Dana Wielgus fell in love with France as a 19-year-old exchange student and continued her love affair when she returned to work as a teaching assistant three years ago. But since then the relationship between the American and her adopted country has regretfully gone sour.
For a long time, I honestly thought France did everything right. France’s secular laws seemed fair and made sense; free higher education and affordable health care are human rights; maternity leave and subsidized childcare and reproductive rights are a given; abortion isn’t a hot button topic; vacation and work-life balance are an important aspect of everyday life; people are open and accepting; salaries are much lower but there is so much more government support for people and families who need it to get by. I saw France as a land of opportunity.
But over the past six months or so, my rose-coloured glasses have become jaded. I feel so torn, because even though I still want to love France, I seem to have fallen out of love with her.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not miss gun culture or in-your-face-Christianity in America. However I find France’s secular laws outlawing religious expression and symbols in schools to be racist and xenophobic. Especially in light of all of these recent terrorist attacks, I feel as though Muslims (and especially French-born Muslims) are unfairly treated and ostracized throughout the country. Most of these terrorist attacks have been committed by fully-fledged French citizens – and I don't believe this is a coincidence.
France is not as open and accepting as we are led to believe, because she is extremely conforming. Foreigners, and even French people who are seen as “different” are expected to conform and accept the French (Caucasian) ways of life if they want to be seen as “equal.” And in some ways, I understand that. It’s important to respect the place you are living – to learn French and try new foods and integrate into the workplace.
But it’s much, much deeper and more problematic than that. I find that subcultures are not equally respected in France – if you do not conform to the French way of life – in regards to what, when, and how you eat, dress, and think, you will not be accepted.
I don’t complain as often about the ridiculous store hours or incompetencies of the bureaucracy; I pay French taxes and follow French laws. But I get so, so sick of being judged or reprimanded for not reading books in French, for speaking English with my friends at a bar, for eating outside of “designated” meal times, or for dressing in fun, bright colours.
Although America is not known to be open or accepting of world languages, overall I find that the United States does a much better job of finding and celebrating the equality amongst differences and subcultures – we are equal because are not all the same and we have something different to bring to the table.
The United States is still racist, but at least we talk about race-related problems, such as white privilege and systematic oppression, and acknowledge that they exist. In France, many claim that racism doesn’t exist here because they make it illegal to ask for your race on official government forms (yet it’s still completely acceptable to require a photo with your age and marital status on your CV/resume).
I used to think that free higher education was an amazing thing, until I saw what zero tuition fees brings to students in 2016 – an unequipped classroom with only a chalkboard and not enough seats for all students; no free and accessible wifi; no computer labs or free printing or libraries with study rooms and places for students to just hang out – all things that I took for granted during my time at university.
Inside a French university's lecture hall.
Now don’t get me wrong- we pay too much money for tuition and school. But in France there are students who automatically receive grants and scholarships based on economic need to pay for the small tuition fees, but then don’t actually use the money for university purposes, and then they are not required to pay the money back when the fail the year (which is such a waste of tax payers’ euros).
I also have a problem with teacher training– in order to become a teacher, you merely have to pass a content-based exam. Thankfully over recent years, there has been more guidance and observation and pedagogical learning that has been integrated into teacher training, so that is changing. However, I find it so screwed up that brand new, inexperienced teachers are sent to the worst, roughest ZEP schools, instead of experienced ones who have some classroom management experience, and there is next to zero special education and French as a Second Language programs.
Many teachers are still expected to teach without computers or wifi or even a dry erase board, in 2016. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some really great teachers in France and I know many of them, but in 2016, in a westernized, first world country, I find it absolutely astounding that these things still do not exist.
I admit, having affordable health care is amazing, and it is way too expensive in the United States. But, I joke a lot with my Anglophone friends that the French go to the doctor for literally every single tiny little thing from a slight head cold, because you need a doctor’s note in order to be reimbursed even the most basic of medicines.
Don’t even get me started on the fact that you need a doctor’s note to run a race or join a gym or do remotely anything physical. On the contrary, I find teeth cleanings here to be an absolute joke – the philosophy here is to “fix problems” rather than to “prevent them” (my own French dentist literally said this to me).
I love French food and French dining culture. It is probably the number one thing I have most conformed to whilst living in France. I snack a lot less and I cook a lot more. I enjoy having hors d’oeuvres/apéro before dinner and taking my time at the table. I indulge in a glass (or two) of alcohol every night and do not enjoy eating whilst walking. But sometimes I miss big coffees and eating on the go, and not being judged for doing so.
The French labour laws have definitely made me look at France in a new light. With an unemployment rate at 10 percent, many French people think they are entitled to a job. And it's so difficult to be hired in this country; it is even more difficult to be hired on a permanent contract, and then once you have a permanent contract it is nearly impossible to get fired, even for things that merit being made redundant.
Salaries are extremely low here in comparison to the United States, but there are more social programs and government support. It’s still a foreign concept to me to find it normal to rely on the government to take care of you and give you money. Why can’t France just pay people normal salaries and drive down income taxes so we don’t need to give families extra money in order to afford children and basic life necessities?
I love that the French place so much emphasis on work-life balance and find vacation/rest time to be important, but at what point does the government intervene just a little too much?
When you ask foreigners what they think of America or Americans, many respond by saying that Americans are positive and optimistic. We see nothing wrong with thinking outside the box and we believe we can do anything. I used to be ashamed of this fact - people viewed my culture and by default me, as childish and out of touch and a bit in the clouds. After living in France for three years, I have never been more grateful to be American and to have kept this mentality. I believe it’s what helped me to find a permanent contract here. I’m grateful that at 26 I still feel like it’s possible to change my path and start over and do something new.
I don’t always feel that is always the case with some French people. I find people here to be a bit more straightforward about possibilities for work and for life. Don’t get me wrong, the French know how to vacation and they know how to relax – I’ve learned a lot from them because I ate into American work culture.
But when talking to university students and beyond about possibilities for the future, the mentality is still more like a straight ladder and less like a curvy, multi-layered jungle gym. In my opinion, this probably is in part due to the fact that the French have to choose a general career path at fifteen and then (mostly) try to stick to it.
All in all, France is not the worst place to be female, but it’s not the best place by any means. There are still subtle gender roles and subconscious expectations about how females are expected to be. Even more so, if you’re Muslim and female and you wear a headscarf (or some derivative of it), many French people try to say that it is a form of oppression in order to justify the secular laïcité laws, and that outlawing headscarves/religious symbols helps liberate women (because let’s have a white Christian male explain female oppression).
Headscarves are also not allowed to be worn it in public schools, in addition many areas of work. I shared a carpool with a man to Brussels who was on his way to visit his wife who was an engineer but who was not allowed to work in France because she wore a hijab. There is also a lot of body shaming in France, and it is difficult to be a fat woman. On a positive note, women can bathe topless and breastfeed in public without reprimand, and sex education is much more comprehensive in France, but cat calling and street harassment remain HUGE problems, and is not taken very seriously (although it is beginning to change).
I’m afraid I have fallen out of love with France, and I am desperately searching for that spark I had when we first met all those years ago. I know deep down I still love her. Despite all of my negativity, I am very happy here - I have smart, interesting, worldly friends, I do work that I (mostly) love, and I have enough time to travel to new places.
But I’ve come round full circle - from hating the USA and loving France to completely hating France and loving the USA, to finally having a bit of a love-hate relationship with both.
To read the full version of the blog visit As Told by Dana.