher/executioner (whom they call 'matador' to make it sound cultural) can kill it by sticking a sword though its heart. The excited crowd shout with joy when this bloody massacre ends in the death of the bull.
If you treated an animal like this in any other context, you would risk ending up in court.
Fortunately, it is occasionally the butcher/executioner/matador who dies instead of the bull.
In January 2011, the French government took the outrageous step of adding bullfighting to the list of immaterial French heritage despite the fact that bullfighting was only introduced to France in the 18th century and despite a generally increasing opposition against violence.
Forget all about the Louvre, gastronomy, art, cabaret, and everything else cultural - what too many French really want is public gore to satisfy their bloody and sadistic lust.
What more proof does one need to conclude that France is not a civilised country? If these brain dead spectators - and the government - think it fun to stick knives in someone else, why don't they just stick knives in themselves instead of a bull who hasn't asked for anything?
To be fair, there is an increasing number of opponents in France against this type of murder called sport, so at least things are moving the right way. There are also anti-corrida demonstrations every year outside one of these events. One thing a conscious tourist to France can do is boycott cities such as Fréjus, Arles and Nimes that allow this 'sport'. Or better, boycott France and French products.
Maybe the more relaxed attitude to work explains that three items of furniture that had survived five international removals were damaged by a French removal company when I moved from Paris to 25 km outside Paris. British and Danish companies had moved for me before, and without any problems. The French company was late, the van was too small, and they had split the removal up over two days without telling me first. Their removal cartons were of inferior material, for one use only, and only suitable for carrying light weight contents. Fortunately, I had a stock of more robust cartons from Britain, Denmark and Luxembourg. To add ridicule to the unorganised removal, their quotation letter contained the phrases "Find your furniture in the same condition as when you confided them to us" and "Have to do with a conscientious, polite, clean and organised team". The name of the company is Leader Déménagements. Prospective removers, beware.
As explained above, the French are egoists. That explains the chaotic state of the traffic, the mindless driving, and the nearly 4,000 people killed on French roads every year.
Pedestrians will cross the street anywhere and regardless of the colour of the little man at the traffic light. They are normally busy looking out for dog poos, so they cannot look up to check the traffic lights as well, or they might end up in hospital after having slipped in a poo. Occasionally, they may look around to see if cars are coming, but normally, they'd expect the driver to give way. He'd be in big trouble if he were to run over them anyway, so he'd better look out. But beware that drivers frequently assume the right of way in pedestrian crossings, traffic light or not. Also beware of cars coming down the street at the wrong side of the road, not to mention drivers exercising a liberal interpretation of red light.
If a Frenchman sees a car reversing, he will rush over to walk behind it, where people from other countries might find it prudent to avoid walking behind it. This is happening so regularly that you seriously need to be aware of this particular pastime.
Motor cyclists will frequently behave like pedestrians, except that they sometimes stop at the red lights. This is because most of the dog poos are on the pavements (crottoirs). That leaves the motor cyclists more time to check the traffic lights. However, they will expect pedestrians to give way if the latter are crossing the street at a green light.
Car drivers fear the motor cyclists, whom they regard as anarchists, because they may appear from any direction, at any speed, at any time, without notice, and cross your path in any way they find appropriate. Car drivers must always look out for pedestrians walking all over the place. Special care must be taken if passing a green traffic light. Car drivers should also respect priorité à droite, a centuries old rule that gives right of way to traffic coming from the right if no signs indicate otherwise. While suitable for traffic moving at horse carriage speed, nobody has ever considered repealing the rule when car speeds made it unworkable. Be warned that if you assume that others will give way because you arrive from their right, you'll cause a lot of accidents. You can't expect someone racing down a boulevard to stop just because you insist on your right of way.
Roundabouts are intended to assure a smooth flow of traffic, but it was predictable that the French would turn them into chaos. Apparently, due to a genetic defect, the French have no idea how to use a roundabout.
At the approach to all roundabouts, you find a yield sign with an additional explanation: "Vous n'avez pas la priorité" (you don't have the right of way). Despite this, you'll sometimes see them behave as if they had the right of way when entering the roundabout. This mainly appears to be a problem with mini-roundabouts. After a sign warning it's a roundabout and a sign to give way, half the drivers still cannot understand that it's a roundabout and that they must give way.
When they do understand the priority, they'll make sure to place themselves in the wrong lane so traffic can be blocked. If they turn left in a small roundabout, they do place themselves to the left, but once the last exit passed before they leave the roundabout, they should place themselves to the right. If traffic is slow, this leaves space for those turning left. No, no. They block the whole thing by queuing up to the left, so no one else can pass. They never think about anyone else in traffic. If you do the right thing and place yourself to the right, some uncivilised and aggressive drivers will try to cut you off from your exit after overtaking. It is typically young, male immigrant drivers who behave as gorillas. Many of them drive without a licence and will race straight into a roundabout and cause a collision if you don't make an emergency stop. They are not the only ones to drive as idiots of course, they are just disproportionally represented.
It adds to the confusion that some roundabouts operate on the principle of giving way to the right. This particularly applies to the large roundabouts in Paris in order to make them clog up during the rush hours so Paris can preserve its charm of being a city with chaotic traffic. Because you have to give way to cars entering the roundabout, no one can get out. The government is keeping it this way because tourists find it charming to watch the big traffic jams at the Place de la Concorde and similar places.
Drivers should be aware that buses are allowed to use the bus lanes if they're not used for parking or clogged up with ordinary traffic.
White paint on the street is for guidance only, particularly lane separations and arrows. Beware that the paint may be worn off or out of date, thus making you think you can make manoeuvres that are not permitted.
Obviously, road authorities are not completely blind to the lack of knowledge amongst French drivers. For example, when joining a motorway at the end of a slip road, there is a "no left turn" sign, so you don't accidentally drive the wrong way down the motorway. Also, when leaving a motorway, the slip road has speed limit signs with decreasing speed for every couple of hundred metres (yards). Just in case you were not aware that you would not make it through the bend with 130 kph (80 mph). Because of the spending on all these signs, there's not always enough money to put up signs on less important roads, such as "no left turn" when joining a one way street, or "no entry" to prevent you from joining for example a dual carriageway in the wrong direction. The locals know the roads anyway, and they know where they're not supposed to go. People without local knowledge should try to figure out if they are about to join a one way street before they make any accidents. It's a good idea to look around to see what other drivers are doing. Just beware that the locals may not always respect the regulations. Some places, the local authorities are keen on avoiding accidents. Their philosophy is: "better put up ten STOP signs too many than one too little". Such places, you will find junctions where all the roads that join are equipped with STOP signs, meaning that everybody should yield for anybody. This is of course not possible, so the locals adapt their own interpretations, for example "give way to the right" (this is the rule a Frenchman will follow if he doesn't understand the priority rule somewhere). At other junctions, you will see the main road being equipped with "give way to the right" signs in both directions, and the other road having STOP in both directions. Of course, drivers using the main road ignore the "give way to the right" sign, because they know that the other road has STOP signs. A driver arriving at a STOP sign could of course ignore it if turning right, because he knows that the other road has a "give way to the right" sign. If you don't know the local conventions, be alert before ignoring the signs. Or better, stay home. The locals didn't ask you to go to their town anyway.
If you drive in a tall car, such as a minivan that is 190 - 200 cm high, always check the height limitation signs before entering an underground car park. Often, the limit is 180 or 190 cm. The trouble is that the sign is placed so that you can't see it when you leave the street to enter the car park but only just before the descent. That means you only know if your minivan will enter the car park when there are five other cars behind you on the one-way entry lane to the car park. When you find out that your car is too tall, you can have five minutes' good fun making the five cars reverse out so you can get out. Real-life experience tried out in Lille and Marseille.
A real Frenchman will park his car (bagnole) anywhere, including such places as the middle of the street, street corners, bus stops, space reserved for delivery vehicles and pedestrian crossings. In Paris, an army of inspectors issue large numbers of parking tickets every day, and many illegally parked cars are removed. At shopping centres outside the cities, where there are large car parks with plenty of space, a real Frog will dump his car as close to the entrance as possible, carefully avoiding the marked spaces.
A behaviour similar to that seen in the traffic can be seen wherever there is a queue. If a real Frenchman sees a chance to jump a queue, he'll do it straight away. Supermarkets have special checkouts for disabled people, pregnant women, and people with small children. If you happen to belong to a privileged group, and you want to benefit from the special checkout service, then you have to fight your way through the queue of normal people, who don't think twice about taking a place from those who need it more than themselves. This is a fine example of French individualism.
Curiosity Killed le Cat
Maybe curiosity doesn't kill the French, but they are at least as curious as cats, and they are notably indiscreet. In pharmacies, people will often be staring at other customers and what they are buying, listening to their conversations with the pharmacist with the greatest interest. The French like to stare at others. The best defence is to stare back.
