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Is the French obsession with "cultural exception" declining?
Have you ever been to France and tried to speak English with French people once you were there? If you have, I'm sure you noticed how bad French people are at foreign languages and their reluctance to make any sort of efforts. Trust me, this is not just about English, it's with any language. Even if Europe speaks English and the rest of the world speaks English, France keeps on speaking French and is completely oblivious to what the rest of the world is up to. In fact, it is not just due to the failure of the school system, it has deeper cultural roots than that.
French people are so attached to their "exception culturelle" (cultural
exception) that they keep on fighting against the creeping invasion of
English like Asterix against the Roman invasion. In fact Asterix is a
great example of French identity: his popularity may be partly due to his
brave and eternal resistance to shelter his village from invasions.
Culturally speaking it is a point of national pride: the French
exception has to be protected from the English temptation exactly like
Asterix’ village from the Roman invasion. French singers sing in
French, foreign films have to be dubbed and English words cannot be used in advertising unless they are translated.
French language is so important that France is the only country to have an "Académie" to protect and update it properly. The "Académie Française" is in fact composed of forty members, known as "immortels" (immortals) who act as the official authority on the French language. The President of France himself is its protector and grants his approval for each new member. Since 1763 they published dictionaries which are regarded as official... It’s a very serious thing and as French culture has come under increased pressure with globalisation, the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicisation of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended that some loan words from English (such as walkman, software and email) be avoided, in favour of words derived from French (baladeur, logiciel, and courriel respectively). Could you imagine such an organisation in the UK or in the United States? That’s the reason why all the French-speaking communities in the world are united in a strong cultural organisation called the "Francophonie" who defends the French speaking culture all over the world.
However it doesn't explain why French people are so concerned about their cultural exception. Let's not forget that France, not so long ago, used to be the cultural centre of the world. For centuries French was "de rigueur" for diplomacy and that until the First World War. During the 18th century French was spoken all over the world and during the colonization, France had assigned itself some sort of a "civilizing mission". Moreover France was the birthplace of the Age of Enlightenment, the Human Rights... Considering this, there is no surprise that French people feel a kind of superiority complex, culturally speaking. That's why in France it is so often referred to the "exception culturelle": French people want to emphasise their superiority especially facing the Anglo-Saxon culture and its creeping invasion. This will is really strong today since French has became only the 12th most widely spoken language. Such a decline which produces such a narcissistic scathe. That could explain why France is so hostile to Anglo-Saxon culture and especially anti-American. De Gaulle is the perfect embodiment for this French characteristic which is still deep established in French identity.
Moreover let’s remind that France and the United Kingdom are historic rivals and enemies. For French people, speaking English now is like being occupied again, like during the Hundred Years’ War and burning Joan of Arc again. Admittedly it’s quite a strong metaphor but history has a strong influence on the psychology of a country. Both of these feelings of pride and rivalry have left their mark on the French collective unconscious.
Moreover nobody takes culture more seriously than the French: culture has a ministry of its own, a lot of governments subsidies are allocated to French artists... Nowadays even the French law protects this cultural exception as a guaranty of cultural diversity which is menaced by the American industry. For example there are some quotas on broadcasting: since 1994, 40 per cent of the radio programming during the peak listening time has to be in the French. Such a protectionist step! It is easy to understand why some strong critics came out: French cultural exception is regarded as an illegitimate way to protect a declining culture unable to resist in the new global world. Last year the Times wrote an article about the "Death of French Culture" explaining that government cultural subsidies only lead to mediocrity and that protectionism impedes export. The article argued that French cultural prestige would not come back with political measures but only with some new imaginative artists who could cross borders.
However this year, Sebastien Tellier who represented France at the
Eurovision song contest sang in English whereas “franglais” is emerging
more and more in advertising and everyday language. More and more
French singer write in English to have a larger audience and some
French films are shot in English. For example “Taken” is directed by
the French Pierre Morel, co-written by the French Luc Besson but it is
shot in English. Even Le Monde concedes " The children of globalisation
are giving up writing in French". Does this mean French people have
finally understood that French is not a global language any more? Such
Moreover it seems to have a real political will to improve the French level in English and a huge political standing back from the traditional Anti-Americanism. The current French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in fact pro-American and in favour of globalisation.
That is really annoying for the French intellectual elite who is extremely worried about the end of its exceptional nature. However French cultural exception will not disappear so fast. In fact it seems that there are dreams above all: Xavier Darcos, minister of Education recently promised that all pupils would go out of compulsory school bilingual! Sweet dream which is not going to be fulfilled so quickly since French students are very, very bad at foreign language and since French resistance to the Anglo-Saxon culture is really deep established. Even if French people turn out to be less resistant to Anglo-Saxon culture and language, they keep their own view on culture.
So, British people, even if French people will stay chauvinistic and
even sometimes arrogant, get ready to hear their cute accent and, before making fun of them, let's hear yours in French!