La Complainte des Français
Complaining. It’s what we do to express dissatisfaction or annoyance at something. And apparently, it’s considered France’s national sport. In late 2018, the French president Emmanuel Macron advised the French to complain less during a visit to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, in the northeastern part of France. Responding to a retiree complaining about her low pension, he stated: “Le pays se porterait autrement si les Français se plaignaient moins”.
A series of plaintes promptly followed Macron’s comment, including that of Olivier Faure, First Secretary of the Socialist Party: “Les retraités peuvent se plaindre. Ils paient aujourd’hui les cadeaux fiscaux faits aux plus riches de notre pays”. Complaining about politics is, in fact, not a rare pastime for the French. It is considered their right within a free society, material for lively dinner conversation, and a natural consequence of the critical training they receive within their educational system, which is based on the study of philosophy. And this extends to other domains besides politics, from entertainment to the educational system itself.
The Tendency of the French to Complain and the French Revolution
Some find that the tendency of the French to complain dates back to the days of the French Revolution, when citizens dissatisfied with food shortages, increasing tax burdens, and feudal social structures took to the streets to make their voices heard. The French certainly have a long history of protests, as well as a strong union culture, which is seen in the periodic strikes that occur, when the French are en grève. “Écoutez la colère du peuple” and “En lutte jusqu’à la victoire” are phrases you might come across when encountering those who seek better conditions through a suspension of their job-related work. Voicing concerns is seen by the French as a way of not being trampled on, a way of pushing back against policies they consider deleterious or unjust. This has been seen in the gilets jaunes movement that began in October of 2018 as a protest against a projected fuel tax for the following year. The gilets jaunes have gained momentum within France, growing to incorporate sympathizers, many of whom feel that the taxation system implemented by Macron, including tax cuts for the very wealthy, should be overhauled.
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Protests in France
Manifestations, or protests, are quite visible in France, where unions, as previously mentioned, are strong and, interestingly, modeled on unions that developed during the 1930’s in the United States, where union culture is in now a precarious position, according to an essay written in a September 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine. During a manifestation, or a manif, people will take to the streets en masse, holding signs with slogans that say “Trop c’est trop”, “Démocratie directe, Pouvoir au peuple”, and other messages that point to the issues people are trying to resolve. Manifs are meant to be public demonstrations of dissatisfaction in response to social ills and a representation of a willingness to fight them. At times they can erupt into physical struggles, causing bodily harm, as has occurred in the gilets jaunes movement during skirmishes between protesters and police. This has been one of the largest criticisms of the way in which the situation has been handled.
While citizens are certainly within their rights to go to a governing agency and porter plainte, they also engage in a fair amount of complaining in their everyday lives. This can range from a calm request to see a manager while shopping “Appelez-moi votre responsable, s’il vous plaît” to yelling and banging on an administrator’s door, which I saw a student from the École normale supérieure do while trying to get papers filed at the Sorbonne. Since in France the customer is not king, and neither is the student (whose influential parents are not paying $40,000 in tuition), it is good to be prepared for some back-and-forth in these situations, including “C’est pas possible” (or “Ce n’est pas possible”), “Ça ne va pas se passer comme ça”, or “C’est inadmissible”. Of course, this back-and-forth would tend to not work so well with one of the parties behind a closed door. In this case, the door might as well have a “Je refuse” sign posted on it.
Complaints can, in fact, occur about anything, from policies that are seen as regressive, as some view Macron’s taxation policies, to commodities considered progressive, as described in Boris Vian’s 1956 song “La Complainte du progrès”, his lamentation over modern society’s obsession with consumer goods. Beginning with the word “Autrefois”, which opens many a fairy tale, the song wryly compares romantic expressions of love with loving offerings of machinery. Each verse lists labor-saving devices, which overload the lyrics and become more and more absurd, including contraptions such as a “canon à patates”. The playfulness of the melody makes these devices sound even more nonsensical, particularly when placed alongside proclamations of love and adoration. It is worth noting that this complainte is also a critique – something that, while often containing a negative judgment, can simply come out of an assessment of different sides of an issue.
Such a critical mindset may be encouraged by certain cultural practices, such as voicing concerns to politicians and verbally sparring with constituents, as well as a certain esprit critique cultivated through an educational system that requires students to assess topics in the manner of a dissertation. Following the analytical structure of thèse, antithèse, and synthèse inevitably leads to a certain amount of critique which, through its detailed analysis and assessment, will lead to perspectives that contradict those that are initially presented. Placed within social discourse, such perspectives can be seen as contrary voices or indeed, voices that are “contrariées”. A disgruntled voix contrariée may well signal a complaining attitude.
The complaints that come when retirees, students, and songwriters find room for improvement in the systems they deal with may actually have positive effects on their health, as Le24heures describes in a January 2017 article titled “C’est prouvé : râler est bon pour la santé”. Voicing concerns, the article states, is preferable to refraining from saying anything, as a study of the University of Jena involving 6,000 participants points out, citing the increased heart rates of those who kept mum. If the result of pointing out a series of woes leads to a relatively good quality of life and a long life expectancy, each of which are characteristic of France, complaining may not be such a bad national sport. Perhaps Macron will have to reassess the implications of his statement concerning the benefits of complaining less to the well-being of France as a nation.
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