The French administration is working in silos. That is, one administration rarely communicates with another. If administration A requires that in order to obtain benefit X, then you must provide a certificate to prove Z, then it's your task to write to administration B and ask them to provide a certificate proving Z, wait for them to send it, and then send it on to administration A. In the meantime, the deadline of 30 days to send the certificate to prove Z has expired because administration B first promised to send the certificate, then posted it to an ancient address regardless of their having been informed of the current address, then when you call a second time do nothing, then when you call a third time take all the time in the world to post it. When you, the citizen have to do something, you always get a tight deadline from the administration, typically two to four weeks. When they have to do something, there is often a theoretical deadline of two months, but they often exceed this, particularly when they write back to ask for more paperwork even if you have already provided everything they asked for in the first place. This can make dealing with the administration cumbersome and slow. Two to six months to fulfil a simple request is not unusual, depending on the type of administration. The main exception to this rule is when administration A is looking for an excuse to refuse something, in which case they will happily ask administration B to send them information directly.
When you have to provide a photo for an identity card or health care card, it is not good enough for them to simply specify the technical requirements to the photo, as for example the US and Denmark do. No, no, no. In France, the lobbying group of professional photographers got introduced in the law that photos for identity cards and passports must be taken by a professional photographer. On the latest forms for health care cards, they also require a professionally taken photo but without mentioning the reference to the law, so I printed one myself. Abusing their lobbying power this way, professional photographers thus obtained a licence to steal citizens' money for their own benefit.
When you move from one département to another, the CPAM health care administration treat you as if you had just landed from Mars. The easy solution would be to look up on the computer under your social security number, copy your file and maybe ask for a copy of your paper file from the place you were previously registered. No, No, No! Much too simple for the French. You must fill in a complete form with all the information they already had where you were registered and attach copies of all the paperwork that proves that you are entitled to health care. After one month, they will then ask for further documentation. You send it, and one month later, they tell you that you are not entitled to health care. You then send them further documentation to prove that in your situation, you are entitled, but they never asked you for that document in the first place. One month later, they finally send you a social security card, but they forgot to put the children's names on it, so you have to write to them again to get that corrected. Now, the $1,000,000 question is: Why do you think French social security has a deficit of several billion euros?
Another problem with French administration is the increasing complexity of laws, codes, regulations, decrees etc. As politicians cater for particular groups of the population to win the next election, so the legal texts have become clogged up with exceptions. If you thought the difficult task was figuring out your rights in a particular situation, then think again. Civil servants are only human, and once you proudly present them with the request that had cost you hours of research, they may simply turn it down, notifying you that you have no such rights. I have caught them wrong on several occasions. And let's get this straight: They were plainly and simply wrong. As 2 + 2 does not equal 5, so it was not a question of borderline interpretation or a matter for discussion or individual evaluation. Eventually, they have admitted their fault, but each time, it delays the request.
The French live and die for red tape. Not just the administration and the civil servants, but the French in general. You may be fooled to think that because the individual Frenchman never stops complaining about the administration, then the bloated French paperwork is only the administration's fault. The French government has, in fact, on several occasions, introduced laws and regulations to reduce and simplify the paperwork, doing away with documents such as a certificate of address and medical certificates for children missing school because of illness. But one can observe even many decades later that administrations, schools and other entities keep demanding this useless paperwork in spite of government instructions to stop it. Some are willing to put up a complete administrative fight to insist on documents officially repealed. The vast majority of the French just put up with it as sheep instead of returning a big, collective NON! According to French mentality, more paperwork and control is always better. It is so ingrained in them that they seem to think the country would cease to exist if a few of the tonnes of red tape were cut away. Hence, France is approaching bankruptcy at high speed because somebody has to pay for all this useless administration, but there is less and less money to pay for it.
If you are from the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic sphere, you may naively think that if a public office displays opening hours, for example on their website, then they are going to be open during these hours and you can walk in with your request until five minutes before they close. It is not so. You need to warp your mind into the French mindset first. What "open 9-14" means is that it is a statement of intention saying that "we will mostly be open during that interval; in no case will we be open one minute longer; you should not arrive so late that we cannot finish dealing with your request before closing time, particularly if many people are already waiting; we may occasionally not be open during all of these hours and if you are lucky, we will put a sign on the locked door to that effect so you know why the door is locked when you arrive; do not expect us to inform you of the occasional closure on our website".
As the civil servants are guaranteed a job for life, they often don't care about the consequences about what they do. It's not their money and time they are wasting, and it's not their businesses they are ruining by their irresponsible behaviour.
France is dictated by special interest groups, lobbying groups, unions that only represent 8% of the employees, and so on. The problems of ordinary people are of no interest to the leading class of France. The result is a larger and larger gap between French politicians and the French public that partially explains that Marine Le Pen's Front National receives more and more votes.
I mentioned the photographers' lobbying above. A much more serious and deadly lobbying problem is the use of diesel engines in cars. French car manufacturers have historically developed diesel engines to a high level of perfection. To favour French car manufacturers, the tax system was thus used to penalise petrol engines. Businesses cannot recover VAT on petrol, only diesel. The tax on diesel is lower than the tax on petrol. When the global warming/CO2 scam became politically correct in France, it was decided to give tax refunds based on low CO2 emissions while higher CO2 emissions were taxed more. In reality, this means that tax refunds are given to people buying diesel cars, while those buying petrol cars have to pay more tax. The combined effect of these tax measures are that the vast majority of cars in France use diesel, even in cities. The problem is that diesel cars are technically unsuitable for city driving, since the engines rarely reach the proper temperature to function properly. Mechanics report that they see more and more diesel engines sooted up because of this. Diesel engines also increase the pollution of nitrogen.
It is now clear that this insanity has made particle pollution increase drastically in French cities. In 2012, it became known that 42,000 people die every year in France because of particle pollution. Yes, it's correct: successive French governments have been prepared to murder 42,000 people every year to favour French car manufacturer, and for a politically correct cause of CO2 that has never been proven to have any impact on the climate, whereas the global temperatures have been stable for more than a decade, even falling in 2011. The French governments are murderers.
La Kitchen French
If you want to eat well without being ripped off, you are well advised to do so outside Paris. Note that many restaurants in Paris are for rich American and Japanese tourists who smile and say "thank you very much" while the French waiters present a rude remark in French or give you a shabby service. If you insist on eating out in Paris, leave the tourist areas and go to the places where the French work. There, you'll find many small restaurants where you can get a reasonable meal for less then 15 €, drinks included. Since they are not dealing with tourists, who only come once, they cannot afford to be rude to their clients.
Note that the quality of cakes, biscuits, pies, and desserts may be inferior to the quality of those in Britain. Unless you really like an expensive, dry and sour apple tart, you may just as well skip the dessert. Unfortunately, Marks and Spencer have now closed their shops in France, so you can't buy your English cakes there any more.
Contrary to the cakes, etc., French bread is still worth eating, but you will never find a choice of any type of bread that is not French, while in the UK bread quality is steadibly increasing, and you can get a wide choice from American bagels to Italian ciabatta. But beware that the quality of bread in France is slowly falling, as bakeries leave traditions alone and find easier ways to make bread. Look out for the sign "Banette" for a good quality of bakery, although it is no guarantee. Also, if something says "artisanal" (traditional, small-scale craft), you have a good chance of getting a good and tasty bread, but the word is abused more and more. A chain store named "Paul" produces what they call traditional bread, but I personally find it too much of a challenge for my teeth. It's a matter of taste - or strong gums.
For people on diet, it's a major problem that food sold in supermarkets rarely have any nutritional information printed on the pack. This is because a real Frenchman doesn't care what he eats, or how it's produced, so long as he likes the taste. And obviously, it makes production much more flexible for creative food manufacturers.
France is said to be the country of gastronomy, but it's near to impossible to buy fresh cream, except if you happen to live near a farm with cows. It's all UHT treated, so that it can be kept for months on the supermarket shelves without waste, and it's difficult to taste that it has once been fresh cream. The French think that whipped cream is something you buy in a spray-can and that it has a sweet taste. The sweet taste is because the manufacturers add sugar to the UHT spray-can to sell more of them. If you ask a Frenchman to make whipped cream himself, he wouldn't know how to do. A chef who works at the canteen at Radio France in Paris told me that it was easier to work with UHT cream. Never mind the taste. I strongly disagree with him. Fresh cream not only tastes better - it's also easier to whip.
The French cuisine as a whole is declining, as housewives are too busy to cook fresh meals and therefore go for the ready-made packs in the supermarkets. It's the same story in restaurants, unless you get close to the Michelin level. Many small restaurants simply buy their meals more or less prepared in large stores like Metro and heat it up when someone orders it. Dominique Magada Cahill said more or less the same in an article in the Weekly Telegraph in December 2004.
