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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Theodore Dalrymple

Mon Dieu, the French are behaving like the English! Add to ...

Anyone who has crossed the Channel from England to France can hardly fail to have noticed the greater refinement of public behaviour in the latter. The triumphant and even militant coarseness of the English is much less in evidence there. Vulgarity of speech and manner is occasional rather than dominant; even the advertisements are less crude.

When you meet groups of children in France, they are more like singing birds than predatory piranha, as they are in England. The French, as yet, have no reason to shrink away in fear of their own offspring, as the English do. A certain polite ceremoniousness still obtains in daily life. Apart from the banlieues - where things are worse than anywhere in England but which, as far as the rest of France is concerned, might as well be on the far side of the moon - casual social interactions are far more pleasant in France than in England.

Recently, however, I have noticed three signs that things are moving in the wrong - which is to say, the English - direction. These are as yet but small clouds on the horizon, no bigger than a man's hand; but social change these days, especially deterioration, can happen very quickly.

The first of these signs is that the French are beginning to throw litter out of their cars as they drive along. The English have been doing this, en masse, for a long time, with the natural result that Britain is the litter bin of the world.

The French did not use to behave in this way. There is no realistic means, of course, by which the authorities can prevent it. The prohibition on littering has to be internal to the human heart, and maintained by collective pride. That one now sees the French discard litter in this egotistical way suggests their laudable internal restraint is weakening. They are becoming more English.

The second sign is the very sudden increase in the prevalence of tattooing and body piercing. The small tourist town of 2,500 inhabitants near to which I live when I am in France now has two tattoo parlours. Until quite recently, the French were unpersuaded by the charms of this silly, and fundamentally rather sad, Anglo-Saxon fashion. All of a sudden, pretty girls and handsome boys have started to mutilate themselves with ironmongery in their eyebrows (and elsewhere), and highly visible tattoos.

What does this mean? It, too, augurs an increase in the inflamed and militant egotism, the ferocious individualism without individuality, that is found across the Channel. People who tattoo themselves claim to be expressing themselves; but what, exactly, are they expressing? What does an indelible blue-stylized lizard on the side of the neck signify? It is surely an implicit admission that the bearer has nothing to express, and has difficulty in distinguishing himself from the others by whom he is surrounded. This is a particularly wounding admission in an age when personal uniqueness is so valued, and everyone defends his claim to be special.

The third sign is the behaviour of a group of young Frenchmen on a train on which I travelled recently. They indulged in the horrible, loud, drunken braying that is now quite normal in English trains (and elsewhere) but was unknown in France. I noticed the same phenomenon in Paris.

This drunken braying is not joyful or celebratory, though a kind of coarse bonhomie is its pretext. It is intended to intimidate, and it does intimidate. No one dares to challenge the young men who behave in this fashion, and so they are able to impose their will. Not joy, but an enjoyment of an otherwise pointless sense of power is what it expresses. It is like a revenge on the world that fails to afford these men the recognition and respect to which they feel entitled.

Not coincidentally, the nearest thing I have ever heard to this braying was at a fascist rally in Naples addressed by Alessandra Mussolini. It is the deep guttural roar of bitter and thwarted egoists who unite to overcome their insignificance.

As yet, the deterioration in France is slight, but it is unopposed. And if the English experience proves anything, it proves there is a Gresham's law of behaviour: The bad drives out the good.

British writer Theodore Dalrymple is the author of Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses . He is a retired physician.

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