Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow

9781861057150I’ve recently joined the growing ranks of British addicts of European subtitled TV. I’m still in recovery after Spiral series 4 (the French Canal+ thriller Engrenages) on BBC4, the end of which has left my Saturday evening viewing a deep void of desolation.

One of the fascinating aspects of Engrenages (apart from the stylish casting and wonderful performances, great direction and photography, the huge energy, massive tension and intercutting of contrasting storylines, the sharks jumped with Gallic insouciance) has been its glimpses of French assumptions about society, the law and politics that are so radically different to my experience in Britain.

So, looking for someone to explain, I came across a recommendation of this book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, which seeks to explain the ways in which France and its people are distinctive, and, as they say of Norfolk, ‘Do Different’. In many ways it succeeded in doing what I wanted it to do. I wanted to know more about what I was watching that was so alien to my experience – why was this person called a Juge d’Instruction conducting crime reconstructions and directing the police investigation? Is he a judge, or isn’t he? How come politicians seemed to interfere in the judicial process, not with impunity quite, but with a complete lack of shock factor? Who are all these different tribes of Police, and why are they in such vicious competition?

Alongside that, there have always been some characteristics of French society that have intrigued me, as they are so distinctive from my British experience – not just the way law and government are conducted and interact, but also the highly centralised and uniform education system to tertiary level, followed by the wildly differing paths to qualification offered by the Grandes Écoles and the universities. Then there is the approach to language and its use, marked on the one hand by standardising and perfecting the French language, the store set by rhetoric and articulacy, and on the other the contrasting vigour and energy of French argot and everyday speech. It is fascinating to ask where these preoccupations spring from and what nurtures the French character. This book sets out to give answers, so it is apparent that it is not only Spiral watchers who are intrigued by these questions.

The first and biggest health warning with this book is that it was written over ten years ago now, is firmly pre-Sarkozy, let alone pre-Hollande, and is naturally therefore off the pace with a number of developing areas of change in France and its institutions. This rather invalidates some chapters, notably the chapter on France and Europe, and leaves gaps in others, notably leaving out recent reforms in the structure of legal investigations regarding human rights of detainees, but these problems are not overwhelming. There is no evidence that what underpins these differences, which can be boiled down to France’s wholly distinctive attitude towards the State and its role in achieving the Common Good, has changed in essence.

What makes this book a little odd is that there is an added cultural overlay. The authors are Quebeckers, with no remaining familial connection to France. They are investigative researchers and journalists, partners, and Nadeau’s initial project was an academic research project based in Paris to examine France’s uniquely resistant attitude to globalisation. This turned into a joint attempt to explain the whole nine yards of how France Do Different. Naturally, it is an attempt to explain to a transatlantic audience what it might find weird about France and the French. An author starting out from a European perspective might have written a different book (or maybe not).

I was fascinated particularly by the chapters on how French education is posited on identifying and developing an elite, unashamedly, as the French state and people deserve and require a civil elite to lead it and serve its interests. I read the chapter on the legal system, and was enlightened about the role of the Juge d’Instruction (Spiral-watchers will not be surprised to find out that I’m a huge fan of M. le Juge Roban and his idiosyncratic methods and principled yet doomed attempts to define how justice and truth should prevail), but, I have to confess, enlightened about little more than that. I’m sure that there must be another book that’s almost as weighty as this one about the application of law and justice in France alone – but maybe not written with the likes of me in mind. I’m still in the dark about the myriad police corps, but am vastly better informed about France’s attitude to protest and dissent, which is far more choreographed as a part of the fabric of French life, something which may help explain the puzzlingly routine storyline in Series 4 based on the strangely unscary ultra-gauche domestic terrorist cell.

