French Stereotypes

Today I was sat in front of the river, chatting to a French friend, when a young boy burst into a rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’. I would say this adequately proves that French schoolchildren are rather more patriotic than the British variety. Alas he was not wearing a beret, a stripy top or a string of onions. As he was about eight, he also lacked a moustache. My French friend was of course mortified that a British person was witnessing this, as she is well-aware of the British belief in the stereotype of the patriotic Frenchman.

Of course it is not true that all French people randomly feel the urge to sing ‘La Marseillaise’, because their love for their country is so strong. It is also not true that they all dress in a certain onion-based manner. However, despite Strasbourg’s Germanic roots, I have still seen plenty of French clichés in their full glory.

As a city where everyone rides bikes I have been seen so many French people with a baguette in their basket whilst cycling, I have grown rather weary of it. This weariness could also be caused by the fact that people look at me as if I’m illiterate every time I tell them I cannot ride a bike. About fifty people have threatened to teach me, although none of these witnessed me in PE at school. I honestly wish them the best of luck; I have the balance of the proverbial drunken sailor on a ship in a stormy ocean.

Many British people, myself once included, believe the French are amazing linguists. Living on the continent, the logic goes, they are more open to learning other languages. Yet when I expressed this view to a roomful of French students, there was a general murmur/laugh or disbelief. I would say that the overall level of English is better than the level of French in the UK; however this is probably through more exposure to the language, rather than willingness to learn or aptitude. Being in the Alsace, I expected the majority of people to be almost fluent in German, or have a passing knowledge of Alsatian (a mix of German and French spoken here, which is decidedly more German). However many students say they struggle with German and I am yet to hear Alsatian, which is apparently mostly spoken by older generations in the countryside.

Previously I’ve mentioned the French love of bureaucracy, so I won’t bore you with more stories of queues and forms. What I love most about this stereotype is that it is something many French people themselves are well aware of and hate. French colleagues have been sympathetic about it and can swap stories about their own soul-destroying experiences. I therefore question why this stereotype continues, if it is so universally detested.

Despite the many stereotypes I’ve encountered, it’s worth noting that there are some stereotypes which transcend nationality. Students like to go out and get drunk. The female response to strippers is universal (see a previous blog). All tourists carry a camera and a map and look lost. I’m not going to say that everyone is essentially the same, because I think Erasmus teaches you that each nationality does have its quirks. However, the British are certainly not as vastly different from our French cousins as we sometimes like to believe!

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