The Frenchman in me is very much tempted to think that it’s your Puritan heritage which has gone towards turning you English (and, I suspect, a good number of Americans) into a nation of down-to-earth pragmatists, admirers of modesty, and wary of anything which could be remotely considered as ostentatiously intellectual, or unashamedly theoretical. In France, on the contrary, we tend to hold in some esteem a person displaying a modicum of grey matter, a capacity for abstract, logical, even philosophically-oriented reasoning, and capable of aligning words of more than two syllables in length. You are more likely than not to label him a pretentious show-off, a ‘clever Dick’, a ‘smart Alec’, or even an ‘egg-head’ – an ivory-towered dreamer far removed from the practical realities of day-to-day life.
Take that last time I was in Blighty. An English friend was driving me through a large town when we were caught up in a long hold-up caused by traffic lights at a T junction some 200 yards ahead. After containing himself for a few minutes his exasperation finally got the better of him:
‘You know, this is just typical! he exploded. ‘There used to be two lanes here, one for drivers turning right, and the other with a filter for those wanting to turn left. So, traffic was always fluid, and there were never any hold-ups like this. Then some bright spark on the town council came up with the idea of reserving the left lane for cyclists only! Now, we’ve got just one single lane for motorists turning both right and left, and this is the result! The idiot’s probably got a university degree!’
And it is yet further proof of the diametrical opposition of approach which has always reigned between the two nations that, as a general rule, the feet-on-the-ground Englishman, when confronted with the blueprint of a new project, will pose the question: ‘All right, so it seems to be fine in theory but will it work in practice?’. He will then go to considerable lengths testing on a workbench whether it does so. The Cartesian Frenchman, on the other hand, will ask himself: ‘D’accord, so it seems to work in practice, but will it hold up in theory?’ He will then devise a complex algebraic formula demonstrating that it is the case.
It would, however, be an absurd generalization to maintain that all French people are head-in-the-cloud imbeciles. Enough of them are in contact with everyday reality for a number of jokes to be in circulation regarding the theoretical intelligence, lack of practical awareness (mixed in with a good dose of arrogance) of some Enarques (graduates of the E.N.A, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – a prestigious university charged with producing the nation’s political, industrial and administrative élite). One joke tells of a recently-graduated Parisian civil servant who decided to spend a weekend breathing the fresh country air. As he was rambling over the hills he happened to meet a shepherd leading his sheep down from their summer pastures.
‘Tell me, my good man,’ said the Enarque. ‘Do you know how many animals you have here in your flock? You do! Well, I’m willing to bet you100€ against one of your sheep that I can give you the exact number of ewes, rams and lambs you have at this moment.’
Certain he was onto a winner, the shepherd immediately accepted the bet. After making a series of what seemed highly complex mental calculations, the Enarque declared, ‘At the moment you have 251 ewes, 5 rams and 157 lambs. These figures are correct, are they not?’
‘Why yes, you’re dead right!’ exclaimed the astonished shepherd. ‘O.K. you’ve won. Go ahead and pick a sheep!’
So the Enarque proceeded to choose an animal. Just as he was leading it away the shepherd shouted ,’Hey, stop! That’s one of my dogs you’ve got!’
Another joke tells of a former Président de la République, also a graduate of the E.N.A., who was visiting a primary school one day. When the teacher asked her pupils if there were any questions they’d like to ask the ex Head of State, a little girl put her hand up.
‘Could you please tell me, sir,’ she asked, ‘why you don’t have any hair on the top of your head?’
‘Oh, the answer is quite simple, little girl. That’s because I’m very, very intelligent,’ Monsieur le Président replied. ‘You know, all exceptionally clever men lose their hair. It’s because they think a lot!’
Pointing to the growth on his temples, the little girl exclaimed, ‘All right, but in that case you must be a bit stupid on the side!’