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France’s Number One Pastime

image by Nick Youngson, see photo credits at bottom of page

I’ve recently rediscovered a fluffy French reality show called ‘Les reines du shopping’ (The Queens of Shopping). The premise is simple: 5 women are given a theme, a budget, and have to find an outfit in 3 hours that fits the theme. They then have to model their ensemble in front of the show’s other contestants and receive a grade.

One thought struck me while watching the other day. ‘Why is it,’ I thought to myself, ‘that these women are so opinionated on the clothing of one another?' Of course part of this is the premise of the show. But for one single outfit you can hear everything from ‘Wow, that looks stunning on her. I love it!’ or ‘No, Chantal, that doesn’t fit you at all.’

I noticed this because it echoed with things I have heard in real life. A clothing store clerk, for example, once said to me when suggesting a dress to try "Now, this dress is more ‘flashy’ than what you normally wear, but it will look great on. Go ahead, try it".

What I normally wear? This was a clerk I had never seen before in my life. But within 2 minutes she had looked me over and formed an opinion on my style, based just on the clothes I was wearing that day, in the 5 minutes of our interaction.

And then it hit me while watching this show: this store clerk and these women on the show are simply doing what they've been taught all their lives, that is to form a quick, solid opinion.

Forming an opinion is crucial in France. It’s how people are brought up, and it’s an essential ingredient for France’s number one national past time, that is, debating. It might seem strange that this realization about debate came from something as mundane as reality TV, especially during this electric period of the French election. But an election is exactly where you expect to find opinions and debates. Something as mainstream as reality TV, however, was not where I expected to encounter it or even to think about debating skills.

Debate in France is, quite frankly, a national obsession. Working at the university level, every semester I conduct a course evaluation to get feedback from students. And every semester, every class, without fail, students want more discussion of current events and more debate. Never mind that we already do debates, students always want more. This is also a comment I get across the board, from students straight out of high school, to doctoral candidates.

France held a pre-election presidential debate a few weeks ago and for an American watching, it could have seemed obsessively micromanaged. All candidates from the 11 parties that were represented in the primary election were there. And there was a very visible timer that kept track of each candidate’s speech, not allowing more than 18 minutes for any one candidate. As the Guardian said in this article, it was « ‘égalité (equality) it is most basic form »[1].

It's also common to see live debating on public television. Famous politicians, and even the president himself, appear occasionally on the nightly news for the very purpose to defend their views/policies. Often this will be an on-air discussion between the broadcaster and the politician. Keep in mind that this is live television, where the president is asked difficult and probing questions on air. It’s not a pre-taped interview where cuts are made strategically to project a certain image.

Generally the French president will not be subjected to the same scrutiny as in the US surrounding certain matters of private life (although this seems to be changing, just look up President Hollande’s tryst with an actress…). And you would be hard pressed to find an example of the president making fun of himself or showing any kind of self-deprecating humor.  But one thing the president is not exempt from is being able to defend his/her views publicly and on the spot, just like any good French citizen should know how to do.

On May 7, France will vote for its next president, between Emmanuel Macron (centrist) and Marine Le Pen (far-right). I mentioned Le Pen in a former post ( you don't know anything about the candidates or the French election, I highly recommend these two articles:

The stakes for this election are high. But no matter what the outcome, we can be sure that the future president will be expected to form clear opinions and show their mastery of France's number one pastime, debate.

 photo credits: image by Nick Youngson


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