British visitors to France may find the following guide helpful. You should be aware that the French are not afraid of red meat. In general, it's difficult to get your steak well done. If you insist, the waiter will think that you should rather have gone to see a psychiatrist than a restaurant. Beware that if you send your steak back to the kitchen for further cooking, there's a risk of the cook dropping it on the floor and stepping on it.
French wine is overestimated and overpriced in general. Presumably, this is due to snobs falling over themselves to praise the bouquet, fruitiness and subtle finesse of a wine, as soon as they see "France" on the label. In reality, the wine may be mixed with some plonk of unknown origin, as it's been seen in some Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Burgundy) wines.
Note that the only thing the name "Champagne" guarantees is that the grapes are from the Champagne region, which is quite a bit larger than you may think. It does not guarantee a consistent quality, or that the wine is from a particular vineyard. Well-known producers have been revealed buying up cheap Champagne of no name and selling it under their own brand. Thus, you may pay 25 € a bottle for something that's worth 8. If you don't want to pay rip-off prices for Champagne, you may get a wine just as good if you look for crémant or méthode traditionelle, which indicates that the wine is produced the same way as Champagne, but in another region. Note that pétillant is just white wine with bubbles. But better, take a trip to Luxembourg and buy their most reasonably priced méthode traditionelle.
Red wine is sold years before it's ready to drink. That's because in the traditional French society, a Frenchman will remain all his life in the same village once he's settled. Thus, he can build up a cave of wines maturing. If you want a red wine ready to drink, look for "cave" in the store. That's a special department for drinkable wines. But expect the price to be steep. If you really want a good and reasonably priced wine to drink straight away, look for Spanish or Portuguese wines in street markets or the gradually, but slowly, increasing space for foreign wines in the large supermarkets.
White wine is relatively competitive. My favourite region is Alsace, from where comes a selection of fruity and well-balanced wines. But also Vouvray is worth looking at. You can find cheaper imitations of the Alsace wines in the Mosel region in Luxembourg and Germany.
As for rosé wines, the Anjou district produces some very fruity and sweet wines. These are best drunk on a hot summer day. The prices are normally attractive.
French beer is meant to persuade you to drink their wine instead. It's mainly coloured, sparkling water, but without taste. A notable exception is the high quality beer from the Flandres region that borders to Belgium. Fortunately, there's an increasing number of foreign beers on offer in the supermarkets.
Nevertheless, an article in le Figaro in October 2012, based on a survey, concluded that one out of five Frenchmen does not take a daily shower, and that one out of eight does not systematically wash his or her hands after going to the toilet.
Once, my then ten-year old daughter came home from school and told me her underwear was dirty because there was no more toilet paper. When they start illustrating that hygiene is not important already at school, it's not strange they don't pay much attention to hygiene when they grow up.
The reply to my written complaint from the head teacher was that they check the paper twice a day, and if there should be a need for more, the pupils ask for it. How are they supposed to ask for it if they only realise there is no paper the instant they need it? So I wrote another complaint to which he still did not reply that the problem would be dealt with. Instead, he suggested an appointment so he could explain their toilet paper policy at the school.
I finally called him on the phone, and it took about 20 minutes' heated discussion before he finally admitted that he would deal with the problem. So why didn't he just reply that the first time, as that was the only thing I wanted to hear? "Because that is obvious", he said. A head teacher is incapable of clearly expressing what he wants to say, apparently, and one has to guess between the lines. He was more upset about what I had said about foreigners' perception of France being an unhygienic country, and how his lack of action confirmed this, than the unpleasant situation for my daughter.
The next day, I received an e-mail from the regional director of education who defended the failing head teacher although he did mention that the absence of toilet paper would not be repeated. He was upset that I had criticised the head teacher verbally for his failing to confirm to me the problem would be fixed and asked me to be less "aggressive" in the future. French civil servants expect obedience from ordinary mortals. Criticism of a civil servant, or someone else in a privileged position, is seen as lese-majesty by this privileged class, and that is much more serious for them than school children having to wipe their behinds without toilet paper. Try removing some comfort from unionised workers, and you'll see strikes and demonstrations. School children have no social status, so it's not important.
Once on a Parisian suburban train, I had to go and sit somewhere else, because some foul-smelling bloke came and sat in front of me. The stench was unbelievable - something between old, rotten cheese and public toilet. The number of baths he'd had since birth could most likely be counted on one hand - it was a young fellow.
In my wife's office, they once had a fairly young employee who apparently had a soapophobia. They had to hint at him that getting a more intimate relationship with soap might be a good idea. When he left their group, they had to send his office chair for cleaning to remove the smell.
One of my former French colleagues seemed to find soap too complicated to use. It reeked all the way down the corridor from our office. I had to place a perfumed candlelight discreetly in a cupboard to avoid the risk of falling in a coma (I accidentally once forgot the candlelight overnight and found it burning the next morning - this smelly guy could have been the original cause for burning the building down). The manager eventually gave him a briefing in soap for dummies, because he himself would have to share office with my colleague from the month after.
Once I returned from Birmingham UK and had to change planes in Paris to continue to Marseille and got into the Air France plane, I immediately noticed that I was in France: One passenger nearby could have done with a shower, and another kept farting.
But, I repeat, not to offend the washing majority: No need to be offended by this if you're one of them.
Within the same week in July 2006, I was told the same joke about the French by two independent Belgians. It goes: "Do you know why the French say aller aux toilettes (go to the toilets (many)), where the Belgians say aller à la toilette (going to the toilet (single))? It's because in France, you always have to try several toilets before you can find a clean one."
I figured out that doing things the right way in Provence only leads to trouble. So in protest against the miserable state of French justice, the dishonest landlord, the conniving judicial 'expert' and the mayor's favouritism, I started doing things the Provence way, disobeying every order and obligation. When the owner gave notice in December 2006, I contested. When the tenancy lapsed in June 2007, I stayed. He then had to sue me to validate the notice. He won in February 2008. So I stopped paying rent - and stayed. He then had to get a bailiff to give notice of eviction. That came in September 2008. I stayed during the two-month grace period. The winter truce started on November 1, before the two-month grace period ended. The winter truce ends on March 15. During that period, no eviction can take place. In February 2009, I received notice that the landlord had requested help from the police to get us out. So we had to go and talk to the police and the prefecture. The latter understood our difficult situation and gave us until mid summer to move. July 2009, we're still here. The government has to pay our rent starting from the moment the landlord requested assistance from the police. I'd never have done this in a country like the UK, but in France, disobedient behaviour is rewarded. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: They shaft you - you shaft them.
Le System Health
Doctors take plenty of time to examine the patient, being sure to listen to the patient describing his symptoms. This is in stark contrast to Britain, where a doctor under the National Health Service will time your allowed two minutes to say whatever you like, before he starts writing something on a prescription and shows you the door. In France, you're normally sure to leave the surgery with a prescription that will supply you with a load of medicine that you need a suitcase to take away from the pharmacy. Most of it won't have any effect, but it'll make you think that you're being taken care of. This of course helps to justify the army of workers at the caisse de maladie that manages the reimbursements of medical care. Furthermore, the doctor will supply you with an arrêt de travail, a document establishing how many days you're not supposed to work, and at what time of the day you're allowed to leave home for necessary shopping. This system ensures that people have some additional holidays, since they don't return to work before the doctor prescribed, even if they're cured.
Le System Security Social
The French social security system has a lot to offer, notably to people without work. Without getting into any boring details, let's have a look at some of the more amusing ones:
When you become unemployed, you can get unemployment benefit from the ASSEDIC for relief (ASSociations pour l'Emploi Dans l'Industrie et le Commerce).
When you've been unemployed for 2 years, the party ends, and you can only get ASS - Allocation Spécifique de Solidarité, of course.
When you have young children and you go on leave to mind them at home, you can get APE - Allocation Parentale d'Éducation.
When the children get older, for further relief, whether or not you're working, you can get ARS - Allocation de Rentrée Scolaire - to help pay their books.
"Das" meaning "privy" in Danish, Danes may want to notice that the DDASS (Direction Départementale des Affaires Sanitaires et Sociales) - is the Department of sanitary and social affaires. Toilets are actually their business.
Les Thieves Little
everything is permitted, except what’s prohibited.
France is filled with little, everyday thieves. I'm not talking about real criminals doing robberies, burglaries, car crime, violence and all that. Of course, like in most other civilised countries, that is a regular part of life not even worth writing about, because it's not a particular feature of France. What I'm talking about are ordinary people like you and me. People who are normally considered good and honest citizens. Nevertheless, it appears from experience that particularly in France, there's a little devil in such people.
