May I be permitted to invoke Tom Wolfe and engage in some light, contemporary, anecdotal comparative cultural anthropology? Americans shoot each other rather frequently, while the French don’t. Pourquoi? Below are some observations on how some res Francaise – customs, culture, logistics, and history – make it less likely there’ll be a shooting in France. It’s not a definitive, scientific, peer-reviewed, all encompassing, statistically significant (Big Data!), empirical dossier, but… I might be on to something…
Also known as traffic circles or round-abouts. Although the average Frenchman drives as if he were sixteen and he just got his license an hour ago, there is one aspect to driving in France where they’ve bested the Americans: traffic circles. Whereas in America traffic lights control most street intersections, in France it is usually the rond-point. Besides being a superior way to keep traffic moving, a rond-point is a a transitory, moving community that in order get someplace, a driver must work with the other drivers, and this learning to work with others is a prophylactic against wanting to shoot people. Traffic intersections in the United States are static, build frustration (and pollution), make a driver less aware of what is going on around him, and keeps him thinking only about himself and how miserable he is. There’s no time for brooding in a rond-point. A French driver emerges from a rond-point perhaps a little stressed from the effort of concentration, but never in a mood to shoot someone.
Topless beaches and topless pools
A Frenchman never feels inclined to shoot his local Parliament-woman in the head if he’s just visited a French beach on a hot summer day or gone for a swim in the nearby fifty meter, outdoor pool. All those tits!
A note about the pools: where I swim in Hyeres, some of the women swim topless, although any disrobing is done discretely, after they’ve entered the pool. Bikini tops are left on the deck next to kick boards and water bottles.
It’s hard for a Frenchman to shoot a child, let alone a whole school full of them, when he’s followed the French custom that when meeting some friends, or even just acquaintances, he must faire la biz – greet with the kiss on each cheek. Human contact goes a long way towards dispelling troublesome moods.
If he’s eaten a particular dish or noticed the cut of a dress against a slender, curvy frame, a disgruntled French worker is less likely to shoot his former boss and former co-workers. Beauty inoculates against violence. While the French can produce ugly as well as Americans, they’ve also a tradition of beauty and elegance that Americans lack.
Beauty comes in many forms: the big stuff, such as the Eiffel Tower or Chartres; the everyday stuff, such as an old Hausman style building or small city decoration; it can be in the presentation of a favorite dish; and, of course, la femme and la mode. Even the gardens and the fireworks and the festivals here all contribute to that quality without a name. A few representative samples are in the gallery below.
Stranger, invader, neighbor, tourist
Americans claim to live in a melting pot, but in France the stew (the cassoulet! the bouillabaisse!) has been cooking for a lot longer. From the early days of the Phoenicians then the Gauls and Romans, through the Franks, and Alemanii, to the more recent influx from the former colonies: Algeria, Viet-Nam, and others – the country is a surprising goulash. A smörgåsbord!
The map offers perspective if not insight. The countries that border the United States are:
- Canada : to the north, mostly English speaking
- Mexico: to the south, Spanish speaking
The countries that border France are (official languages in parenthesis):
- Spain (Spanish, with the following recognized regional languages: Basque, Catalan, Galician, Occitan)
- Italy (Italian)
- Switzerland (German, French, Italian, Romansh)
- Germany (German)
- Luxembourg (French, German)
- Belgium (French, Dutch, German)
Not very far across the water is England (English). To keep things simple I omitted Andorra (Catalan).
All these countries share a heritage: varying degrees of Roman rule followed by Christianity, a little or a lot of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and so on. They’ve also fought each other, invaded each other and been invaded, traded with each other, and exchanged hordes of tourists.
They’ve been around each other a long time, and now, finally, finally, they seem to have worked it out. Most French speak at least one other language, and learning another language is an opportunity for perspective, or at least a chance to sell some lavender and rosé to British tourists or cheese and pâté to the Germans. More broadly, because of France’s location and history (see further below about War), it is in many ways a more mature culture than ours. It is certainly a less violent one.
Somewhat related: within our small circle of friends in La Garde there’s all sorts of nationalities and non-threatening inbreeding: French married to French, French married to Italians, French married to Brazilians (note: Brazil does not border France), French married to Germans, Germans married to Dutch, French married to Americans, and so on. They all seem to get along pretty well, and none own, nor know of anyone, who owns a gun.
Not a lot of guns lying around
A student at a lycee, a high school, might be angry at his fellow classmates, but it’s much harder to get back at them if his dad doesn’t have a pistol or shotgun that he can get a hold of. The French understand that the theory of ‘more guns less violence’ notion has proven as valid as the ‘more cigarettes less cancer’ idea.
Perhaps even more important, and harder to quantify, is what Phillipe Coste refers to as the taboo against violence. He wrote this over at the CNN website. I wish the author had explored more the topic of taboo as being a deterrent to violence, but an article on a website is hardly the place for that.
Not just in France, of course. On a bicycle a rider is out in the world – wind, bugs, rain, and smog – and this requires concentration and effort, both of which keep violent feelings at bay. Bicycles require balance and awareness, and the good feeling brought on by exercise that releases endorphins counteract any desire to shoot up a cinema full of people.
A late afternoon game of boules, with both participants and spectators saturated with pastis, engenders a feeling of peace and harmony, which usually leads to a nap, not a mall shooting.
War and Death versus Myth and Paranoia
But for the Civil War and the Indian Wars, there’s been relatively little systematic violence in the United States. That’s not the case in France. A sampling from French history, starting somewhat late in their history:
- October, 1572 – in Paris French Catholics slaughter thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants).Burning was the preferred method of murder.
- November, 1793 – the first mass execution by drowning in the Loire River are carried out in Nantes in the name of the French Revolution. Eventually more than four thousand civilians would be killed this way. Drownings had the advantage dispatching many victims at the same time (it scales!), whereas a the guillotine created bottlenecks.
- January, 1871, Franco Prussian War – over a three week period 12,000 shells strike inside Paris while the city was besieged by the combined armies of Prussia and the Southern German states.
- 1914 – 1918, World War I – 1.3 million French soldiers are killed.
- June, 1944, World War II – at Oradour-sur Glane the Nazis murder 642 civilian inhabitants, including 247 women and 205 children. In a sad twist of fate, the Nazis had gone to the wrong village: they had meant to go to Oradour-sur-Vayres.
The French have experienced the horror of violence and death first hand – not on some television show or in a movie. It’s better understood outside the United States that the world is a hard, cruel place, and there’s no need to add to it all by acting on some fleeting impulse.