Now that I’ve lived in France for three years, I have some interesting observations about the HUGE differences between France and America. Most of these differences I would not have expected before coming, when I was seeing things as a tourist or outsider. I have actually been surprised by them. I won’t address the obvious things like cuisine, medical systems, or the cafe culture, etc. Everyone knows those. I’ll write about the ones you may not be aware of as an outsider. Please keep in mind that this is being written in 2010 and I’m sure my views will evolve over time.
Please take these with a grain of salt – they are generalizations based on my observations, experiences and conversations with French people (like my husband and his family and my French friends). I recognize that a lot of what I write will be controversial and may be even offensive to both the French and Americans, but since it’s my opinion and my blog, I’m writing it and you can take or leave it, as you like.
1. A word you’ll hear constantly in France is ‘solidarity.’ It basically means banning together to help each other fight for what they want both as individuals and as a group. That the collective is more important and more powerful than the individual. In contrast, in America it is the individual who matters and how that individual can effect changes. The French believe that you must act as a group and fight for what you want as a collective. To better the world requires group action. Americans on the other hand have a strong sense of the power of the individual. We believe that an individual can make a huge difference in the world – be a hero, discover a cure, build a fortune, better a community, or change the world. We believe strongly that what we do as individuals matters immensely. If we want to change something, then we sue as individuals instead of act as groups. We also have a deeply engrained sense of sacrifice – sacrifice for your family, for you community, for your country. And we have a deep belief in personal responsibility and that our individual actions really matter. In my limited experience, I have not seen a lot of evidence of these same beliefs in France – for the French it is the collective action that ultimately makes a difference.
2. Being an entrepreneur is the ‘highest calling’ in the U.S. – something many people aspire to. Being an entrepreneur in France is what you do if you are desperate and cannot get a ‘real job.’ It’s what pathetic people do (which makes me very pathetic). This is changing some now with the introduction of the auto-entrepreneur business status. Interestingly enough, being a bureaucrat is what a high percentage of the youth aspire to.
3. Americans value innovation, newness, creativity, ‘thinking outside the box.’ Standing out from the crowd is highly valued. In France, conformity to societal norms and centuries old traditions are what’s valued. Believing the same thing and standing up for the same things are the goal. A perfect example is that in the U.S. you don’t have to speak a word of English to get your Green Card and you can take your drivers license test in LA in probably 100 languages. In France, you can’t get your long-term Carte de Sejour without speaking adequate French and attending an ‘integration into French society’ all day class. The French can be chauvinistic about their culture. If you move to France, you’re expected to act French, live French, think French, dress French, speak French, integrate in France, and follow the ‘French culture’ rules. Breaking the rules is not well tolerated.
4. American English is always changing – we add, delete, create new words all the time. English is a fusion language – throw in as many creative and new words as possible and we’re fine with that. Our culture is not tied to our language. In contrast, the French language cannot be separated from the French culture. In fact, it is the cornerstone of the French culture. They hold onto it like a beacon in a storm. It is why many French have little tolerance for people who don’t speak their language well, particularly if you live in their country (so if you have a hearing disability like me, you’re screwed).
5. Americans see government as a necessary evil. The less, the better. They don’t want government in their lives or telling them what to do. In France, government is seen as the caretaker, maybe even the big brother or papa. Government cradles them through life and, for the most part, does a damn good job of it. If government gets out of line as the French see it, they demonstrate, strike and fight to get government back in line, doing what they want it to do. The level of involvement and authority the government has in the average French person’s life would not be tolerated by Americans. Socialism, for most Americans, is a dirty word and even placed in the same category as Communism, which shows our ignorance since the two do not share much in common.
6. The French vote – 85% of them vote! And the French fight for what they want with strikes and demonstrations. The Americans don’t vote – only about 55% of them vote, even for Presidential elections. Not since the 1960′s to the early 1980′s (my generation) have the Americans fought for change and a better country. We have become remarkably apathetic and willing to take whatever crap is dished out. While I do get irritated with the amount of demonstrating the French do, I do admire it to some degree and wish Americans did more of it.
