Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to debate anything, anytime, anywhere

Did anyone ever tell you that running effective meetings in France was a little like herding cats? No? Well, take it from me, now you know.

With France being a time-flexible culture, be prepared for meetings to start 10-15 minutes late and run over by at least as much. Perhaps you expect meetings to serve as a forum to talk to specific, pre-defined points on an agenda in order to reach a firm decision or agree on a clear plan of action. You’re going to leave those expectations at the door – they don’t belong here!

What you’re likely to experience is that wonderful French passion for debate, discussion and intellectual challenge. The meeting agenda, if it even exists, can (and will) get hijacked at any moment. And boy can that discussion heat up, often with everyone talking at once. It’s a nightmare if, like me, you’re the minute taker!

Where does this come from?

Students in the French school system are taught to disagree openly (thèse, anti-thèse, synthèse) and hence the French intuitively follow a similar pattern in any meeting. Conflict and confrontation are seen as a way to deconstruct an idea, challenge it to the maximum to see how robust it really is (bringing any risks and contradictions to the forefront), ultimately resulting in an even better idea. If it’s your idea in the firing line, remember: it is not YOU who is being attacked, it is the IDEA, so don’t take it personally.

Bear in mind the meeting may end with a simple “et voilà.” No action points. No next steps. No recap of the key decisions taken. Just like that, meeting participants are meant to have understood all of this implicitly.

Also bear in mind that any decision taken in the meeting can change depending on who the boss, or M Le President, meets in the corridor afterwards or during their next pause-café. At the end of the day, it’s the boss who decides, and they may be inclined to pursue their own personal goals after meetings. Voilà, c’est comme ça.

Love of intellectual debate

The French reputation for being intellectuals started in the Middle Ages, when Paris was the European centre for education, and it continued into the oh-so-cool philosophers and writers of the 1950s and ’60s. But the idea is still very present today. The main reason there is a grain of truth to this French stereotype is that philosophy is a compulsory subject in French schools.

During their final year in secondary school, French students start learning to use their judgment, ask the big questions and study the history of ideas. Descartes, Plato, Sartre and Kant are all part of the curriculum. The philosophy exam is the most feared among students at the Bac  – the French exam students take before going to college  – an indication of just how dedicated France is to encouraging its citizens to think big.

Consequently, the French take “le talk show” very seriously. The clash of ideas has been part of France’s national identity for centuries, and the intellectual  – almost anyone with an air of gravitas and the confidence to opine on any subject in three points  – enjoys a special status in society and a place of prominence on television. One of my favourites is “Match of ze Day.” In fact I love the very knowledgeable, thorough discussion and disection of all my favourite sports on French television before, during and after the race or game.


39 Comments on “Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to debate anything, anytime, anywhere

  1. Pingback: Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to debate anything, anytime, anywhere – A very interesting article that I wanted to share. – susiesopinions

  2. well handle coming from A French. We are mostly existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre with a bit of Rousseau and Voltaire and even Victor Hugo. Quite a group! We say vive la différence because you will find different here is good. Our meeting hour is just a guide not a specific time as in anglo countries which i have lived , here if we tell you come at 15h for a meeting we do as we said too in America, American time or Latin time! oops here we are overall Latins with a few mixes of the melting pot of Europe. The French we can be complicated but all follow us see all the big world organisation even have French letters COI FIFA FIBA etc etc. Cheers

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is well observed. This propensity to discuss, to argue is even more apparent in international contexts, with mixed staff. What I have often observed is that after having discussed, or even contested, it is often the French who come up with proposals, viable or not, but there is imagination in them and not just figures and rules to follow as it is the case for much people.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree! Thorough debate means the proposals are often more robust and there’s much less settling for least worst option.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting indeed, but not super surprising given how many philosophers were French and how much of the Enlightenment’s ideas came from France. The stereotype is that the French will argue and complain about anything after all, LOL.

    You almost make it sound like political debate on Reddit though. 😀 I’m all for the open discussion and debate of ideas, but with some civility to it; more akin to ancient Greek schools of philosophy. I also agree that we need more critical thinking (and economics) classes in the rest of the West. Maybe then people could see when they’re being BS’ed by the media and their leaders.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. We could certainly use more of this in the US, where — malheureusement — the prevailing trend seems to be anti-intellectualism.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not good with confrontation or conflict, so I wouldn’t do so well in these meetings! But, in saying that, debate is also good!

    Liked by 2 people

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