France may choose its battles carefully, but it is not a nation of surrender. (Christophe Petit Tesson / Pool/EPA)
France sees itself as playing a unique role in the world as a “beacon for humanity,” as former president Jacques Chirac put it. Yet, that role is not always one it finds easy to fulfill. France’s past and present reveal a complex saga of aspirations and disappointed hopes, from the revolution of 1789 to the present morosité (a despairing, very French species of gloom) gripping the land that gave the world la joie de vivre. These contradictions may help explain the persistent myths surrounding the nation and people of France, among them these five.
MYTH NO. 1
France is succumbing to far-right nationalism.
Before this year’s presidential election, Vox warned that Emmanuel Macron, a liberal centrist candidate, is “France’s best hope against a far-right takeover,” and the Los Angeles Times wondered whether France would be “the next domino to fall in the far right populist movement.” The Nation likewise worriedthat Brexit would empower France’s far-right National Front. Most of these concerns were based on the alarming popularity of National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Those worries now look overblown, though Le Pen’s rise has undoubtedly changed the political landscape.
In the first round of voting, on April 23, Le Pen won 21 percent of the vote, well down from her opinion poll standing of 28 percent at the start of the year. Now, Le Pen seems bound to be defeated by Macron in the second round of balloting. Meanwhile, her party has only two of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, and it failed to gain control of any of the regional councils in elections in 2015. Le Pen has made the National Front a major player in French politics, but thus far that does not mean the country of the revolution of 1789 is being swept away by right-wing nationalism. Rather, it simply suggests that a lot of French citizens are unhappy and looking for standard-bearers for radical change.
MYTH NO. 2
French unions are extremely powerful.
In a Washington Post column about the rise of Macron in the French presidential polls, commentator Fareed Zakaria noted Macron’s success in a “country often defined by its strong labor unions.” Indeed, France is commonly conceived of this way: In 2014, the Economist endeavored to explain “why French trade unions are so strong,” a perception perhaps related to the frequent demonstrations carried out by unions in the nation’s streets.
French unions are certainly noisy: Their protests are famous for shutting down cities and even, on occasion, winning concessions from politicians. But despite their penchant for public displays, French unions are rather weak and show no signs of growth. In France,less than 8 percentof workers are unionized — a lower rate than in the United States, Britain or Germany . In addition, French unions are divided into three main competing factions, and the political parties associated with them — the Communists and the Socialists — are in decline, with Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon earningonly 6.4 percent of the votein the recent election. While French unions once had quite a bit of pull thanks to membership numbers and affiliations with strong political parties, both of those sources of power are on the downslide.
MYTH NO. 3
The French tend to surrender in conflicts.
“Since World War II,” Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid proclaimed in 2009, France “and its army have been seen by many as standard-bearers for surrender, cowardice and military ineptitude.” In 2015, the Spectator’s Toby Young chastised the French for their alleged “reliance on British and American men to protect them from murderous fascists.” And “The Simpsons” famously labeled them “cheese-eating surrender monkeys. ”
But while the French may choose their battles carefully, they’re no cowards: Recently, for example, French forces have been deeply involved in fighting extremists in Africa and the Middle East. In 2012, French troops went into Malito hold back an Islamist advance there, followed by operations in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. France has also been the Western nation most involved in combating the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. It has intervened to try to bring stability in the Central African Republic and took a leading role in the intervention in Libya, where its special forces are still fighting terrorism. Likewise, the French Foreign Legion — renowned for its strength and bravery — is still active globally.
France began air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq in 2014, followed by missions in Syria. In fact, President François Hollande was ready to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria after its use of chemical weapons in 2013 — but was held back by the refusal of the Obama administration to do so.
MYTH NO. 4
The French arenot obese.
All across the Web, articles promise the secret to French slenderness. One guide discloses “how French women eat rich and stay slim”; an article on WebMD offers the down-low on “how the French stay slim”; another, on a beauty and fashion site, explains “how French women stay slim without even trying.” The French are ranked by the World Health Organization as the 122nd fattest nation in the world.
But they are getting heavier. The latest statistics show that 25 percent of French adults have a body mass index of 30 or greater, more than in Germany and Italy (20 and 21 percent respectively) but behind the United States and Britain (34 and 28 percent). The same data showed that the incidence of obesity in French women in 2014 was 24 percent and almost as much among men.
How to explain expanding French waistlines? Nutritionists blame fast food and the spread of sedentary office work. More and more, food is prepared in factories or industrial kitchens rather than being carefully made at home. Snacks with fattening ingredients are increasingly common, and the tradition of the leisurely lunch, with time to digest and perhaps a walk afterward, has given way to sandwiches at the desk for many office workers. In 2013, fast-food purchases accounted for 54 percent of all restaurant sales in France, overtaking traditional restaurant sales for the first time. The government has claimed some success in a campaign against obesity in children, which researchers have linked to poverty and inequality.
MYTH NO. 5
The French drink a lot of alcohol.
France can lay claim to some of the finest wines in the world — and equally to a reputation for copious imbibing. “The French tradition,” as author Herbert Fingarette described it, is “drinking frequently throughout the day, always remaining somewhat under the influence but rarely becoming visibly drunk.” The same notion appears to have made Food & Wine’s wine editor, Lettie Teague, imagine that her habit of drinking between two glasses and a half-bottle of wine per night would make her “a lightweight” compared with the French.
Yet in recent decades, young French people have been switching to soft drinks instead of wine and spirits. Wine consumption has plummeted in the past 40 years. In 1980, more than half of French adults were consuming wine on a near-daily basis. By the beginning of this decade, that figure had fallen to 17 percent, while 38 percent did not drink wine at all. The acreage of vineyards is now greater in China than in France, though France remains ahead in actual production. It ranks 18th in the world in alcohol consumption per inhabitant — pretty modest, compared to its reputation.