French Social Life and Family Customs

It truly is a new century in France. After traveling abroad in France this summer, living and learning in a country different from my own, I was able to see this with my own eyes. It was enlightening to witness many of the things I had previously read and learned about while in France. As a traveler to France for the third time in eight years, I was able to see the changes that have taken place there even in that short of a time. A month and a half, this time, was much longer than any of my previous European travels, and allowed me to appreciate much more of the culture and social life of the French people.

While I was abroad, I was able to witness many things that I had read about in John Ardagh’s book France in the New Century . The overviews presented in this book were detailed and descriptive, and provided me with much background knowledge to draw from. The discussions in class, personal experiences and conversations, as well as the other material that I read helped me to tie much of the information together and get what I believe is a firm understanding of the cultural and social life of the French people. I was able to witness, not just read about how they live, educate their children, work, play, and pay for what they want. All of my French experiences have tied into what I believe is a more culturally accurate and detailed knowledge of the Francophone culture. I am grateful to have had this experience, and plan on using what I have learned many times over in my life to come.

Knowing much about French social life, their customs and education, as well as the place of the French in the world must have its base in history. An overview of anything related to France must begin with the most obvious aspect of French life – their culture. The life of a French citizen is dominated by the French culture. Unlike America, where all cultures are celebrated and encouraged, the French culture is the only culture that is truly accepted in France. This is not to say that other cultures don’t exist, or are not allowed, but simply that in France, people live like the French. Every aspect of the French culture is carefully controlled and regulated – the Minister of Culture maintains the “correct” way of French life, while the Academy maintains the French language.

It is important to be “French” while you are in France. This is made clear by the ideals and opinions of the citizens of this country. If you are not “French” you do better to pretend you are trying. I had been told dozens of times that French waiters will be rude to you – unless you try to speak French to them, in which case they will be considerably nicer. In French stores, if you greet them in French they will help you more. If you don’t wear anything that screams you aren’t from France you will be better off than if you do. These things I learned.

But what is “French”? What does it mean to be French? There are aspects of life that are very important to the French people. John Ardagh discusses these ideas fluently in his book France in the New Century and I have learned much about what it means to be French by living in France.

To be French means that great importance is placed on the family life. In chapter 8, Ardagh discusses the importance of a tightly knit French family. He explains that historically the French family is very close and important to people. Who you are in dependant on who you live with – literally who you are – who your parents are and who their parents were. Through the years the idea of family has gone from the extended family to the small family units, parents and children, which has become the most important aspect of a French person’s life.

The family is central. In France, people don’t have a lot of “stuff”. They don’t have things that cost money; instead they spend their money on people. They take long vacations to be with family and go out to eat or to concerts or events that they can all do as a family. To be French means you care about the people around you more than the things you own. The French spend their money on things like flowers and food, things that people think of as romantic and loving. It is important to a French family to get back to their “roots”, or to re-discover themselves on vacations and trips together.

I did witness this in France. It seemed to me that it was true that people didn’t have a lot of stuff. They had bookcases with just a few books on them, but they would spend hundreds of Euros to take their children to a fancy restaurant or rent a car to go to the seaside. It wasn’t important for the French women to have fancy clothes, but rather to take an extra week to travel with their husbands.

The family and social life, therefore, that I witnessed, was all rolled into one. Most families would have large dinners at their house where the entertained all of their relatives. They would attend concerts in the park or take a vacation to England or Spain. It was apparent that even the poorest people would try to take a vacation rather than buy anything new for their house or themselves. It just wasn’t as important to own things as it was to eat good food and enjoy the company of their loved ones.

Enjoying things together as a family is possible in France because of the huge emphasis that is placed on cultural activities. In France there are many opportunities to enjoy cultural experiences and to witness things that involve the French idea of culture.

Ardagh discusses the importance of French culture throughout his book, and I witnessed it throughout my stay in France and all of my travels. I found that above all else, cultural ideas were very important.

