View from Rue Saint-Georges

Me First

On a peculiar aspect of French culture

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | August 29, 2018
Flickr/David Pauritsch
Flickr/David Pauritsch

Boarding the train from Paris to La Baule, below Brittany, for the last seaside days of summer, I found a young man already sitting in my assigned seat. His face bore a familiar expression when I asked him to move, and then again when he had a similar encounter with the next passenger, and so on until the conductor asked him to produce his ticket, at which point he delivered a well-rehearsed lie. The expression—a look of knowing defiance mixed with feigned innocence—was familiar because people in France (usually but not always young men) constantly cheat the rules in petty ways, most visibly by riding without tickets on the TGV and hopping the turnstiles on the Métro.

After living in Berlin and traveling constantly to the United Kingdom, I feel confident making the broad generalization that the French cheat in ways and with a frequency that the British and Germans simply do not. Americans have many national failings, but cheating is not notably among them. I have tried for years to understand—usually after some infuriating experience standing in line only to have a supremely discourteous French person stroll in front of me—why such behavior can be so commonplace here. In an essentially socialist country whose national motto is liberté, egalité, fraternité, such selfishness leaves me genuinely confused. But perhaps that’s just it—perhaps in states of collective leveling, people will always seek out ways to assert themselves and rise above the crowd.

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