Everything the French Think About Americans Is…True

"The Hidden World" is the name of the show of the artist Jim Shaw's work at the Chalet Society in Paris.

“The Hidden World” is the name of the show of the artist Jim Shaw’s work at the Chalet Society in Paris.

There is an image that the French typically have of the United States, sometimes it’s subconscious, sometimes it’s explicit. It often informs their view of America and Americans, and it usually involves elements of the following: religion, New York, huge smiles, guns, big cars, Los Angeles, pleasantness, the west, smiles, the death penalty, religion, evangelism, money, loud voices, early dinners.

Here in Paris, a big exhibit just opened last night of the American artist Jim Shaw that deliciously reinforces many of these images of the U.S.—that’ll give Parisians that wonderfully comforting sensation when reality actually conforms to your pre-conceived idea of it.

The exhibit is called “The Hidden World,” and it’s an assemblage of stuff gathered by the L.A.-based artist famous for his collections of American thrift store junk and bad amateur paintings. Evidently, in recent years, he’s been interested in the cultures and subcultures of American religion, and the show includes official Mormon church photos from the 80’s of staged scenes of the good Mormon life, and really awful religious murals that look like some nice Baptist church deacon, after a couple shots of Kentucky moonshine, tried copying Michelangelo.

There sure is a whole lot of religion in America.

There sure is a whole lot of religion in America.

The opening for the show was packed, a Pernod Ricard-sponsored event complete with vodka-tonics and a food truck serving burgers, tacos and brownies (American foods are actually the acme of food chic in Paris these days). There was a “Souvenirs shop” where you could buy a log for 20€ with your name branded into it—by an actual “blacksmith” in the courtyard of the Chalet Society, the large (and amazing) arts space showing the exhibit. (Add to earlier list of “American” images: logs).

The show is a little over-the-top, it’s a little bit ironic. There were many hipsters at the opening—they’re still proof of irony—looking a lot like hipsters from ten years ago in New York, when I was their age. (Which is odd, but sort of normal, too, since there is often a five- to ten-year lapse between the start of a trend in Brooklyn and when it arrives in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, the bourge-ie neighborhood where this gallery is).  There were a lot of art world people there, since this week is also when Paris’s enormous contemporary art fair, the FIAC, takes place. They’ve probably seen Jim Shaw’s work before and smiled knowingly at this cleverly-curated collection of vintage Americana.

Hipsters attending the opening of the Jim Shaw exhibit in Paris who look a lot like hipsters from NYC, ten years ago.

Hipsters attending the opening of the Jim Shaw exhibit in Paris who look a lot like hipsters from NYC, ten years ago.

But the viewpoint of most of the French non-hipsters, and maybe even a few of the hipsters, was probably not ironic. They were probably even a little creeped out—but in a good way—they probably experienced that yummy frisson of apprehension in seeing the evidence, the proof that their most deeply-rooted preconceptions about Americans—the religious extremism, the over-earnestness and puritanical blandness, their lack of culture and bad taste—are true!

I am exaggerating, of course. A little. The French are fascinated by Americana, without really understanding that it’s Americana. They think it’s American. Or rather, they like to think it’s American, even if they know better, and they generally do. It confirms that their projection of the U.S., their idea of America—fed by all those American television series and movies, by YouTube, by the recurrent news of school shootings, sex scandals, and death penalty executions that the French media invariably highlights—well, it’s not entirely untrue.

Bed-time bible stories for kids from the 1970's.

Bed-time bible stories for kids from the 1970’s.

Pleasantness, smiles, puritanical blandness: Mrs. Migsy is pretty close to the French idea of the American mom.

Pleasantness, smiles, puritanical blandness: Mrs. Migsy is pretty close to the French idea of the American mom.










And if the whole logs ’n’ preachers ’n’ six o’clock BBQ suppers thing is not untrue, then the French, in their absolute opposite otherness from this America, are still safe and secure. They might even feel slightly superior–fleetingly, gratifyingly.

I think this Jim Shaw show is going to be a big hit.

Buying “Made in France”: Say, what’s the terroir of your t-shirt?

Imagine buying clothes and household appliances like you might buy wine or cheese: with close attention to where it was made, how it was produced—who produced it—what the ingredients are, whether it keeps well. What’s the terroir of those pony-skin gloves? How long has that blender been produced in this part of Normandy? What is it about the locals here in the back-country of the Limousin region that they make such exceptional men’s loafers?