Perhaps the reason that culture is so important in France is that it is at the height of everything the people do. As Ardagh talks about in chapter 6, French people spend money on what they believe are truly culturally important things. 50 million Francs on the parade to open the World Cup, thousands spent to open museums and exhibits, money that the French will spend to celebrate a cultural event. Many times the French will spend money on cultural events rather than on remodeling their apartments with brand new furniture.

I witnessed this enthusiasm for cultural events while I was in France. The Tour de France – the parades and merchandise give-aways that proceeded and followed it – the crowds of people waiting in line, following the race, buying things for their racers. I also saw many festivals and exhibits while in France – everyone seemed to want to celebrate some aspect of the French culture. We walked through parks that were full of people sharing and buying French art, or music. We saw dancers in Paris and artists in Bayonne – all wanting to celebrate where they came from and allow others to help them maintain the French lifestyle.

Ardagh goes on to talk about, in chapter 6, that however much the French might want to celebrate culture, it is usually having to do with a group of people or performers rather than one single person or artist. This we saw also in great detail. Instead of having an art exhibit of one artist, we found exhibits of certain types or mediums of art. The focus never seemed to be on a single artist. While touring the Béarnaise cities, we saw a highly publicized exhibit about artists who worked with the clay medium. Most of the artists had a similar theme, but in the exhibit itself, the focus was on the medium. There were signs about the detailed work that had gone into the clay artifacts, but hardly anything about the artists themselves.

This was similar throughout the places I traveled in France. Even in Paris, many of the museums that we toured contained wings with focuses on the medium or the project, and almost on the side references to the artists themselves. Compared to the American style, where oftentimes you see exhibits of a particular person, it is different to see the people themselves not as important as the idea behind the art.

Performing Arts are also discussed in Ardagh’s book. He mentions that performing in groups has become very important, while solitary performers are not as important. In the musical scene, I can see this trend. While we were in France, I saw many advertisements for musical groups – I did see advertisements for solitary musical performers, but many more for groups.

More importantly, regarding the arts, is Ardagh’s point that France is slowly becoming a more artful society. This might seem strange, given the idea of France as a cultural and artistic place. It was once, but in the recent past France had fallen into a less artistic mind set. Ardagh explains that in these changing times, the French are beginning to be more involved and excited about music and art than they have been in the past – more comparable to the great traditions in years gone by. For instance, Ardagh notes that summer music festivals and amateur activities like choral singing and drama are becoming more and more widely accepted and performed. I witnessed this as well. France is turning away from the solitary closed performances of the past and the stuffy recitals and opera halls and becoming more and more open and excited in its music and arts scene.

While we were in France, we visited many such outdoor festivals. I saw a Blues Brothers concert which was quite enjoyable, where the people in the town sat around on the grass and enjoyed themselves. There were also large, open gatherings while I was in Pau. Free outdoor movies and concerts that celebrated the openness of summer and the delight that the French have for their cultural heritage.

Another aspect of the cultural importance in France and the way that it is changing is that the French are becoming more and more aware of the visual arts. Ardagh talks about the French people’s continuing effort to bring new museums and exhibit halls into the French landscape. I also witnessed this while I was in France. Every town we visited, it seemed, was having the grand opening of some museum or another.

France is a cultural society. And the cultural ideas of the French citizens are extremely important. However, one of the things that I noticed the most while I was in France was that it was French culture that is important, not necessarily the culture of the people who are in France. As Ardagh discusses in chapter 3, the French are making social progress. The French have a great social welfare system. They take care of women who give birth, they take care of the poor and the sick and the children. Education is free, maternity leave is mandatory and paid. Doctors are free. In France the elderly don’t have to chose between food and medicine like they do in America. It is important to the French to take care of everyone, and it seems that no one minds paying for it.

However, in France, it is almost always the French that benefit. The problem or racism is continual. Immigrants aren’t considered to be “French.” In chapter 3, Ardagh discusses some of these problems. He mentions that the poorest areas are those with the highest number of non-“French” born citizens. These are the places with the most crime, and least number of advantages, the worst schools. The technical stance in France, coming from the revolution, is that all citizens should have equal rights, and therefore their ethnicities don’t matter. However, this is not the case in “life”. There is much hatred towards minorities, and a general sense of French nationals being “better” than others.

