John Lichfield: Nothing French about fraternity

The casual rudeness which foreigners associate with the French is mostly the fault of the Parisians
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The Independent Online

Of all the reforms launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, this may be the most overdue and the most likely to fail. He wants the French to be nicer to one another.

In an otherwise dull New Year television address, Mr Sarkozy said that he wanted "2010 to be the year in which we give new meaning to the beautiful word 'fraternity', which is part of the motto of our Republic".

The cheek of the man. Two months ago, President Sarkozy launched – or had launched in his name – a "great debate on national identity". His intention, explained to his political troops in private, was to foment a red-blooded (or red-white-and-blue blooded) argument on patriotism and immigration that would embarrass the Left before awkward regional elections taking place in March.

The debate has instead embarrassed Mr Sarkozy, dislodging a land-slip of simplistic, quasi-racist and anti-Islamic views within the president's centre-right party. Mr Sarkozy made no reference to "national identity" in his New Year TV address. His discovery of the word "fraternité" has been interpreted by the French media as an attempt to call the debate to order.

In doing so, he has inadvertently raised an important question on French identity, as seen by foreigners. How is it that a nation which commits itself officially to "fraternité" is so unpleasant, off-hand, selfish or simply rude in its day-to-day dealings with other people, whether French or foreign?

When I came to France 13 years ago, I was determined to avoid the kind of facile "frog-bashing" stories that is found in, hem-hem, some parts of the British media. Before I go on, therefore, I would like to pay tribute to the many noble aspects of French "identity": its art de vivre; its sense of humour; its love of abstract thought; the value that the French place on friendship, which partly explains why strangers are treated like dirt.

I would also like to point out that the casual rudeness and nastiness which foreigners associate with the French is mostly the fault of the Parisians (but does occur elsewhere). In my time in France, I have come across several examples of random kindness: the gendarmerie sergeant who drove me 10 miles to my house in Normandy after I stupidly lost a hire-car key; the shepherd's daughter who led me in her car for 30 miles through Alpine roads and tracks to find her father high in a Massif near Grenoble; an entire Metro platform of Parisians who waited patiently for 20 minutes while my daughter's friend's runaway shoe was recovered from between the tracks.

In the pursuit of honesty and truth, however, I must also report the following recent incident outside a French mainline railway station. A friend with a broken ankle and on crutches needed a taxi home. The first taxi refused to take her and three companions on the grounds that he never took "handicappés". The second refused to take her because, he said, "crutches damage my paintwork". As my friend was hobbling towards a third taxi, she overheard a woman say to her daughter: "quick you can beat her, she is on crutches."

Could those things only happen in France? No. Is one surprised to hear that they happened in Paris? No. President Sarkozy is right. It is time that France gave "new meaning to the beautiful word 'fraternity'." One suspects, however, that the president's crusade will not get him very far.