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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French

Always fascinating and frequently baffling, France is a country that often has people searching for answers on Google - but according to the search engine what are the most commonly asked questions about France and the French?

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French
Photo: Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

Looking at Google’s autocomplete for ‘Why is France . . .’ and ‘Why are the French . . .’ is a fascinating exercise, but perhaps tells us more about the preconceptions and stereotypes of ‘les Anglo Saxons’ than it does about France.

Google’s autocomplete uses a complicated and user-specific formula that we don’t even pretend to understand, but a major factor is how often these questions are Googled.

Leaving aside specific topical questions like ‘why is France amber plus?’ (a question for the UK government rather than Google, we think, and anyway it’s now off that particular list) the adjectives that emerge about France are interesting – powerful, popular and expensive. Sounds like a Jackie Collins heroine.

However, when we ask ‘why are the French . . .’ the suggestions are more of a mixed bag.

On the one hand slim, romantic and good at cooking, the French are also apparently critical rioters who like to surrender. 

Here are our suggestions to some of these questions, and why they are asked so often.

Why is France so popular? A slightly vague question but it might mean popular with tourists. France is the world’s number one tourist destination, a title it has held for several years.

We think the answer to that is a no-brainer, but we might be biased – here are some of the many reasons that tourists flock to France.

Why is France called France? The name comes from the Latin Francia which means ‘realm of the Franks’ referring to a tribe who lived in what is now France during the Roman period.

France is also sometimes referred to as l’Hexagone (the hexagon) because of its shape – this designation refers specifically to mainland France. France also has several overseas territories informally referred to as les DOM-TOM some of which are administratively part of France.

It’s how (pub quiz fact alert) France shares a border with Brazil.

Why is France so expensive? Interesting question. Some things in France are undoubtedly comparatively expensive, most of all taxes for residents, the French are among the most highly taxed in Europe. Elsewhere things are more variable – property in Paris is extremely expensive but in others parts of France can be comparatively cheap.

Food shopping is relatively expensive but wine is cheap (and delicious). Here’s how France compares to some other countries on everyday items.

In general a good rule is to avoid Paris if you’re watching the centimes.

Why is France a flawed democracy? Fascinating question. France is a democracy with an elected upper and lower house of parliament, plus a Constitutional Court to examine new laws that touch on the rights of citizens.

It’s not without its problems as a country of course, with ongoing problems with inequality, police violence and racism to name but a few. But it’s interesting that this question doesn’t pop up on similar searches for other countries. It may be that this is to do with France’s status as a favourite target for ‘bashing’ in the anglophone press? 

Moving onto the French themselves, and the questions become less factual.

Why are the French so critical? The French would probably say they are direct rather than critical and are frequently baffled by English reticence, but most French people acknowledge that complaining is practically a national hobby. This is unlikely to change, so here’s how you could view complaining and scolding as positive traits.

Why are the French so slim? Disappointingly, the answer to this one is ‘they’re not’. Despite the stereotype of the slender, immaculately-dressed Parisienne, obesity is on the rise in France and more than half of French adults are overweight.

Even more disappointingly, those French people who are slim are usually that way because they eat sensibly and do lots of exercise, not because those croissants have magical properties. 

READ ALSO Sex, stairs and the Metro – how do Parisiens stay in shape?

Why are the French so romantic? Measuring romance is of course not a scientific endeavour, but a stubborn cliché over at least the last 150 years is that the French are romantic, or at least sexy.

It might be slightly exaggerated and in recent times women have suggested that the much-touted ‘romance’ is more akin to sexual harassment.

READ ALSO ‘Frenchmen aren’t that great in bed’ – 5 French dating myths exploded

Why are the French rioting/on strike? One of the most persistent images of France is strikes and it’s true, French workers do strike quite a lot. They are not, however, Europe’s top strikers and interestingly the word ‘strike’ appears nowhere in the most frequently asked questions about the country that does hold that crown.

What French strikes are, however, is noisy, disruptive and highly publicised. Likewise with French riots – protest quickly moves to the street in France and although the great majority of demonstrators are peaceful and well-behaved, a noisy minority (often the semi-professional rioters of the Black Bloc) like to smash bus shelters, set fire to street furniture and end up on the news.

READ ALSO Don’t ask why the French are always striking, ask what their strikes have achieved

Why are the French always surrendering? There are entire libraries of books on French military history which we won’t attempt to summarise here, except to say that the French history of surrender is not entirely one-sided – they surrendered in World War II (but ended up on the winning side), didn’t surrender in World War I, did surrender in the Franco-Prussian wars (with the indirect result that some parts of France now get a day off on Good Friday) and under Napoleon won a lot of battles before being beaten by a European Coalition.

The most famous quote about French surrender is “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” which was actually coined by a writer on The Simpsons, but was frequently used in the USA in the early 2000s. At that time, US president George W Bush was annoyed that President Jacques Chirac refused to join the US-UK lead invasion of Iraq.

Books have also been written on which country made the right choice there. 

If you have questions about France, head to our Reader questions section – or feel free to suggest your own answers in the comments section below.

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For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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