‘The French just can’t take a gentle bashing’

In the second of our Reader Rants series, in which we give you the chance to get something off your chest, France-based author Piu Marie-Eatwell, from the UK, laments the fact that the "sensitive" French can't take a little bit of gentle criticism.

'The French just can't take a gentle bashing'
The French just can't take criticism, argues British author Piu Marie Eatwell in this week's Reader Rants. Photo: Chariserin/flickr The Economist
As the author of a recently published polemic critiquing the many romantic myths manufactured about the French, I was asked by my children’s international school, in the suburbs of Paris, to write an article about my book for the school magazine. 
The piece I submitted was innocuous enough: foreigners coming to France, I wrote, expect all the women to be thin and glamorous, the food to be wonderful, the countryside beautiful. Sadly, they often get an unwelcome shock: not all French women are drop-dead skinny and gorgeous, there are McDonald's on many a street corner jostling with the open markets, and the suburban French countryside is littered with shopping malls.
This gap between the imagined and the real – romance and reality – was the subject of my book. I thought the piece pretty harmless.
In fact, I deliberately left out the more controversial subjects in my book: the hoary myth about French women not shaving, for example. I therefore could not believe it when the editor of the school magazine telephoned me out of the blue. The piece, she explained somewhat apologetically, could not be published as written.
Some of the French parents at the school might object. Could I re-write it, in a more positive tone? I refused, as politely as I could. The article, I pointed out, was meant to be a ‘taster’ for the book. If it was thought to be objectionable, the book would be considered even more so.
In the event, the piece went out as written; and I dismissed the incident, at the time, as the result of the paranoid reaction of one individual on the magazine editorial board. Once my book had been published, however, I began to garner some more French reaction to the work. It was no less shocking.
One woman reduced to tears
At a book club with a mixed French/English readership, for example, one French lady approached me in tears. She could not express how upset, how shattered, how insulted, she had been by my book. I was alarmed. The book was intended as a thoughtful, well-reasoned critique of myths about the French (positive and negative). How could it have inspired such a reaction?
Anxiously, I asked the lady what could possibly have upset her so much about the book. Through her tears, she finally managed to explain the reason. I had criticized some of the French New Wave films of the 1960s as pretentious.
Now this gave me pause for thought. To point out that some of the films of the likes of Goddard and Truffaud are arguably pretentious is not only nothing new, but a point of view that could be justified, and indeed is held, by plenty of people who would not consider themselves racist.
It could hardly be qualified as a personal insult. And yet, in the French reactions to my book, I kept coming across the same extreme hostility to criticism, the inability to distinguish between a critique and an insult.
It did not matter that, in many respects, I compared the French favourably to the Anglo-Saxons: that I waved the flag for the much-berated French pop music, for example, or found the Gallic attitude to sex much healthier than that of the Brits. Because I dared criticize some aspects of the hallowed French culture, I was immediately accused of "French-bashing".
'Why can't the French take criticism?'
Nor am I the only English writer to experience such a reaction.
Why is it, I wondered, so difficult for the French to accept criticism? I could not  help thinking that in the opposite situation – a French writer critiquing the English for being snobby, for example – half of the English would agree, and the other half would not care two hoots what a French person thought about them.
The extreme French reaction to ostensibly innocuous and well-thought out criticism, from a foreigner who had lived in their country for a decade, implied to me the French do care what others think of them; that they are, as a culture, fundamentally and deeply insecure.
The desire to suppress my school magazine review further suggested a cavalier attitude to censorship, not far removed in spirit from the scandalous suppression in the French press of everything the rest of the world knows is presently going on at the Elysée.
Imagine my relief, therefore, when a French lawyer allied to the prestigious business school or Grande École HEC telephoned me, and asked me to deliver a lecture in inter-cultural negotiations to students at the school.
Had the professor not found the book insulting? I asked, somewhat nervously. Not at all, he replied. It contained many home truths about the French. But then, he had spent a decade living in the USA:  perhaps proof that, to see clearly, you have to live on both sides of the pond. 
You can respond to the writer's views in the comments section below or join the debate on our Facebook page.
'They Eat horses, Don’t They? The truth about the French' by Piu Marie Eatwell was published by Head of Zeus in August 2013. The paperback came  out on 13th March 2014.
Reader Rants: Do you want to get something off your chest about anything to do with life in France in 500 or so words? Whether it's positive or negative, good or bad, why not share your views with our readers. Send us your ideas for your own rant to [email protected] and we will be happy to consider them.

