Settling in France

To get the most out of your life in France, it helps to understand some of the local customs, suggests Peter-Danton de Rouffignac...

As an Englishman with a French name, working in the property business, I am often asked by potential clients if I can help them find a property in a particularly friendly village or town, where they will be able to integrate with their neighbours. Never quite sure what this entails, I decided to ask the advice of a French man, my good friend and colleague Cedric Alessandri.Cedric, 28, is descended from Italian grandparents but is a true southern Frenchman, born in Bordeaux and now living in Perpignan. He is an up-andcoming writer and composer of modern poetry, and was as puzzled by me by this peculiarly British concern.So, when the British ask me how best they can integrate with the French, what sort of advice did he think I should give them?“Everyone is different,” Cedric observes, “so as a result everyone has their own approach. The most important thing is to make an effort and try to speak at least some basic French. A Frenchman who goes abroad will buy a dictionary and do his best to get by. I realise that French is not picked up in a week or even a month, but there are certain words and phrases you should learn out of politeness.“Another thing I would stress is that France is divided into two distinct halves – in the north politeness is expected less but smiles are more common. Here in the south, politeness is important but not so much the smile!”But even in the south, some new arrivals complain of a certain indifference towards them from their French neighbours, I pointed out.“Here we come back to the question of language,” Cedric points out. “A Frenchman who finds himself surrounded by a dozen people who only speak English, he too will not grasp what is being said. Those who don’t try to speak a little French and to understand local customs and manners will find themselves up against a wall of indifference – not a lack of politeness, something they may not even be aware of. For example, you should never walk into a shop or bar where there are other people without addressing a general bonjour.”So the rules of the game are fairly complicated?“Not at all,” Cedric stresses. “It’s simply that it takes time for connections to be made. You won’t be invited into a Frenchman’s home simply because you are the new neighbour! You have first to make eye contact. That plus a nice smile and the game is almost won. French people are very open and love it when they feel someone is taking an interest in them. A little later, you can move to the next stage. Following on from the customary polite Hello, how are you?’ comes the handshake. From this point on you may be invited to join your new friend for a glass of wine. It is not an obstacle course. If you are polite, you are almost there.”Ah, I said, realising how after seven years in France, I find the English approach sometimes a little direct – for example coming straight out with a question without even saying Bonjour, monsieur’.“Well, that’s because you have become attuned to the French way of life and local customs,” Cedric counters. “Here we always begin a request with a phrase like Bonjour, I am sorry to trouble you… May I ask you something?’ And always, always say thank-you afterwards. That is most important.”Tu or vous?We British seem to have a problem deciding whether we should use the more formal vous’ or the more familiar tu’ and when we can stop addressing someone as monsieur or madame and start using their name. I put this to Cedric.“Using the familiar tu’ or toi’ is a mark of recognition which we French do not easily adopt,” he explains. “As a result, we never use this form when addressing someone for the first time. But if someone introduces himself by his first name, he is inviting you to use it. In every other case, always use monsieur or madame or, in the case of a young lady – say under 30 – mademoiselle. You judge each situation as it arises and based on how well you know the person. In some offices, people still address each other as monsieur or madame after years of working together, though that is changing, especially among the young. I also have friends who always address their mother-in-law as madame, never ever by her first name!”Kissing cousinsCedric and I are close friends and he has taught me that it is normal for us to kiss each other – twice on each cheek – every time we meet and when we part. I have become quite comfortable with this and over the years it has extended to members of his family and a lot of the friends he has introduced me to. Some of my British neighbours are still fazed by this, so I turned once more to my expert for guidance.“You must accept that the French are more tactile and very intimate with their friends,” he explains. “The French regard a close friend rather like a brother, a member of a small closed group. Many friendships go back a long way, to school or even the nursery where we grew up together. Kissing is very important in France but it is reserved for those who really count, someone you can rely on in a crisis. If a Frenchman kisses you – on the cheek, that is – it is a sign of their respect for you. Whether you kiss twice, three or four times varies according to different regions, but here in the south, twice is for acquaintances, perhaps even business colleagues, whereas four is for family and close friends.”The closeness of the French family and friends seems to imply a certain indifference or even hostility to outsiders, I suggested, even a certain anarchy when it comes to rules and regulations, and respect for other people.“It’s true, we tend to lack discipline,” Cedric concedes, “and we’ll generally only obey those rules that we find appropriate. The problem is that there is often little risk of being caught and prosecuted, and as a result people get away with it. In Britain you are much stricter about applying rules, for example about smoking, which favour non-smokers over smokers. No wonder British people are surprised by what they find in France. In the land of politeness, respect for others ends where my personal freedom begins!”Made to be broken? One law that seems to be ignored is that regarding dogs and the mess they are allowed to make everywhere.Cedric agrees. “French people love their dogs, treating them like part of the family. Up to this point they are like the English. The real problem is letting their dogs make a mess everywhere. Sadly, the French have little respect for their surroundings, and expect someone else to clear up after them, which is why we pay such high taxes. There is also the question of personal cleanliness, so instead of cleaning up the dog’s mess they prefer to leave the streets soiled. You can draw a conclusion here, that the French respect themselves more than they do other people.”I pointed out to Cedric that this lack of respect for others seems to manifest itself in other ways, such as the number of strikes and stoppages we see in France. Certain small groups seem to go on strike to win some benefit for themselves, with no thought for the consequences for other people whose lives are inconvenienced.“The right to strike is embedded in French law,” Cedric explains. “Every Frenchman is a subversive at heart and to get what he wants he will impose his strike action on other people. This he does naturally. I am a protester at heart, even over little things.”But perhaps the worst example of rule breaking and lack of concern for others is the way many French drive their cars. The result is double the rate of deaths and injuries than in Britain and even attacks on the newly installed speed cameras.“No Frenchman would tolerate the amount of surveillance you find in Britain. The Frenchman considers himself free to lead his life as he pleases, and that includes the way he drives his car! Regrettably, this can be at the risk of maiming and killing other people, something I deplore.”I suggested to Cedric that this lack of concern for others can extend to what we British would call good neighbourliness. I remember politely remonstrating with someone in my apartment block who insisted on drilling and banging at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, on the grounds that this was not a reasonable time and was unfair to the other residents. “But I’ve got to finish it,” was his reply. Is this attitude typical, I asked Cedric?“We generally tolerate noise up to 10pm. After that, it’s not considered acceptable,” he replied. “But as we say here, everyone’s midday is when they think it is! Which means again that everyone leads their life according to his own rules’.A final word of advice, I asked Cedric. “Well, it’s obvious that French culture is very different from Anglo-Saxon, and new arrivals need to acknowledge these few rules of conduct, without perhaps imitating them! There is no single style nor any wish to impose one. But observing others and understanding local manners and customs will help you to enjoy your new life in France.”Peter-Danton de Rouffignac runs Relocation66 and www.france mediterraneanproperty.com