7. Americans, for the most part, take personal responsibility for their failures, sometimes to the extreme. They will blame themselves if their business or career fails or if anything goes wrong – “I made bad choices’, ‘I should have done this or that,’ ‘I should have cut costs,’ ‘I should have chosen the other job, ‘ ‘it must be my fault if I got laid off with a 1000 other people’ etc. The French blame everyone and everything else for what goes wrong. I’ve yet to hear a French person apologize for anything, even when it was blatantly clear it was their fault.
8. Customer service is valued in the U.S. and it is a goal of every business. Customer service is almost nonexistent in France.
9. The French think they have it much worse than they do, and the Americans think they have it much better than they do. The French like to complain and criticize everything. It’s kinda the national pass time (this is an observation coming from my French friends, by the way). Americans continue to think they have the best society, the best economy, the best standard of living, the best medical system in the world, even if the objective evidence does not support that belief. We believe it because it’s what’s been fed to us since childhood. And because of that belief, we are unwilling to change our system, such as health care, to better our country and to support our middle class. The French think they don’t have as much as they should have in the way of support from the government or their employers, when in reality they probably have one of the best systems and benefits of any country in the world.
10. The French will sue as a last resort, the Americans will sue as a first resort.
11. Americans are open, friendly, warm, kind, extroverted and fairly tolerant of foreigners and immigrants (unless you’re a Mexican in Arizona, a mentality which seems to be spreading across America now). In the first 10 minutes of a conversation with an American, you can hear her/his entire life story, complete with photos from his/her wallet (an experience my husband actually had and was astonished by it). The French (depending on the region) can be closed, reserved, a little suspicious, cold and sometimes confrontational. It can take years before you’ll hear their life story.
12. The laws and tax codes governing France are geared to support the middle class and to level the field. The laws and tax codes governing America are geared to support the upper middle class, corporations, and the wealthy. America has become a ‘survival of the fittest’ society, in my observation. The negative side to this in France is that it is extremely difficult and expensive to start a business (especially one with employees given how high your payroll taxes will be).
13. Americans will buy a million low quality things at good prices that may or may not hold up for them over time. The French will buy a few high quality things (supposingly high quality anyway – I’ve had the same experience with things in America and in France both being poor quality but I paid a lot more in France). The point however is that France is not a consumerism society like America. A good example is that all stores are closed on Sundays even though it is an inconvenience for people who work and could be a very ‘high profit’ day for businesses, but the government has laws prohibiting being open on Sundays for most businesses. Sundays are the day to be with family.
14. Everything is written down in the U.S. – policies, laws, tax codes, immigration procedures, etc, etc and it’s all checked out by lawyers. When you go to a government office in France, you will get the absolute minimum instructions in written form and then be at the mercy of the person you are dealing with at that moment. And if you come back later and there’s a different person, you will then have to abide by that person’s interpretation of the ‘law’. Even if you bring in the exact documents that are on the written list, someone sitting behind a desk somewhere can decide arbitrarily that you must bring in other documents or jump through additional hoops. We have experienced this many times and even my French husband is fed up. The American governmental bureaucracy is no picnic but it makes the French bureaucracy look like a fun fest.
15. It’s fairly easy to get fired from a job in the U.S. if you have the appropriate documentation showing incompetence. It is virtually impossible to get fired in France, especially if you have any kind of tenure, no matter how incompetent you are. I know of several examples of this personally.
16. France is still behind the U.S. when it comes to women’s rights, protections, and opportunities. It’s still very hard for women to get to the top in France and, if you turn on the TV, you’ll see few women or Arabs or blacks hosting a documentary, emceeing a show, being interviewed as a CEO or a high government official. There is progress being made but not at the same level as in the U.S. I actually think there is less progress being made for the North Africans than for women when it comes to these issues. Laws in France don’t seem to support unmarried or divorced women either. For instance, if you’re unmarried in France you will pay income taxes 3 to 5 times higher than if you were married or married with children. Also, if you were married for 20 years raising the kids but finally left your husband because he was emotionally abusive, you would be in big trouble financially. The laws are such that the children, if they are over 21, could get a significant percentage of ownership of the house, and since you hadn’t worked for 20 years or paid into social security, you would have to work 30 years to get your full retirement benefit. For instance, if you start work at 45, you’ll be working until 75 to get full benefits. And if you’re the second wife and you married late in life and your husband dies, the first wife would get most of the social security retirement benefits – benefits are prorated based on the number of years married to the husband, and the adult children would get 75% of the house. Note: this is how I understand it based on conversations with my husband and research I’ve done on the internet. If you know the laws better than me, please comment and correct anything I have wrong.
