A confusing concept for foreigners…
The Romans used to say “These Gauls are crazy” and some people abroad still say this when referring to the French. Nevertheless, we no longer talk about “our Gallic ancestors” as many French people are descended from other origins. So does this French love of contestation stem more from cultural roots?
Since the revolution, the French have passionately defended the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And it’s on the basis of these three fine values that some seek to deny others their right to work, travel or even to express themselves.
Viewed from abroad, the phenomenon can be fairly incomprehensible! How do you explain this paradox to our British and American customers? How do we tell them to cancel the meeting we had scheduled for 18 June?
– “Oh I see”, they answer, “you’re celebrating the anniversary of General de Gaulle’s call to resistance?”
– “No, but a strike’s planned and the country will be paralysed”…
Faced with their sheer disbelief (the date is only the 6th of April) we can’t really say much. They probably think that we’ve invented this perfect excuse to postpone our meeting. We then feel obliged to show them the strike calendar to prove that we are being upfront with them.
– “But how do you manage?”
– “We get through it thanks to French ingenuity!”
Joking aside, how can we explain this phenomenon?
Commentators explain that this conflict will end with a winner and loser because compromise is out of the question and both sides must go all the way, until the other cracks, in order to avoid losing face. According to opinion, the world is changing, we need to change, and reforming the country is now a vital necessity. The same opinion also believes that resistance by some people could save our social system. But whose is this “Opinion”? What does “Reform” really mean? How will the conflict end? What’s at stake?
Can the cultural profile help us understand the French?
We have tried to explain this using the French cultural profile and have focused on three aspects: dispute resolution, theoretical reasoning, and implicit communication.
The first aspect examines dispute resolution methods: Seeking to find a “win-win” solution or seeking to impose what you feel to be the best solution even if this means a conflict. In France, people are suspicious of compromises which are rarely seen as satisfactory. It is often felt that conflicts are best resolved with a winner and a loser.
The second aspect concerns the method of reasoning. France being the home country of Descartes, it’s easy to see why a good idea backed up by a well-constructed display of logical reasoning has more value in the eyes of the French than a series of concrete and “supposedly” realistic facts. The French capacity to dissociate the principle from its application enables them to look beyond reality when considering an issue.
People fight for their ideas, and go all the way if necessary. They fight for what they believe to be the best solution, even if it’s unrealistic, and even if this causes a conflict. To do otherwise would be to risk diminishing yourself in other peoples’ eyes. It becomes a matter of principle and honour. The one who wins is the one who is most convincing. Never seek to convince French people using vulgar factual observations including realities which no-one wants to face up to. Appeal to their imaginations with a defence of human rights, the greatness of France, the freedom of expression, and fraternity…. The fraternity of a noble few who agree to sacrifice themselves to defend the weakest!
To this should be added an implicit communication style which can lead to confusion as some people don’t always understand others’ intentions. Behind the word “reform” for example there are a numerous different meanings. Out in the street you’ll find students, railway workers, retirees, notaries, taxi drivers, civil servants and troublemakers. But what are they all looking for?
What do the French actually want?
Charles de Gaulle once said: “Every Frenchman wants one or several privileges. It’s his way of expressing his passion for equality”. And he added: “the desire for privilege and the commitment to equality have always been dominant and contradictory French passions…”
Have the French changed? Although they don’t all have the same ancestors, they quickly adopt this state of mind, which is not simply confrontational – it wouldn’t work if that was the case – but also idealistic. So try and appeal to their sensitive nature, their honour, their pride, their courage and their panache… give them hope!
As André Siegfried saw it, you can ask anything of the French in the name of an idea whereas in the United States it’s in the name of efficiency and in Germany in the name of discipline.
To conclude and to answer the question foreigners often put to us when they ask “how do you manage?”, it should be kept in mind that the French display a certain form of creativity, and that they are at ease with paradoxes and unpredictability. They are able to improvise, to find solutions and to display resourcefulness. The average French person has developed a certain art of living and a form of ingenuity to try maintain a sort of balance between contrary positions, a system which “always sets us back on the right track in time and prevents us from going off the rails” (André Siegfried).
What remains to be seen is whether the French people are still able to manage this instability and land back on their feet!