The French and the English
Letter from Paris March 2012
A book could be written about the differences between the French outlook on life and that of the English. One point of departure could be the fact that I was obliged in my first sentence to use the expression “outlook on life” whereas in French I would have found it quite natural to use the word “mentalité”. The English expression seems to belong to the world of everyday discourse; whereas the French one is both abstract (even philosophical) and academic; this difference seems to encapsulate the contrast between a rather sceptical pragmatism and a conviction that the world can be best understood through a conceptual framework. Apparently small manifestations are based on forms that have very deep origins.
Of course, such a book would have to be on a higher level than those, popular in English speaking cultures, which consist mainly of anecdotes demonstrating how “difficult” the French are for English expatriates. Well, anecdotes are not in themselves to be disparaged, but they need to cast some light on a complex question ‒ not just reinforce stereotypes ‒ and for that there needs to be a sympathetic and critical view of both cultures, not to mention an informed sense of their history and languages, which means that the number of potential authors is not going to be very great.
I began to ruminate on these contrasts this month (in fact I often do) because it marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Algerian War, and the subject has naturally provoked a number of articles and documentaries. As I watched one documentary on French television I was struck not only by how violent French history has been (there is nothing of the scale of the French Revolution in English history, for example) but the extent to which this violence has continued right into the 20th century. I thought of an article by D.H. Lawrence entitled “Dull London” (Evening News 1928) in which he describes his arrival in London after a long absence, remarking not only its dullness but its ordinariness, its inoffensiveness – in a word its niceness. “Of course, England is the easiest country in the world, easy, easy and nice. Everybody is nice, and everybody is easy. The English people on the whole are surely the nicest people in the world, and everybody makes everything so easy for everybody else, and there is almost nothing to resist at all. But this very easiness and this very niceness become at last a nightmare.”
Of course, “one wouldn’t go to Lawrence for judicial fairness towards persons or parties” as F.R. Leavis expressed it, but he does put his finger on something. In thinking about France and the French (whatever these terms may mean) one would be unlikely to use the word “nice” to characterize them. However, as I watched the documentary recount, for example, the terrible repression of a demonstration by Algerians in Paris in October 1961 which ended in dozens of bodies being flung into the Seine (there were probably some two hundred deaths in the following days, but to this day the subject remains shrouded in secret), I felt that the contrast between the “nice” English and the French was not entirely in favour of the latter, and that perhaps a little ordinary “niceness” would not go amiss here. (Incidentally this repression was orchestrated by the Prefect Maurice Papon, who in the 1940’s ordered and orchestrated the deportation of Jewish men, women and children to Nazi Germany, most of whom were never to return).
These events did not go un-witnessed, but the media, tightly controlled by the government, were conspicuously silent at the time. Having said this, I find myself also wanting to insist on the opposition to the war, which involved intellectuals who have always seen their role as including such commitment. While the word “intellectual” is often uttered ironically in English culture, in France it commands a certain respect. (I remember listening to a rather distinguished English radio presenter some years ago who mocked one of his guests ‒ who was not English ‒ because he had referred to the philosopher Marcuse: “who’s he?” he asked complacently. In the unlikely event of his French counterpart not knowing Marcuse’s work, he would not have been proud to admit it).
I’m not sure if anyone is really able to write the book I am looking for: they would need (among other things) a sensitive grasp of detail together with a willingness to engage with historical perspectives and philosophical concepts. To give an idea of those qualities in action I would like to recommend a book about Paris which I thought was written for me when I read it in 2002. Since then I have tried to share my enthusiasm by offering it to friends, and now that I see that it has been (very well) translated, I would like to urge anyone interested in the special nature of the French capital to read it, and to bring it with them the next time they spend any time here.
The Invention of Paris, a history in footsteps (Verso, paperback 2011) by Eric Hazan is a splendid book by any standards, and I can hardly do justice to it in such a short article. As its subtitle suggests, it stays rigorously close to the ground: various quarters of the city are examined at street level, but the author uses these walks as a way into the dramatic changes the city has undergone over the years. He points out that “the boundaries of Paris [between quarters] are often drawn with surgical precision but that sometimes, “you have to cross neutral zones, transitional micro-quarters”. (This is why visitors to Paris need to walk; emerging from the metro they do not experience these transitions which are such a feature of the place).
The great quality of this book is that it is conducted on a micro-level of detail, but does not neglect historical and literary references; the author also makes numerous original observations. For example, discussing the arcades (which I wrote about in an earlier letter) he notes that they do not figure in any work of literature, and concludes: “Perhaps the arcade, such a poetic place today, was for its contemporaries simply an urban detail that, however convenient, had little intrinsic interest, any more than shopping centres, multiplex cinemas or underground car parks have for us today.”
This last remark highlights another of its qualities: although historically oriented (it is a history), Hazan is sensitive to the present, and is very much “engaged”. Indeed, he has written a preface for the English translation which points out some of the changes that have taken place in since he wrote it. He points out that Paris has evolved in a series of concentric rings, “like an onion, to the rhythm of its successive defences”, but that the latest (and most resistant) of these, the ring road, is beginning to be broached in some places (“you can cross it on foot without risking your life”) whereas in others (he mentions an area very near where I live) there is “an unbridgeable gap of concrete and noise, where the Périphérique passes at eye level, with the Boulevard Sérurier beneath it engulfed in a hideous cutting in which the scrawny grass of the central reservation is littered with greasy wrappers and beer cans”. This gives an indication of the book’s actuality as well as the quality of the translation. I can only add that the extension of the tramway (also the subject of an earlier letter) will pass right through the area he describes, and will probably reinforce the barrier between Paris and the immediate suburb.
See also previous Letters from Paris in the Archive section