17. Americans have a lot of hang-ups about sex and body image. For many Americans, nudity is either shameful or sexual. The French have no hang ups about sex or their bodies. They accept their bodies as they are, have no problem or shame associated with nudity, and are less superficial about their looks. No one expects you to have a perfect body in France like the American obsession with perfection pertaining to looks. There are no long aisles of diet food in the supermarkets in France and people don’t eat processed foods nearly as much as in the U.S. In France, sex is part of life and there’s no guilt associated with it. Once you take the ‘naughtiness’ out of sex, it loses it’s ‘rebellion value’. Then people make love as part of a relationship rather than trying to prove their manhood, or as a domination or conquest tool, or as a form of rebellion against society (which often happens in America). The French are also much less modest than Americans. This can be seen in the OB/GYN exam where you are expected to undress in front of your doctor, have your exam completely nude with no gowns or blankets over you. It can also be seen in the fact that it is common for restaurant, bar and other public places to have unisex bathrooms. Additionally, men’s urinals are usually not in stalls and they even have them out in plain sight at the concerts (see the photo for an example).
18. When the French talk about separation of church and state, they actually mean it. When Americans talk about it, they don’t mean it. Religious overtones and Puritan politics permeate and influence huge aspects of America’s political discussions and decisions. The Tea Party and the Republican’s constant wooing of the Religious Right for their votes are perfect examples. The French and most of Europe do not have the religious (and primarily Christian) conservative movement that is very present in American culture. The extreme right wing evangelical movement does not exist in France. And the French actually vote on the issues – there is no discussion about the candidate’s lifestyle, sexual orientation, marriage status, morality, whether s/he ever had an affair, or which candidate you’d most like to have a beer with! What a refreshing concept – voting on the issues alone!
19. The Americans are workaholics and the French are not. The French get 5-6 weeks of vacation a year and Americans get 2-3 weeks. Americans work much longer hours than the French (in general), and spend less time with their families. Americans are always busy doing something – taking the kids to soccer, shopping, working, classes, attending something, too busy for family or friends – and the French make time to do nothing. The Italians do the same and call it ‘il dolce far niente’, the sweetness of doing nothing.
20. Americans know business and how to run them. Compared to French businesses, American businesses are run brilliantly – efficient, decent customer service, stream-lined, cost effective, well-managed, staff well-trained and well-paid, and profitable. I definitely could not describe my experiences with French businesses this way. In fact, I’m astonished that many businesses can stay open at all given my experiences with them. Americans also know internet technology and the French don’t. Take a look at a few French designed websites and you’ll know what I mean – chaos rules, broken links, terrible navigation!
21. The French do not put their futures and their hopes in the stock market and they do not use credit like Americans. The French are suspicious of Wall Street and would not trust their retirement to it. They also live within their means, put away savings, and don’t use credit cards much. Their investments are their homes or second homes. Americans put blind faith in Wall Street and every financial adviser will tell you to put your money in stocks, bonds, IRAs. The French have little tolerance for this level of risk or faith in someone else’s expertise so they rarely do it.
22. The French pay fairly high income taxes when you combine it with the social security charges. The combination can range from 25% to 45%, in general. Americans, depending on their deductions can pay between 8% to 45%, which includes social security. Given these numbers, you would think that the French pay way too high of taxes, however the French actually get something for their taxes: excellent virtually free health care, fairly livable retirement income, and free education, including at university level, for their children. Americans get a tiny retirement income, no university education for their children, and no medical care for their taxes. France however does have a lot of extra taxes that are not income based. It’s why buying things in France is so much more expensive. There are also local taxes and taxes if you own a TV, and extra taxes if you’re a business owner, etc.
