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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French

Always fascinating and frequently baffling, France is a country that often has people searching for answers on Google - but according to the search engine what are the most commonly asked questions about France and the French?

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French
Photo: Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

Looking at Google’s autocomplete for ‘Why is France . . .’ and ‘Why are the French . . .’ is a fascinating exercise, but perhaps tells us more about the preconceptions and stereotypes of ‘les Anglo Saxons’ than it does about France.

Google’s autocomplete uses a complicated and user-specific formula that we don’t even pretend to understand, but a major factor is how often these questions are Googled.

Leaving aside specific topical questions like ‘why is France amber plus?’ (a question for the UK government rather than Google, we think, and anyway it’s now off that particular list) the adjectives that emerge about France are interesting – powerful, popular and expensive. Sounds like a Jackie Collins heroine.

However, when we ask ‘why are the French . . .’ the suggestions are more of a mixed bag.

On the one hand slim, romantic and good at cooking, the French are also apparently critical rioters who like to surrender. 

Here are our suggestions to some of these questions, and why they are asked so often.

Why is France so popular? A slightly vague question but it might mean popular with tourists. France is the world’s number one tourist destination, a title it has held for several years.

We think the answer to that is a no-brainer, but we might be biased – here are some of the many reasons that tourists flock to France.

Why is France called France? The name comes from the Latin Francia which means ‘realm of the Franks’ referring to a tribe who lived in what is now France during the Roman period.

France is also sometimes referred to as l’Hexagone (the hexagon) because of its shape – this designation refers specifically to mainland France. France also has several overseas territories informally referred to as les DOM-TOM some of which are administratively part of France.

It’s how (pub quiz fact alert) France shares a border with Brazil.

Why is France so expensive? Interesting question. Some things in France are undoubtedly comparatively expensive, most of all taxes for residents, the French are among the most highly taxed in Europe. Elsewhere things are more variable – property in Paris is extremely expensive but in others parts of France can be comparatively cheap.

Food shopping is relatively expensive but wine is cheap (and delicious). Here’s how France compares to some other countries on everyday items.

In general a good rule is to avoid Paris if you’re watching the centimes.

Why is France a flawed democracy? Fascinating question. France is a democracy with an elected upper and lower house of parliament, plus a Constitutional Court to examine new laws that touch on the rights of citizens.

It’s not without its problems as a country of course, with ongoing problems with inequality, police violence and racism to name but a few. But it’s interesting that this question doesn’t pop up on similar searches for other countries. It may be that this is to do with France’s status as a favourite target for ‘bashing’ in the anglophone press? 

Moving onto the French themselves, and the questions become less factual.

Why are the French so critical? The French would probably say they are direct rather than critical and are frequently baffled by English reticence, but most French people acknowledge that complaining is practically a national hobby. This is unlikely to change, so here’s how you could view complaining and scolding as positive traits.

Why are the French so slim? Disappointingly, the answer to this one is ‘they’re not’. Despite the stereotype of the slender, immaculately-dressed Parisienne, obesity is on the rise in France and more than half of French adults are overweight.

Even more disappointingly, those French people who are slim are usually that way because they eat sensibly and do lots of exercise, not because those croissants have magical properties. 

READ ALSO Sex, stairs and the Metro – how do Parisiens stay in shape?

Why are the French so romantic? Measuring romance is of course not a scientific endeavour, but a stubborn cliché over at least the last 150 years is that the French are romantic, or at least sexy.

It might be slightly exaggerated and in recent times women have suggested that the much-touted ‘romance’ is more akin to sexual harassment.

READ ALSO ‘Frenchmen aren’t that great in bed’ – 5 French dating myths exploded

Why are the French rioting/on strike? One of the most persistent images of France is strikes and it’s true, French workers do strike quite a lot. They are not, however, Europe’s top strikers and interestingly the word ‘strike’ appears nowhere in the most frequently asked questions about the country that does hold that crown.

What French strikes are, however, is noisy, disruptive and highly publicised. Likewise with French riots – protest quickly moves to the street in France and although the great majority of demonstrators are peaceful and well-behaved, a noisy minority (often the semi-professional rioters of the Black Bloc) like to smash bus shelters, set fire to street furniture and end up on the news.

READ ALSO Don’t ask why the French are always striking, ask what their strikes have achieved

Why are the French always surrendering? There are entire libraries of books on French military history which we won’t attempt to summarise here, except to say that the French history of surrender is not entirely one-sided – they surrendered in World War II (but ended up on the winning side), didn’t surrender in World War I, did surrender in the Franco-Prussian wars (with the indirect result that some parts of France now get a day off on Good Friday) and under Napoleon won a lot of battles before being beaten by a European Coalition.

The most famous quote about French surrender is “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” which was actually coined by a writer on The Simpsons, but was frequently used in the USA in the early 2000s. At that time, US president George W Bush was annoyed that President Jacques Chirac refused to join the US-UK lead invasion of Iraq.

Books have also been written on which country made the right choice there. 

If you have questions about France, head to our Reader questions section – or feel free to suggest your own answers in the comments section below.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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