When a foreign correspondent takes up a new posting, he or she starts by diligently following the national media, going to every press conference that is listed, befriending people who might be in any way useful, and in this way gradually gets going. What takes longer to acquire and is more valuable is the knowledge that comes from the experience of everyday life.
That is what gives depth to the work of John Lichfield, The Independent's Paris correspondent. As Mr Lichfield says in his introduction to his new book, Our Man in Paris (Signal Books), which collects together pieces he has written for this newspaper during the past 13 years, "readers responded far more often to a diary column about how my kids were dealing with the French school system... or my wife's discovery of a forgotten gallery in the Musée d'Orsay" than to any hard-hitting, ground-breaking news articles. Observing French schools and French kids, Mr Lichfield says, has given him more insight into France and Frenchness than a host of briefings in the world of official politics.
Which items of French news would readers find interesting this week, for instance? That there were substantially fewer traffic accidents in France during 2010 than the previous year, yes; that the Socialist Party leaders are quarrelling about the merits of the 35-hour week legislation they introduced when they were last in power, no. Yet, wonders Mr Lichfield, wasn't I "breaking the first rule of news journalism by trying to describe the ordinary rather than the extraordinary?" But it is often the ordinary that puzzles most of all. Why, I have often wondered, are the French such dangerous drivers?
Mr Lichfield doesn't answer this one, but he turns to another interesting question: are the Parisians particularly rude? They are widely said to be so. Mr Lichfield gives a number of examples. As a matter of fact, I think the French get off to a an excellent start, so far as good manners are concerned, with their use of "Monsieur" and "Madame" when addressing people they don't know well. In English discourse, "Sir" and "Madam" have limited use, whereas their equivalents in French are on everybody's tongues. I like this French habit; it is polite, respectful and invariable.
We must also take into account the usual tension between very big cities and their neighbours. If Parisians are widely regarded by the rest of their country as rude, then so are Londoners and New Yorkers. A degree of rudeness comes with the territory.
In London I push through groups of tourists on the grounds that the right of way belongs to us who work in the city. This dreadful habit is anaspect of the cult of "fast living" to which capitals and others like them are particularly susceptible. A recent survey showed that in London, 60 per cent of men claim to work a 60-hour week. And women, with family commitments as well as jobs, now have only roughly 50 minutes of "me" time a day, and typically finish the housework at 10.30pm. If Londoners are rude, it is because they are harassed. New York and Paris are the same.
Mr Lichfield would say, I think, that this clears the Parisians of blame a little too easily. For he and his wife, Margaret, have been observing how the French behave from the age of two years upwards. In a passage in one of Mr Lichfield's reports that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it 10 years ago, he wrote: "French children, especially upper middle class children, do not know how to play with other children; they are not encouraged to be civilised with other children; they are encouraged to be assertive and rudely independent, except in the home. From the age of two, they are trained in self-advancement, self-assertion and extreme competitiveness."
The key phrase here is "upper middle class" or educated middle class. In France many of the children of these families go to the so-called grandes écoles, provided they can pass demanding written and oral exams. These elite institutions are small, with 3,000 students at the most. When you pass out from one of them, you are publicly ranked in order of excellence one after the other. Graduating from these écoles is the high road taken by most of France's high-ranking civil servants, politicians and executives, as well as many of its scientists and philosophers. Critics say this method turns out a nation of literate and argumentative people, full of self-esteem but with little sense of enterprise, except, maybe, as Mr Lichfield remarks, how to get the last seat on the bus.
One could ask what is so special about France in this respect. Exactly the same phenomenon can be found in the United States and it has helped to engender a much stronger anti-elite feeling than has been the case thus far in France. As Scott Rasmussen, one of the shrewdest observers of the Tea Party movement, puts it: the elites in Washington and affluent communities across America are seen as living in a different world. Not only have they been isolated from the hardship of the Great Recession; many of them have in fact grown richer. They continue to be upwardly mobile, to send their children to expensive and exclusive schools, and to believe that the country is heading generally in the right direction. "They trust government and financial elites to solve America's problems, because they themselves belong to this exclusive social subset."
Nor is Britain exempt from this elite class system. The educational background of the members of the Coalition Government and of the Labour front bench is identical in every respect. It is overwhelmingly Oxbridge, with a disproportionate reliance on a single degree course taught at Oxford: the famous PPE, philosophy, politics and economics.
Mr Lichfield, however, adds one more element to the mix that is absent from American and British life: an extended family system of social relations. The Protestant, Anglo-Saxon mind has always been uneasy with this concept, preferring as it does a world in which only merit counts. "France operates through overlapping networks of friends, or cronies or clients," he writes "who have known each other for years and take their relationships seriously... There is an attitude of 'look after yourself and your close clan, the state is there to look after the rest'." In all three countries, the ruling class is arrogant and patronising; in France it may also be, if not rude, then at the very least brusque with people outside the magic circle.