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OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible

A barbed column in a British newspaper that suggested the French are not child-friendly and their youngsters are more repressed than their British counterparts has angered many francophiles. Writer Colin Randall responds to the latest example of "frogbashing" from across the Channel.

OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible
Are French children almost Victorian in comparison to British rambunctious brood? Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Beneath a headline pandering to Middle England prejudice – “The one thing I don’t miss about our family holidays in France? The French” (paywalled) – a Daily Telegraph writer announced that her Francophile days were over.

Georgina Fuller told in a barbed column this week of grim restaurant experiences south of the Dordogne where French diners would tut-tut at her “unruly brood” of three small children. 

The details were enough to persuade someone editing her words to sum them up as an argument that few countries are less child-friendly than France. 

The writer complained that restaurants failed to open before 7pm. There were “no such things as a kids’ menu”. Painfully stuck in the mind was the memory of feeling mortified when her eldest child demanded fish fingers next to a table where a French boy of around four was happily tucking into a bowl of moules.

Unconvincingly presented by Ms Fuller as the light-hearted observations of one whose late mother had a fondly remembered home in Aquitaine, this was journalistic feat taking us back decades to lamb wars and the Sun’s “hop off you frogs” campaign.

And it took me back to the dying days of my own Telegraph career. At a leaving party in the paper’s grand apartment-cum-office overlooking the Tuileries gardens in Paris, the British ambassador kindly noted that my work revealed an understanding of, even a liking for, the French. “No wonder they fired you,” a fellow-journalist teased me later.

He was only half-joking. This week’s piece in the Telegraph confirmed that when stuck for an idea, a certain kind of columnist can usefully fill the void with a spot of frog-bashing,

In my own experience, it is a peculiarly British or rather English trait to gaze across the Channel in gleeful search of any opportunity to mock or belittle. 


OPINION: Cheap French-bashing is an old tune from British press and politicians

It can work both ways, but only up to a point. There is what the former president Jacques Chirac described to me as “l’amour violent”, not so much a rough love affair as a tempestuous relationship between near neighbours with a long history of falling out but also much to admire and respect in one another.

Chirac may have been overheard saying the UK’s only contributions to Europe were bad food and mad cow disease. But more broadly, I see little evidence of reciprocal kneejerk disdain for all things British, whereas the “love France, hate the French” line is trotted out at regular intervals, even when there are no disputes over a Covid vaccine or fishing grounds. 

Some expats have been known to indulge. Several years ago, a Home Counties woman living reluctantly in northern Brittany explained her unwillingness to learn French.  “Who on earth would I want to speak it to?” she asked as if it were the most natural reason imaginable for stubbornly resisting the integration that enriches so many lives – including, to be fair, those led by her more open-minded husband and son.

The notion that the French are not child-friendly, least of all in restaurants, is surely risible. There is certainly a case for suggesting their children are better behaved when eating out. This, to some extent, is because it is entirely normal to be included in such family outings from an early age. 

Why wouldn’t the four-year-old on the next table be enjoying his mussels? In resorts close to my home in the Var, I see children of a similar age happily dissecting shellfish. A snail producer in Loire-Atlantique once told me most French children had regularly eaten the delicacy by the time they were six or seven. There are children’s menus in France now but when my own children were small, they were content with shares of their parents’ food.

Georgina Fuller quotes with apparent approval a French acquaintance who felt he and his siblings were more repressed than British counterparts given carte blanche to express themselves freely.

 “Some of the silent children I saw in restaurants and local towns in France seemed almost Victorian in comparison to our rambunctious brood,” she writes.

Such generalisations are best treated as suspect. Even my late French father-in-law was accurate about only some of the British with his favoured mantra: “The French live to eat, you eat to live.” 

But if children, middle class or otherwise, are encouraged to regard fatty processed food as the height of their dining ambition, and maybe grab packets of crisps and sweet fizzy drinks between meals, it is no wonder they recoil from anything more interesting or nutritious.

The Fuller children may indeed flourish away from disapproval in France, when taken instead to Devon and to other continental destinations such as Ibiza, the Netherlands and Portugal. 

But their mother should not be surprised that the response of French people who have read of her resolve to steer clear of France can best be summed as bon débarras.

Colin Randall was the Daily Telegraph’s former Paris bureau chief and is now a freelance journalist and divides his time between London and the south of France.