on April 22, 2004
I'm currently reading "6O Million Frenchmen Cannot Be Wrong". And I'm loving it.
I am judging it as one of those 6O million.
There hadn't been anything as good since since Jonathan Fenby's "France on the Brink" .
The American television show, Candid Camera, used to have a song with the words "it's good to look at yourself as other people do". It is indeed. One condition must be met: it mustn't be a fawning collection of exaggerated praise, nor must it be one more vulgar "French-bashing" exercise. But the authors have steered a steady course, pointing out some of our defects , certainly, but also giving praise when it's (in their view ) due. I cannot fault their impartiality , or their reasearch. And the book is very readable and entertaining.
Barlow and Nadeau are Canadians: she is an English speaker, he is "francophone". A good recipe for a balanced approach.
The book is packed with information, and anecdotes. Yes, if you want to know who the French are,and how we "tick", the book will give you a pretty good idea.
The authors are very good in pointing out the differences between France and the US, and the reasons for these differences, for instance in detailing the role of the State and the way it's perceived by the French.
Also in stressing the importance of the legacy of WW2 and the war in Algeria.
I would recommend that anyone contemplating a trip to my country read the book and take it with them.
Un livre excellent.
on March 6, 2004
This book is by two Canadian journalists who spent two years in France studying its economic and social life. They take on an ambitious task -- to explain just how France is, from its most fundamental social structures to the day-to-day details of life, and to show how the deep structurs and the everyday are related. For example, take their section about dog poop on the streets of Paris. Although there are fines for not cleaning up after your dog, the dog-owners don't see it as their responsibility to pick it up, because the State should do it. The police don't enforce the fines, because they're the national police and have more important things to do. And Paris doesn't have a local police force because in the past local police forces have been power bases which have been used to threaten the state. In three steps we've gone from a small, personal observation to an insight into how and why France is organized. The book is full of this kind of illuminating shift in perspective.
Unlike a previous reviewer, I didn't think this book was full of shots at the States. The writers come from an Anglo-Saxon country and it shows -- they're frequently frustrated at the deliberate inefficiencies and lack of personal responsibility in French society. You feel them wishing that things were brisker, looser, easier to change, more clear-cut, more sensible, even as they describe their pleasure in the idiosyncrasies. But they raise the interesting question: is the Anglo-Saxon way, where it's easier to hire and fire, actually more efficient overall? For example, French unemployment is notoriously high -- 9.5% as I write -- but, as the authors point out, the difficulty of hiring means that almost all jobs in France are well-paid, full-time jobs. Contrast this to the US, where large numbers of low-paid McJobs keep the unemployment rate low but don't necessarily provide a decent living wage. Given this, are France's market inefficiencies necessarily a bad thing?
on July 17, 2003
For over twenty years, travelling frequently between France and the United States, I have gathered and compared perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic on French (mis)perceptions of the United States and vice versa. This book adds to a collection which ranges from John Steinbeck's wonderful satire of Fourth Republic politics "The Short Reign of Pipin IV" to Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman's "In Search of France" and including French sociologist Michel Crozier's interesting works on US society. What is distinct about this attempt by a perceptive Canadian couple to explain France to a North American audience is its remarkably compact coverage of a wide range of topics - from the nature of the French state to its elitist "grandes ecoles" - with well documetned historical and other references which the general reader will find neither inacessible nor superficial. One reservation I have is a tendency to bend over backwards to be culturally neutral, avoiding criticism of any aspect of France, but instead showing why North American tendencies to crticize might be misplaced. But then, this is the prupose of the book, it seems. On the whole, the North American reading this with an open mind will also better understand many aspects of U.S. and Canadian society.
on June 25, 2013
I really enjoyed this book. It's well-researched and jam packed with both historical and contemporary context for how french culture has evolved and is maintained in modern society. Definitely a book I'll read again. Recommended!
on March 17, 2004
(The authors adapted a Cole Porter title for their book, so it only seems fair to employ a Noël Coward title for my review.)
Many other reviewers have commented on this, so let's get the book's subtitle out of the way first: Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow don't really tell us why we love France, or why we hate the French. Perhaps the subtitle was chosen to capitalize on the frustrations many Americans feel toward the French ("freedom fries," indeed!) as a result of differences over the Iraq war. While the authors do make the differences between Us and Them quite clear in a number of key areas, the answers to "love" and "hate" have a lot more to do with personal tastes, and aren't really covered here.
