The greatest disaster to happen to stereotypes about French people is the election of Nicolas Sarkozy at the presidency of the Republic on May 2007.
Until now, the French could pretend that they were the most refined people of all, that France was the country of art and good taste, that the French spirit, nourished by both the Cartesianism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, enlightened the darkness of the world – and, until now, other countries could pretend to believe this pretty fairy tale.
Unfortunately, even the best of friends must part. Sarkozy’s election has disillusioned the planet and shown the dark side of France in full view of everyone. It has become very hard, in England more than anywhere else, to fool people and delude them with the superiority of French genius. How indeed could France still be called the country of elegance while its president is the incarnation of vulgarity, a man who thinks that wearing a €5,000 Rolex on his wrist is the height of refinement? How could France people still be regarded as cultured while their chief speaks like a fair barker, openly despises academics and prides himself on not reading any book? Regarding the idea that France is the land of Human Rights, it will be soon consigned to the wheelie bin of History: Sarkozy’s disgusting policy on immigration makes the life of thousands of destitute people impossible, and his ridiculous, demagogic obsession with security and public order is turning French democracy into a caricature of a constitutional state. France does not look like itself any more.
It is true that national stereotypes sometimes bother you, “No, I don’t eat frogs’ legs for breakfast. No, I bath more than once a month.” However, it is true as well that you can sometimes miss stereotypes, as is the case for me nowadays. At least a cliché can be a claim to fame: in 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, I could say to warmongering Yankees, “Yes, I am a cheese-eating surrender monkey, and?” Events were to prove me right and The Simpsons wrong. Since then, naturally, a lot of things have changed: American people have elected Obama, the French Sarkozy, and everybody all over the world can perceive the very difference between talent and mediocrity. Now, when I say I come from France, I can be answered, “Oh, the country whose President is Carla Bruni’s husband?” Hopeless.
Although exaggerated, distorted or excessively generalised, stereotypes are rooted in truth. What kind of truth, that’s the point. I am afraid that the truth of Sarkozy’s France is not the better one. Where has the better one gone, then? Sometimes, I walk feeling melancholy along Croydon’s streets and paraphrasing Corneille I think to myself, “France is no more in France, it is everywhere I am.”