What You Wanted to Know About the French

By Robert Korengold

French flagEvery few years some publication or polling or statistical institution in France produces a statistics-based report about the French, what they’re like, how they think, how they live and how their country is doing overall.

This year, quick off the mark, the French news weekly Le Point has just published a perceptive 50-page portrayal of the nation and its inhabitants that not only abounds with statistics—110 of them from a variety of respected sources—but includes a bevy of analyses from some of France’s most eminent personalities.

Not surprisingly, on its cover, Le Point starts off by noting that the French are insolent and chronic complainers, a judgment easily shared by anyone with experience in France or with the French.

But as the magazine’s report continues, it depicts a country and people that abound with so many attributes, exasperations and contradictions that the only way to sum it up is “fascinating.”

Le Point undertook its portrait of the nation and its citizens to mark the publication on January 13th of its 2,000th weekly edition since the magazine’s first appearance in 1972. On its cover it welcomed its readers into what it called the “astonishing meanderings of the extremely agitated minds of the French.”

Hard to argue with that. Here are just a few samples of the magazine’s revelations.

Some statistics to start:

In general the French get married at about the age of 28 and start having children just a couple of years later.  Although 40 percent of the marriages in France end in divorce, the nation’s birth rate of 2.02 children per family is the highest in Europe.

Sexual relations for a French man usually begin at about age 17. Although homosexuality is more or less accepted, gays number only about 4 percent of French males and couples of the same sex still cannot adopt children.

Women account for about 52 percent of the French population and, although more boys are born each year than girls, women outlast their male counterparts and can expect now to have a life span of about 82 years, about 5.5 years more than was expectable 40 years ago.

Women represent 75 percent of those employed in the sociio-profeessional classes but only 8.9 percent of  senior management positions. Generally, women are paid about 20 percent less than men for the same jobs.

In on-the-job terms, the French, at only 1,564 hours annually, work many fewer hours than Americans, 1,804, or Japanese, 1,784.

On the other hand, the French are very productive workers, narrowly edged out in the European Union only by the Irish and Danes.

Oddly enough, the French earn that distinction despite an annual average of 40 days of vacation and official holidays plus a drop-of-the-hat tendency to go out on strike (132 striking days a year for every thousand workers).

In addition, with the French life span constantly rising and roughly one third of the country’s work force employed by the government, whose official retirement age was just recently inched up from 60 to 62 amid much national protest, the French worker, who used to have about 14 years of retirement before passing away, now can expect to have more than 18.

In religious terms, 64 percent of  the French consider themselves Catholics but only 4.5 percent of those who do so regularly go to church on Sunday.

As one would expect in a country so noted for its cuisine, the French pass a lot of their time eating, drinking and looking down on the oh-so-American sandwich lunch. But habits are changing. French alcohol consumption, mostly wine, per person has dropped by more than one third since 1970 according to Le Point’s latest statistics, although the French still are edged out narrowly in Europe in that respect by the Irish.

Is France still the largely agriculturally-based country it used to be a bit more than half a century ago, when roughly a fourth of its citizens made their living directly or indirectly from the farm? Not so, according to Le Point’s statistics, which note that the French population engaged in agriculture dropped from 27 percent in 1954 to only 3.5 percent in 2005.

But does agriculture still weigh heavily in the French mind and in French politics? Pretty much so, according to Le Point, which reminds that villages and communities amounting to only 34.4 percent of the national population still are represented by 49.5 percent of the nation’s senators.

Big French cities with populations of more than 100,000 receive less representation. Their citizens represent some 15.2 percent of the national population but are represented by only 7.2 percent of the country’s senators.

Enough statistics already. What do the magazine’s respected commentators have to say about the French?

Oddly but perhaps understandably in this period of global economic downturn, most of them focus not so much on the nation’s glorious history of monarchies, revolutions, wars and colonies won and lost or its hard-to-match literary and artistic heritage but on problems the French currently see all around them.

Perhaps the most illustrious commentator cited, former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, best put his finger immediately on the issue almost all referred to in one way or another. That, he pointed out, is the tendency of the French to look gloomily at their world today compared to their images of historical French global eminence in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

Up until 1870, Giscard reminds, France was the most populous and one of the most powerful countries in Europe with a language spoken and considered essentially universal by the continent’s cultured classes.

However, with the exception of an economically bustling period from 1956 to 1980, Giscard claims, the French now view their nation and its influence as being on a downward slide. That doesn’t make them happy but it does make them petulant and recriminatory, particularly against their own politicians.

According to Le Point, Giscard is pretty much on target. To back him up the magazine cites a recent European Community official poll claiming that 39 percent of the French accord confidence to the European Union. Conversely, they give only 25 percent of their confidence to their own government and only 36 percent to their own parliament.

To sum up, the magazine judges, sadly, that the French are born pessimists, more so than even citizens of war-battered countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, they cling to what they have and by reflex are strongly resistant to any kind of change.

However, Le Point also holds out a balancing ray of hope. Despite all those dark clouds over their heads, the magazine says, the French remain very happy amid their families and friends, around their dinner tables and on their vacations and long weekends.

Besides, they do have that great food, beautiful scenery and awesome monuments. No wonder so many non-French think, rightly, that France is a great place to visit.

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