What the authors do give us, however, is a pretty comprehensive overview of French political society, and how French history has shaped the French people's understanding of who they are and how they relate to one another. This isn't the romanticized vision of quaint cafés in Paree and cottages in the countryside that so many English-language books about France present to us. In fact, as the authors tell us explicitly at the end of their Introduction, "We did not move to France to renovate a house in Provence. What we are trying to do is renovate some ideas."
And renovate they did ... at least in my case. Although I consider myself relatively well informed in European history and politics, it was a revelation to me how *very* different the French are in their political and cultural makeup and outlook. It certainly put a lot of recent geo-political wrangles in a much clearer perspective. When the French disagree with American politicians on questions of war and economics, it's not just a matter of simple cussedness, self-importance, or (the talk-radio host's favorite) jealousy, but grows out of a mindset deeply rooted in French history. It may not make dealing with them any more pleasant, but at least reading this book can make them somewhat easier to understand.
Most eye-opening to me was the centrality of the State in French life. As the authors write, "France's political culture was built around a strong penchant for absolutism, authoritarianism, centralism, and a considerable dose of intolerance" [p. 315]. Things North Americans of all political stripes take more or less for granted -- like charities, local control of education and municipal affairs, property rights, and freedom of association -- are almost nonexistent in France. The kind of unquestioned obedience medieval man may have owed to the Catholic Church, modern French people have devoted to (to borrow a phrase from David Avrom Bell) the Cult of the Nation. This tendency is as deeply ingrained in the French as "I did it my way" individualism is in Americans. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other.
On the whole, this was an interesting, eye-opening, and very timely book. I'm still more likely to side with Noël than Cole on the question of the French. But I would recommend this title highly to everyone from fuming Freepers to new or renewed internationalists seeking a better understanding of this fascinating, infuriating, and in many ways very, very foreign country.
on September 19, 2003
Like one of the other reviewers, I was almost too quick to judge this book by its silly cover, which would have been a major mistake. Despite the silly cover and equally silly title, this book is a serious attempt to explain who the French are and why they do some of the things they do. The authors are Canadian journalists who examine the roots of French culture, the citizenry's relationship with the state, French education, and the attitudes towards what constitutes the public and private spheres. There is not much about the Franco-American disagreement at the United Nations earlier this year, but anyone who had read this book would have known that those disagreements were going to happen. The book is easy to read, with separate chapters for each of the institutions and customs the authors examine, and is one of the best books I've read this year. But you do have to get past the silly cover and title. I cant imagine who convinced the authors that this cover and title were good ideas but they and their work deserved better.
on August 22, 2003
Books by North Americans about Paris and France and the cultural differences they experience while traveling and living there are too often overly simplistic and do not get beneath the surface of romanticized visions of French culture. For example, Diane Johnson's Le Divorce and others are not very well written and offer little new information on why the French are the way they are and how it really is to be a modern citizen of France. This book, however, stands apart due to the authors' effort to resist indulging in stereotypes and, instead, to really explore the workings of French culture. For instance, the chapters on education are fascinating because they give real details on how the French education system works, which are very surprising to most North Americans. Understanding this system provides much greater insight into the way one's socioeconomic status is determined in France and the French understanding of a meritocracy. Similarly, the discussion of the lingering memories of WWII is incredibly insightful and helps the reader understand where the French come from in modern politics. Highly recommended for anyone interested in really learning about modern French.
on January 3, 2004
I truly enjoyed reading this book about my home country! I have been a resident of the US for the last five years and had a chance to learn first hand about the good, the bad and the ugly of both France and the US.
Nadeau and Barlow did a very good job at explaining why both French and American people can easily misunderstand each other and forget how similar they are nevertheless.
I wish their next book could be "Why Americans are always right"! It would be another enjoyable book...
on May 5, 2004
There is much that's thoughtful and amusing here. The authors are Canadians, perfectly at home in French, and are therefore well equipped to elucidate the differences between France and North America. As a historian, I especially enjoyed the chapters that illustrate how the French are products of their past.
Ignore the bias in favor of French statism. Just allow Adam Smith the time to take his revenge on the French welfare state. Also as secularists (and Canadians) the authors spend almost no time with one of the most significant differences between the USA and France--religiosity. Americans are dramatically more religious than the French, and emphasizing this distinction would have gone along way toward explaining the differences between the countries.