My Love-Hate Affair with France

Posted on December 10, 2009

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Visiting Paris as a teenager many blurry years ago, my first impression of the French was hardly positive. Arriving at the Gare du Nord from London’s St Pancras train station, we carried our luggage and tried our luck as one after another taxi driver shook their head, with lips pouted down, as they refused to take us to our hotel on the grounds that they did not speak English. “Non, non” was the first French word I learnt and quickly mastered thanks to unceasing repetition by the locals, in a variety of circumstances.

As a bilingual Malaysian, coming from a society where English is just another language in a mind-boggling mix bag of Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka, Hokkien, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Iban, Kadazan and several others, I found this obstinate insistence of forcing people to speak French on pain of receiving the silent treatment, a little bit childish. But for all their brutish pride, it wasn’t long before I too, got sucked into the love affair with France (maybe a cultural form of Stockholm syndrome?), and I soon found myself switching sides and demanding “why should the French learn English when the English don’t learn French?!?”, whilst delighting in my feeble but eager attempts to make myself understood in French, mostly with retail shop assistants who were more than happy to play along.

I have maintained my interest in the French language, although I get frustrated by the institutionalised rigidity, exemplified by L’Académie française, France’s authority on the language. I think one of the strengths of the English language is its pragmatism and flexibility in absorbing thousands of words from other languages. The absence of a governing authority allows for unrestricted freedom to bend and contort the language to suit the culture and time of the speakers. Yes, purity is sacrificed for the sake of communication, but isn’t that the purpose of a language?

The ongoing (yes, it’s still going) debate on French national identity is illustrative of this seemingly very French attitude of being obsessed with itself. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government recently launched its “What is French?” website in the hope of summarising a nation of 65 million into a few convenient statements based on citizen feedbacks, although it has since degenerated into a free-for-all swipe at those pesky Muslim immigrants who like to cover themselves up and build tall minarets on their mosques. France, unlike its Anglo-Saxon neighbour, is pretty big on assimilation (or imitation, or intimidation, whichever is more appropriate) for the sake of national unity. Unity-in-Diversity is a social model alien to the French, which the ever-present Nicolas Sarkozy emphasised when, in a recent address to the nation published in Le Monde, he reminded Muslims that they should have the right to practice their religion in France, so long as they did not do so in an “ostentatious” way which offended France’s “social and civic values”.

Perversely, the French preference for Unity-in-Uniformity aligns it closer to authoritarian countries like China, who in the interest of “national unity” forces its citizens to conform to a set of “Chinese” values, which is really those customs of the dominant Han people. Such is China’s love for uniformity that the whole country, despite geographically spanning several time zones, operates under a single Standard Time (Beijing time), so that people living in Western China would wake up in the morning still shrouded in darkness.

In similar fashion, France remains steadfast in its refusal to grant constitutional protection or promotion of native regional languages (Basque, Breton, Catalan and Corsican) for fear that somehow the status of the French language would be diminished if people spoke other languages. Bear in mind that these are not immigrant languages; they are part and parcel of the history and heritage of the geographical area straddling modern France, but they’re not French so too bad for them. The national motto of France, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, is both elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its espousal of universal human values. But look deeper into French society and there is a glaring disconnect between what goes on at the ground level and the lofty principles of the French Fifth Republic. Citizens with ethnic names are continually discriminated against by employers, yet it remains difficult to lodge a complaint in a country which does not officially recognize ethnic differences, under the pretext of its egalitarian values. After all, how do you fix a problem when the problem officially doesn’t exist?

Instead of identifying the disparity between France’s universalist ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood with the systematic exclusion of its immigrant community in French socioeconomic life, Nicolas Sarkozy instead prefers to belabour on this indulgent exercise of dividing the society into the “real French” and the “not-really-French”. It is perhaps worthwhile to take a note from Charles de Gaulle, the first president of the Fifth French Republic: « Il y a deux catégories de Français : ceux qui disent qu’il y a deux catégories de Français et les autres. » (“There are two types of French people: those who say there are two types of French people and the others”)

Posted in: Society