The French have no truck with notions of multiculturalism. Is this patriotism or arrogance?
I have been thinking a lot about Marie Antoinette recently. There’s a nice new film about her, and I like the costumes. But I also think I am beginning to understand why the French were so keen to get rid of her. She had a reputation for arrogance and once the phrase “Let them eat cake” was wrongly attributed to her, she was hardly going to win favour with the proletariat. But in many ways she was a good example of a foreigner who integrates too well. Her message could not be more French: arrogant and politically incorrect. Perhaps they beheaded the Austrian- born queen because she was too French.
An equally compelling slogan has been coined by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the odious leader of the French National Front. One of the first things I did when I came to France was attend a demonstration. I am not normally one to pick up a placard and take to the streets, but I felt strongly that I wanted to protest against his winning the first round of the presidential ballot. Along with a couple of hundred locals, I marched around Pézenas in protest.
But, like Marie Antoinette, Le Pen has come up with a catchphrase that you can’t help but notice. He says of France: “Aimez-l? ou quittez-l? .” In other words, love France or bugger off.
You have to admire the French for their Frenchness. Unlike the diffident English, who are suddenly tearing out their hair trying to work out how to adapt to a multicultural society where the sons of immigrants try to blow up people, the French have made it clear all along that to live here you must behave like a Frenchman.
In many London schools, the children hardly speak any English. This situation would never arise in France: in the primary school where our daughters go, there are other English children. But if at any stage their chatting in their native tongue interferes with their progress in French, the teacher calls for a time out, and a strict diet of French-only is imposed.
If I were an immigrant living in the UK, I could probably complain that my children’s cultural heritage and human rights were being abused, rather like a French friend of my mother’s who lived for many years in Sweden and constantly got away with drunken driving, as he claimed that drinking wine at all times of the day was part of his heritage. Not surprisingly, he died of cirrhosis last year.
But here in France they don’t put up with any erosion of their language and culture. There are institutions such as the Académie Française, whose purpose it is, among other things, to safeguard French language and culture.
For example, you can be happily driving along singing at the top of your voice to Diana Ross’s Chain Reaction, followed by Come on Eileen, when suddenly your 1980s musical reverie is rudely interrupted by some dreadful French pop song. This is not an accident, this is the law. From the mid-1990s, French radio stations have been required to play at least 40% of their songs in French during peak listening hours. Remind me never to become a DJ in France.
The French refuse to adopt Anglo-Saxon words for new technology, and instead come up with French equivalents. So a computer is un ordinateur and an e-mail un courrier électronique.
When an American company in Paris tried to make it compulsory for its staff to speak English in the office, the French staff rebelled and told them where to go. If you don’t make an effort to speak French here, the locals will look at you with ill-concealed disgust. The worst insult a French person can levy at a foreigner is that they don’t speak a word of the language.
What I love about the French is that they don’t give a monkey’s about being rude or politically incorrect: if a woman has nice breasts, they tell her.
A London trader friend of mine came to work in Paris recently and was told he had to be friendlier to the ladies. “Open doors for them,” his boss told him. “Tell them they have nice legs and that their clothes look good; you’re so indifferent, they all think you’re gay.”
Coming from London, he was terrified to even look at the women, lest he should be up on charges of sexual harassment. In France, if you’re not sexually harassed at least once a day, you’re either having a bad hair day or you ate too much garlic for lunch.
This attitude extends to their immigrant population. No, you will not wear veils in school. Schools in France are of the state, not the church, and as such, religious signs are not acceptable. You don’t like it? Tant pis. That’s the way it is.
I have been trying to imagine what the estimated 500,000 Brits living in France could do if they wanted to impose their culture and rebel against the French way of life.
We could drink beer with foie gras. Or organise mass pro-work demonstrations, demanding the right to work more than 35 hours a week and access to the office on the numerous public holidays here, such as labour day on May 1. We could refuse to sit down at midday to a menu du jour and instead wolf down a sandwich at our desks while reading The Sun online. Women could refuse to wear matching underwear, and men could wander around wearing sandals with socks.
We could be even more appalling than we already are at learning French and simply refuse to make an effort to roll our r’s or say “donc” every two minutes. We could insist on driving on the left-hand side of the road, claiming it is our cultural right. We could demand that shopping centres open on a Sunday, arguing that we are part of a religious minority called shopaholicism and we worship in the church of Ikea. We could refuse to kiss people when they greet us, instead proffering a cold handshake.
“I find it hard to communicate with a person who refuses to kiss me,” Jacques Chirac would complain. “These rosbifs need to adopt our ways if they are going to live here.”
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at The Sunday Times Books First price of £9.49, with free delivery in the UK (RRP £9.99) on 0870 165 8585, or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019