Nicking a book from someone's desk isn't really considered theft in France. It's rather seen as the individual's unwritten right to take advantage of any given situation. Pinching a couple of your paid supermarket items while you're temporarily occupied could always be explained as a mistake, so that isn't really theft either. Short-changing or overcharging a bit in a shop easily happens by distraction, particularly when the shopkeeper hears a strong foreign accept or a foreign language. Such mistakes are of course not theft. Removal staff forgetting to deliver all items is not theft. Customers must understand that removers have a centuries old tradition of keeping a few souvenirs (if you are so selfish that you want to break this tradition, use a removal company that's not French). Drivers delivering mail order office supplies have a particular need for those supplies that can be used for general purposes. A roll of bubble wrap is impossible to trace anyway. The client can always get another one after having waited a month when the company has given up tracing it. And if the company can get away with charging you twice for the disappeared item, they'll do it - even well-reputed mainstream suppliers.
If a Frenchman offers you an item for free, run away screaming. It's likely to be a poisoned present, as they say in French. Someone from the same club as my wife offered her a caravan, telling her that it just needed a bit of maintenance. Unfortunately, she didn't listen to my advice of going to see it before accepting it. I asked her to find out why they were giving it away. So the day arrived when they brought it along, removed the wheels and left. They'd borrowed the wheels from someone else, they said, so they had to return them. Unfortunately, my wife did not pay attention before they'd left. It was a wreck that should have been taken to the scrap yard. Perhaps this generous Frenchman mistook our courtyard for a scrap yard. No, as we later found out, a new law had just come into force, making it illegal just to dump wrecks at a scrap yard and making it mandatory to recycle them. There is a cost involved in that. So what do you do if you have a wreck and you don't want to pay for its being recycled? You find some naive idiot and offer it as a present! As my wife found out, local scrap yards didn't want to touch it, despite signs saying that they collect old cars, wrecks etc. When she calls the nice people who generously offered her this caravan, there is a message from the phone company that the off-directory number has been changed. By dumping the cost of recycling their wreck on someone else, these people are indirectly thieves. To get rid of the horror, I had to demolish it completely, until only the metal frame was left. Only in that condition did a local scrap metal reseller accept to collect it. The best thing that can be said is that the quality was so poor that demolishing was quite easy. I unfortunately destroyed a few thousand ants' home in the kitchen wall in the process.
Employers, whether companies or private persons hiring domestic staff, often refuse to pay the salary for no reason. They manipulate the calculations and invent all sorts of useless excuses for not paying, then become aggressive when you insist on getting paid.
After European, and thereby French, law improved consumer protection for
online shopping, the French quickly figured out that it could be more profitable
to act as a crook-consumer than of acting as a crook-online business. Under
the new law, when a consumer contests a credit or charge card transaction for a
purchase where he or she was not present, the bank must unconditionally and
immediately refund the consumer, then prove if the seller had obtained
authorisation for the transaction. Providing such proof is in the best of cases
a time-wasting nuisance. When selling physical goods, the seller may have a
chance, but when selling services, it is in reality impossible to provide
sufficient proof that is accepted by the banks. I found out when a French woman
calling herself "Jocelyne Bignon" ordered an airport transfer from
Marseille Airport to Saint Raphaël in August 2010 for a person she claimed was
her son, "Levi Ors". She paid €360 in advance on Paypal two hours
before the transfer. I paid the transport company €300, keeping my
commission of €60. A week later, I received a message from Paypal telling
me that Jocelyne Bignon had claimed she had not authorised the transaction. The
money was deducted from my account. Paypal didn't refund the transaction fee,
and they billed a chargeback fee just to add insult to injury. I provided
massive proof of the service, but it was swept away by Paypal. When I called the
public prosecutor in January 2011, they still hadn't finished registered
complaints received in August 2010, including my fraud complaint. French justice
is a joke. The vast majority of my clients were British or Americans, the number
of French clients being marginal. It was of course a French person who behaved
like this. They are totally shameless. I followed the traces on my web server
and found out that whereas the white pages list a Jocelyne Bignon in Saint
Raphaël, all navigation on my site, and the payment, had taken place via the
ISP Free some place in Lyons. The white pages list a handful of "Ors"
families in the Lyons area. The way the law has been written has opened a wide
gap for such abuse. We don't know if Jocelyne Bignon is involved in this or not.
The credit card number could be stolen. Alternatively, Jocelyne Bignon could
know the person who made the purchase. Nothing is simpler than for two people
who know each other to make a little agreement:
To conclude, even if we must not generalise, and even if there are genuinely honest and decent French people, unless you know a French person very well, you cannot value his or her word any higher than a piece of used toilet paper. Since trust is an essential element in business, the fact that so many people cannot be trusted leads to mountains of paperwork of proof being requested, with the result that everything is slowed down - and people still cheat, and are cheated. That's the situation in France today. And Nicolas Sarkozy cannot understand why French industry cannot compete with German industry. One can say the same thing about France that a Dane once told me about the Dominican Republic: their national sport is cheating.
A Frenchman has confirmed what I suspected, that since everybody feels cheated by the system, they do what they can to cheat back. Having lived in France for several years, I know that they are right about being cheated by the system. They have an incompetent and bloated administration that is not treating people fairly or even correctly. Even when you have won against an authority on final appeal, they sometimes still refuse to pay, and you cannot send them a bailiff, because bailiffs have no authority to use force against their own master, the State. The State is the biggest thief of all in France. To survive in France, you have to cheat back. But the French don't limit themselves to cheating back the system; they cheat anyone they can - even their own family. A recent, sad story confirmed this. While my father in law's partner lay dying, her 3 children immediately flew over from another island - it was in the Caribbean. What's more natural, would you say, than approaching a dying parent? The trouble is that they seemed more interested in getting to empty the house for "their" inheritance - whether these items really belonged to my father in law or not - than looking after their mother. Like vultures, they were simply lining up to be ready to run off with as much goods as possible. There is apparently no limit to French selfishness in certain families.
To conclude, the merry pastime of optimising your personal situation by taking advantage of given opportunities is a central part of the well-known French individualism. It has become an integrated part of modern French culture and mentality. Because everybody is practising this pastime, nobody is really losing - except for foreigners who have not yet learnt to practise. But that's their own problem.
Les Pigs and Les Supermarkets
In some suburb supermarkets around Paris, you'll see some customers eating pastries, crisps, and other goods they've taken on the shelves. When they don't want any more, they drop the rest on a shelf somewhere. Even though this particular form of shoplifting is obviously illegal, there are rarely enough personnel to do anything about it. Or maybe they just don't care. As for the four-legged wonders of the canine race mentioned earlier, the owners find it appropriate to bring them everywhere, that is in shops, bakeries, do-it-yourself stores, you name it. They are frequently allowed to walk around without restrictions from the owner. If you have children, watch out that they don't accidentally touch a dog dropping in a bakery or slip in the pool left from a dog that didn't withstand the temptation of a discreet wee on a curtain or whatever is on the shelf in a DIY store. But the dogs are obviously useful in the supermarkets, where they can keep the floor clean by eating what the eating customers drop.
Anywhere in France, you'll see customers regretting items they've taken on the shelves and placing it anywhere. In most cases, staff will tidy up and put the things back, but frozen or cold food can obviously not be put back for sale. Whether the personnel benefit from this waste is unknown, but someone has to pay for it.
In supermarkets, you'll sometimes have great difficulty hearing what your spouse or mistress - or whomever you're shopping with - is trying to tell you. This is because some idiot is shouting in a microphone, babbling away about promotions or whatever, adding to your stress level.
Cows Mad Political and Hypocrisy French
Long after the European Commission ended the ban on British beef, France kept up an illegal ban in a badly disguised protectionist measure.
At about the same time, it was published that some French and other European cattle and other farm animals had been fed on sewage.
In 2000, a report from the European Commission revealed that French authorities were neglecting their responsibility to effectively monitor and control the spread of the mad cow disease, the cattle feed, and the slaughter of sick or suspected animals.
In June 2000, a French farmer said that government inspectors had warned him to keep quiet about a mad cow found at his farm. They appeared not to be interested in finding the cause of the disease, but rather to cover up the government's irresponsibility.
In May 2001, the French Senate published a report that damned the government for having covered up the risks and put economy before health.
That is French hypocrisy, protectionism and selfishness in a nutshell !
Official statistics from the European Commission reveal that France is the worst member state when it comes to respecting European law. At the same time, countries such as France and Germany are criticising Britain and Denmark for opposing further European integration. More hypocrisy at work.
France's intention of creating an integrated Europe is getting a Europe with France in the centre and all the other members as vassal states around it. Supreme masters of diplomacy as they are, the French have for decades had the upper hand in running the secretive French-Italian style of corrupt bureaucracy in the EU. France never intended to give much in return; maybe a few sweeteners, but never any power or control. As it was revealed in early 2000, the late François Mitterand bribed his way into political power in Germany through the corrupt Helmuth Kohl.
