A one-word excavation of the French mind
As you walk a winding medieval stone path or wonder at Roman ruins, you easily get the sense of how modern France is built upon visible and invisible layers of history. The oldest layers continue to inform modern life, for those who bother to notice. The same is true for culture and tradition. The roots of French identity reach a thousand years into the past. Heads have fallen, edifices have been raised, regimes have come and gone. Through it all, there are national characteristics that have become “set in stone.” L’honneur is an easy enough word to translate. Does it not simply mean honor? That, I suggest, is the wrong question to ask.
The right question is: what does l’honneur really mean in the French mind? The answer to that question is also a key to understanding, deep down, what motivates the French. It provides clues for such puzzling and diverse observations as:
Why do French shopowners sometimes come across as unfriendly to Americans?
Why do so many of the French seem to hate President Macron?
Why are there so many strikes in France?
What’s that beautiful building just next to the Orsay Museum that nobody ever visits or talks about?
L’honneur remains a cardinal principle for the French, even though it is not officially proclaimed as such. Liberté, égalité, et fraternité are the official agenda, yet none of them answer the preceding questions. L’honneur prescribes one’s duty in reference to social class or belonging to a given social group. It was honor that drove countless men into duals and even more into war, but it was also honor that made them build cathedrals, craft exquisite objects, and produce fine wines. Whilst pride is a benefit of honor, its pinnacle is nobility (la noblesse). Nobility once had a well-defined social function, but beyond the class definition, it connotates moral elevation, grandeur, distinction, dignity, and perfection. These are also the qualities that have given aesthetics such a prominant place in French culture. Without them, France would have no luster in the world.
I do believe that nobility in its broadest sense exercises far greater appeal to the French than anything else ‘to be attained”, such as wealth or power.
I take for example how the words honneur and noblesse are more commonly used in French than their equivalents in English. I sense this is true, simply by speaking both languages, but also verified Google Books Ngram Viewer as a means to corroborate my hypothesis. You can validate the inquiry yourself, and may observe in passing how the use of those words both in French and English has declined dramatically since 1900. I find it intriguing that Frenchman Bernard Arnault, the world’s wealthiest man (depending on the LVMH share price valuation), built his luxury empire on the remnants of nobility. Mr. Arnault himself is meticulously discrete and evasive about his wealth, as would be expected according to the implicit honor code of his status. He prefers to be recognized as the man who built the world’s greatest empire of luxury, to the glory of France.
Let’s now address the opening questions related to l’honneur.
Why do some shopowners come across as unfriendly to Americans?
The most important reason has nothing to do with “friendliness” (a word with no direct equivalent in French.) Americans have been taught that “the customer is king.” The French have been taught that the king is king. In other words, you have nobility only if you have something to show for it. You can’t just be noble because an ad hoc transaction confers you a power to purchase or not to purchase something from somebody who treats you as a king in order to receive the monetary benefit of the transaction. French shopowners, guided implicitly by an honor principle, derive their worth instead from artisanal competency. For example, they may possesses a fine knowledge of their products, even more so if they are also artisans. They may be able to relate centuries of history, astonishing anecdotes, or convey a savoir-faire with passion.Say “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” when you enter the store, and take interest in the products. Instead of friendliness, you’ll learn a thing or two and may even ignite a genuine relationship.
Why do so many Frenchmen seem to hate President Macron?
There is hardly any use in referring to Macron’s actual policies to answer this question. The first reason for deep distrust derives from the simple fact that he was an investment banker prior to his political career. There could be nothing worse in the mind of most Frenchmen, because investment banking is a field of work devoid of l’honneur. To make matters worse, Macron has wielded power far too autocratically, having done so without the requisite noblesse often associated with such leaders as Charles de Gaulle, Napoleon Bonaparte, and to a lesser extent François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac.
Why are there so many strikes in France?
It’s not about the money. It’s about l’honneur–the duty to your social identity. For example, the railway and train employees have maintained a cohesive professional body to which they strongly identify. Their sense of belonging, and the resulting duty to follow strikes, supercedes any salary they lose during the strikes. The corollary explanation is that the President of the Republic has violated an implicit honor code, requiring class retaliation. That’s why most of the French are often on worker’s side, in spite of the terrible disruptions the strikes cause.
What’s that beautiful neo-classical building (see photos below) just next to the Orsay museum that nobody ever visits or talks about?
It’s called le Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, and has served as the headquarters of the Grande Chancellerie since 1804. That was the year when Napoleon Bonaparte instituted the Légion d’Honneur, the most prestigious of all French honors, bestowed on individuals who have demonstrated outstanding personal merit in service of the nation. Prior to this institution, French monarchs conferred only military distinctions. The Légion d’Honneur is one of many examples of how the French aristocracy was replaced, not by an American-style democracy, but rather by a French-style meritocracy. Much of the pomp and prestige that previously characterized the aristocracy was transferred to a new ruling class of haut-fonctionnaires (high-level bureaucrats) having proven their intellectual prowess through a rigorously selected admission to the Grandes Ecoles such as ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration). Graduates of ENA are even referred to in French as the “énarques”, an obvious reference to monarchs. The French are entirely aware, and often self-critical, of their persistent preference for top-down political and economic systems. It’s in their cultural genes, and just won’t entirely go away, even after forty years of American management indoctrination.
In the end, it's all about l’honneur.
I captured the photos displayed below at the Grande chancellerie de l'ordre de la Légion d'honneur, 1 rue Solférino (next door to the Musée d'Orsay). The portrait of François Lecointre, Grand Chancelier, was extracted from the institution's website.
Further reading on the subject of "l'honneur" in French culture:
- Alexis de Tocqueville. 1840. Democracy in America .
- Philippe d'Iribarne. 1989. La logique de l’honneur: Gestion des entreprises et traditions nationales