How Can We Describe France to American Students?

The only way to understand others is to compare them to ourselves. Based on this seemingly simple principle, Laurence Wylie (1909-1996), then a Harvard professor, published Les Français (“The French”) in 1970, an innovative textbook underpinned by comparisons and anthropological observations. This portrait of France and its inhabitants has become a classic in the United States and has been republished three times. The fourth edition was released this summer, edited by Julie Fette, associate professor of French Studies at Rice University in Houston, and Jean-François Brière, professor emeritus of French Studies at the State University of New York at Albany.
© Sylvie Serprix

France-Amérique: Who was Laurence Wylie, and how did he revolutionize the methods for understanding French society at the time?

Jean-François Brière: Laurence Wylie was an American academic who spent the later years of his career as a professor of French civilization at Harvard. He studied both French literature and social anthropology, which led him to analyze the French from an original angle and ask a number of fundamental questions. At birth, a French baby is no different from an American baby. Yet ten or twelve years later, these two babies, in their own ways of thinking and acting, have become French and American respectively. What happened during this lapse of time? By what alchemy does someone become French? And why are French people so different from Americans in their conception of time, space, human nature, and in their institutions? In 1950-1951, Wylie spent a long time in the village of Roussillon, in the Luberon mountains, where he observed and studied the microcosmic society as an American ethnologist would have done in an Amazonian village. He repeated the experiment with the help of his students in the early 1960s in the village of Chanzeaux, near Angers. These experiences produced two pioneering works in the study of French society: Village in the Vaucluse (1957) and Chanzeaux: A Village in Anjou (1966). His approach was empirical and founded on observation, but the fact that he was an American observer enabled him to grasp certain realities that would have escaped a French or European observer. In 1970, Wylie published the first edition of Les Français, a textbook (written in French) based on his studies of Roussillon and Chanzeaux, and aimed at American students. Previous textbooks about French civilization presented a narrow, elitist vision of France and the French, focusing on major political events, leading writers, and famous artists. By contrast, Wylie’s work honed in on the daily lives of individuals and their worldviews. It was a radically novel approach, paying close attention to the role of raising and educating children in the creation of a distinct French identity.

France has changed since 1970, particularly in terms of the status of women and the influence of immigrants. How have the subsequent editions of his work reflected this?

Jean-François Brière: The later editions adopted the same approach by distinguishing between what has remained permanent (in terms of worldview, education, the administrative system, etc.) and what has changed (in terms of society, the economy, etc.). The comparison of the textbooks used in elementary schools in France and the United States is particularly indicative of cultural differences between the two countries. Les Français is not rooted in the present and major events, but rather steps back to offer a long-term perspective. The work strongly emphasizes the historical origins of contrasts between the two countries, which are often incomprehensible without this context. Subjects such as the administration in France or the European Union, for example, could not be understood without this framework.

© Sylvie Serprix

Some chapters are unexpected, such as the one about the body. Apparently, the French stand up straighter than the Americans! Can we make generalizations based on unquantifiable observations which may only reflect middle-class behaviors?

Jean-François Brière: The chapter on the body was born of Wylie’s keen interest in the gestural differences between the French and the Americans. He realized that a large part of interpersonal communication was conducted via gestures, not speech. He had taken classes at Jacques Lecoq’s mime school in Paris, and subsequently published a book called Beaux gestes (1977) about French gestures. Once again, his approach was founded on a comparative, unquantified observation of the two peoples. However, we should be cautious about making generalizations, and readers are reminded that certain characteristics are only customary or common in a given population. In terms of gestures and the relationship with the body, the behaviors in Les Français correspond to what can be frequently observed in the middle class in France. The behavioral differences between men and women are noted when relevant. In this chapter, we prioritized the comparison between French and American people, rather than exploring class differences that are rapidly disappearing. The relationship to the body is presented in very general terms. For example, it includes differences in clothing and the rules of conversation in France and the United States.

Since the first edition of Les Français was published in 1970, what are the biggest shifts that have been observed in French society?

Julie Fette: The tectonic shifts in French society since the 1970s have to do especially with the composition of its population. “The French” have never been a monolithic, homogenous, or fixed population, and this is especially true in the 21st century. In the fourth edition, we pay attention to ethnic and religious minorities’ evolving integration into French society, as well as to the obstacles on that path. The status of women has improved enormously in the last 50 years. Class structure in France has changed dramatically as well; since the emergence of a massive middle class, we now see increasing inequality at the extremes of socio-economic groups. Other phenomena have also significantly affected French society over the course of half a century, such as Europeanization, the decreased role of religion in daily life, and the radical restructuring of the French family. New threats are climate change and terrorism. While there have been major shifts in French society, the basic structures still explain why French people think and behave differently, not only from Americans, but from other Europeans as well.

What is the current state of French Studies in the United States? Are academics interested in the real France or a fantasized France?

Julie Fette: French Studies is alive and well in the United States. It is true that many universities have suffered a two-decade decline in French enrollments and majors, a decline that affects all foreign languages and cultures in this era of increasing student and parent desire for practical training over a liberal arts education. Nevertheless, American students remain very attracted to France and the French. If they occasionally come to the first day of class with a few clichéd notions or a simplistic vision of French society, they know there is much more to this complex society and eagerly want to learn about the multiparty political system, the welfare state, French secularism, and issues surrounding gender relations, for example. France’s colonial past and the ways that it impacts the present is the field that students and scholars alike want to understand most urgently today. French government relations with its former colonies, the integration of immigrants in metropolitan France, and the complications around Francophonie all fall within the post-colonial shift that is ironically keeping the discipline of French Studies highly relevant in academia.

Does the book, which is reminiscent of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, also shine a light on the situation of the United States from the perspective of French society?

Jean-François Brière: Les Français does offer a reading of the United States and American society through the prism of French society. By learning what separates – or unites – the French and the Americans, U.S. readers are logically led to think about their own differences and the unique nature of their own culture. Learning to understand another culture is indispensable for garnering a better understanding of one’s own.

Les Français
by Laurence Wylie, edited by Julie Fette and Jean-François Brière, Hackett Publishing Company, 2021.

Interview published in the December 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe the the magazine.