Special treatment unavailable to other Member States has been granted to France when they insisted. France has for years been sabotaging reform of the expensive European CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) that pours EU money into the hands of French farmers. France is sabotaging that the European Parliament can be gathered in one city instead of moving between Brussels and Strasbourg every three weeks, because France insists on keeping the Parliament in France. It wastes between 150 and 200 million euros a year and causes pollution to move hundreds of staff and truckloads of paper every month.
When it suits those in power, they will cooperate with the nastiest people on earth. During World War II, French police rounded up 13,000 French Jews at the direction of the Nazis. They were sent to concentration camps, where most were executed; among them were more than 4,000 children. A film about this national shame was released in 2011: "The Round Up".
Piston - or Having Friends in the Right Places
In most countries, your individual situation can sometimes be improved if you know someone in the right place who can do you a favour; it's not a matter of what you know but who you know. The trouble in France - and probably many other Latin countries - is that the whole country is working according to the piston principle. Literally, a piston is just that - a piston. In daily speech, it refers to knowing someone who can push you forward in the system. If you want to get anywhere in France, you need to get to know one or more influential people who can remove the obstacles in the system for you. If you know the right people, you never need to worry in France; you'll be taken care of. If you don't, there may be nothing to help you. This becomes obvious during winter, when newsreports of homeless people having frozen to death in their car or unheated shelter under a bridge appear daily in the coldest periods. France has a serious housing and poverty problem, but not many bother about it, because the poor ones are those excluded from the piston system. France has of course signed the UN Charter of Human Rights, they made their own human rights more than 200 years ago, and they have signed all the same treaties as other Western European countries. These treaties provide for quite extended protection against poverty, guarantees for housing and economic rights and much more, but France happily ignores these boring obligations. Chirac is more interested in maintaining relations with his African chaps and sending them French money than feeding and housing his own people. Those in the piston system are cared for, and those outside don't matter, so why should there be a problem with that?
Promotion de canapé (sofa promotion) is a particularly effective way for young, attractive women to enter the piston system. In general, the piston system assures that the most incompetent persons end up being promoted above their abilities. Having the clueless people at the top ensures that those who are able are occupying the lower posts of the hierarchy, where they will continue doing good work for a bad payment. As long as they get their holidays, etc., they don't mind too much.
The Police (or la gendarmerie or le commissariat or whatever they call them) is there to ensure that the citizens complete all the paperwork they have to do. For example, moving to a different county (département) without immediately updating the registration of your car and your insurance documents is a serious offence, punishable with a fine of 90 €. The change of registration includes changing the number plate on the car, which must be done no later than 48 hours after you get the new vehicle document. To be fair, the obligation to re-register when moving within France will soon be abolished.
Citizens and visitors must at all times carry personal identification, and the police can demand anyone to produce this identification without any reason. Car drivers must carry a file with the registration document, the insurance document, and the driving licence whenever using the car. The front screen must carry an insurance certificate, a technical control certificate, and a low pollution disc (la pastille verte) if the car fulfils the strict pollution standards. If the owner is a resident of Paris, and he wants to use the special rate for residential parking in the streets, the car must also carry the card certifying that it is entitled to the residential rate. For small cars, it can be a problem finding a free space to look out through the front screen, once all the stickers have been placed.
Some people, including Frenchmen, think the police are there to help them fight crime or take reports on theft or loss. Strictly, the police should handle such details, but they will frequently tell you to go to another police station, until you give up.
If the police occasionally have to arrest a suspected criminal, they will be sure to beat him up first and ask questions afterwards. They do that to get relief for the frustration of having to interrupt their office duties. For people outside the police, this apparently brutal behaviour may appear to be a problem. In fact, Amnesty International is criticising the French police for brutality. But one may wonder if that will change anything in a country whose government blew up Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship in a New Zealand harbour.
Mark Twain once wrote in his diary: "A Frenchman's home is where another man's wife is. There is nothing lower than the human race except the French". As we've seen above, a Frenchman always considers himself first, so unfaithfulness is obviously quite common. The determining factor is what you can get away with, not what's right or wrong. Presidents as always lead the way. The late François Mitterand was discovered to have a secret daughter with his mistress, and his chauffeur revealed in a book that Mitterand frequently had one or more women lined up for the night. Since having a mistress is considered normal in France, not much fuss was made about it. He'd lied about his cancer before the presidential elections anyway. In 2001, president Jacques Chirac's wife published a book according to which her husband's unfaithfulness nearly ruined their marriage. He went wild with girls, she says.
Le Service Customer
French shoppers agree that French customer service is among the worst in Europe. Read the article French agree: their shop staff are surly in the Daily Telegraph.
Customer service is a relatively unknown concept in France.
Don't be surprised if in a shop the person who's supposed to help you take your order is occupied with more important business, such as chatting away on the phone or with a customer he knows about holidays, children, the weather, the family and their illnesses, plain gossip, and similar themes suitable to make the time go faster.
At supermarket entrances, shopping baskets are often unavailable. Customers are directed to go searching for one at the check-outs, as staff couldn't be bothered moving them back to the entrance more frequently than once a day. When you make it to the check-out desk to pay and you need to place your stuff on the carrier belt, you discover that the check-out lady has kept all the little sticks that you place between different customers' goods for herself instead of sliding them down to the customers.
After having read this, you may wrongly think that you never get any help in a shop. Not so. Once, I was buying new clothes at a place called Celio, a young lady was keen to help me find what I wanted - and more. She even showed me where the underwear was. Unfortunately, I didn't like their models of underwear, and they didn't have the right size, so I didn't take any. I took my place in the queue to pay for the other clothes I'd found. When it was my turn, she asked me if I'd seen the underwear. I said yes, but I didn't find my size. She then promptly took a pair of underpants and started folding them out, insisting that they ought to be big enough. By then, there were several other people behind me in the queue, eagerly following the conversation about my underwear. I fancied that they'd had enough fun already, so I once again thanked no, politely but firmly.
My landlord's plumber was supposed to finish some work he'd started and had said he'd come on Wednesday, August 24. He didn't come. He hadn't called to cancel the appointment. He didn't call later to excuse and to make a new appointment. I called his mobile later the same day and left a message. He didn't call back. I called and left a message on his mobile every weekday for the next week and a half. He didn't call back once. He finally answered during the afternoon on Saturday, September 3, to tell me that he had the right to take some holiday, complain that I disturbed him on a Saturday, ask me to call again Monday, and then he hung up. I called him three times on Monday, each time leaving a message, and he didn't call back. It must be nice to have so many clients that you don't need to do anything to keep them.
During the frequent strikes in public transport, be it the SNCF, Air France, Paris Airports or whomever may have as their secondary activity to transport people in between strikes, the striking company often publishes a phone number where the public can get information about the strike. However, the trees don't grow into the sky. These numbers are nearly always premium rate numbers. When they can't get money for transporting people, at least they can rip them off when they try to find out where their train, bus or plane is.
Les Pages Jaunes - the French version of the Yellow Pages obviously make their living by selling adverts. But as with the rest of French businesses, the only part they understand is the hard sale. Once you're on board, they couldn't care less. The adverts I unfortunately bought included a space for a company logo. As the logo was not ready when the advert was created, I had to submit it later. I phoned them to ask how to do, and they wanted me to print my (computer generated) logo so they could scan it. Not having a colour printer, I told them that it was not possible, and since they would not take it by e-mail, I had to write a diskette and send to them by post. In the 21st century, in a company that must receive thousands of company logos all year long, why use computers if you can use paper and post? That's French logic. It took two months and countless reminders before the logo was online. Next problem: The ordinary French person has never heard of the Anglo-Saxon concept "relocation". Relocation is all about service, and since service is unknown in France, the French wouldn't bother. You can guess that it's almost exclusively foreigners who provide relocation services in France. Therefore, the French yellow pages have no classification for relocation. Having placed my relocation ad under the closest classification I could find, it gave no results, and when the Pages Jaunes called me to sell next year's ads, I mentioned this problem. They accepted to consider my suggestion to create a classification but later refused it. Nevertheless, they kept telephoning to push me to renew my ads. As I firmly told them that I was not going to renew any ads so long as they would not create a classification for my activity, they just hung up! No French politeness; no bonne journée, au revoir Monsieur; no attempt to hide that she was sulking because I would not buy their ads on conditions to suit them only; never mind my own business.
