On Bastille Day: eight things I’ve learned from France
The French lifestyle still holds an allure that many don’t quite understand. Here, Lara Marlowe, rounds up some life lessons learned
France still has a mission to civilise the world, and is utterly convinced she is right
1. LIVE FOR BEAUTY
With the possible exception of Italy, no other nation has such a highly developed sense of aesthetics. The creation of beauty is an end in itself, a gratuitous act. This explains why Paris is such a magnificent city, and why Roissy Charles de Gaulle is the only airport in the world where ladies’ toilet stalls are adorned with reproductions of Degas ballerinas.
2. THE PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD
The unending search for perfection dooms the French to be unhappy. The new Philharmonie de Paris at La Villette is a case in point. The design and acoustics are superb, but the toilets clog, the cost doubled amid long delays, and the architect is suing the builders. A maxim attributed to the late former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald says the French don’t care if something works in practice, as long as it works in theory.
3. VIVE LA SÉDUCTION
France invented the Aventure Galante (sexual seduction as a past time) in the 18th century. Many relationships in France, even those totally platonic, are based on Rapport de Séduction. It’s the smiling cashier in the grocery store, the newspaper vendor with a twinkle in his eye, the stranger who rushes to pick up the package you dropped.
4. THE IMPORTANCE OF LEISURE
Statistically, French workers have a high hourly rate of productivity. But holidays and weekends are sacred, preferably with a pont or bridge that enables one to take off four days in a row. Leisure in France does not mean sitting on the sofa watching television. It is structured activity requiring soirées blocked in traffic on the périphérique and well organised meals for large numbers of people in the countryside, to better indulge in another fundament of French life, la fraternité.
5. LANGUAGE MATTERS
The Académie francaise has been protecting the French language since 1635, and although there’s been a certain slippage in recent years, the elegance with which an idea is formulated is as important as its substance. The French will forgive almost any shortcoming if you show esprit (wit).
6. ARROGANCE IS THE FLIP SIDE OF SELF-DOUBT
France still has a mission to civilise the world, and is utterly convinced she is right. Jacques Chirac knew the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be a catastrophe. Francois Hollande just went to incredible lengths to keep Greece in the euro zone. But the country remains haunted by the spectre of its own decline. Unlike les anglos saxons, the French constantly question how the rest of the world sees them.
7. POLITICS IS PERSONAL
Political polemics are a national sport. French people are often uneasy until they’ve pigeon-holed you as left or right. As the political sociologist Anne Muxel observed in her 2014 book, Politics in Private; Love and Conviction in the French Political Consciousness, political rows can destroy friendships, family relationships, even marriage. Mix left and right-wing guests at your peril. And don’t ever tell a French person you have no problem with Muslim women wearing headscarves.
8. HISTORY MATTERS
The broad lines of French politics today can be traced to the second World War and the 1789 revolution. There are Napoleon fanatics who think the emperor won the battle of Waterloo, and ageing French people who still long for l’Algéire française. In France, one never escapes from the past.