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Hidden France

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

The old Anglo-Saxon theory that Frenchmen were people who ate frogs and wept over each other’s necks, is exploded, but it is doubtful if any more real understanding has taken its place.

There is not only the difference of language to divide the two races, there is the difference of a whole conception of life. The Frenchman is catholic, definite and expressive; the Anglo-Saxon is protestant, vague and impassive. The French sharpen the best wits in the world upon the hard substance of life; but they are too pessimistic to laugh at it. The Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, has an easy humour; he swallows danger without tasting it, and the cruel logic of life escapes his blunter powers of discrimination. Both races contain contradictions which confuse their critics. John Bull, a most misleading figure snatched from the Dutch by that robust kleptomaniac, the British Empire, acts as a screen to wild-eyed poets and romantic adventurers. The lilies of France, an emblem of peace and purity, wave their spotless banner above the most military and least guileless of European races.

Temperaments differ as much as emblems; a sturdy Norman and a vivacious “homme du Midi” scarcely seem fellow-country-men; and those who know the difference between a fluent London cockney and a dumb tenacious Yorkshire-man, are aware of a startling dissimilarity. Northern Frenchmen are as a race solid, acute, and ineradicably industrious, given to constancy but not to ease in their relationships, while the people of the Midi are the sun’s children, full of charm, lacking constancy or firmness of character, as volatile as the swift-pacing Southern light.

There is, however, one quality common to all French people and sharply differentiating them from any other race. Love of form is the Frenchman’s morality. It is behind all his actions, and enters largely into all his affections. It is easily shocked, and to override it causes complete estrangement.

A young Frenchman once went on a visit to some English friends to whom he was deeply attached. He came to condole with them on the sudden catastrophe of a child’s death. It was only, a few weeks after the event, and he happened to be there on the birthday of the dead child’s twin brother. The mother made a superhuman effort to appear exactly as usual; the birthday had its normal atmosphere, its accustomed treats; the mother took part in everything. The Frenchman refused to be present and could never feel the same to the family again. He thought their determined self-control callous heartlessness.

The soul of the French theatre is the “double-entendre.” The more a drama touches with ironic gravity on sex relationships, the more certain it can be of appreciative applause; but during the war this species of wit was considered unsuitable and was barred. The “double entendre” retired into private life. The whole attitude of Paris suggested an iron puritanism, in theory at least; practice, a more subtle thing to eradicate, not being visible was proportionately less offensive; but the facade of virtue in all public places, might have been erected by the late Prince Consort.

A staid French Catholic once said to the writer: “Yes, our clergy are, of course, not moral, but, thank God, they are not married. Morality—ce n’est rien qu’un geste—but marriage would rob the priesthood of an ideal.”

His sense of form goes so deep that to ruffle it is to breathe upon a Frenchman’s honour. It gives self-respect to the lowest peasant, and exacts consideration from the highest man of affairs. All Frenchmen should be addressed with extreme politeness and sympathy of manner; a good manner will make the hardest man of business consider a proposition in a more favourable spirit. It will not blind his wits, but it will open his heart. A Frenchman not only takes a casual address as an insult to himself, but it appears to him an object for derision, only to be met with in an uncivilized type of human being.

A Frenchman on a visit to London was accosted by an English colonel; the form of address used was: “D’you play bridge?” The Frenchman swung into a fluent and elaborate apology for his inability to accept the invitation. But to his everlasting astonishment and resentment, the English colonel without emitting a syllable in reply, turned on his heel and left him. He had ascertained that he could not get a fourth at bridge, and there the matter ended.

All men are vain; but whereas the vanity of the Anglo-Saxon is apt to be slow-moving and unconscious, the Frenchman’s vanity is heady as champagne and swift as a woman’s. It matters to him quite extraordinarily how he appears, not oniy to every woman he meets, but to every man. The social short-cuts of the Anglo-Saxon are abhorrent to him; nor does he see any virtue in our defence of chaff. There is nothing in man so vulnerable as the imagination; and the keenness of the Latin mind exposes it to wounds which to an Anglo-Saxon would be less than pin-pricks.

Nor does education toughen a Frenchman’s spirit; he is still a dependent, obedient child when an English or American boy has the freedom of a man. The shelter of a watchful, co-operative family, life extends to the time of his marriage—or even later.

It is doubtful if the French are any more emotional than we are but, whereas to show an emotion is the greatest crime of which an Anglo-Saxon can be capable, to a Frenchman the expression of an emotion is as natural as to take out a pocket handkerchief in order to blow his nose. A very stable personality may lurk behind an exaggerated expression of emotion; and the most orderly of lives behind the most excitable of tongues.

The French adore habit; relentless arrangements as to baths, meals, walks, or occupations are the general rule. A French landlady once said to the writer: “I wish to know Madame’s habits so that I may respect them. That green chair under the chestnut is sat upon by my husband, except for an hour after lunch, when he takes his pipe upon the bench which overlooks the sea. Would Madame have the kindness to point out the place in the garden which she prefers, and to mention the hours when she would be likely to be there? I will then inform my household to avoid them.”

We spent six months sitting on our own particular chairs at our own particular time, and I never once knew our privacy invaded by as much as a small grandchild of two. From the moment we had a habit, it was inviolate.

