Ratting on Your French Neighbors
It’s a very old word – as old as the 13th-century. We can blame the French only partly for this word, as it’s “Anglo-French” from the word “denuncier” or “to proclaim” or “to report” or “announce.” The word is “Denouncement” with a capital “D.”
In today’s world it means “to condemn openly as being evil or reprehensible, to accuse formally.” And if you live here, you’ll discover it’s a sport in France much like being clever enough to break into a line without anyone noticing, having extra-marital affairs openly or cheating on taxes by being paid cash that is never reported.
The truth is that survival in France virtually depends on some of these clever misdemeanors and because of it, French morality has come to not only accept them, but revere them. They have a term for it: “Système D.”*
Mostly I have come to respect the morality of the French over my own compatriots’. I agree with the French point of view on many issues, including capital punishment, lying, gun control, medical care and education for all, sexuality, nationality vs individuality, etc., but denouncement is one that has me in a quandary.
Denouncement is historically ingrained in the French. In 1792, the Sisters of St. Joseph were denounced as unpatriotic and enemies of the people and the Revolution and were thereby imprisoned and expelled from their property and then guillotined, all because they refused to take the Oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which separated the Church of France from Papal authority. Thousands of people were denounced and died during the French Revolution.
During World War II, it is thought that up to one million French denounced their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis. However, according to historians, about one-quarter of the denouncement letters were about French family dramas involving husbands, wives, lovers and rivals – an easy way to get rid of someone they didn’t like.
In February of this year, an anonymous letter from serving and former diplomats accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of diminishing France’s role on the international stage by warning “‘France’s voice in the world has disappeared’ accusing Sarkozy of amateurism, acting on impulse, ignoring ambassadors and caring more about how he looks on TV than the fundamentals of foreign affairs.” (The Guardian UK)
As a resident of France, particularly living in a communal situation such as any apartment building in Paris, one must ‘fear’ his neighbors from denouncement of just about anything: making noise (this is a big one), paying cash to immigrant housekeepers or violation of any authority that gives them power over their neighbor. Believe it or not, one of my own neighbors threatened to report me to the “copropriété” (homeowners association) for having colored shades in the windows, rather than the more acceptable white! (I swear, I was told it was a city ordinance against colored drapes, but I don’t believe him.)
So, why am I on my ‘high horse’ about denouncement?
Because the difference in our cultures is a fascinating insight into who we are as people and how we came to think a certain way. It is a never-ending enigma.
Denouncing your neighbors in our North American culture has a completely different morality. Those who denounce are called “rats.” Rats are “contemptible people” who betray or desert their friends or associates, also known as “scabs” or “informers.” It ranks way up there with liars and murderers.
And I wondered why we have such a different take on the same act.
Here’s my theory, and grant you, it’s just the way I see it.
The playing field in this socialist democracy is very level. People’s earnings aren’t as disparate. People have more or less the same rights regardless of their earnings – they all have good health care, they all have quality education, they all have certain rights with much less hierarchy. The bi-annual “soldes” which are highly restricted and governed by the State is an example of the need to control the playing field to be as equal as possible.
And this, I believe, is what leads to the inherent need to denounce and take a more powerful and higher position(along with jealousy — why should my neighbor have something or do something that I don’t?)
Of course, I’m just venting (while watching my neighbors, although never ratting on them).
• Between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., 70% of the music on the radio must be by French artists. (No wonder I hear so much Edith Piaf.)
• It is illegal to kiss on railways in France. (This gets broken A LOT!)
• No pig may be addressed as “Napoleon” by its owner. (When was the last time you heard this?)
• It is illegal to take photos of police officers or police vehicles, even if they are just in the background. (I’ve been guilty of this and stopped by an officer!)
• It is forbidden without a cemetery plot to die on the territory of the commune. (I’d love to see this one enforced!)
• In Paris, it is illegal to walk with your hand up a woman’s skirt, but while you’re on the Métro you may legally touch breasts. (Whose is the question!)
• In Paris, an ashtray is considered a deadly weapon. (Only if it’s filled with butts.)
• In France, if an athlete doesn’t play for the national team he/she can be banned from playing for his/her club. (Nationalism vs Individualism)
• In a region of the Rhone, it is illegal for UFOs to fly over vineyards. (What do you think the aliens are going to do with all those photos?)
*And BTW, if you didn’t know about System D (in French, Système D): It’s a shorthand term that refers back to the French word débrouillard or démerder. The verb se débrouiller means “to untangle.” The verb se démerder literally means to remove oneself from the shit. The basic theory of System D is that it is a manner of responding to challenges that requires one to have the ability to think fast, to adapt, and to improvise when getting the job done. It has the connotation of getting around the system, managing to accomplish, or breaking the rules. (Wikipedia)
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
P.S. I hope to see you tomorrow from 3 to 5 p.m. at Parler Paris Après Midi when we welcome Martine di Mattéo, Interior Architect and Designer, who will be talking about “How to Create the French Shabby Chic Style.” Visit Parler Paris Après Midi for more information.