The French are different from you and me. To start with, they have better manners. "It's acceptable to order a hamburger," my friend Sarah explained. "But you must always eat it with a knife and fork. French people believe that touching your food is disgusting."
Sarah, lucky girl, lives and works in Paris. Her mom and I went to visit her for a few days last month to make sure she wasn't lonely. She spent much of the time saving us from ourselves.
"Never hail a taxi in the street," she instructed. "It's illegal."
To obtain a taxi, one must find a taxi stand. But even if one does, the driver may not always find it convenient to accept your business.
"Non, non, non," said one taxi driver, waving us away as he lit up a cigarette. We asked if he thought another taxi might come along some time soon. "Perhaps," he said.
Sarah explained that the profit motive does not play the same role in French society as it does here. For example, many restaurants close on Sundays, even at the height of the tourist season. It's more important to take time off than make money. The same goes for August, when most of Paris shuts down so that everyone can go on an extended holiday.
The French think capitalism is slightly vulgar. What really matters is relationships. If you start buying your baguettes at the bakery around the corner, you must buy them nowhere else or the people at the bakery will be hurt.
All French people feel equal to everybody else, and they are quick to let you know if you have offended them. At an elegant café on the Champs-Élysées one day, we overheard the smartly dressed female maître d' tell off an American customer in front of his entire family. He had made the boorish mistake of snapping his fingers for the check. "You have hurt me," she said. "I am not a servant. I am proud of what I do. It is wrong to treat me in that way." The man looked shamefaced.
Parisians are great believers in correctness, comportment, order and control. They demand good behaviour from their children. "Calme-toi," they say when a child acts up, or, if that fails, "Tu te calmes!" One day, we actually saw a mother give her bawling child a gentle smack on the behind and pretend to walk away. Sure enough, the child calmed herself. As a result, French children are amazingly well mannered. They don't eat junk food, either. They eat foie gras.
Sarah adores Paris. Who wouldn't? But she's not sure it's forever. To begin with, there is the problem of French men, who are vain and needy. They pay more attention to their clothes and coiffure than she does. It is fashionable for them to be melancholy. A handsome young office mate texts her often with messages like, "I am so sad all the time." She gave him some advice for cheering up, but it didn't help. Also, they constantly cheat on their girlfriends. Their love lives are full of tempestuous and completely unnecessary romantic dramas that would probably strike practical young women from North America as a total waste of time.
Paris is a fantastic place to visit, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. A cramped apartment with iffy plumbing and no elevator can cost $2-million. The country is a mess, and no one seems inclined to fix it. Young adults with good degrees face lifetimes of insecure contract work, while their elders enjoy job security for life. Millions of people essentially do nothing, but it is impossible to fire them because of French employment rules.
Everybody is furious at the government, which is mired in scandal and corruption. The former budget minister is being investigated for stashing almost a $1-million in a secret Swiss bank account. François Hollande, the current President, is so unpopular that he makes Stephen Harper's approval ratings look phenomenal. "He is weak," said the tour guide who was showing us around Versailles. "No one knows where he is going."
Mr. Hollande's private life is the stuff of French farce. For years, he lived with Ségolène Royale, a chic and gorgeous 59-year-old who is the mother of his four children and is also, like him, an ambitious Socialist politician. Then he took up with Valérie Trierweiler, a twice-divorced mother of three, who, as a political journalist, wrote many fawning profiles of him. She, too, is chic and gorgeous. The two women openly loathe each other. On top of that, Mr. Hollande and Ms. Royal have become fierce political rivals. Betrayal and bitterness fill the air. "Je pardonne, mais je n'oublie pas," Ms. Royal declared recently.
The French don't mind infidelity in a politician – actually, they expect it – but they do not like a mess. "He can't control his women, and people despise him for that," our guide explained.
Mr. Hollande's troubled love life merely confirms the fact that France is run by a tiny, incestuous elite of political, business and media types who eat, drink and sleep together but have no clue what to do about the country's woeful problems. Things have gotten so bad that some radical opinion-writers are even advising the younger generation to get out. And increasingly, they are. This is a startling development in a country whose most cherished shared belief is that France stands at the apex of civilization.
"So, when do you think you'll come home?" I asked Sarah over dinner, as we wolfed down foie gras, magret de canard and impeccably fresh strawberries with Chantilly cream. It was a fine Paris evening. Around the corner, the Eiffel Tower was lit up again, after a brief but disruptive strike that had inconvenienced 10 or 20 thousand tourists.
"I'm not sure yet," she said. Then, she added, "Don't touch your food. It's rude."