When do the French become the French?

“The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.”

Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within


“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad


“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”

P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins

A few years ago, I went to see the American violinist Hilary Hahn perform with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Paris. She spoke only once to the audience, announcing the name of the next piece of music. She did it in French (she speaks French), but you can tell it is not her native language. There was a reaction from the audience. Smiles, reserved laughter, a bit of snickering. A combination of “Well, that is cute” and “maybe you just should have spoken in English.”

Source: Darren’s Music Blog https://darrensmusicblog.com/tag/salle-pleyel/

This was all harmless of course, but would an audience at the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid have responded the same way if she spoke Spanish; or how about the Konzertbesucher at the Berliner Philharmonie if she spoke German? I would like Hilary to test this, but I suspect she has better things to do with her time. Just so you know, when Sophie Mutter speaks in Chicago, no smirks.

Hilary spoke in French. The audience found it humorous because they are French. I did not find it humorous because I am an American. (About the only thing I have in common with Hilary Hahn.) Everyone associated with this story perused their hippocampus and called on their favorite narrative. The French think non-native speakers of their language are not faithful to the cause, and Americans think the French can be overly fastidious when it comes to their language. Nothing new here as these narratives have been polished to a bright shine for centuries.

We call this a micro-level interpretation in the social sciences, and it is the kind of explanation that has dominated the last several decades of psychology. Individuals have emotions that are often defined by their group identities; it is one of the ways we try to make sense of a complex world. If you wish to see an example of how a group affiliation shapes emotions, talk to a Taylor Swift fan.

I have no doubt this is part of the story, but I suspect there is more going on. This was not a fixed (stable and constant) shared emotion called up independently and individually by the concert attendees. There is something bigger at work, macro-level stuff.

I have never seen evidence of an individual French person acting this way when I stumble through my attempts at speaking French in France (well, once). No smirks; you may get a smile, but it is an appreciative smile. (Not a huge N here, but I have spent enough time in France to make an inference. That said, I will not claim scientific value to any of this. I have heard enough stories of people having a dissimilar experience.)

Emotions take place in a social context. The audience at Salle Pleyel acted that way precisely because they were in that collective setting. Scholars call this an “affiliation emotion” and you tend to see it in conditions that manifest cooperation and a spirit of community. Hilary Hahn speaks, and the French become the French.

Silvie was at the concert. She only acts this way in this type of situation because the larger social setting dictates it. She would not have responded that way in a one-on-one exchange with Hilary Hahn. If a native-French speaker does not smile disparagingly at my assault on their language, they certainly are not going to do it to one of the world’s greatest violinists. But place Silvie at the Salle Pleyel and things change.

Suppose Silvie was sitting next to me, and she knew I was an American. Now what happens? Or let us go one step further, say Silvie and I are friends, now what does she do? She might revert to a snicker just to tease me.

Why do the French do this

Let us start with Darwin in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. We are social creatures and social emotions, like language sharing, are instruments of cooperation and group organization. Certain emotions are universal to all humans, regardless of culture, and fear is one of them.

Fear is also the stuff on which to build a historical narrative, and France has done an excellent job with this. Fear has been a constant; it has served to fill power vacuums in French society, it has driven revolutionary fervor, and it has worked to create a communal bond.

Simon Schama in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution offers a notable example of this. He looks at the French Revolution as a “storm of being.”

But unlike other revolutions that signify great transformation, this was a storm that did not invigorate or cleanse. This was a revolution in which the people were “apostrophized” by the politicians. Schama points us to the famous drawing by Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath. It is a drawing of the National Assembly in Versailles in 1789 that called upon the participants in the Revolution to take an oath of unity.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Serment du Jeu de paume (1790—1794) Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Le_Serment_du_Jeu_de_paume.jpg

The light in the center is on the President of the Assembly Jean-Sylvain Bailly, who is reading the oath of unity and concordance. But this is propagandist as the oath was already breaking apart. The people make their appearance as an audience, they are standing on the periphery, and are presented as non-threatening and hopeful. But as Schama suggests, that wind billowing through the curtains on the top left, did not represent the forces of positive change, but instead can be better viewed as a “dark and potent elemental rage, moving forward in indiscriminate destruction.”

For the French people, the Revolution was not ideational, it was a manifestation of fear, of collective trauma, both from forces inside and outside the country. The people did not care about economic liberalism or individualism; they were hostile to the monarchy and at the same time feared the processes of modernization and reform that came from the revolutionary governments.

Robespierre is the perfect manifestation of the politics of fear. He made the French Revolution a political revolution. He believed democratic societies were hard to create and maintain because certain individuals will favor self-interest at the expense of what is best for society. For Robespierre, fear is the only emotion that has the power to overcome self-interest.

“There are only two parties in France: the people and its enemies. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man…We must exterminate all our enemies.”
Maximilien de Robespierre

Fear, for Robespierre, is also tied to public virtue, love of country.

“The basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice – it flows, then, from virtue.”
Maximilien de Robespierre

For the French, fear is existential, it is automatic. And it transforms them into a unified community. Their national script is that this is the only way to preserve the dignity of the republic.

Fear requires the creation of an enemy and a reassurance of the virtues of freedom. Look at what happened in response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. They stood behind the identification with “Je Suis Charlie” and against those that did not as “less civilized” and “underdeveloped.” The narrative? These victims must not die in vain. The newspapers were quick to declare that “you are either in or out.”

The French language may be the most important symbol of maintaining that unique identity. They have a constant perception, based on fear, that the language is under assault. Language is more than simply a way to communicate; it is foundational to their idea of democracy. You must maintain its purity, you must be suspicious of dialects, you must be on guard against anglicization; all because “the French people” need to be an integral component of democratic practice.

The French view information as a tool of rebellion, and they do not hold back. Their storm of being is a mix of fear and hostility. They use it and attack it with equal verve. When difficult emotions, thoughts, or trauma arise, the French go into survival mode. The reaction comes first, and then they respond. They will make fun of anybody for what they see as the larger cause, including people like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Charles De Gaulle.

For the French, snickering in public over a non-native speaking less than fluent French is little thing. It is just something they are supposed to do; like in Babette’s Feast when Babette, the French chef, lets the grocer in Jutland know the bacon she bought last time was rancid. Or when you get that quizzical look when you tell them about the wonders of putting a vegetable like pumpkin in a dessert. Talk about being “less civilized” and “underdeveloped.”

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