Hi. I’m in France. Did you know France has a different society than the United States? Wow. Surprising, right?
Sarcasm aside, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how French society treats class differences and inequality. The treatment is weird and complex, and much like France as a whole, I still don’t know what to make of it. So I figured we could work it out in another nice little blog post.
For example, the French are attentive to some language nuances in ways that Americans aren’t. It’s not necessarily polite to say “les pauvres” (the poor) or even “les quartiers pauvres” (poor areas) in French – preferred is the “quartiers défavorisés/classes défavorisées.” One of my friends told me about a class discussion where her French professor objected to referring to black people as “les noirs,” preferring some translation of “of African descent.” From my experience, neither of these would be particularly ‘mal vu’ in my home country.
Yet on the other hand, I’ve observed a unique sort of valorization of wealth that’s difficult to explain, but rather striking. A prior blog post of mine was about a casual conversation I had with a Parisian woman; I remember that as soon as I told her about where I went in the U.S., and that I was going to Sciences Po in Paris, she asked me “well then you must come from a great family, is your father a doctor?”
The answer is no – my family’s [expletive] awesome, but my dad’s definitely not a doctor. I get similar responses when people ask me what my parents do, and I explain that they are divorced, one is currently mostly on disability benefits, and the other does internal product movement (“purchase orders” she’s told me) for a company, in a job that she doesn’t really like.
People here seem to expect that a certain type of accomplishment is accompanied with a certain type of family wealth and stature. And what’s more, they don’t question it – every time I’ve met someone who’s been like “Oh, well he’s rich” or “Oh, well students at Sciences Po are usually quite well off,” their observations don’t seem to come with a critical tone. If anything, they’re positive, even though inherited affluence likely isn’t the result of that student’s own, independent work and intelligence.
Of course, seeing an open dialogue about wealth is really cool. (I could write another whole blog post about how our country’s lack of true dialogue about wealth leads us to valorize the ‘middle class’ when actually there’s a huge group of people who call themselves ‘middle class’ who make ridiculous money and are actually upper class and participate in politics I strongly disagree with but…. maybe here’s not the place. I’ll direct you to my NU Speech Team work on that). It’s nice that this society seems to know and acknowledge what affluence looks like.
But I’ve also met a few people who have reacted weirdly when I or my friends have mentioned financial constraints – in buying suits for a Model UN conference, in restaurant decisions, or in searching for lodging. As if attempting to live life cheaply and being so brash about it were slightly… familier. It’s a little bit off-settling to be given the implicit idea that since I don’t come from a prep school with a lawyer father, that I’m not chic. Or that I’m abnormal, or that I’m not well situated, or that I’m… not worth being where I am.
More reflection on this subject is needed, but it’s one of the most interesting differences I’ve found in my new environment while abroad.