Why are we all so obsessed with wishing we were French? And how smug must all those French people feel?
In Australia and America, there is a huge market for all things French, blogs and books designed to help us lesser mortals unlock the secrets of the je ne sais quoi of this superior race (is the UK also beseiged by Frenchy Fetish, or are they maintaining their historic disdain for their continental neighbours?). There are many, many blogs espousing the wonders of the French lifestyle, and bookstore shelves are jammed with titles like Paris Street Style, Lessons From Madame Chic, Ooh La La!: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful, French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Children Don’t Throw Food, to name a few.
All of these media conspire to create the image of the flawless Frenchman (or, given their target market, French woman), one who appreciates the finer things in life, knows that a wardrobe is never complete without a well-cut navy blazer, can tie a scarf in 1,372 unique ways, and never jams a chocolate bar into her face while walking down the street checking facebook on her iphone.
I will admit, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and have perused many of the blogs and books mentioned above. I, too, want to pair classic ballet flats with tailored-for-me skinny jeans, and have a signature dessert ready to bake when guests visit. Having visited France several times as a tourist, I’ve found it enchanting and beautiful, stimulating to the senses and imagination, although not so vegetarian-friendly, and littered with the crap of thousands of tiny dogs.
Interestingly, very few of these French lifestyle guides are written by real live French people; at a glance, it seems the trend is for English-speaking writers to visit France for an extended period, and to return brimming with advice, the veil lifted from their eyes and the true secrets of good French living revealed. All of this makes me wonder… what’s really going on over there?
If we move away from stereotypes into actual studies, the good people of France don’t seem to be living it up quite as much as we thought. In 2009, The Economist suggested that France has a higher rate of antidepressant use, and of suicide than its Western European neighbours, and although, the French government has announced its intention to incorporate a happiness index into its national economic indicators, France doesn’t rate so highly on the Happy Planet Index, coming in at a pretty miserable number 50. Indeed, this recent happiness study seems to suggest that “there is something in the culture that makes French people miserable.” Ouch! The same study points the finger at the French school system for cultivating a culture of unhappiness, perhaps suggesting that French children don’t throw food because they lack the self esteem to do so.
But then, the French did kind of invent ennui, didn’t they? Bonjour tristesse, and all that. Perhaps feeling a little blue is part of the charm (it matches your navy blazer). Baudelaire, Sartre, Rimbaud, Camus, Derrida and Delueze can’t all be crazy (actually, I’m pretty sure they were all crazy). Not to be flippant about such serious issues as depression and suicide, of course. I mention these statistics because they sit pretty uneasily with the stereotype of good living that the rest of us try to desperately to adopt. Perhaps French people struggle and strive for the good life as much as we chubby, clueless étrangers?
Spending a little time this week mulling this over has left me unsure of what to conclude. I think it’s a given that the experience of being French (on which I have no authority whatsoever to comment) and the perception of “Frenchness” expounded upon by non-French writers and marketers are two utterly separate things. What is up for exploration here is the stereotype, and as someone who enjoys both navy blazers and critical thinking, I’m on the fence. I’m not even really sure what my question is. Am I trying to prove that this vision of Frenchness is fake, or to validate my own obsession with what I perceive Frenchness to be?
Most of us know we’re buying into a myth, a stereotype, and like many stereotypes (although not all), there may be a grain of truth in it that has since been massaged and smoothed into a marketable ideal, which can’t possibly encompass the complexity of a national identity. But when all you want to do is build a stylish capsule wardrobe, does it really matter? We want to look more put-together, and be more put-together. Less distracted, more engaged. Less overwhelmed by stuff, and more selective about quality and style. Less guilty about eating carbs, more open to the pure and simple joys of a butter-laden baguette. Maybe this kind of French-ness is just a myth, but if it encourages us to live better, is there any harm? Is this just another way for the “style” industry to make us feel bad about ourselves and our circumstances? Are we harming the French by assuming them to be uniformly parfait?
I know it isn’t real, but in an X-Files sort of way, I want to believe! Do French people even watch Le X-Files, or were Scully’s wide-cut, cropped trousers simply too great an offense for such a style-conscious nation? As far as I can find, there isn’t yet a guide on the market to Gallic-approved extra terrestrial hunting attire, but they say the French can dress for any occasion, so it probably isn’t far away. My hunch? Navy blazer.