The “French”


Kayce Swigelson

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the French”?

“I marvel at your power to be mistaken.” -Molière, Tartuffe

Picture Hulk Hogan. If you are confused and uncultured, cast thine eyes upon my incredible 80s clearance rack notebook that a child’s wisdom whispered to cherish forever. Is this what you think of when you hear “the French?”

world, one the Klingons would call honorable. If you don’t know my Star Trek reference or my Hulk Hogan reference, then I have failed you in my calling of ‘educator.’ This man is The Dying Gaul, a marble copy of a bronze of an ancient warrior from Gaul, part ancestor of the French. It was made by his enemies to cast forward through time two aspects: a defeated culture set apart and gawked at because of its “barbarism,” (apparently wearing pants instead of tunics and sporting sweet mustaches was too much for the Romans!) yet respected enough for resisting with such nerve as to charge into battle fearless, naked, and screaming, ready to take on all invaders.

Imagine a man like Hulk Hogan—mortally wounded, reclining but propped up on one arm, lion-like hair

falling in his face, exquisite mustache in full force (make it fashion!), and a gleaming torc (like a crown

but for your neck)—cast entirely in bronze. He is about to die a warrior’s death so valued in the ancient

Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois—Our ancestors, the Gauls”—is a ubiquitous and oft-mocked phrase used to illustrate the pride the French take in their history of resistance against invasion and tyranny—*cough* Caesar *cough* AP Latin *cough* Mr. Toscano—and to honor this rich ancient culture. It’s the slightest gleam of golden torc that still shines on a civilization that, perhaps like all of us, fancies seeing itself as set apart. Most of it has become the stuff of legend, but for the French, their unique revolutionary pride is no laughing matter.

I, long suffering, bear frequent French surrender jokes from students. Likewise, Supreme Overlord Toscano, who I hold personally responsible for Julius Caesar invading Gaul, nobly takes a lot of jesting flak from me. Recently, the Associated Press took similar flak to the tune of over 18,000 snarky replies, glorious marriages of pun and sarcasm, to a stylebook update posted on Twitter. It censured writers who use the definite article “the” to group people (as in “the poor, the mentally ill, the French”). The intention was to ensure that we are not too quick to generalize and dehumanize, for one aspect does not make up a whole identity. 

Nonchalant as a French shrug, the term “the French” is tucked into the Associated Press’s list as an example of an offensively phrased idea that singles out a group worthy of compassion and even pity, who should not be “grouped” at all into a…group: “the mentally ill, the French, the disabled.” AP later attempted to clarify its position.

Never one to shy away from overreaction to something that was clearly meant as a simple example, I’d like to be a jerk and speak for the French on this one, seeing as they are so dehumanized already or, as one writer jokes, “suffering from Frenchness.” Let’s set debate about the cultural and political moment aside and consider that the French, by nature of being just that—French—might consider the elimination of their beloved definite article “the” more othering than its inclusion (not to mention impossible in French grammar), and it’s precisely because of flak, or its Gaulish equivalent.

Let’s set debate about the cultural and political moment aside and consider that the French, by nature of being just that—French—might consider the elimination of their beloved definite article “the,” more excluding than inclusive (not to mention impossible in French grammar), and it’s precisely because of flak, or its Gaulish equivalent.

In the same way that we pick on our own brother or sister when they are annoying but stand up for them when someone outside of the circle attacks, the French would be the first to nitpick something as micro as a definite article, particularly when it comes to what they call bon usage. Francophones openly remark on and correct one another’s speech and writing (perhaps this is why I feel so free to do it to you). So far, so good, AP. In fact, when polled, many French express that their main source of unity is their beloved language, protected by intellectuals of the Académie Française who wear ceremonial swords to swat at any untoward influence, especially from American English. The members of the Académie are called Immortals, and have a lifelong appointment to protect and preserve the French language from invading forces. Nadeau and Barlow explain in their book The Story of French that “…a faute [here, grammatical error] in French is not just a mistake. Faute has a moral stigma…language purists gave the connotation of sin to mistakes in speech or writing.” Sounds like the French fancy an AP that calls out fautes, particularly on moral grounds. However, the French have always had a natural spirit of unity in résistance and they’d be the first to tell you about it as they take to the battlefield, to the streets, or now to Twitter. 

My AP (Advanced Placement, not Associated Press) French students experience discomfort when I show them the carving on the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame: God, Country, Notre Dame (#priorities!) and contrast it with the general attitude of French identity. In public spaces, citizens (“the French”) are considered French first, everything else second. For a culture that delights in fiery dinner debate that stops just short of baguette-flinging and where everyone still leaves as friends, it’s a paradoxically unifying force. To be called the French would seem anything but pejorative to them, these descendants of the Gauls who had the courage to stick it to Caesar. When even your bread reaches UNESCO protected status for contribution to world cultural heritage, you must have something to be proud of when set apart by “the.” 

In our Cinema for French Conversation course, we are learning about Molière, the French playwright who upended every system thought to be solid and respected in 17th-century France through biting comedy. For Molière, the only way to change our ways is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and laugh at what we see (I sure feel that way at 6 a.m.). I cannot imagine the French facing this well-meaning existential flak from AP in any other way than Molière or a Gaul—either laughing at the face in the mirror (needs our compassion) or charging toward a Roman army, torc flashing in the sun (needs our pity). Even the Romans knew that the Gauls were not to be pitied; just ask The Hulkster. The Dying Gaul does elicit sympathy in the viewer, but it’s a sympathy that can only be fully recognized by the Gaul’s being set apart. As Molière said in Tartuffe, “All of your advice is forceful, sound, and clever; I don’t propose to follow it, however.” How French. 

With such ambient discord and duality, we can only see “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We have to ask ourselves like the Romans did of the Gauls or Molière of his own generation: “Who is the real ‘barbarian?’” I know of no answer to any of these complex questions save the truth of our Lord, who expects our efforts toward holiness, our being “set apart” for Him, and that we love others and worship Him in Spirit and in Truth, albeit imperfectly on our end. May we always make sure that if we set others apart, it is for that same holy purpose, to honor everyone made in the image of God, and let the Holy Spirit deal with our fautes. Perhaps I, too, can try to respect Mr. Toscano/AP Latin in time. Might take centuries. 

Photo Credit (Hogan): mine, embarrassingly

Photo Credit (The Dying Gaul): Weston Westmoreland

Photo: Twitter, The Associated Press