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Now imagine a whole economy built on that idea—terroir consumption or “loca-buying”—and you have an idea of the “Made in France” movement that’s been quietly spreading in France over the past few years.

Just this week yet another book came out about products made in France. It’s called “Objets éstampillés France” (meaning, literally, “Objects Stamped France”), and features beautiful photos of objects as diverse as black lace from Calais (first manufactured in 1816), and notepads from the Rhodia company (founded in Lyon in 1932), with captions of admiration written by French celebrities for these mythical French-made products that have become celebrities themselves.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

Black Calais lace.

Black Calais lace.








The term “movement” is probably over-stating the impact of “Made in France” (pronounced “med een Franz” in French), but it has definitely become a frequently-cited slogan—and clearly a business opportunity—since France’s Minister for Industrial Renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, launched the idea last year as a strategy to jolt France out of its economic crisis. Instead of buying imported goods or French products manufactured in outsourced hubs abroad, he encouraged the French to buy products that are French and made in France, investing money that might have been subsidizing foreign companies and foreign workers back into the French economy. Last October, he posed on the cover of a magazine wearing a striped sailor t-shirt (Armor Lux, Brittany region) and holding a blender (Moulinex, Normandy region) to make his point.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

The whole plan felt a little iffy, with a scent of nationalist protectionism edging generously towards populism. Montebourg got a lot of flack for the magazine cover which seemed very out of step with the buttoned-up tone of traditional socialist politics and because, well, the whole anti-foreign, flag-waving thing traditionally belongs to parties on the opposite side of the spectrum.

It turns out it may not be the soundest economics either. This summer, a report by a non-partisan research institute revealed not only that buying “Made in France” would cost consumers up to $400 more a month, but that the extra money spent on French-made products would divert consumer cash from the service industry—which actually generates more employment than the manufacturing industry. In brief, buying exclusively “Made in France” might actually be bad for the French economy.

This guy looks excited about the "Made in France" movement.

This guy looks excited about the “Made in France” movement.

What it’s good for though is the French spirit. More than a plan for the economy, “Made in France” is a rallying cry for French identity. It’s a reminder of what the French are good at, of what makes France…France—in the minds of the French. Craftsmanship, know-how, innate good taste, a tradition of objects with meaning, rooted in a place and a culture. Being really good at something. Heck, being the best at something.

This is the image the French have of themselves and want to project to the world. The idea of what “Made in France” represents—a certain uniqueness and exceptionalism—is the rampart protecting France’s place in the world from the onslaught of an overpowering global economy.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

And the fact is that stuff that’s been made in France for generations really is, generally, beautiful and just…better. I’m a fan of terroir chic, of seeking out the best that loca-style has to offer: that grand cru of tobacco pipes made in the village of Saint-Claude (since 1855), that perfectly aged method for making Sophie, the natural-rubber toy giraffe (manufactured since 1961), those beechwood-encased folding knives by Opinel that haven’t changed shape or materials since 1890. It’s true that these kinds of objects are hard to find out there in the world these days.

But guess what? They’re still made in France.

I leave you with a map of French terroir fashion, a guide to style-by-region featured in the fashion magazine Madame Figaro last month. You just might be tempted, on your next trip to France, to get some Fabre gloves (since 1924) along with your case of Côte du Rhone near Nîmes in the south of France, or a vintage studded belt from the leathergoods company Laffargue (since 1890) along with your Iberian ham in the Basque country.

A map of terroir fashion. Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

A map of terroir fashion.
Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

You’ll be doing good to the French spirit—in fact, you’ll be wearing the French spirit home. And you’ll look undeniably the chic-er for it.

The French Hate Hypocrites Too

Most hated at the office.

Most hated at the office.

Do you hate hypocrites? And boot-lickers? And people who spread rumors? Well, so do the French. According to a recent survey here asking what types of people are most irritating at work, it looks like the French have the same primal reactions to a**holes at the office that, well, probably anybody would.

People working in companies were asked to name three types of people they hate most, and the clear winner among the most-hated is, at 53%, the hypocrite. The runner-up, at 35% of people surveyed, is the brown-noser, who is actually tied with the person who spreads rumors, also at 35%. Interestingly, the next most irritating person at work turns out to be the smelly one – 26% of those surveyed are irritated by questionable hygiene. Which shouldn’t be surprising since, on a hot summer day in Paris, even at 9am in the morning, things can get a little sweaty in the un-airconditoned métro.