The two times Orange (France Telecom) has been responsible for moving my phone and ADSL lines with me when I moved, they've failed. Each time, they got more than three weeks' notice in writing, and they confirmed the orders. Each time, only one phone line worked when I arrived, and they had to mess around to get the Internet working. In 2004, it took them 2-3 days to get it right. In 2010, it took them ten days. Their excuse in 2010 was that customer service had been a bit optimistic about ADSL speed by ordering 18 MB whereas the technician noted that only 8 MB would be possible on the day he made the connection. So instead of connecting the 8 MB, he connected nothing. French logic. My contract simply obliged them to give me the highest speed technically available. During the days that followed, customer service couldn't care less that Internet had not been connected, and they refused to give and deadline. When I insisted too much, they just hung me up. Clients are a nuisance French companies have to tolerate, but only up to a point. After more than a week's waiting without news, someone decided to pass me on to a manager who told me that my Internet account had not been set up for billing, so that would have held it back. I wonder what exactly that vast number of staff are doing during their working days. By that time, I'd had enough and gave notice on all their services and refused to pay the outstanding bills for €300 to compensate for the loss they'd cost me. In the middle of the tourist season, I had been unable to reply to customers booking tourist transport for ten days. Neither their customer service or the second level of national consumer service responded to complaints. I had to get the ombudsman for electronic communications involved. A French company would rather shut down their operations than admit they have goofed.
When you take defective goods back to shops to complain, staff and managers alike will more often than not pretend to be completely ignorant about consumer law and the statutory warranties for defect goods, simply claiming that there is no warranty on this type of article. Too many times, you have to start making a scene out of it to get it through their thick skulls that you are not accepting to be fobbed off.
As I said, customers are a nuisance French companies unfortunately have to tolerate, so they often make it as difficult or expensive as possible for customers to contact them. This is often done by using premium rate phone numbers. It had become so much of a problem that the government decided to step in and ban premium rate numbers when the customer's call was about order fulfilment or complaints. A few companies, notably CanalSat (satellite TV) and Mondial Relay (postal services) are openly violating that ban. Mondial Relay openly told me that the premium rate number served to reduce the number of "untimely" phone calls from clients — clients, these unruly bastards who have nothing else to do than disturb the 'working' day of French employees.
The underlying mentality is that French companies and professionals think they are doing you a favour when they allow you to pay them for goods or services. Out of the blue, the speech therapist who was helping my dyslexic daughter with reading one day told me she would cut the weekly sessions down from one hour to 30 minutes because she needed more rest and had an overbooked diary. She didn't say a word about what this would mean for my daughter's reading progress, so I asked her. Her reply was that the usual duration was 30 minutes, and that she was doing us a favour by taking one hour at a time. Well, you're being paid for one hour, I replied, so it's not a favour, and besides, I'm not responsible for her having overbooked her diary, and where was her professional responsibility for the work she was supposed to provide, and for the reading progress? There was no responsibility, quite clearly. She was free to decide how much she did, so dumping a pupil in the middle of her progress didn't bother her. She couldn't understand why I was upset.
You know by now that service isn't exactly top priority in France. So you can't be surprised to know that La Poste doesn't really care if you can post your letters or not. Letterboxes in Paris have two slots. One for letters to be delivered in the local region, and one for the rest of the world. The trouble is, because of the minuscule size of the letterboxes, at least one of the two compartments is always full. That problem can be overcome by putting the letters in the compartment that is not yet full. They probably mix it all up when they collect the letters anyway. A more annoying problem is that the slots are made for letters no wider than 15 cm. Thus, in order to post an A4 size letter measuring 21 cm on the short side, you have to either vandalise it to squeeze it into the letterbox or go to the post office.
Because of trouble with communist unions that want to monopolise newspaper distribution, newspapers are mainly sent through the post. That means that the newspaper arrives at best at noon and often 1, 2 or even 3 days later - at which time it contains history; not news.
During the summer holidays in August, the distribution of post is chaotic and on some days, the post is not delivered at all. In general, throughout the year, there are not people enough on duty to step in case of illness. That means that if more than two people are sick in a district of 40 post offices, then some parts of the town are not getting their mail.
The post may also be good old-fashioned slow. I've seen first class letters take a week to be delivered from the north to the south (average speed: 6 km/h - or walking speed), and a letter posted by a financial advisor within a post office only 15 km from where I live take 4 days to arrive (average speed: 150 metres/h), while second class letters are sometimes delivered more quickly than first class letters. French post offers a more expensive way to get letters and packets delivered late: Chronoposte. They guarantee next-day delivery, but in practice, the only thing that is guaranteed is that it's 30 times more expensive than an ordinary letter, while it can arrive just as late. A local shop that produces high-quality chocolate and used Chronoposte to deliver orders for Christmas 2005 received a large number of customer complaints about non-delivery at the time promised. Chronoposte explained the shop that packets were accumulating in a warehouse because there was not enough staff to deliver them.
La Circus Card Credit
As with anything else, the French have made it difficult to use international credit cards in France. The French national bank cards, called cartes bleues (blue cards) make use of a computer chip in the card to verify the PIN number when you use the card. The trouble is that foreign cards, such as MasterCard and Visa, do not have chips built in - or if they have that they are not compatible with the French chips (except that the new generation of UK chips work). The majority of the personnel in French shops don't know that, so if you try to pay with a foreign card, they will put it in the chip reader instead of swiping it through the magnetic strip reader. Then they will tell you that the card doesn't work. Most of them don't even know that their terminal has a magnetic strip reader. It's up to you to explain how it works. The large majority of the shops accept the card if you can explain to them what the problem is. Sometimes the personnel have to ask the manager how to swipe the card.
The French centralised computer network that clears the transactions often fail communicating with foreign clearing systems, meaning that foreign cards are rejected. In such cases, they will turn you away without your goods, whatever the circumstances. I've seen that in a supermarket in a tourist town on a New Year's evening. Tourist or not, whether you have a wad of dollars or pounds doesn't matter; they couldn't care less. The only reason they smile at tourists is their money. When the money doesn't work, the smile turns sour.
The following is a fine example of French customer service. I tried to pay for computer parts with my English MasterCard in a shop in Paris. The shop had a MasterCard symbol on the door, meaning that they have to accept MasterCard. However, the woman at the till said she could not read magnetic stripes. I pointed to the magnetic reader on her terminal, and she tried to swipe the card a couple of times, just to show me that it didn't work. I pointed out the MasterCard symbol on her door, and that such a symbol obliged her to accept MasterCard. She told me that she accepted only French MasterCards. I informed her that MasterCard is an international system. Yes, she said, in a more and more annoyed and unfriendly tone, she knows, but she only takes French MasterCards. Having discussed five minutes, I gave up, left the goods in the shop, bought them somewhere else, and complained about the shop through my bank that they display a MasterCard symbol but will not accept one.
On another occasion, I wanted to pay a large amount to a garage for car service. I tried to use my French carte bleue. The system kept refusing the card. I had enough credit on my account, I knew. The garage phoned their bank to get help. They spent about one hour discussing the matter with their bank, while I was waiting. On one occasion, the bank hung them up. On another occasion, the bank didn't phone them back as promised. The shop activated the speaker on the phone, and I could hear that the man at the call centre was arrogant and showed no interest in solving the problem. He was more interested in criticising the shop for a minor procedural fault. I myself was on the phone to my bank to ensure that there were no problems with the account. The problem was that La Poste imposes a fixed, running limit of 2300 € for card spending, and that I was about to exceed that limit. They said on the phone that they would approve the transaction. But the garage's bank said they could not approve the transaction until the day after. After one hour without a solution from the French banks, and with the personnel having stayed on 45 minutes after normal closing time, I decided to use an English MasterCard to avoid that the garage keep the car to have security for the payment. Fortunately, the card worked on this occasion.
After that incident, I asked La Poste to increase my running limit. They did that, but the month after, I had the same problem again, because I had exceeded the 2300 € limit. They then informed me that they'd only increased the limit for one month. I said I had asked for a permanent increase. The woman on the phone insisted that she could not do that. The 2300 € limit was fixed. I had to explain to her that the money on the account was actually mine, not La Poste's, and that I alone decided what to do with them. After a further five minutes discussion, the increased limit was finally granted.
On yet another occasion, the call centre at a French bank showed their disgust for their customers. I wanted to use my English MasterCard to pay a large amount for goods in a shop. The system refused, and a call to the call centre did not help. They insisted that I must have exceeded my credit limit. I knew that I had not, and my English bank confirmed that there should be no problem with the transaction. After 30 minutes, I went home for lunch without the goods and came back towards the end of the afternoon. The circus repeated itself. The shopkeeper kept phoning the call centre to no avail. I spent one hour waiting in the shop. Then I gave up and left the shop without the goods. I phoned MasterCard in France. They could do nothing to help or explain. But they gave me a freephone number for MasterCard in the USA. The chap over there couldn't do anything either, except assuring me that many American tourists had problems using their MasterCards in France. But he gave me the advice that solved the problem: Make several small transactions. I returned to the shop the day after, and the shopkeeper now informed that the call centre had said it would take two more days to get a clearance. MasterCard is meant to be a quick and easy way to pay - except in France. But she accepted to try the many small transactions. It worked, and I could finally take home the goods. I'm still awaiting my English bank's reply to my written complaint. I'm sure it must be held up in France.
