I’ve 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 her catchphrase of ‘let them eat cake’ was hardly going to win her favours 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. My conclusion is that perhaps they beheaded her because she was too French.
An equally compelling slogan has been coined by the odious leader of the French national party Jean-Marie Le Pen. 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 at his winning the first round of the presidential ballot. Along with a couple of hundred locals, I marched around Pézenas in protest.
But like Antoinette, Le Pen has come up with a catchphrase that you can’t help but notice. He says of France: ‘Aimez-la ou Quittez-la’. 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 their hair out trying to work out how to adapt to a multicultural society where the sons of immigrants try to blow them up, 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 would never happen 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.
Were I 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 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. In fact there are institutions like the Academie 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 80s reverie is rudely interrupted by some dreadful French pop song. This is not an accident, this is the law. French radio stations are required to play at least 40% French songs during prime 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 email a courrier électronique. When an American company in Paris tried to make it compulsory for its staff to speak English in the office the French 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 tits they tell her. In fact 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 of even looking at the women lest he should be had up for 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, like Labour Day on May 1st. 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,” Chirac would complain. “These Rosbifs need to adopt our ways if they’re going to live here.”
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