French Diplomacy

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Peace Brother, Ottawa, May 2015

Peace Brother, Ottawa, May 2015

I think I learned to be French abroad.

Until I started traveling, my nationality didn’t mean much to me. I was particularly proud of being French (I didn’t do anything for it, after all, I acquired the citizenship by birth) and nationalism is often frown upon, anyway. I was French like I have brown hair and black eyes—this is what I had drawn at that great big universe lottery. I was aware that it was probably better to be French than, let’s say, Somalian or Romanian, not because French are superior but because I was enjoying a first-world lifestyle. But even the concept of “First World” and “Third World” were abstract ideas grounded in political buzzwords. You don’t know what true poverty is until you see it with your own eyes.

Traveling within the European Union as a French is like visiting relatives. We argue, plot, make up and develop strategic alliances against a drunk uncle or a delusional cousin, but we share a long history and common roots. Sure, French blame the British for the Mad Cow disease outbreak, and the Germans for the wars, and the Italians for Mussolini, and the Spanish for Franco, and the Belgians for their candour, and the Netherlands for their drugs and the… yes, we blame everyone, but then they blame us too so we are even. We still visit for holidays and peacefully invade our respectve beaches, monuments and capital cities.

In 1999, I flew to China with my French passport and trust me, I clung to it. The US had just bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—an “ooops, shit” incident during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia—and being American in China that summer wasn’t easy. So I embraced being French. Yes, I was from the country of Victor Hugo, yes, I had croissants for breakfast, yes, we were allied… were we? Sure, Chirac loved everyone.

In 2003, being French in Australia and New Zealand was a bit more challenging. The South Pacific still remembered that French secret service agents planted two bombs and sank the Rainbow Warrior. The Iraq War was imminent and France was against a military intervention. I marched in Sydney during the global anti-war protests of February 2003 because the three words “Operation Enduring Freedom” sounded like complete bullshit to me. Yet, I found it confusing to be on Chirac’s side because as much as I agreed with his anti-war stance, I had not voted for him and I distrusted him.

I traveled to close to thirty countries as a French national and while I have never sewn a French flag on my backpack, I was generally welcome. Unlike British, Japanese or Americans, French don’t have a “gap year” or backpacking tradition so I was almost as rare as a Chinese backpacker. On the other hand, France is a pretty famous on the international scene and most foreigners have something to say about the country. Maybe they visited Paris once and met a bitchy waiter. Maybe France was once the colonial power. Maybe we fought, maybe we were allies, maybe the smell of blue cheese made them sick and maybe the train never showed up because the employees were on strike.

I’m not responsible for whatever happened, whenever it did. But I’m French, so they tell me. I’m sure Americans have to deal with stereotypes abroad—the ignorant imperialist American or the land of milk and honey. Meanwhile, meeting people from all around the world, I was also challenging my own stereotypes. No all women from Middle East are oppressed and helpless, not all Latinos are dying to become illegal immigrants in the US (many would rather improve their situation at home at a local level), not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Japanese are working for Toyota.

Oh, the things you learn when you travel the world.

“You’re French? What the hell are you doing here, then?”

This is how an Australian backpacker reacted upon meeting in a dorm in Toronto, in 2002. “What are you doing there?” I replied. “It’s summer in Australia, and you come all the way to Canada to freeze your ass off?”

This was only the beginning. Lost in a crowd of mostly skilled workers and economic migrants, many Canadians have asked me why I left France. Because I was young, some assumed I had run away from my family. “No!” I’d say vehemently. “We are actually very close.” A the same time, I had to admit I didn’t have a Pd.D. and I wasn’t sure I had much to offer to Canada in terms of skills.

These days, if I don’t feel like chatting, I usually say I married a Canadian. Another line I’m using is “France is a lovely place to visit, but living there is a bit more challenging these days. Canada offered more opportunities.”

It’s true… and neutral.

See, I don’t feel like bitching about France. And really, I have no reason to—after all, I spent 18 years of my life over there and disowning France would be abandoning a part of my identity. Traveling also taught me to appreciate what France offers. For instance, while the education system has many flaws, at least French graduate are not drowning in student loan debt. Universal healthcare is, in my opinion, the best system. French culture is interesting and provides an interesting perspective on the world, even though French are obsessed with the past.

