In 2004 my girlfriend (and eventual wife) and I took our first trip to Europe, choosing to spend a few days exploring Paris and Versailles. As someone who reads a great deal about destinations before I travel, I read through some books designed to give outsiders a better understanding of France. What follows are brief reviews on two popular ones, as they relate to their usefulness to the American traveler.
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadea and Julie Barlow
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong often times feels like a Francenstein’s (spelling deliberate) monster. It begins well enough, offering insight into the “spirit” of French society, and indeed gives highly valuable information, especially regarding the French ideas of personal vs. public space, which every visitor should know. However, as the reader nears the middle of the book the work takes on a text-book quality, which becomes dry and redundant. To boost, what the writers pass as an anthropological study seems to be more or less notes taken during conversations with a few of their French friends. Add to this a few glaring inaccuracies, particularly in the last chapter, and by the end one is left wondering what exactly the point of the work was, or who exactly the audience is that it was meant for. Neither assumption of the book’s subtitle was addressed in any sort of clarity. Some more rigorous editing certainly would have strengthened it. I left the book knowing more than I cared to about the ENA, and not enough about the essence of what it means to be French.
French or Foe?: Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France by Polly Platt
Polly Platt’s French or Foe? is a mixture of valuable insight and suggestive pompousness. To give her due credit, the first chapter is full of useful information and essentially contains all that you will need to know from this book. Soon thereafter the book descends into name-dropping and gives all the tips you’d need to know if you were visiting with the upper echelon of French society. Much of what Platt reveals about French culture seems to be outdated and of little relevance to the middle and lower-class French people that a visitor will no doubt actually be coming into contact with.
When I visited Paris I certainly found some of her information useful, such as her recommendation to use “The Ten Magic Words” (again, in the first chapter). Whether many of the French we came across were smiling and accommodating for this reason, I cannot say. Perhaps they were just more sociable than Platt would have us believe. Read this book and you will likely make fewer cultural mistakes in France than you would have if you hadn’t, but read it knowing it is not the last word on French culture, and does not apply to most of the French population.