Once I wanted to withdraw money from a cash dispenser, its computer software fell over when I had introduced my card. I saw the OS/2 boot messages while it was restarting itself. The machine kept my card, and fortunately the bank was open and could hand me back my card. The lady confirmed that their dispenser sometimes falls over when cards from La Poste are introduced, thus implying that nothing was being done about it.
France has one of Europe's most developed and sophisticated train networks. This is because of the government's policy of investing in efficient public transport. High-speed trains (TGV - Train à Grande Vitesse) are cruising the country with speeds of up to 300 km/h. But the price for this prestige project is that the rolling stock transporting daily commuters in and out of Paris and other cities is worn down. Trains up to 40 years old are occasionally breaking down on the tracks. Once I needed to get home from Paris to a village north of Paris, a train had broken down on the tracks, blocking them, and as someone from the SNCF explained to me, there was no longer any personnel that could manage sharing the one available track between trains in each direction, so the train was redirected via an awkward route and very little information given to passengers.
Another morning, I found myself stuck at the local train station after the announcement of a broken down train. That morning, the SNCF that I was contracting for had booked me a seat on a TGV to visit their reservation centre in Lille. Because of the delay of the suburb train, I found myself on the TGV leaving one hour later.
At another occasion, during winter, a TGV was delayed one and a half hour on arrival to Paris. During that time, the train was standing still just a few minutes from the Gare de Lyon in Paris. But due to a bit of snowfall that afternoon, the tracks were blocked. Obviously, after having paid for the expensive trains, there was no money left for effective equipment to clear the snow, except for a single person with a match.
To conclude about the TGVs: They do indeed go very fast when everything works. But the infrastructure surrounding them is just not up to speed, so the gain is in certain cases limited. Of course, TGV services are no better than standard French "service", so count on blocked toilets, toilets without paper, coffee machines out of order that keep your money, snacks from the in-train cafe that are partially frozen when served after insufficient heating, and unreadable screens at certain railway stations (Charles de Gaulle TGV - screens unreadable in sunlight). At some stations in cities, it is very difficult to park your car for the day, and in Lille, there is no set-down / pick-up zone for cars for those who either collect someone at the stations or take someone there. Apparently, the socialist politicians there don't like cars and so decided to make life as difficult as possible for them. The parking for the new Avignon TGV station is already exhausted, and it's a problem for travellers arriving by car that they risk missing their train while searching for a parking space. The parking for the new Aix en Provence TGV station was much too small. When you return late in the evening to the Avignon TGV station and pay for your parking, you risk that there are no more receipts in the machine so you have to contact the parking company if you need a receipt. When you pay for your parking at the station and then walk to the farthest parking, where you parked to save money, by the time you have loaded your car and parked the trolley, your 15-minute grace period for getting out has expired, and the gate asks for more money to let you out. Indeed, there is a machine out there where you can pay. ONE machine. Knowing how things work in France, I would rather not walk all the way out there to discover that the ONE machine is out of order, only to walk all the way back to the station building and then back to the parking again. One learns. At least the guy on the intercom opened the gate without my having to pay a ransom.
At the underground stations, it's a problem that the French think they can get into the train quicker if they block the doors for the passengers leaving the train. Be prepared to push your way out of the train and step somebody on their feet, by accident of course, if they are standing in your way.
L'Airport Charles de Gaulle (CDG) in Roissy
As for the trains, the infrastructure surrounding France's largest airport is not quite up to speed. Signposting is incomplete for travellers and car drivers. A major destination when leaving the airport by car is simply not signposted at all. A motorway is passing by the airport, going to Paris in one direction and Lille in the other direction. So signs have been posted for Lille and Paris. Never mind other destinations, not served by the motorway. If people really want to go such obscure places, they've asked for it. They're in for a tricky search to get out of the maze the airport is. A neighbour of mine worked for Hertz at the airport. He said that because the airport is government owned, the management just don't care about service.
That may explain why nothing appeared to be done about a large hole in the floor just outside the exit from customs. While waiting for a family member to arrive in Terminal 1, the circular bunker, I watched with amusement how one traveller after another got the front wheel of their baggage trolleys stuck in the hole. The abrupt stop of the trolley frequently made baggage fall on the floor. No personnel were there to do anything about the hole or help the travellers.
Another day, when taking someone to the same Terminal, we ordered a cup of coffee in a cafe in the terminal. It was not overcrowded, and it was not very large, but the waiter took half an hour to serve two cups of coffee, after having taken the order, and we almost left before.
When leaving from Terminal 1 on a morning flight, I needed to visit a toilet. The only toilet nearby was about to be closed for cleaning, but I insisted it could not wait. Of course, there was no soap in the soap dispensers, and the cleaning lady had no soap to put in them. Why would travellers need soap in a toilet? They should know that the French don't need soap and adapt to that or stay away from France.
CDG is a large airport with long distances between the terminals. Therefore, someone got the excellent idea to connect them with an unmanned light rail system. Because of someone who was good friends with an executive of a company producing cable-driven light rail systems, that company got the order by chance. The trouble was that the cable-driven light rail system was not designed for the distances at CDG or for the curves that were necessary. This type of system had never been implemented on such a scale before. The technical limits were known in advance, but why should that ruin a good company of friends? In 1999, the system was ready for the first tests. They tested. They tested. They kept testing. A hotel complained about the noise from the cables that would mean they would have to make conference rooms soundproof. The system was not reliable. In the end, it had to be scrapped. The carriages are sitting somewhere collecting dust, while the tracks are unused. It was eventually decided to replace it with a suitable "Val" system that had shown that it could work elsewhere. At the time of writing, June 2006, the new system is still not ready but is undergoing tests. The inconvenience to passengers who've had to take buses around the airport 10 years more doesn't matter. The public may have wasted a few million euros, but they've ended up in good hands at a company owned by good friends, so it doesn't matter. A lot of people would have been kept in work installing and testing a useless system. So, hocus-pocus, nobody has lost anything (taxpayers and travellers don't count), and the circus can continue.
When changing flights from Terminal 2D to 2E in 2004 in the morning, I felt like a coffee and a croissant. Very sensibly, there were a couple of cafes in the terminal. However, the space and the number of tables and chairs available would make you think it was designed for no more than 2-3 families at a time, and smokers assured that no-smokers had nowhere to sit anyway. A small cafe may be all right at a street corner in Paris, but one might expect that capacity would need to be increased at a major airport. So I ended up eating a banana I'd brought along on a bench instead.
After the impossible cafe visit, I needed a toilet in the secure area before boarding. Many others had got the same idea, and so too many people were lined up in too little space in a toilet with too few cubicles.
When taking an Air France flight (I'm not French-nationalistic, but with government "help", they're able to make promotions that match low-cost operators) in Terminal 2D in June 2006, I noted the customer service. I had printed out my boarding card the night before, so all I needed was to dump my suitcase. Since I arrived by train, I had scheduled to arrive at the airport in good time. I easily found the e-check-in zone, but no signs informed passengers who had already checked in where to dump their suitcases. Fortunately, an Air France guy was available to inform me that I could not dump my suitcase until 90 minutes before the flight. At least I was sure Air France would not damage it during the last hour during which I had to carry the suitcase around in cafés, newsagents and toilets, but I would after all have preferred getting rid of it. When the time came for check-in, the screens sent me halfway down through the terminal. Ok, I cannot expect that they put the check-in zone exactly where I stand. The entrance to the gate was exactly where I started, so I got to see the half terminal again. They are good at organising sight-seeing tours in the terminal. Tourists appreciate sight-seeing, so that is good logic. After security, I came into a too small, over-crowded secure area, where people lining up in front of the gates assured that it was virtually impossible to move anywhere. The few, battered, old tube screens available were completely unreadable in the sunlight. On the gate number I was given, another flight was displayed. Someone occasionally babbled on the PA system in French and English, but it was totally inaudible in the noise. At an empty gate, I was informed that my flight had been moved to another gate.
When I returned, we came in to the new Terminal 2F (that collapsed in 2004 after some of the architects had spent too much time for coffee breaks). As I was about to approach the conveyor belt to get my suitcase, police pushed passengers back without explanation. Someone was babbling something completely inaudible on the PA system. Why would they have tested the PA system in a new airport terminal? Why would passengers need to know what they were waiting for?
For some reason I don't understand, ADP (Aéroports de Paris), the public company running the airport, has started spending money on TV commercials, but it's very French: Instead of spending money on improving customer satisfaction, money is spent on commercials. Maybe someone at airport management knows a good chap at a TV commercial company.
L'Abuse of Tourists
As a foreign tourist in France, expect to be treated like an idiot who
cannot taste the difference between good and bad food and who does not know
what you're ordering. Here's what to expect:
If your change is less than one euro, some waiters don't return it unless you ask for it.