Whether I want it or not, I’m French, so may as well make the most of it. I have this amazing perk: I can focus on the positive aspects of the culture and leave the rest—the staggering unemployment rate, a high cost of living, Sarkozy, the Kafkaesque administrative system—behind.

No matter how long you’ve been in Canada for, people will ask about your background. It’s just normal curiosity, it doesn’t make you less Canadian. This is where you will have the opportunity to debunk stereotypes (doing your fellow citizens a favour) and use diplomacy.

Make the most of it. The world is a small place, after all.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. As an American in France I’ve been told: everyone carries a gun in the U.S., you eat a lot of burgers, all college students have crazy spring breaks…

    On the other hand, because of the U.S.’s global presence, a number of people also know a lot beyond the clichés, like what the Obama family is like and who the basketball teams are. Try asking an American about Hollande or Paris St-Germain.

    Yes, people always ask a version of, “Why are you here?” And as you said, the answer varies from the stock answer that you have developed after being asked that many times, to a more detailed one if the person has further interest and follow-up questions. On the flip side, going back to your home country, people you don’t know well probably ask, “How is Canada?” I’d be curious in knowing how you answer that broad question!

    • I think one thing people don’t realize is how diverse is the US. The life of Jane Doe in NYC has probably nothing to do with the life of Jane Roe in Tulsa or John Doe somewhere in North Dakota. I wonder if Americans realize it as well, come to think of it… I was shocked how… humble, best word I can find here, and simple life was in the country in NY State, just across the border. And then you have all the stereotypes of LA, NYC, Miami, whatever. Laws, regulations, the cost of living even varies so much from one state to another as well.

      For the “how is Canada?” question, I have it easy. As soon as I state that no, I do not live in Montreal or even Quebec, French lose interest 😆 “Oh, that Canada… it’s like the US, okay, let’s move on…” Funny. French want to hear story about the Great White North, québécois accent and sleight dogs. Ontario? Meh. Same as if you admit, as an American, that you live in… I don’t know, North Carolina or Idaho. Foreigners don’t know much about these places. Oh, French do tend to ask weird questions, I wrote about it here:

      • That is true—people who live in the northern U.S. and haven’t traveled to the south don’t really know what it’s like, and vice versa. And growing up near NYC, I didn’t realize to what extent people from elsewhere had such a strong mental image of the city until I came in contact with them.

        Oh, so you don’t ride sleigh dogs to get downtown…

  2. The most common things I have been asked while being abroad were:

    – do you have central heating in Italy? (Yes, and hot water as well)
    – why are you not moving your hands while talking? (Using my voice is usually enough)
    – can you make home made pasta? (Yes)
    – is it true that you eat pasta everyday in Italy? (Yes, does it sound so weird? )
    – I am going to (insert random italian city), can you suggest me a hotel, restaurants, cafes, where to go, what to eat? (I am not a living tour guide)
    – why do you keep on voting for Berlusconi? (I have no idea and I have never voted for him)
    – really, you are italian? But you speak a good English! (both things can happen at the same time)


    • This is so funny! And so true as well. Mind you, even though I’m French, I’m often asked questions about other European countries, and I’ve been asked whether Italian actually eat pasta and pizza every day. I love to make suggestions if I actually know the place… but no, I’ve never been to (insert random destination in France or Europe). Any question about the mafia?

      • Uhm we get more questions about Berlusconi. Sadly mafia is mentioned just when people want to insult you (i had a patient once who started mocking a very strong italian accent and asked me whether it was true that we all belonged to mafia in Italy…).
        when i was in Canada I used to say to everyone any stereotype they had heard about italians and food is true, and any other stereotype was probably fake :p We do eat pasta everyday (my mom seriously thinks it’s not healthy to slip your daily pasta dish. She is always so surprised to notice that if I spend one week abroad without pasta I am perfectly fine! ), we think that if you are italian and drink cappuccino after 11 am you are a very weird person and that if you put cheese on fish you must go to jail.

