Becoming French: Not as easy as it sounds?

Becoming French: the Myth

Becoming French is a popular topic, in literature and in social media. Becoming French, to some francophiles or expats, is a goal, a rite of passage, an achievement to be proud of. An urban legend claims becoming French has a lot to do with {insert one, or several of the following items:} learning the language and a few facial expressions; using “Bonjour” in public places; mastering the art of people-watching while sipping a strong “express” at café terraces; embracing l’apéro; knowing how to tie a scarf; knowing your way around the cheese or yogurt aisle at the local Monoprix; ordering fresh produce at the local outdoor market; knowing your Paris arrondissements, your Left from your Right Bank, and the best “expos” (exhibits) or museums in town; realizing that there is more to France than Paris; accepting that one must learn to smell the roses and just live once in a while. Still, becoming French may not be as easy as some would have you believe.

becoming French: Monoprix sign
The Monoprix promise

It is interesting so many foreigners want to become French, or at least embrace the French lifestyle. It is flattering they should value French life and French customs, and would want to blend in, for a few weeks, a few months, or a lifetime. An entire industry continues to benefit from this, with new books, new podcasts, or new tutorials coming out every week. Becoming French. Do you want to publish a successful novel or biography? Mention “Paris” or “France” in the title, they say. If you can share your personal connection with French culture, even better!

becoming French: at the cafe
Becoming French en terrasse

Those crazy French!

Over the last few months, as France grappled with disruptive strikes and massive public demonstrations, it’s been obvious many foreigners (francophiles included,) were puzzled at things the French said, or did. This is not an uncommon occurrence. France lovers try to understand the French. They want to understand them. After all, these visitors or temporary locals have done their homework. They have observed natives at length in their natural habitat. They have studied the language, the history; visited the museums; read the books. Still, the French may appear complicated, difficult, predictable in their challenging ways, as are their bureaucracy or their unique approach to customer service.

becoming French Sign in shop window
The sacred summer vacation

Start them young!

I was browsing the book section at my local Monoprix this morning when I spotted some of the books my son, (he just turned 20,) read as a child. Junior was born in the United States, but I made sure he knew who T’Choupi, Petit Ours Brun, or Asterix and Obelix were. As I flipped through the pages, with some nostalgia, I realized it is true what they say: Becoming French (or American, or Spanish,) will remain challenging for all those who have not grown up in the local culture. Your brain, just like it does when you study a foreign language, is more likely to absorb the material (and the message behind it,) when you are young. This immersion in the local life and all the cultural references surrounding you daily, at home, at school, in the streets, reinforced by your parents, teachers, and peers, is what eventually helps you become an integral part of that culture. So even if you don’t always agree with something people say, or do, you (somehow) understand where it’s coming from. It does not surprise you.

becoming French young boy reading on the metro
Young reader on the Paris Metro

Becoming French one Children’s book at a time

French children learn early on what is appropriate and what is not, and what society expects from them. Old-fashioned lessons in civic education are once again part of the French public school’s curriculum. (Check out this story about the fundamentals of the French school system if you would like to know more.)

Some children’s books focus on classics. From Left to Right: Lili is malpolie (she does not have good manners.) Max loves to tell des bobards (he is a liar.) P’Tit Loup does not like to share. Max and Lili claim nothing is their fault and never take responsibility for their actions. Max is a cheater.

Other stories teach children how to eat the French (right?) way. From Left to Right: Lili only likes fries (children should eat EVERYTHING!) T’Choupi has a sweet tooth and is trop gourmand (in France, one knows the difference between un gourmand and un gourmet.) Marlène commits the ultimate sacrilege: le grignotage (she snacks all day.)

Some stories detail aspects of daily life. From Left to Right: French children learn early on how to give their maman a bisou (a kiss.) Thanks but no thanks: None of that awkward hugging for them! Songs and nursery rhymes from their childhood will stay with them for the rest of their life, just like Jean de la Fontaine‘s famous fables we had to memorize and recite at school. Songs and fables will also teach you valuable lessons along the way (photo 2.) You can find them (and other great books) at the local public library, la bibliothèque (photo 3.)

Learning about the past and making sense of the present

History lessons start early on in France (because there is a lot of material to cover?) From Left to Right: French symbols and historical figures are featured on this book’s cover. Do you recognize them? Second photo: French children know that Victor Hugo’s iconic Les Misérables does not take place during the revolution of 1789, but much later, in the 1830s. Yes, there have been many uprisings and revolutions in the course of France’s long history. Social unrest is part of life, and when the going gets tough, it’s ok to take to the streets and voice your concerns. People have done so for generations.

What is going on in the streets? Why are people on strike? What are they fighting for? The answers are always in a French children’s history book. From Left to Right: 1936. A lengthy national strike leads to a social revolution for French workers, the introduction of the 40-hour work week and the annual two-week vacation. In the 19th century, there is a great divide between the way the bourgeoisie and factory workers live (photos 2 and 4.) In May 1968, another revolution launched by students and a national strike bring the country to a halt (photo 5.)

Becoming French: Sometimes, the book is wrong

Being French means asking a lot of questions, (over-)analyzing situations, looking critically at (almost) everything and everyone. Being French often means replying Non! first, (even if you have to change your mind later.) Sometimes, like P’Tit Loup, you just have to dig your heels in, ignore what the book says, and “always say ‘No.'” Because you can. That’s the French way, too.

becoming French Children's book

A bientôt.

FGIS note: This story is part of the “France as I see it” series. All photos captured with an iPhone 6S. – Véronique.

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