The French are a serious race; to think of them as gay, is to miss the point of their being. A Frenchman is too grave to bear a puritan existence. He has no solid padding of humour to keep him from wincing at the irony of life. A superficial gaiety of manner, a bright vivacity, of conversation, are as essential to him as bread. He must be amused or he would die of horror.

The French know how to amuse themselves perfectly, as they know how to carry out most of their definite desires; and it is because they amuse themselves so perfectly, that we are apt to think they can do nothing else.

Our greater reticence and our more divided aims have given us the illusion that the French are an immoral race, grossly over-sexed. But if we use a more critical estimate, both of ourselves and of the Latin race, we shall discover that the French are not more preoccupied with sex than any other nation; they are merely more ruthlessly candid about it, and far more determined to get the last ounce out of all their senses. French people dress, eat, drink, attend to their business life, exploit their daily adventures, as well as make love, with a keener zest than ours. The art of life seems to them a subject for pre-occupation and, as the central theme of life is sex, they give it their most skilled appreciation.

Nowhere in the world is a woman more sure of attracting all the admiration she deserves. If she is plain, and has only one good feature, no Frenchman will overlook this feature; and a woman retains his sympathy as a mother, when she has ceased to provoke his interest as a wife.

A pre-occupation so deep, and so little diverted by sport, requires a variety of objects; and it is probable that few Frenchmen can stand as models of life-long constancy. But while he is a lover, or while he is a son, it is a Frenchman’s pride to carry his role through with complete success. This deliberate concentration upon the senses is the result of a strictly practical mind. The French do not greatly value the soul, because there is so little that can be known about it. They have chosen a church with careful ceremonies and rigid laws, formed on a subtle knowledge of human nature. In the Catholic religion there are places where anyone not an extreme devotee can avail himself of a certain mitigation of rigour, and these happen to be the places where the Latin mind finds such relaxation most convenient.

The French value the body with a more conscious intensity than we do, but it is a mistake to suppose them more materialistic. They have far less instinct for hygiene than the Anglo-Saxon or the Teuton, and draw at least as much entertainment out of their intellectual resources.

Fear and the love of life, which is the cause of their fear, consciously direct all a Frenchman’s thoughts. These alternate sharp sensations are the cause of the provocative precautions he takes against his enemies; and of the economy amounting to avarice with which he tries to safe-guard the objects of his love. It is a shock to the unselfconscious, generous Anglo-Saxon to discover how little margin a Frenchman leaves in his life for others. But a deeper acquaintance with the French character reveals that his egoism is neither so callous nor so narrow as it seems, but the result of his respect for personality. He is occupied with himself, absorbed in himself, careful for himself, because all his feelings are more vivid, more responsive, more acute and final than those of more phlegmatic nations: but “himself” is not the narrow limits of his own soul; his personality, includes his wife, his children, sometimes his city, and always his country. The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been a little thrown away upon the Latin mind. It is thought a good action, decidedly out of place.

There is neither vagueness nor mystery in his point of view; a Frenchman sees what he likes or dislikes with relentless clarity. When he sins, he sins with his eyes open, and when he acts well, he acknowledges it and expects you to do the same. You must involve a Frenchman before you can attach him; put some personal issue at stake, and you have his whole attention and all his splendid faculties at your service; but he will not go out of his way to remedy the grievances of others.

The French are probably the finest fighters in the world, but they have always been severely handicapped by their lack of organization. Good organization requires a passion for the long run, and a patient adaptation to events, which are equally foreign to the French mind. The flash of an emergency, to which he brings the presence of mind of genius, reveals the full strength of the Latin nature. The French seldom complete what they have risen to, by the drudgery of method. Method is fatiguing, dull and without the promise of personal distinction. Method is what makes the Englishman bother about leather, keep his animals in perfect condition, and feed the soldiers in the trenches as if they were sitting in a London restaurant. But it is extravagant, impersonal, and very hard work.

The Anglo-Saxon mind grows under its work; we are noted for our bad beginnings, but we are apt to achieve a tortoise-like success. The French mind, on the contrary, has the lightning flash of genius, it passes over directly from one idea (skipping the dull level of accomplishment) to the next. A Frenchman’s logic is supreme; his common sense is faulty.

It is this blindness to the distant future which makes French politics often confusing and sometimes corrupt. Honesty is not the best policy to start with, it merely becomes the best policy in the long run; and very intelligent people, who do not like long runs, evade it when possible.

A lack of simpleness is common to all the quick-witted, but most Frenchmen have a substitute for our more plodding moralities. They have the “beau geste.”

Deeper than any scruple, stronger than ethics, dearer than life itself, is a Frenchman’s sense of honour. Touch this sense of honour in him, reassure him of your good-will, and you have made not only a friend for life, but you have discovered a very gallant gentleman. On the other hand, if you wound this quick of the heart within him, you are confronted by a suspicious, ungenerous enemy, intent on paying you out for imagined insults and prospective injuries.

There is no better friend in the world than a Frenchman, no more unselfish father, no more respectful and resourceful husband. Let a Frenchman know that you appreciate his qualities and admire his country, convince him of your own honesty and generous motives, and he will not only match those qualities, he will quite probably, surpass them.

It is not for nothing that France leads the mind of Europe, and Europe leads the world. It is impossible to like civilization without liking the French people; but it is quite possible to be a genuine humanitarian and to find the French mistake you for a humbug.


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