        • It’s funny to me because my family is originally from Italy on my mother’s side, and my last name is Italian. French have a bunch of stereotypes about Italians (most of them fairly accurate, like the talking with hands, eating pasta, etc.), but in North America I discovered a completely new side of “Italian” culture. And really, this is the Italian-American culture, developed in the new world by immigrants, but it’s not really Italian. Like have you ever heard of the “Italian Wedding soup”? As far as I know, it’s only in the US. Or deep fried zucchini sticks, almost all Italian restaurants serve them here but I don’t think it’s Italian.

          Same goes with “mafia” stereotype, people refer to the bad rep of Italians in NY or Chicago back then.

          I think your mother is needed in North America, where people think eating carbs (let alone pasta at every meal!) is deadly 😆

          • We don’t eat soups at weddings. It’s considered cheap 😛
            We fry pretty much everything but there’s not a particular dish with zucchini cut in sticks and fried. Another thing that amuses me is Fettuccine Alfredo. We don’t have such a dish here (i guess it’s like cantonese rice in Italy, they serve it as a typical Chinese dish but I don’t think it really exists) but I found out that there’s a wikipedia page in English about it, showing even the story of how the dish was created!
            I don’t usually talk with hands, unless I am talking with someone who is quite far and cannot hear me well…that’s the only case when I use gestures. I think it’s something more common in the south and especially in the Naples area.

          • Yes, Alfredo sauce! I forgot that one! Virtually unknown outside the Americas. Italian-Argentinian cuisine is interesting too, I suspect many staple dish won’t be found in Italy.

            You’re absolutely right (I was about to write “rice” :lol:) about Cantonese rice. Fried rice does exist in China, it’s a cheap dish, but it’s a bit different than your typical European “Cantonese rice”. Also, spring rolls aren’t that popular in China.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    It is probably the only good thing Chirac has done for France. And even if I am not at all on the same political side, he is a sympathetic man (and a crook, and a convicted felon). Compared to Sarkozy … Rhââââ, give a bag of kittens I can strangulate 🙂

  4. I agree on your observation: no matter how much one appears to have left one’s passport country, there are still people who would insist that one acts the way they act because of their citizenship. But as you point out, citizenship is one thing, but there are many other factors that shape a person. It just happens that citizenship stereotypes are a handy way of making sense of the world, as most of the time, they are true. It is when we meet people who are exceptions; these are the times when we get into trouble sometimes.

  5. Au début je voulais à tout prix raconter combien la France me repoussait au moment où j’en suis partie. Maintenant je fais comme toi, j’adopte une position plus neutre en parlant d’envie de voir le monde et d’opportunités de carrière.

    • Idem, je suis passée par une phase où je voulais juste cracher ma haine… puis après, avec les années, je me suis dit qu’il y avait des choses sympas en France aussi, faut juste prendre du recul.

  6. We, my wife and I, have learnt a lot about French from Hollywood 🙂 We never made an effort in checking out some French cinema, until recently.

    The misconceptions that Hollywood builds! it’s just that when we started watching Indian characters on Hollywood, I kinda went , whaaa… lol, so I thought the way they portray French might not be really the way they say. But then bollywood is even worse at it ;p can’t blame just Hollywood

    • Well… I have to be honest, I’d say 25% of what I know about India, I learned it from the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, which is probably not accurate 😆

      • When I watched that movie I was like “Who are these guys?” lol

        There was truth in it about the slums, slums are a real thing. That one thing was just spot on. I think they even shot a couple of scenes in the real slum. And yes we have that game show, it’s been off for a while, but it’ll be back, it is hosted by one of the biggest stars of Bollywood, the Indian guy who was in The Great Gatsby. Well that’s about it 🙂

          • Well I have watched a lot of Hollywood movies about France however in French I have not. Although I have watched a few French movies like Incendies, I watched Bon Cop Bad Cop on your recommendation, it was funny but we couldn’t understand the French in it 🙁

            I have a highly recommended movie, Avoir et etre, it is in my computer, I am yet to watch it.

          • I didn’t understand the French in Bon Cop Bad Cop either 😆

            Try to find Le dîner de cons or Les visiteurs. These are funny comedies.

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