23. There are far more opportunities professionally in the U.S. than in France. If you want to start a business, be an entrepreneur, make a great salary, get rich, have many investment opportunities, have a variety of careers, or have an exciting profession, stay in America! Most French choose one profession and one company and stay within those parameters most of their lives until they retire. They may be promoted within the company or move to another company similar to where they worked, but there isn’t much room or opportunities to make major jumps or transitions to other careers, or to morph your experience into a consulting business. Additionally, education is considered more important than experience. Apply for a job selling bread and they’ll want to see your ‘diploma’ (we’re talking high school level) to enable you to sell bread. Even if you have 10 years of experience selling bread, you won’t get the job without the diploma. Same for secretarial work, clerk work, etc. The other reality is, for most jobs, if you’re over 45 years of age, you’ll have a hell of a time getting any kind of decent work. Over 40 or 45 and you’re a ‘has been.’ Over 50? Forget it unless you want to teach English on a contract basis for low pay and no guarantee of work. It’s also much harder to make huge profits with your business here, given the high employee and corporate taxes in France. You’ll get a double wamy if you’re an expat since some jobs, such as working for the government, are only available to French citizens. And it’s especially hard on entrepreneurs here. Every time I talk to a business owner – restaurant owner, my doctors, my hairdresser – they all talk about how impossible it is to make a decent profit or even make ends meet because the government comes up with all kinds of incomprehensible taxes to ensure the owners don’t make too much of a profit. And business owners don’t retire early like people who work for the government such as teachers, train drivers, bureaucrats, so they fiercely criticize the government for making it so hard on them.
24. The French take personal privacy very seriously. They keep shutters on their homes (although some of this is to regulate the temperatures in the home), put sheers on all their windows and keep them closed most of the time so people can’t look into their windows, they don’t talk much about their personal lives outside of their immediate families (and aren’t big communicators about talking about problems with each other, even in the marriage setting), and they don’t care what their politicians do in their private life. They care only about their politicians’ stand on issues and their competence (how refreshing is that!). When someone is arrested, the media does not take photos of them handcuffed and being escorted by police to jail. The French were horrified by the photos released of Strauss-Kahn being arrested which landed on the front of the New York Times. This is not done in France because the presumption of innocence is taken very seriously. The media does not publish the personal lives of their politicians either. Mitterrand, a former French President, had a mistress for years and even a daughter from the affair, and the French didn’t know about it until years after he left politics. There is no big Pavarazzi culture in France. In fact, three of the reporters who took photos of the Princess Diana crash went to trial for ‘invasion of privacy’ violations. You also won’t find the disgusting published Tabloids you will find in the U.S. and Britain.
25. The U.S. has a thriving and large non-profit sector, but this is almost nonexistent in France. Since the French government handles most of what the non-profit sector handles in the U.S., there is really no reason for it in France. My industry, nonprofit fundraising and grant writing, doesn’t even exist in France. France does have ‘associations’ which receive some government support. Associations are small groups of volunteers who offer classes, or feed the hungry, or support the arts, but, in general, have small memberships and no paid staff. Additionally, Americans are probably the most generous people in the world when it comes to charitable giving. It is engrained in our culture – some of it based in the Christian belief of tithing (giving a percentage of your income to charities or religious institutions). The French do not have this tradition and don’t really give much to charities. In general, they also don’t have as much disposable income as Americans in order to give.
Perhaps you’re asking yourself ‘so which culture does she prefer?’ After all, I praised and blasted both cultures. I’ve come to the conclusion that I find good and bad, pros and cons in both cultures and both ways of ‘being.’ Given that both are Western, industrialized and developed countries, I have been astonished at how different they are and how hard the adjustment has been. But as a 53 year old women who moved here at 49, who had a very full and successful life in the U.S., who has not been able to master the French language (and never will with my hearing issue), and was deeply engrained in the American culture of diversity, variety and creativity, I must admit that I am far more comfortable in the American culture than in France. It’s all about familiarity, what you’re used to, how you’ve lived your whole life. You don’t change your colors at age 50. I’ve talked to SO many Americans who feel the same way. Those who moved here in their 20′s have had a much easier time of adjusting and ‘becoming French’ so perhaps that’s the key. And you must be fluent in French to really integrate and be comfortable in France. You cannot isolate yourself in your ethnic community here like you can in the U.S. There is much I miss about my culture and it is one of the main reasons we bought the house in Florida and hope to find a way to live part-time in France and part-time in the U.S. So there you have it.
Which culture do you prefer? Would you be happy living in France? Or would you be content living in the U.S.?