Book Review: "They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth About the French" By Piu Marie Eatwell     Print Email

Reviewed By Laura Kayali, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

French Children Don’t Throw Food,” “French Women Don’t get Fat,” and “A Year in the Merde…” Our French culture, way-of-life and worldwide known flaws have been extensively dissected by Anglo-Saxons in effort to grasp what makes the French so … French.

As a French citizen, I was very interested in reading a foreign perspective on France. External points of view are often magnifying glasses and, as I am currently discovering a different culture myself, as an intern in the United States, I was curious to know what it was like for a Briton to live in my home country. I was also expecting to be annoyed by another Brit making fun of French customs and culture. But I have to admit that Piu Marie Eatwell did her homework and I developed a grudging respect for the book, which could easily have degenerated into tired clichés --just another futile effort by the English to understand their neighbor. This book, highly irritating at times, will probably not be loved by the French, but it will likely command respect.

What is most remarkable about this “forensic exercise” is how well-documented it is. When referring to a myth, for example, Ms. Eatwell traces its origins, which is an effective and enlightening approach to fully understanding why people were led to believe it in the first place. History plays a central role in the author’s analyses and she provides obscure background facts which help us understand the roots of modern France’s characteristics. Art is an essential element of Ms. Eatwell’s narrative: her points are backed by Baudelaire’s verses, Gustave Courbet’s paintings and Jean-Luc Godard’s movies. She poetically uses French culture for the sake of both her arguments and the reader’s edification. Yet, while highly informative, “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?” does not come across as overly scholarly and is easy to read, mainly because of the author’s humor – and in spite of the irritating overuse of French words and expressions. Parisian café terraces are compared to “Dantesque infernos” and the quality of British gastronomy is mercilessly decried. The final chapter, dedicated to the bumpy relations between France and Great-Britain – the famous Entente Cordiale – goes to prove Ms. Eatwell is as comfortable with self-mockery as she is with making fun of the French.

And making fun of the French she does, with gusto. Sometimes she does so with kindness. Some other times however, we cannot help but perceive an unmistakably judgmental, if not disparaging, tone. “The French need to stop scoffing at the processed stuff, and buy their own regional cheese,” she advocates. Johnny Halliday, one of France’s most adored singers, is nothing more than an “Elvis wannabe” and Serge Gainsbourg, another one of France’s idols, is a vulgar “chain smoker and an alcoholic who introduced designer stubble as a style statement.”

Some of Ms. Eatwell’s comments are more scornful than humorous: in her efforts to debunk myths, she indulges at times in the good old French bashing. And some of her affirmations are factually false. For instance, in the chapter about French children, Ms. Eatwell insists that because homework was banned in 2013, it helps explain why it is easier for French parents to raise their children. Only, homework wasn’t banned. Politicians did think about it and the issue was widely debated, but French parents still have to suffer through hours of multiplication tables and poem recitations.

Also, the author sometimes fails to comprehend that France is a multicultural, multidimensional society. We sometimes have the impression she only talks about the French upper-class, the Christian bourgeoisie who has lived in France since Vercingetorix: “A ménage a trois is (…) a requirement for the glamorous haute-bourgeoisie,” “French bourgeois etiquette,” “Women should not be seen drunk according to the French etiquette” (to quote a few). Unemployed workers – and God knows there are many of them in France as we speak – probably could not care less about “French etiquette.” And the same goes for second- and third-generation immigrants.

While debunking some of the French myths, Ms. Eatwell conveys some clichés herself. The Parisian waiter speaks in “inevitable very bad, heavily accented English” and the French are never taking responsibility for their failures and failings, always blaming them on someone else (“The French, of course, blame the English for exporting le binge-drinking to France”).

It is disappointing, however, that she forgot two of the truest clichés about the French. First of all, we are very grouchy. Even if that is mostly true of Parisians – the Southern part of the country is known for being more light-hearted – the French have a tendency to complain … a lot. Also, we can be annoyingly arrogant. The French are especially arrogant when they are traveling abroad. Have you ever seen a French tourist? Nothing is good enough for us because we are under the impression that everything is better in France. That arrogance also helps explain the fact that we are “paranoid about our language,” as suggested by Ms. Eatwell in her chapter about the myths of French culture. Although that is a symptom of a deeper concern many Western countries can relate to. With the rise of emerging countries, we are afraid that, in the future, we won’t be as powerful or as influential a country as we used to be, and this feeling of “declinism” greatly participates in the shaping of France’s modern society.

“There is no truth, there is only perception” wrote Gustave Flaubert. Trying to unveil the truth about the French is ambitious. Trying to unveil the truth about any people is ambitious, as one can wonder if there is a unique, absolute truth when it comes to human behaviors and cultures. If Ms. Eatwell may not have managed to fully grasp THE truth about the French (probably because such a thing does not exist), she has nonetheless offered us HER rather entertaining version of that truth.

And to answer to the title’s rhetorical question from a French point of view: we do eat horse, but mostly because we were told it was beef.

They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth About the French
By Piu Marie Eatwell
342 pp. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.