06/04/2012 09:21 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

France: An Epicenter of Culture

According to both the world-renowned film "The Artist," the French have a habit of looking back. (Interpolation: In "The Artist," the French tell their country not to look back as the Americans do, and in "Midnight in Paris," the Americans tell their country not to look back as the French do, a dynamic that results in a very interesting inter-cultural relationship between these two films, but will not be explored here). Obviously, at a fist glance, this habit of "looking back" appears to be very dangerous, and to some extent, it is. However, I would argue that they way in which the French are looking back is not so much the result of wishing to stop all progress and return to the past -- rather, it's the resulting symptom of a nation whose culture is not quite in sync with the dominant culture of our era, no matter how "modernized" France may appear to be.

To that end, French culture is definitely distinct. The French have valued "high culture" and intellectualism throughout history, from the days when Paris was the artistic epicenter of the world to the televised interviews given by leading French intellectuals and artists on what their opinion of the presidential election was after the first round of elections, watched by almost every respectable French citizen. Never scared of being considered elitist, the French value the best and brightest from their country, whether this is a historical or contemporary figure, and they do their best to celebrate the artistic culture that this creates.

They take their time during meals, never eating for less than an hour during the largest meal of the day (usually lunch) and bringing to the gastronomic experience a love of good ingredients and traditional methods of food preparation (preparing meals from scratch as opposed to buying them) that is without parallel anywhere else in the world. While the French love their food, they always try to eat healthily -- during my stay in Avignon, my host family fed me more fresh fruit than I had ever eaten in a two-week period before, often substituting a rich gateau for a nectarine or a peach.

Finally, the French are a fairly secular nation. Indeed, despite the ostentatious cathedrals and celebrations that are scheduled on Catholic holidays, fewer and fewer French citizens are attending church, and describe themselves as being merely catholiques culturels. While this move towards secularism has been problematic for the Muslims that live in France in particular (see below), the French have made it illegal for any expression of religion to be worn in public (Crucifix or Star of David necklaces, etc) and while this has been a discriminatory act against Muslims, it does also prove that the French, in addition to discriminating, are expressing a wish to have a society free from religious ties.

However, these cultural attributes in particular are not ones which are celebrated by the dominant world culture today. (For the sake of simplicity, I am going to be using those characteristics of American culture which, because of the United States' world dominance over the past 50 years, have permeated into multiple cultures throughout the world). To begin, the new movement towards global democracy has brought, along with many other positive changes -- including heightened levels of freedom for countless groups of people -- a need for each country to celebrate those things that are "of the people," which can often be taken to mean those things that can be understood by literally every single member of a society. This results in celebrating the art and intellectual forms that are more simplistic (i.e. a nation's box office blockbusters at the expense of a film that is more artistically done), causing the French to be thought of as elitist and backward-looking (in the sense that their elitism is celebrating a time of greater social division and perhaps even aristocracy itself). In culinary terms, the finer facets of French cuisine are outnumbered by the number of people around the world who desire a quick meal at a fast food restaurant so that they can eat it just as quickly and therefore save more time for work. Here too, the slower, more refined methods of traditional French cooking (still practiced by many) are considered to be ancient and inefficient. Finally, the French move towards secularism is also greatly unpopular. While China (a rising world power) is still secular, the United States has become deeply religious in recent years and has manifested itself mainly through conservative movements banning gay marriage or abortion on religious grounds; and while France is not seen as "backwards" for remaining secular, it still places it at odds with the culture of the dominant nation of the world.

However, just because France is at odds with the culture that is at the moment dominating the world, does not necessarily mean that French culture is any better or worse off because of it. The French are indeed not looking back or "backwards" as Americans, and even some French citizens insist; they have merely greeted the new wave of changes sweeping the world while retaining some of their traditional cultural identity at very little expense. In fact, the major problem that the French have is their tolerance of immigrants, and this is one that the United States struggles with as well. As I mentioned, the French are rather openly hostile to the Muslim immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, banning the burka as a corollary to the law that there couldn't be any expression of religion worn in public; and any educated American is aware of the problems of discrimination faced by Latino immigrants, especially in the Southwest. While this act is certainly quite hostile as it was instituted on a national level, it is important to keep in mind that because the French and the United States are struggling with the same issues, the French are no more backwards than the citizens of the country that is culturally dominating the world.