Nonetheless, that smelly people are more disliked than people who take credit for other employees’ ideas (24%), those who systematically pass the buck (19%), and the ones who spend the day taking cigarette breaks (18%) or who are rude (17%), strikes me as being a little short-sighted, since personally I think that rude people who pass the buck and steal ideas are total jerks (I might even dislike them more than hypocrites and brown-nosers. But maybe I’ve never had to sit in a cubicle next to someone who should have brought a change of shirts.)

The survey comes on the occasion of a national “Neighbors’ Day at the Office” (which was yesterday), a sort of workplace spin-off of France’s very successful Fête des Voisins, a day once a year when the residents of apartment buildings and neighborhoods all over France gather for a potluck of home-made quiche, saucisson and cheap Bordeaux, the point being to actually chat with neighbors to whom you only ever mumble hello, to build bonds, strengthen the social fabric, all that.

The Neighbors' Day at the Office was this past Thursday.

The Neighbors’ Day at the Office was this past Thursday.

It strikes me as deliciously, stereotypically French that this bond-building event at the office should be the occasion to ask people whom they…hate most at the office! Complaining is a deeply ingrained part of workplace culture in France (or so the stereotype goes), part of a greater culture of entitlement and social safety nets, the sense of a workplace naturally owing employees something. Rather than the more American vision (as the stereotype goes) of employees being owed nothing until they earn it. There is a French verb, râler, which means to groan or moan about something, and in my own circumscribed experience, the French do it a lot at work. And now we know what they’re complaining about – hypocrites and gossips.

One French woman's blog dedicated to her mission to break the complaining habit and no longer "râler".

One French woman’s blog dedicated to her mission to break the complaining habit and no longer “râler”.

Interestingly, it turns out complainers and hypocrites may actually be among the highest performers in a company. Another survey from last spring shows that people with the highest satisfaction at work, the ones most likely to be happy at the office and to recommend their companies as a great place to work, were the lower performers. So once again, might the French râleurs, actually, improbably, be very productive?

Not surprisingly, this last survey–which actually tried to get a sense of the link between complaining and productivity, of the effect on the bottom line–was…American.

A Story From the Roma Perspective


Credit: Capucine Granier-Deferre for Le Monde.

There has not been much coverage of the Roma issue from…the Roma perspective. Most people, this blog included, are much more concerned with the political debate (which Minister is right or wrong? Who sounds more right-wing?), than with the social reality. If not grudgingly, than tardily, the French press is now begginning to go investigate the everyday Roma reality and ask a few Roma the question of what, in fact, they really want: do they want to assimilate in France?

Le Monde had an interesting story today about a few Roma families who’ve been settled for several years now in some abandoned houses in a tiny town not far from the small central city of Poitiers. The matriarch of one of the families has actually been living in France since 2003 and speaks French. She used to live in the overcrowded encampaments of the Paris region and moved out to the provinces a few years ago in search of something more peaceful, she says. She was recently served notice to get out within five months. Many of the Roma kids in these families (of the 18 people, 11 are children) can’t go to school because the mayor of the little town (just over 800 residents), who has to outsource local kids to a school in a village nearby, says he can’t afford the additional 5000 Euros it would cost to send these Roma kids who just arrived, mid-year, as well.

A number of other families have been there for several years as well and, the article describes, most of them work “in metal”, gathering and reselling scrap metal. Others have a few used-auto businesses, fixing and reselling old cars. The story’s point is to show that some Roma, against the odds and the desires of most locals, evidently are trying to make a living and make a life in France.

But what mostly emerges–rather than a desire to make a living and life in France–is the near universal desire among all the Roma interviewd to, above all else, not go back to Romania. Like most economic migrants, that they ended up in France is partially just chance…the point is less about assimilating somewhere than just not going back.

Has Someone Said the Unsayable Truth About the Roma?

There has been one single word in French headlines non-stop for the past week and that’s “Roma.” The French have a Roma problem and it is one of those intractable issues with no easy solutions and so loaded with taboos and unsayable truths that it makes everyone squeamish. It’s not a new problem, but it was set off again last week when France’s charismatic and very popular Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, said in a radio interview that most Roma people in France “don’t want” to assimilate, and hence “are best off returning to Romania or Bulgaria.”

