The Real French National Motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—and Contestation

The Real French National Motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—and Contestation
There’s an old joke in Europe about the best definition of an Italian. Answer: “A good-humored Frenchman.” That’s not really off the mark according to a recent survey published in France. Conducted by the polling firm “Opinion Way” for the insurance firm MAAF, it reported that 72 percent of those questioned rated the French as the world’s crankiest, most frequent and vociferous complainers—about virtually everything. After them came, in order: Italians, Americans, English, Spaniards, Belgians, Germans and Australians. To be precise, the description of Frenchmen—and women too—in the Opinion Way survey was about which nation’s citizens were the most frequent “râleurs.” It needs to be noted quickly that, in French, to “râler” is not to be rude in the sense of being impolite or unhelpful.  Although that too is frequently associated with the French. Rudeness is a totally different character trait recently discussed by Thirza Vallois in this article. To “râler” is more like blowing off steam, simply to get it out of your system and to be sure those concerned are well aware that you’re unhappy about something. Or with them. After that safety valve has been used, the “râleur“—feeling much better now—often just then lets the matter drop and turns to other things. Actually the widely held reputation of the French as chronic grumblers and groaners is nothing new. The old joke about the definition of an Italian attests to that. So does the fact that there are French websites specifically devoted to comradeship and exchange between “râleurs.” There’s a blog site,, that has various subsections devoted to râleurs in general, to those who want to do so by blogs, to those who prefer to “râler” on Twitter and even one called “Ça Critique” which advertises: “You don’t like fried pickles? You can’t support such and such a newpaper columnist? Your telephone operator blows you up? Your bank messes up your accounts? Ça has arrived for you.” To top it off, the insurance company MAAF, which commissioned the Opinion Way survey, is running a nationwide “Râleur” championship contest. The winner will receive 5,000 Euros and a chance to participate in their advertising campaign. It will be awarded to the web reader who submits the most compelling video of him or herself complaining tempestuously about something or another. Actually it’s a smart public relations gimmick by MAAF. One of its most popular television ads involves an irate French “râleur” who stalks into their office and demands to see the director. He proceeds to angrily ask him why they don’t have such and such a service and is then humbled by the imperturbable director, who calmly assures him that they do. The ad ends with the “râleur” slinking off, his fist clenched in anger and promising himself that “one day, one day, I’ll get him.”  Although the complaint of the “râleur” is different in each new ad of the series, the director’s reply remains imperturbably the same. The “râleur” suffers ongoing frustration since he’s never able to trip up the director. Not surprisingly, shortly after publication of the Opinion Way survey, the internet was flooded with comments about it—and from French citizens no less. Most interesting of all was almost no one disputed the characterization. Nor did they consider being a “râleur” as necessarily derogative. In fact, most considered it a compliment.  Although a few questioned France’s top ranking, it wasn’t to dispute it but simply to wonder whether or not others, such as the Italians, weren’t right up there with them. And why all that constant complaining? Opinion Way listed, in order: administrative formalities, transportation problems, living costs and technology breakdowns. That just skims the surface. Topping the list probably should have been anything viewed or capable of being viewed as social injustice or inequality of treatment—better for the rich than the poor, for the well born or well educated rather than for the common citizen. Essentially that usually targets anyone better off than the “râleur” in a society constantly proclaimed since the French revolution in 1789 as one dedicated to “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Easily added are such everyday criteria as bad weather, neighbors, other French drivers, bankers, slow or desultory service at the post office or simply standing in line at the super market, a bus stop or almost anywhere. Constrasted to the image of such a line in Britain, where everyone patiently waits their turn, the image of a queue in France, not without reason, often is depicted as triangular with everyone in the back pushing his or her way to the front. While a Frenchman often is viewed simply as a râleur and contester from birth, the varying types of conduct being described are so many that there are no less than 16 synonyms for the word listed in some French dictionaries. They include: protester, contester, grogner, brusquer, bougonner, discuter, manifester, maugréer, rager, ronchonner, rouscailler, rouspeter, clabauder, rager and pester. French scholars probably can turn up even more. “Râleur” also has a lot of definitions in English, although none seem to sum it up perfectly. Grumbler, groaner, grumpy complainer, contester and even ill-tempered—all would be reasonably within the ball park, but none are home runs. Some English dictionaries just let “râler” go as “to moan,” although “to bitch and moan” would probably be better. If you’re new to France you’ll quickly notice the phenomenon. But you shouldn’t let it dismay you. It’s like the scenery, the monuments and the cuisine. It’s just part of France’s attraction. If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe. Please post your comments or questions and let them flow. Register HERE to do so if you need a Bonjour Paris user name and …

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