Some shops find it appropriate to cheat a few extra euros out of the innocent tourist - or anybody not giving the impression of being a local. Instead of returning 3 x 1 €, you could get 2 x 1 € + 10 cents, for example, as a local dry cleaner once did. Or you could get a coin in a foreign currency. Or the local shopkeeper "accidentally" counts 1 € too much. They always have some pathetic excuse, like "it was in the wrong compartment". The only way to avoid this is to be vigilant. Strangely enough, as one becomes more and more fluent in French, these incidents become more and more rare.
Have you ever - God forbid it - by accident bought a French book? If so, did you notice that the title printed on the back was printed in such a way that if the book is standing on a book shelf, you have to tilt your head to the left to read it? Did you notice that virtually any other book makes you tilt your head to the right? Of course, l'Académie française would say that it's your own fault, as you should only read French books, and I'm sure some of them would have been lobbying the government to forbid the import of non-French books, stopping and searching people at the borders to check if they were trying to smuggle in British newspapers or other material that could threaten to spiritually corrupt the French. I don't know the reason for the book title phenomenon, but could it be that since the rest of the world does it one way, the French just have to do the opposite? Just like the yellow headlights they used to have on their cars, and the SECAM television system that virtually no one else uses and that is incompatible with other systems. I myself have one good reason for calling the French book title way the wrong way: If you put the book flat down on a shelf, perhaps in a pile of books, then the title printed on the back of the French books is upside down. Somehow, this is the French in a nutshell!
The gastronomy, the wine, the climate, the nature, the lifestyle, the historic monuments ... France is a wonderful place to live. Or is it? If it is so wonderful as it is claimed, then why are the following statistics as they are?
Suicide Rates in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand
Suicides per 100,000 people per year. Source: Wikipedia.
When I was learning French back in the late 1980s, before the Internet was known to the public, and I looked for pen friends in small ads in Denmark, one of the first pen friends who responded from Paris told me that his brother had just committed suicide. It didn't quite match the image France was and is trying to project.
Use of Antidepressants
"A survey carried out in 1992 comparing France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy showed that France was by far the largest consumer of antidepressants. The situation appeared to be the same in 1998, despite growing use of these drugs in the United Kingdom. More recently, the ESEMeD 2000 survey showed that the prevalence of the use of antidepressants remained higher in France, 6% over one year, than in the other European countries studied - Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy – where it only reached 3.5%. This French pre-eminence can be considered within the broader context of the consumption of psychotropic drugs, which is also higher than that of other European countries."
Explaining exactly why a country's suicide rate is high, or why the use of antidepressants is high, is extremely complicated. I can only try to shed some light on some of the problems as I see them, and as many ordinary Frenchmen see them. I will in no way pretend to know the full explanation.
The French political and other leading class have forgotten why there was a revolution more than 200 years ago, and why more than one constitution and human rights declarations were proclaimed, originally in 1789, 1793 and 1795. Later, the Constitutions presently in force, in 1946 and 1958. They've forgotten that these texts based on common sense are the foundation of society and democracy that vest sovereignty in the people.
One of the more notable and recent examples of having violated the sovereignty of the French people was when the French people voted no to the European Constitution, following which the text was edited a bit, the title was changed to the Lisbon Treaty, and the French Establishment steamrolled it through in violation of the people's no. Of course, France was not isolated in this shameful behaviour which took place across Europe.
The Lisbon Treaty may not affect the daily lives of the French people much, but the Orwellian, Kafkaesque bureaucracy and establishment do. The constitutional role of the civil service being in service of the sovereign people has been reversed in modern France where the citizen is the slave of a tyrannical state meddling in everything the citizen does.
The citizen has an extensive list of constitutional and human rights on paper, but the authorities violate them every day without scruples.
French police throw thousands of people in police custody for very little or no reason. It has become a national scandal of human rights violations. To add insult to injury, people are often detained in medieval conditions: overcrowded cells, cells reeking or urine and vomit, blankets with fæces, some having never been washed etc. I'm not making this up. Such examples can be read on the Parti Radical's website. Former and existing members of the ruling party UMP are members of that party. Examples: a 56-year old polytechnician, a 57-old president of an association, a 51-old philosophy teacher.
France is supposed to have a "social model" to protect its citizens against poverty and other social risks, but authorities happily pull the carpet even under families with or without small or large children by cancelling the income support the families depend on, without notice or explanation. It happens every day, year after year. Anyone can visit one of the Resto du Cœur where food is distributed to families who don't have money to buy food, so as to be conscious about the extent of poverty in France. It can take four years to win against the authority on appeal. Then the authority may refuse to pay - not explicitly, but by doing nothing. The citizen then discovers that he has no effective remedy to oblige the condemned authority to pay, the bailiffs not being allowed to intervene against an authority. There is an parliamentary ombudsman who claims to have an emergency service for urgent complaints, but when an urgent complaint is made, that emergency service somehow seems not to exist. When questions are asked about the emergency service on the ombudsman's debate site, staff instantly shut down the debate - the same day the ombudsman proudly announced on Facebook that more vivid debate would take place in a new constitutional council - to which the citizen can send a petition if he can collect 500,000 signatures. They could just as well say that they don't want to hear from the citizens.
Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Republic, proudly announced that he wouldn't let anyone fight the crisis alone in the worst possible circumstances. But the social authorities continued to pull the carped under low-income, crisis-ridden families. He comes up with slogans such as "work more to earn more", but the fact is that the social systems are constructed so badly that many families would be worse off by working more, because a whole range of social benefits would fall away in parallel if they worked more.
Sarkozy's government came up with a new, simplified self-employment system, promising: "no income, no tax". After just one year, the scandal hit the news: someone who had earned just a couple of hundred euros would have to pay perhaps €500 in minimum professional real estate tax, regardless of the fact that he works at home, uses no professional real estate, and already pays individual real estate tax on his home.
This simplified self-employment system was mainly created as a propaganda tool to be able to boost the number of business creations. In all the other French self-employment schemes, there are minimum taxes and social security charges so that the first €1500-€2000 someone earns to to the state. Even if someone earns nothing or has a deficit, the €1500- €2000 has to be paid.
It is not difficult to see the parallels to an Orwellian society.
I have never been in a country where I have met so many disillusioned people, so many depressed people, so many people profoundly fed up with their system, administration, government, politicians, justice, so many zombie-like people.
How you experience France thus depends on your situation. It is possible to avoid the negative sides, depending on what you do, but tread carefully. The dream can turn into a nightmare.
France's elite is mostly in collective denial about the real state of the country. The attention is presently diverted onto the failing PIIGS countries, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, but France's own economy is in a dire state.
The Ministry of Budget and Public Accounts included a flyer with the tax return forms to fill in in 2010 to inform about the 2010 budget:
In short, one out of three euros spent had to be borrowed. In December 2010, the government had to take out an emergency loan in order to be able to pay civil servant salaries. France's debt was estimated to €1,574.6 bio. at the end of the third quarter 2010, or about twice the amount when the euro was created (source: Wikipedia). If you click on the Wikipedia link, you will see the self-explanatory graph. An article in le Figaro on 27 April 2011 showed the deficits and debts as percentages of GDP of the eurozone countries and the UK.
Only when the 2011 budget was presented did it become clear that drastic action had been taken to cut the deficit. Whether the budget will be respected remains to be seen at the time of writing, May 2011. The 2011 budget is:
A Fiscal Risk Index, developed by risk analysis and mapping firm, Maplecroft, published on 23 February 2011, further knocked the feet away under the future of the French welfare model by placing France as the country third most at risk worldwide, in the group "extreme risk". The index identifies countries that will come under increasing economic pressure in future years due to low birth rates, high life expectancy and state commitments to look after ageing populations. "Without significant adjustments, such as raising taxes or reducing spending, countries risk going bankrupt," the report says.
Sarkozy was elected as president in 2007 on promises of breaking with the old habits and reforming the country. Business owners put their trust in him to provide decent business conditions in France. All in vain. France has one of the most hostile business environments in Europe. Over-regulation, a bloated and inefficient administration, over-taxation, complicated, numerous, and expensive social security charges, restrictive employment regulations, hostile attitudes from civil servants, and much more often makes it a futile exercise to try to earn a living from being self-employed or starting a small business. A lot of France's creative forces are wasted, or they move abroad.
The extreme cost of the social system is driving industry and services abroad. French companies are closing, in turn driving up cost of unemployment benefits. The euro is too expensive for French exporters and French tourism. It has been a heavy burden on Airbus for example. French tourism is also suffering.
An opinion survey in February 2011 showed that 58% of the French would support a revolution as in Tunisia or Egypt. Things are heating up indeed for the presidential election in 2012. If it were up to the majority of the French, they would throw their politicians in the Mediterranean and start all over. They are sick to the bone of these people who are totally disconnected with the population.
Another opinion survey in March 2011 questioning about intended votes for the first round of the 2012 presidential election gave the following result:
Marine Le Pen, National Front: 23%
The National Front is still widely considered an extremist party. The figures speak so much stronger.
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