While I was in France, I didn’t see much racial violence. I think that I went to bed too early and stayed in safe neighborhoods. However, I did see a lot of graffiti that spoke out against the Arab population, as well as the United States. Also, I heard tales from students who were in Pau for longer periods of time about seeing violence among the races.

What I did see was an obvious distinction between the upper and lower classes. It seemed to me that an awfully large number of minorities lived in the high rise apartment buildings that would be called the “slums” in the United States. I don’t know if I saw a single person of a minority who lived in the upper class neighborhoods I traveled in.

I also saw racial differences in jobs. Many people who worked as street vendors, or, worse, who begged for money on the streets were minorities. Banks and restaurants and stores employed “French” people only. I seemed to notice the racial differences more in the larger cities, but even in Pau it was important that the minorities lived and worked in a very different France than the natural born French people did.

Within all of these cultural aspects of French life, there is a struggle for Globalization. In the world today, there is a push for the countries in power to be more open and more accessible. The French are generally opposed to the issue of Globalization. According to Ardgah’s book, it is hard for them to give up the cultural ideas that they have had for hundreds of years. The French are a proud country of people, and it is important to them to maintain life exactly as it has always been. In France, the people do not want to change, although they like the modern conveniences of the Globalized life. The Academy, for instance, strives to control the French language. Whenever a new idea or produce is introduced, the Academy will create a French word for it to prevent other languages from creeping into French. The French people, however, still use these words, whether they be American or otherwise. The Academy will give a word for something, but if the American way of saying it makes more sense to the French people, or if they are used to saying it that way, the French word might not be used as much, except in the highest society.

The French also try to globalize without losing who they are. In this Stealth Globalization, the French attempt to become a globalized nation without actually admitting they are doing it. Ideas that the French say they dislike do well in France because they are convenient. While I was in France I saw this in numerous ways. The shopping center, for instance, a purely American idea, is creeping into even the smallest towns in France. American music is thought of as being bad and not really music, but it plays on the airways. English is spoken more and more as the French people realize that speaking English is a necessity.

While I was in France, I began to realize that this is true. I saw many examples of anti-American sentiments. Graffiti on the walls, anti-American propaganda, and a general dislike for American ideas. However, I saw many examples of American things that the French people enjoyed. The computer – many French people have and use computers – to name one of many.

France is moving towards globalization. One of the oldest states in Europe, with a permanent seat on the security council, France has always been an important nation. The French people and the French government understand that to become globalized is to be important in the world, and they need to become globalized to continue to succeed in the world today.

However, it is difficult for France to become globalized because it is a centralized state with deep set traditions, values, and cultural ideas that make it nearly impossible to change quickly. The view that only the state understands the public good, and the idea that it is important to have a state that controls everything so it can look out for everyone are hard set ideals that people don’t want to let go of. It is hard to imagine a France any different than the one there is today, but changes are slowly coming into it.

Although the Academy is in charge of the language, and although they continually recreate words to fit the new ideas presented, words like “week-end” and “Disney” creep into the vocabulary. When it comes to globalization, culture is the most easily affected and quickly noticed. American culture is becoming the most important culture in the world, and therefore Globalization is associated with America. This happens in France as well.

The French do not want to become American. They don’t want American ideas or products to become the norm in their society, but it doesn’t seem there is anything they can do about it. Take McDonalds, for example. Although the French will say they HATE McDonalds you can hardly ever get into one because of the vast number of people inside.

Globalization is a huge challenge for the French people. In his book, Ardagh tries to explain the ways that the French are attempting to become more global-minded without losing their ideas. While I was in France, I saw this.

From watching and listening to my host family, the teachers at the school, and the French friends we met, I realized that the French really are a people who are intent on keeping their culture while moving towards the future. If France is able to do that, it will continue to be a place that is truly a wonder to visit. This beautiful country full of culture and cultural ideas has the ability to become one of the world’s strongest nations.

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