Sunday, October 2, 2016

WTF? What the French by Olivier Magny

How impoverished would the world be without the French? Olivier Magny, whose qualification to expound upon the French way of life is without qualification (he was born in France, grew up in France, and runs a business in France), pokes some fun (love of Nutella, love of rap music, inability to dance) but mixes in surprisingly astute social and political commentary on the nature and attitudes of the French for those of us who do not travel there frequently. Arising from the success of Magny’s blog and an earlier book called Stuff Parisians Like, this book carries his cultural introductions further and deeper.

Magny shares some of what he considers the most beautiful places in France, pointing out the wide variety of regions and styles: “Whether you’re drawn to beautiful beaches, mountains, hills, plains, lakes, river, cold water or warm water, dry weather or wet weather, arid vegetation or lush forests, chances are France has it somewhere.” Which makes us especially curious when he tells us that Anglo-Saxons, comprising Great Britain and America, and often New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, are lumped into one category of human that the French have no need, nor any desire, to examine in detail. Les Anglo-Saxons are to blame for most of the drinking and warmongering in the world, but also have admirable business practices, good universities, and research. By analogy, perhaps, we shouldn’t be lumping “the French” in anything like a monolithic category.
"Since the inception of Vatican II, France went from being…the first child of the Catholic Church to being one of the least religious countries on earth. Among the general public, the Church went from being viewed as a profoundly respected and heeded institution to being an inaudible and questionable organization…the tremendous surge of Islam is a response to the collapse of the Catholic Church…While official reports continue to claim that Catholicism is still the number one religion in France—which happens to be impossible to prove since the French state is prohibited from keeping such statistics—there is no doubt that if it is still the case (which is unlikely), it won’t be for long."
In another section, Magny tries to explain the rise of the far-right nationalist party in France. Many Western countries are experiencing the same phenomenon, and the phrases Magny uses to describe “the switch over to the extreme right” has many parallels in the U.S. We are not alone, then, in our population's severe disaffection with politicians in government, and the media’s horrorstricken and ineffectual analyses. Magny's discussion deepens our understanding of how flattening the wealth pyramid has worked out in France.

This book is meaty, considering the essays max out at three or four pages for each topic, and is unfailingly interesting. After a few more serious topics including immigration, police, and three(!) sections on taxes, Magny returns to a lighter note, discussing the haircuts of older women, pessimism, divorce, TV debates, how speaking English is now cool, and the comment thread in online communication. Absolutely surprising was the low rate (to me) of daily wine consumption in France and the fact that younger French are being influenced by America’s fascination with wine to drink it in greater amounts. And the omnipresence of yogurt in every refrigerator.

Most of us remember a hunger for French panache and elegance in design and style, but Magny tells us that has changed in France these days. “Aiming high has become suspicious,” and therefore folks are looking more for value and convenience. It is an absolute change in focus, quality, and lifestyle that changes the meaning of France for many of us. “France is the worst country to make money in, but is the best one to spend it in.” This statement opens the door to another discussion of taxes and how “very few people are sitting on a very large stack of cash. Savings and generational wealth are almost unheard-of in France.”

This extraordinary collection of essays is completely engrossing to someone tangentially acquainted with France and its systems. Magny must have some critics. The more we know the more we'd be able to critique this work. Can all France's problems be laid at the feet of a leftist mentality in education and government? The best thing this book does is make us look, really look at France with a questioning eye. We aren't tourists anymore.

Magny takes a stab at examining the real roots of cultural change. Many essays include suggestions for further online research into French taxes, governance, music, film, and TV celebrities, suggestions given with the equivalent of a Gallic shrug: “If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves and make up your own mind.” Thought-provoking and much deeper in tone than I was expecting from a book of this type, the book should spur some discussion and counter theories by others who have some experience living and working in France.

Intriguing, easy to read, and worth seeking out. Makes great conversation starters if one is planning to visit France.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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