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The Art of the French Insult

After a year living in France, I've begrudgingly grown to admire the finesse the French process in the field of put-downs.

National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985).

As a boy, I loved a film called National Lampoon’s European Vacation. I rented it on VHS from the local Blockbuster a dozen times before I entered the age of teenage indifference to feel-good comedies.

It is the tale of a hapless but well-meaning American family, on a road trip across 1980s Europe. Their experience in Paris sees the family enduring insults at every possible opportunity.

While they grin on oblivious; The hotel receptionists make fun of their passport pictures and then calls them 'typical American arseholes.' At the local cafe the waiter when asked for some water replies he will bring 'washing up water because they won’t know the difference.'

I rewatched these scenes with my then-French partner (now French fiancèe) shortly after we met. At that time I had not troubled France with my presence since I was thirteen, and she commented on how mean the portrayal had been in the movie. I, of course, agreed it was merely a stereotype, it is no more accurate than that rubbish about the British being well-spoken.

Now, after my year or so going back and forth between the UK and her motherland, and subsequently living there, I have to admit, I feel that the ‘stereotype’ has a grain of truth in it.

Before I am accused of xenophobia or looking back at my nation through 'rose tea' coloured spectacles, I am aware that it could be the same universally, that the language barrier allows all people to quip about the uninitiated in their ranks.

The French language is as good as protecting the French as the English channel has been to defend England. They can hide behind it and launch insults without the non-French speakers knowing.

Being British, I can’t say I have known that linguistic shield, we are not politer people, it just remains the case that most of those that come to the UK know some English, so you can't shelter behind your Oxford English dictionary. Our swear words are familiar the world over. Not only that, a great many of the visitors in the UK are from other English speaking countries, nations that have taken our own swear words and weaponised them. An Anglo-Saxon ‘fuck you’ from an American sounds like the throttle releasing on a Harley Davidson, yet from most Brits (cockneys excluded), it hits home like an old brass car horn.

So the French have the sense, and in my experience (although they won't like me stating it) a cultural tradition to uphold when sticking it in the ribs to anyone unfamiliar with their language. I have seen, heard, watched, and been on the end of countless examples, many of which will come to light in my writing over time.

It is a national habit one can imagine going back to the Roman legions traversing the Alps. I would guess that the local chieftain, smiled as he greeted the great Caesar, and said to his number two, "Look at the nose on this guy."

In defence of the French, and to preempt the angry mob assembling below my balcony, it is important to note that the insults I hear are shared out generously to local and non-local alike. The local citizen is more likely in fact to get the full hairdryer treatment, compared to the softly spoken mumble under the breath that a tourist will take.

When the streets of Provence do erupt, the exchange, if between two locals, will have more than words; it will have dramatics, arms will flail, hands will gesture. They attack one another with their insults as a matador takes on the bull. They joust with a style that the crowd are to acknowledge. At such times the action is expected to be seen, every word to be heard by as many ears drums as possible, the art of the insult, a mark of mature confidence, being comfortable in the skin and the surroundings.

Usually, a moment or two later all will return to calm; journeys continue, coffee drinkers lean back in their seats, and debate who got the better in the exchange; Who was in the right and whom the wronged. The sun shines on; the palm leaves on the promenade flex in the wind as if nothing happened. And the next eruption commences somewhere else, another junction, a new pedestrian crossing, some other not so far off fault line in the Gallic populace.

I have seen worse in England, but not with such regularity. The difference I believe between the two could be that the French normalised their art. Insults are habitual as likely spoken softly, as to be yelled like Pavarotti at the traffic lights, it is a form of social bonding.

English people have a mini-stroke while swearing; there is an absence of talent for an altercation. The Brits can be: Rude, belligerent, patronising, and small minded to name a few but there is an absence of finesse when an Englishman is upset. Our southern neighbours can deliver insults without the injured party ever realising, and they often do, at the merest slight. Perhaps it is a sign of a mature civilisation to so delicately insult one another, Whereas the British bottle it all up until it reincarnates into aneurysms and stomach ulcers.

My advice to a stranger in these parts is to remain blissfully ignorant as long as possible. Don’t think ill of the French. They have their ways and their customs, their faults and their many graces, appreciate their art; Be it in their gastronomic talents, their flair for fashion, their love of wine and the weakness for the chase. Their gift for the put-down should take its place in the intricate pantheon of competing forces that hold together the French soul.

England has long claimed the rose as her national emblem, but it may as well fit the French. The most beautiful and sweetly fragrant will often bare the sharpest thorns. It’s natures way, don't fight it. France does not know how hard it is to hold and those that try need handle with care and let the fearsome provincial sun thicken the thin skin as soon as possible.

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