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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.