I think I’m on to something about the French when it comes to this whole notion of correctness and the rules. Yesterday’s post was about the misunderstandings that arise from the way the French follow codes of behaviour understood by them, but not necessarily everyone else.
In France there are rules, regulations and standards galore. This sounds oppressive, and maybe it is. But it may also be what makes the culture so great. Let’s take our daily bread as a humble example. The downstairs baker, like the local cheese vendor, has been recognized as “Meilleur Ouvrier en France”. He makes a damned fine baguette in his boulangerie-artisanal, a type of operation that is completely controlled in terms of its recipes, ingredients, and products. This government regulation is fairly recent – a decade or so old – and came about when the classic approaches were giving way to frozen breads, concocted off-site. Rather than see their treasured baguette globalized and out-sourced, the authorities stepped in and a great tradition continues.
Paris, this most beautiful of cities is nothing if not standardized. We all know the look.
Here are some examples of what I see from my desk – the beige-coloured stones, the wrought iron work, rows of French windows – the vocabulary of Paris buildings for hundreds of years. It’s all standardized, down to the colour of your front door. I recognize the Paris I am living in when I look at 19th century paintings of the city.
All we need do is change the clothes and switch out the coaches for cars and these paintings would be accurate depictions of Paris streets in 2014.
It is not a coincidence that nothing in central Paris has changed and that nothing is ugly. Nothing is permitted to be ugly. Even the gas pumps are banished underground, because a filling station is just too ugly a thing for citizens to look at. Even the glass of wine I am sipping is the result of a vintner following the rules of the appellation to the letter. The French are very, very good at creating beauty, creating deliciousness, and then they insist upon it. They believe there is a correct way to do things and once they arrive at that correct way, that is it.
I could go on. In French high school, my daughter was taught the one permissable way to take notes: subject title written in blue ink, underlined twice in red ink, subtitle, underlined once in red, notes follow,dictated by teacher. In the arts, the Salon system had the creation and marketing of fine art locked up tight in a control that began with the artist’s enrollment in the Institut de Beaux Arts, a rigid and formulaic program in which the artist copied works endlessly before being allowed any self-expression at all. He (women were not accepted) must then compete for prizes, and win them, if he were to have a great future. The painter David despaired of winning the Prix de Rome and wanted to kill himself after his third failed attempt (he won on the fourth). Then, throughout his career, the artist must submit his works to a jury for selection in the great art show, the Paris Salon. There were no independent art dealers until the very end of the century, and tellingly, that started first in London
It all seems so exhausting, doesn’t it? Not to mention repressive. Is France a sort of OCD nation, obsessively and compulsively creating and enforcing elaborate, and neurotic, rules? Yes (see evidence above), and also No, because France is also very good at Revolution and when they shrug off their bonds and go crazy in the name of liberty they do it with a vengeance. Consider these Heads of Kings, ripped off the facade of Notre Dame because rioting citizens could no longer bear the thought of authority.
I’m glad that the French have rules that are creating such a great quality of life for me and my husband in our Paris home. But in a way, I feel bad for the French, having to be under such pressure all the time. Do you know what I mean?