So, if these matters intrigue you, if you want to know what an Énarque is and why anyone should care, this book has some merit. It is written in a lively, popular style, and is very readable. It is a tale told from the point of view of the elite, and I felt that possibly fifty-four million of those sixty million French persons (let’s go for inclusive language, shall we?) don’t get much of a look in. I suppose their part in not being wrong lies in the implicit majority consensus behind the vision of the French state and its place in people’s lives. One faintly irritating feature is the number of times that Nadeau’s informants are drawn from his own circle, and of course as an academic with a high profile international research project his circle is a pretty elite bunch. The book could be seen as dealing in stereotypes, which on the one hand makes me wary, on the other may well be worth exploring for the pointers they give to an explanation of these differences. They are held up to the light to look for the kernel of truth behind them. These, though, are to some extent transatlantic stereotypes. Finally, one more time, beware of it being ten years or more old now. Dominique Strauss-Kahn figures in it for example, but for an entirely different, much earlier scandal, subsequently forgiven and forgotten, and from which he sprang to potentially greater heights. That he is now a fallen political idol may be a marker of change in French society that this book pre-dates. But unfortunately I haven’t found a more up to date book that attempts to do the same job as this one. Read with a wary eye on these issues, though, this is an informative and entertaining book. But not, I am sure, the whole story. I think I’ll go and read Tony Judt on the French intellectual elite for purposes of triangulation.

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. What makes the French so French. London: Robson Books, 2004. 368pp
ISBN 13: 9781861057150

8 comments on “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow

  1. kirstyjane
    April 11, 2013

    I’ll own up right now that I am thoroughly allergic to books about the French (or any) national character. But you do put a compelling case for this one! Thank you for yet another thoughtful and eloquent review.

  2. Kate
    April 11, 2013

    Wonderful, a really engaging lure-me-in review. If only it were up to date, as you say. So much has happened in ten years. There are some I-married-a-Frenchman memoirs around which fill in some of the gaps for the lower orders of society, but they lack the political infrastructure that this book seems to cover.

  3. Hilary
    April 12, 2013

    Thank you both! I know what you mean about the risks with attempts to isolate and analyse a national character. I think the strength of this book is that it concentrates on institutions and structures that are unique to France, and to take some pains to consider in what way they spring from a national mindset and in what way they go on to form it.

    I try not to read others’ reactions to books until I’ve recorded my own, but now I’ve taken a look at readers’ reviews I’m amused but not at all surprised to find that it divides them sharply. There are those who say words to the effect ‘This is spot on! I’ve lived in France for x years and give this to all my friends as the perfect introduction.’ And those who say ‘This is mostly nonsense! I’ve lived in France for x years, and am here to tell you that the authors have made so many elementary mistakes!’ So I’m taking it rather as a spotters guide, to tell me what to look out for, rather than the last word on the subject.

    I do think I need to find ways to update the information in this book, but I feel sure it’s pointing me in the right direction.

  4. Phillipa
    April 12, 2013

    Thank you, Hilary for brightening a dull, cold winter by introducing me to Spiral.

  5. Hilary
    April 12, 2013

    My very great pleasure! The tedious thing is the long wait for the next series – nothing now until 2014.

  6. rosyb
    April 13, 2013

    Hilary this has made me want to watch Spiral…but Andrew and I couldn’t last the first series after the rather gory start and our weak stomachs. Should I give the 2nd series a go? Sounds briliant from what you say.

  7. Julie Barlow
    October 19, 2016


    I saw that you reviewed our last book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong and thought your readers might be interested in the follow up book we published last spring: The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed. We wrote it after returning to France for a year (we have 10 year-old twin daughters now who went to French school). It’s similar in spirit to the first book, but explores just one particularly mystifying aspect of the French: how to communicate effectively (and enjoyably) with them. Yes, it did take a whole book to unravel the mysteries of French conversation…

    We’re getting good press (the New York Times called it “light as it is substantive” and the Times Literary Supplement, “fascinating and delightful”; Rick Steve’s Europe will be featuring us December 10).

    Please feel free to contact us directly if you have any questions.

    Au plaisir de vous lire!

    Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

  8. Hilary
    October 21, 2016

    Thank you so much, Julie and Jean-Benoît, for commenting on this review. Your latest books sounds like a very interesting follow-up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: