The French Atopia

I am always striking against England but at the end of the day, I did leave France to live in England and, yes, I am back in France but I can’t wait to leave so why?

Now that I am back in France from abroad where I have learnt to stand aside and observe a society to assimilate, the feelings I had a decade ago about my country, these feelings that made me leave it have found words to be expressed. It took me years to understand why as a highly skilled young I never felt like I could make it here in the long run.

People have a lot of theories as to why France is not making out of the crisis and there are many reasons that could be listed. One of them I am addressing here is France’s psyche in the face of change. It doesn’t mean other places are doing it right or that their struggles can be explained the same way.

At first, in France, we hate everyone and everything is shit so it will always be difficult to appear like we are thriving: our job is shit, our life is shit, the weather is shit, our car is shit, our shit is shit. We do have qualities, like the refusal to level down or play into the don’t-worry-they’re-all-dumb speech from the economists about the sacrifice everyone should make…except the rich… but frankly we are a nation of self-deprecating, yet arrogant and self-centred pessimists who can never see the positive sides of anything. That would be fine if we could at least see ourselves for who we are and go beyond the first line of criticism we put on every aspect of life.

I am like this. I am extremely French and have learnt to be proud of my inner Frenchiness and that’s thanks to England! You never realise how French you are until you go and live abroad. “Everything is crap. Even what I do, although everyone should do what I do cause I still do it the best. That’s to say how shit everybody else is” is pretty much my way of life when facing alternatives but I do know who I am and I always force myself to go beyond my first instinct of rejection. It’s called growth but on a daily basis, I encounter too many people in France who we are too happy to dismiss everything as worthless or to see a potential for failure in everything and everyone before even considering them. There seems to be the idea that looking down on everything will make yourself bigger and your condition more worthy. The finding of confidence in the demise of others.

Facing with all that crap in our everyday life, you would think that someone would be ready to do something about it but no. There is a gobsmacking general refusal to evolve hidden in a funny “Yeah, it’s just that we like complain”.

In England, it’s different, it’s apathy towards problems hidden in “It could be worst, you know” with hint of self-deprecation so to commiserate. People will not care because they have been taught that protesting was against the inherent interests of capitalism. So they will mention politics sometimes but not give a damn about it unless it interferes with their freedom to get a brand new car at 18. Then we will see them in the streets because that move would be anti-capitalist in itself, to stop people from buying new cars when they have not even voted for the first time.

In France, people talk about politics all the time. That’s a normal topic of conversation in everyday life, we are political and interested and, yes! there is a will to move, we strike, we fight as long as it’s to show our disagreement, as long as it is to protect the status quo, to make sure things remain the same and are left unchanged. Change is the enemy in France. It is true that change is often attempts to copy what the US are doing for the sake of it and regardless of cultural differences and outcomes. But it’s not a reason to dismiss other alternatives. In France, there is fear of change, of novelty because when you are told that settling is security, anything that unsettles the routine you build for yourself is a threat.

Throughout French history you will look at a schizophrenic country that praises and rises thinkers, philosophes, politicians and critical playwrights but I have the increasing feeling that it’s not because of their message to change, rather more because they were basically saying that “everything was crap!” Such good French they were!

The French are taught to settle down. After 25, that’s it, you made your choices, now you have the right to more or less enjoy it until you die. Changes are bad, they will disrupt your opinions, they will disrespect your decision, they will force you to adapt when you just spent 25 years learning how to be and do that way! How can one expect to survive if things are changing all the time?

When I say “taught”, we are not taught this as such of course, because frankly that would sound whiny and immature so how else do we ensure people feel that way and pass it on? You have to call to the French’s self-righteousness and inherent pleasure to be able to look down on people as if we understood something they have not. So we are not taught, rather made to understand that:

“Children have dreams whereas adults have responsibilities.”

Once we understand it, we understand the meaning of life “French-style” then we can then look down on people who have not yet and so on. The pleasure of feeling superior.

But what does it mean? It means: come with a dream in France, with a will to change things or even just yourself, with hope, desire and ambition to evolve and to make it happen… You will be on your own from start to finish, having to swim against with sharks in endless tides of sneers from everyone: “Here we go, another one with a dream…Little one, it’s time to grow up.” Our behaviour towards hope of a different life is mean-girlish at best. We criticise the “jungle”-view of English capitalism but we are happy to give innovators and risk-takers the same medicine.

This statement will sum up France in every aspect of life and when we talk economic behaviour, it is lethal for the young generations today and it explains why between 30,000 and 100,000 French are moving to Québec every year or that millions of us are longing and looking to leave.

Let’s talk work, for instance, and why it’s impossible for younger people with ideas, concepts and innovation to make it here because it takes time to mature these ideas and it’s quickly “too late”.

In England, when someone told us they wanted to be a teacher, we did not care how old they were or anything. We always helped them:  whoever they were, whence-ever they were coming, whatever time of the year. We did not have to do so but we always let them come in the classrooms, observe, help the kids and we had a genuine, frank conversation about the training, and the goods and the bads of being a teacher. We do it because that’s the way things are (mostly) working in English-speaking countries: you have an ambition to do the same job and you go forward yourself, you came all the way here, opening doors for yourself, so we will help as much as we can. It was not from us to judge whether they would be good teachers or not, they are later performance and hard-work would determine that, not us.

In France, no one will help. First, they will look at you like someone who’s coming to steal their own jobs but mostly it’s because in France, between 20 and 25, you will have made a decision regarding your professional life and what you do at 25 is what you will stop doing at 65. Your life is set in stone at 25. France’s life expectancy is 84 for women. That’s 60 years of unchanged continuity, oh the joy!

If you want it differently, they are no doors so you have to break the walls while everyone shouts negativity at you and drops nails in front of your wheels. If you are a teacher, you will stay a teacher, you have to remain a teacher and if you want to move on, we make you understand that “no one just decides to change career at 30”. Very definite rule of life, isn’t it?

I am not saying other countries are fully open-minded. The ruling classes only see benefits in making sure lower classes don’t realise they are actually free to do whatever they want, but there are different ways to do it, different degrees with which each country is doing it and who is targeted. In France, even when a highly-educated person seeks change and has everything they need to do so, they are still publically called reckless, irresponsible and ridiculed. If you insist, well then, you’re on your own, do not expect anyone to be positive about it, to tell you anything good and encouraging, to help you, not least to accept you.

Then they find it weird that brains are going abroad. “The brain drainage”, they call it as highly skilled people are leaving. Of course, we suffocate here! Incentives are ignored, ideas shrugged aside and entrepreneurial spirit looked at like the plague. There is something wrong with “the changers”, they are up to something.

There are many ways to not “teach you” rather make you understand that you are being childish with all your dreams. The one above when they just tell you straight away that you should grow up and get a job, that’s final. “Aren’t you ashamed of being maintained by your wife?” a friend of mine was said by his in-laws as he tried to change career, or “If you don’t like it, you’re unpatriotic so just leave!”, well that’s constructive! You do feel like a 15-year-old who had just dared throw a tantrum, just to get slapped in the face.

There Is also the soft, wolf in sheep clothing way: A friend of mine told me I was living in a utopia where people could just make decision whenever they want with their lives. Well yeah, we’re not prisoners as far as I know… But she uses “Utopia”, the U word, the ultimate, patronising insult to make her hit-and-run point: crazy people (or children) believe in Utopia whereas sensible people (or adults) are realistic. I’d say “cynical” but it’s a matter of opinion.

Or there is the parental worry: We worry for your future. Recently, I was talking to my uncle who looked at me with that same look most French have given me since I came back and mentioned changing careers. Then he started to lecture me on the need for everyone to have stability in their lives and although he “supported and understood” my decision, he thinks it was “best for me to have stayed in England in my stable job because a job is not everything…”

It’s true that we are hedonists and when it comes to work and making a living, we still like to think gold and silver are for little kids who like shinny things and that the true meaning of life is somewhere else.  But he’s very wrong and somehow I understand why he said that with his two marriages, kids in France and the US, his moving back and forth to France, UK and the two US coasts in the past 20 years. The only stability is his life is his job and that must be terrible to realise that when you’re 57. He was a taught the “school, wed, job, kids and retire”. He is part of the generation that turn your job into your identity but he hates looking at it like.

Today, in modern society, and in France, where private matters shall not define who you are, your identity consists in your name and your job: the who you are and the what you are. You are given your name, no question asked, but you would think that you can have some kind of control on what you are throughout your life.

However to change name in France, you have to have a “good reason” (whatever that means), pay a lot of money, go to court, have your file discussed at length and a panel of judges will decide whether you should be allowed to become Elizabeth instead of Elisabeth. And that will cost you even more afterwards. Well, changing jobs is as difficult.

In France, you have a name and you have a job, you don’t change one or the other. You can lose your job but you have to look for the same one with a different company or/and in a different town. You want change? Look for change in continuity and get a promotion in your own business. “Mind your own business!” is what you will hear when you asked someone else’s about their job if they feel you’re fishing for information about it.

Today, no matter how many times I have to explain that I want to be something else than a teacher, I am still reckless and the relevant people I interact with to make it happen will make sure I see the light of day again: they make it impossible to get a proper training after you’re 16, the job offers will be solely related to your previous job because the websites don’t allow you to apply for jobs that do not fit your CV, and most people will not talk to you and give you advice on their profession because they think you are here to get their job, take their life away and the promise of a life-time of settling down unchallenged.

Thou shall not go after someone else’s wife and thou shall not go after someone else’s job. You made your decision; you chose your own, deal with it!

I am wondering then…How can the French society move on and prosper when it is so rigidly and negatively stubborn in keeping every aspect a status quo? How can a society adapt to a world where technologies and mind-sets change every six month and plan for the future when it is so hateful and distrustful of changes (even positive) and belief in Utopia? How can France possibly move forward where everybody is content with being so little out-going and willing to accept or even just, mildly consider alternatives? How can a country appeal to visionaries when it tells its population that children have dreams whereas adults have responsibilities?

I learn to accept that France is a deeply conservative country built a stone-like society that only rocks when the system becomes too clocked up and explodes. I am not asking France to become as insanely reckless, frivolous and short-sighted as the English-speaking countries. I do like the feeling of long-term decisions and stability because it does give some time to process things.

Nevertheless, I do see France on the other side of the spectrum from the English-speaking world and there are many alternatives to a society that brings up its citizens to expect absolute, blind continuity: what you are and do at 25, you are and do at 65. But what the world is and does in 2014, the world will not be and will not do in 2054.


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