France Is Not What People Think It Is
There are many stereotypes that a significant number of people-particularly Americans-have developed of the French: They are rude. The French are very nationalistic and their pride in being French is at a level of arrogance. Then there is the issue of race. Race riots and the attitudes of some French towards immigrants, and the growth of far-right parties in France has given much of the world the impression that the French are a bunch of racists. The latest protests against same-sex marriage in France have given some people the impression that the French are homophobic as well.
Some Americans, along with some Europeans have hostilities towards the French. According to a 2009 poll, Americans like the French 62% to 39%. There are, however, still some negative connotations about the French. People may talk about how rude, arrogant and racist the French are. They may also talk about the French unemployment rate. France has often had an unemployment rate above 10%. The French youth unemployment rate has been even higher: 26% according to one of the most recent statistics. I have heard Americans talk about how there must be a serious crime rate in France when discussing all these problems.
Let us take apart these myths that have developed from certain people’s assumptions. First of all, these people may not follow statistics when making their conclusions. They may simply make their assumptions based on the activities of certain segments of the French population. The huge protests against the French Parliament passing a law to legalize same-sex marriage, amounting to 150,000 demonstrators in Paris alone, may have created a stereotype of the French people being anti-gay and anti-lesbian. Secondly, many Americans assume that the rest of the world collects its unemployment statistics in the same way that the United States does.
For a long time America has only included people who are actually looking for work as unemployed. When people drop out of the job search they are no longer considered unemployed. That often explains why the unemployment rate drops in a recession while the job losses continue.
France, on the other hand, has been much more inclusive when it counts the unemployed, as Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book: The European Dream. It counts the people who have given up on their job search, similar to how much of Western Europe calculates its unemployment rate. Additionally, it counts all the youth who live with their parents or attend university as unemployed. That explains the high youth unemployment rate in France. It also explains why France has historically had a national unemployment rate above 10%.
When you use different methods to calculate the unemployment rate of either the United States or France, the American and French unemployment rates are quite similar. The Economist, a magazine not exactly friendly towards France’s quasi-socialist economy, has pointed out that if the United States used the same system of calculating the unemployed its unemployment rate would actually be higher than France’s.
Similarly, France calculated its youth unemployment rate as being 22% in 2006, not too different from where it is now. The United States, the United Kingdom and Germany used a far less inclusive method. They, therefore, had an unemployment rate of 12%, 11% and 13% respectively. The Financial Times found that had France excluded the full time university students who were not working from the labor force, France’s youth unemployment rate was only 7.8%.
There are some misconceptions about French public opinion too. They likely stem from vocal minority opinion there.
Most recently, the protests over the legalization of gay marriage enforced some people with the idea that the French hate homosexuals. Recently, I heard one person conclude that the French hate homosexuals. Two recent opinion polls in France, however, have shown that 63% of French people support same-sex marriage.
The French attitude towards race and immigration is another area in which there are misconceptions. It is true that 74% of French people believe Islam is not compatible with French society, and over 60% of Muslims living in France no longer feel at home there. Most Americans, however, favor a path to legal citizenship for illegal immigrants and allowing more immigrants to come to the United States and take up employment. The French, however, think more positively about immigration generally than do Americans. According to a 2008 poll, 62% percent of Americans think that immigration is more of a problem than an opportunity. The French see immigration as more of an opportunity. Seventy percent of the French think immigration does not increase crime, whereas only 48% of Americans think the same.
There is clearly some anti-Muslim sentiment in France, which Americans confuse with being anti-immigrant. The opposition to Islam in France may reflect more of an anti-religious attitude than an anti-immigrant attitude. Muslims make up eight percent of the French population, as opposed to .55% of the U.S. population. (France also has the highest Muslim population for all of Europe.) That alone suggests that at least originally there was more tolerance for Muslims in France than in America, because France lets in more Muslims.
The current public attitudes in America seem more positive towards Muslims than in France. According to a 2011 CNN poll, only 46% of Americans think Islam is contrary to American values, compared with the 74% shown in a French poll. There are, however, still plenty of Americans who are not fond of Islam. Do not forget that 29 states have had pending bills in their state legislatures ensuring that there is no application of Sharia law. Then you had Oklahoma passing its anti-Sharia law that a federal judge has overturned. How much stronger would these anti-Muslim attitudes in America be if the percentage of Muslims were the same as France?
On a similar note, the French are not anti-Semites either. An Understand France.org poll showed that 86% of the French have a favorable impression of Jewish people, as opposed to 77 percent in the United States.
The 2002 French presidential election does not contradict the polling showing that the French are not anti-immigrant or anti-Semitic either. Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second with less than 17 percent of the vote, because he was running against 14 other candidates most of whom were left of center. In the runoff election, Jacques Chirac crushed him by winning over 82% of the vote.
Besides the issue of opposition to immigration and anti-Semitism, there are people who claim that France has a high crime rate. Most notably, they point to some of the recent riots in France. Some of the immigrants to France have had a hard time finding work, which has caused some rioting. As discussed earlier, the unemployment rate in France is no worse than in the United States. Because France lets in more unskilled immigrants, these unskilled immigrants have problems assimilating. So there are areas with high numbers of unskilled immigrants in which there is a high crime rate. The rioting in certain immigrant communities-that have high Muslim populations- may of course be a reason for hostilities towards Muslims in France. Overall, however, Nationmaster.com reports that France has a much lower crime rate than the United States.
Finally, there is the issue of French nationalism. While we have this view of the French being arrogantly proud of their nationality, according to the Pew Research Center less than half the French are proud to be French. That is completely untrue of America, where the Opinion Research Center found that over three-fifths of Americans are both proud of being American and think they are superior to all other cultures. Europeans in fact express a great deal of alarm towards American nationalism.
The third of French who are proud of their nationality may be speaking too loudly. We, therefore, think they represent the whole of France. This vocal French minority has become hostile to the integration of France into the European Union, the increasing number of English signs and increased immigration. They do not represent France.
I have been to France a number of times. It has a fair number of helpful and friendly people. The food is good. The architecture is great. There are many misconceptions of France.
Going back to the issue of French nationalism, I always remember Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. He is talking about the French berets, and how everyone in France wears them. Of course no one wears these hats, and the Griswolds look foolish wearing them. This reference to European Vacation shows that Americans can make conclusions about French culture that are completely untrue.
Hill, Steven. “Youth Unemployment Is Bad But Not As Bad As We Are Told,” June 24, 2012, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5cc9db3e-bbbc-11e1-9436-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2d62Vf9NN
Hoffman, Matthew Cullinan. “63% of French Favor Gay Marriage,” January 17, 2012, http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/63-of-french-favor-gay-marriage-poll/
“Living with a Superpower.” The Economist. January 4, 2003.
Rifkin, Jeremy. The European Dream (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).
Smith, Tomw., and Lars Jarkko. “National Pride in Cross-National Perspective.” National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago. April 2001.
“What the World Thinks in 2002.” Pew Global Attitudes Project. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 2002.
Zwagerman, Nanne. “Kos Poll: Americans Love France and Europe,” April 13, 2009, http://www.atlanticreview.org/archives/1275-Kos-Poll-Americans-love-France-and-Europe.html