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

The comments set off fireworks of reactions, most notably from the Minister of Housing, Cécile Duflot (who is from France’s left-of-the-socialists Green Party). She accused Valls of betraying the “Republican Pact”. Those, in France, are fighting words—quite strong ones, the French equivalent of one senator accusing another of being un-American—and created a political stand-off between the two. Duflot is right, of course, on principle: it’s a terrible thing to stigmatize an entire ethnicity as being unwilling to assimilate, the kind of thing that was said about Jews, sixty years ago. In fact, if you replace “Roma” with any other ethnicity or race—Asian, Kurd, Arab, whatever—nobody would disagree that Vall’s statement was profoundly racist.

But the majority of French people tend—massively—to agree with…Valls. A poll this past weekend revealed that 77% of the French agree that the Roma would be better off going back to their countries of origin, and it’s not just France’s right-wing nationalists coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of a political opportunity: 98% of the French voters on the right agree, but so do 55% of voters on the left. Another poll yesterday simply asked who people thought was right, Valls or Duflot—and fully two-thirds of the French agree with the Minister of the Interior and just 28% with Duflot.

Valls has said out loud what more or less everyone, or a great majority of everyone, is thinking to themselves. He’s said in a—slightly—more appropriate way what the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles said this summer on one of their August covers with the title, “Roma Overdose.”


The August 22, 2013 cover title of this right-wing news magazine. “Roma Overdose,” reads the title, “Exclusive poll: the French have had enough.”

I probably could have told you that without seeing any poll numbers at all. Here’s why, the unvarnished, politically incorrect reason why: if you live in Paris, or a number of other large French cities, in any neighborhood but the most exclusive, then you too live with the Roma—a lot of Roma. Thanks to European integration, Romania and Bulgaria, the country of origin of most Roma people, are part of Europe. Romanians and Bulgarians are free to circulate throughout the European Union and it is legal for them to live and work within most of the 28 member states. They do not need a visa.

As a result, there are nearly 20,000 Roma in France, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in the greater Paris region, living in some 400 illegal encampments. France does not allow any race or ethnicity based census-taking, but the Roma are involved in two main rackets: organized begging and prostitution. Both the beggars and the prostitutes tend to be women and children. Because they live in squalid, makeshift camps with no running water or electricity, and because they don’t have jobs or income, they also run organized rings of garbage-pickers. In one encampment, with its own makeshift mayor and security force, every family pays a Euro a day into the “municipal” kitty for access to the day’s scavenged food. There are vans that, every morning at dawn, drop off teenagers and women all over the city, in Paris’s dozens of arrondissements: some women settle onto a street corner to beg, others set out to pick over trash cans, and bands of teenagers, often including pregnant girls, rove about tourist areas with pens and pads of paper waiting to hit up some foreigners. Their lives, frankly, sound awful.

A Roma encampment in Paris's 19th arroniddissement.

A Roma encampment in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

I live in a diverse, gentrifying neighbourhood of northern Paris, and my apartment happens to overlook a broad open green space, like a small public lawn. For over a year now, except during the winter’s coldest months, there has generally been a large family, or a big extended family, sometimes a whole gang of a several dozen Roma, camping out: mothers with babies, fathers, pregnant teenagers, multiple strollers, spreads of food, men lounging, even an old accordionist who all summer long, every day, from 6am to 6pm has played the same song. I either want to kill him or teach him to play another song. He’s there now. This summer for a while they’d dragged an old leather couch under a nearby scaffolding and hung out there when it rained. It stayed for weeks.

I wouldn’t want to live on the street. It’s a terrible life. But frankly, I wished they didn’t live in my street. Who does want them to live on their street? What community wants to host their encampment? What city will offer them jobs, education, and healthcare?

Roma are the thorny and taboo topic, the nuisance about which no one dares speak, now a part of everyday urban aggravation, a familiar and unwelcome feature of street-life, the unspoken target of everyone’s animosity, the legal and social problem to which no one on the left has dared offer a solution, and which the far-right has enthusiastically placed high up on their electoral agenda.

In reality, Manuel Valls said in language that was tolerable to the left (“they don’t want to assimilate”…“best off returning to Romania”) exactly what the right said in language that made them sound friendly to the far-right National Front party (“enough, leave, go home”). And now that he’s said it, it’s made him even more popular: he has become his party’s favorite campaign trail accessory in France’s local election campaigns that are now going full swing.

And that’s what’s so troubling—that most of the political spectrum, from the mainstream Socialists to the right to the far-right actually seem to agree. That should never happen. And when it does, it makes for a very ugly confusion of genres.

Because eventually Valls will no longer be able to cloak his phrases in euphemistic suggestions of “better off”, he’ll probably have to speak a little more clearly about exactly what he means—and then what will he sound like?