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Never say NON to a Frenchman – everything the Brits should ask, but the French won’t tell

I was brought up and educated in rural France and later spent ten years working in Strasbourg and running my own company for nine years in the Languedoc-Roussillon. During this time I watched as successive waves of English people swept into the country, starry-eyed and mostly without the basic language skills. Those with near-perfect French and international qualifications tended to opt for the big cities. I am concerned with those who tried to settle in the rural areas where houses seemed to be ‘cheap as chips’ until about the year 2000. After renovating their old farm or village houses, often going broke in the process, there followed a shock awakening – work, not even the most menial kind, could be found for non-French speakers – quelle surprise! ‘I can always give English lessons if I get hard up,’ most of them chirped. They deluded themselves that just because they spoke English they could also teach it. The rural population generally do not want their children to be educated by someone who can’t speak French properly, whether they teach English or any other language. They are very attached to their own culture and identity and would like their children to retain both, as far as it is possible, in this interconnected world where all things American seem to dominate youth culture.

Often the man and breadwinner, often in a desk-bound job in the UK until their move, sweated his heart out as he struggled with the rotten beams of their ‘dream house’ and failed to understand that the plumber was trying to tell him that the house was not connected to the sewage system. The mothers searched the large supermarkets for Marmite, marmelade, Bisto and Mother’s Pride – at least here they could avoid speaking French. Meanwhile their children, by making friends in village schools, had turned into consummate French children, to such an extent that after less than a year they did not want their parents to speak to them in English in front of their French school mates. Having made their houses liveable in and in the struggle to get into the French health system, many mothers were driving from one small village to another, stuffing letter boxes with publicity leaflets. The men, who’d had well-paid urban jobs in the UK ended up working on the black as builders on other people’s houses.

After all this time, and seeking the familiarity and comfort of other English people in similar circumstances, the parents still didn’t speak French. They had no idea of what French society and customs were about, couldn’t deal with French bureaucracy and many got into terrible trouble with the taxman. Soon their frustration manifested itself in the well-known, very British point of view – France is beautiful, the houses and the wine are cheap, the weather is good, – if only it wasn’t for these irritating and complicated French. I watched as a couple emerged from the Mayor’s offices, complaining that they had been spoken to in French and had signed some documents of which they could not read a single word. What has not occurred to many is that France is what it is because of the French, because of their lifestyle, their customs, their love for food, and yes, even because of their irritating characteristics. I have met many English who, after the first honeymoon period, begin to complain why things aren’t the same as in England. Needless to say,  the reaction from the French is either a shrug of the shoulders or the simple remark ‘ When in Rome … or ‘no one asked you to come here,’ though they are much too polite to say this to the face of any newcomer.

This blog does not flatter the French, but it allows an insight into what goes on behind French doors and explains why the French do what they do. Anyone dreaming of living the dream in France should be aware that they are moving into a radically different culture and learn about it and embrace it before making an ill-considered move.


Unless you are overcome by an inexplicable urge to sport a nose in the shape of a large marrow and impersonate Charles de Gaulle, NEVER say NON to a Frenchman.

Ever since the Revolution, when farm labourers were freed from surfdom, given a field and three cows and told that from then on it would all be Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité’, they have taken matters literally. They believe themselves to be equal to all and sundry. Their pride individuelle swells their breast as they give their opinion on everything under the sun, whether it is asked for or not. They are, in short excessively sensitive, not to say intolerant, when faced with refusal or criticism.

The French take great offence at the cool honesty which is the common place in countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries. On occasion, when they openly say NON, it is accompanied by a theatrical prologue, a development of the reasons for their refusal in all the philosophical, ethical and moral hues known to man, followed, of course, by an interminable epilogue.

Not much can be said by the average French individual which does not include ce n’est pas de ma faute, it’s not my fault. As a foreigner one could almost think that one has landed in a society of immaculés, in which everyone is an innocent lamb. If he or she has just shot out from a country path onto the main road, smashed your car and landed you in hospital, they will wave an angry fist at you and try and shout you down in order to protect their insurance bonus (most only have third party insurance). If their children have decimated your flower beds by playing football next to your garden, it is your fault for growing flowers within reach of a football. In any case ‘they are only children, Madame. They need to spend their energy’. Yes, you’ve guessed it – the untouchable child, just like in the UK, is alive and well in la belle France too.

In Holland it is acceptable, both socially as well as in the work place to say to someone:’ I don’t like you,’ or ‘I have nothing in common with you, what would we talk about?’ without causing your work colleague to throw him or herself to the floor, hammer the ground with angry fists and howl ‘why does no one love me’ – or run to the top of the building and leap into the void.

Most French individuals would seethe with anger at such open rejection. Rejection is taken very personally, whether it concerns work, food or anything else for that matter. It is perceived as an open affront to personal pride, dignity and most of all, emotive self-love. He or she would therefore, and till the end of their days, harbour a burning ‘rancune’ in his breast. ‘La vengeance’ must be had, so he or she will plot and intrigue against you in order to effect your downfall. All the while, you may continue to be plied with smiles and good humor – a talent which of course was the making of ‘la diplomacie francaise’ over the centuries.