By Iris Samuels
The French are all about rules. Many, if not most, are unspoken, leaving foreigners and tourists mystified and sometimes alienated by the particulars of French society.
In the Luxembourg Gardens, a green haven on the Left Bank of Paris, dozens of gardeners maintain the grounds, but visitors are not allowed on the grass, except on specific strips during the short summer months. Hundreds of varieties of apples grow in meticulous orchards, but park patrons cannot eat their fruit. Get used to it.
But when describing the differences between French and American culture, Florent Masse said that Americans are the performers among the two. Masse, a senior lecturer in the French department at Princeton University, said that American culture is “bigger than life,” unlike his native French culture, which is more devoted to its particular habits.
“It’s a show,” he said on American society. “A spectacle.”
The French proved they could pull off quite the spectacle during the March 20th presidential debate, to rival all of the American glitter and glam.
The five presidential candidates in the upcoming French elections took on primetime television in order to share their platforms for the future of France. Intense music and bright lights accompanied the debate, as scripted moderators delivered lines in a fashion we have come to associate with reality television. This was politics, but it was also drama, intrigue and mystery, calling to mind the matches between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that flooded the U.S. national newsfeed just a few months ago.
The difference between the two cultures is difficult to pinpoint. Bérangère Sim, a 26-year-old journalist living in Paris, described French identity as extremely exclusive. “It’s a very specific system,” she said about the country’s education system, which serves as the foundation of French society. “It’s rooted in tradition.”
Sim, who is half French but grew up outside the country, said she has felt excluded because she didn’t attend French schools. “I don’t really know if I’ll ever be French enough for France,” she said.
Unlike in the U.S., where difference is often celebrated, in France “difference is punished or looked down upon,” Sim added. The French school system, for example, requires all high school graduates to take a single standardized exam, the baccalauréat, to measure competency and provide entry to universities. The bac, as it is commonly known, is offered only once a year to all students in the country, no matter if they grew up amid the busting Parisian streets or in a sleepy town in Normandy. There is no wiggle room.
During the debate, Marine Le Pen, the right-wing leading candidate, affirmed this idea of uniformity, saying that France must curb its immigrant population. Her platform is built on keeping out foreigners, similarly to the platform that won Donald Trump the American Presidency.
“It seems Europe is making a right turn,” explained Alissa Rubin, The New York Times Paris Bureau Chief. But she refused to make any prediction about the results of France’s April elections.
France’s future is up in the air, but in a country where old habits die hard, the grass in the Luxembourg Gardens will remain untouched, and the apples uneaten.