May 4th 2023

What Makes the French so Different?

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

As the saying goes, “Love ‘em or loathe ‘em.” Either way, the French are a fascinating bunch. I have been involved with them for most of my life and now am trying to capture what makes them different – both visually in portraits and intellectually in their thoughts and actions. My recent book on them 25 Unforgettable French Faces covers a wide range of individuals, from an aging Brigitte Bardot to architect Gustave Eiffel. Both of them changed the face of France. In the upcoming sequel, 25 More Unforgettable French Faces, I have completed my collection of 50 examples. The new book, now in progress, ranges from The Bad Boy of the 18th Century (Voltaire) to A Man of Principle (Jean-Paul Sartre) and Big Dark Eyes, (the actress Audrey Tautou).

Here follow a few excerpts from my new selection. Still to come are Zinedan Zidane, Audrey Toutou, Voltaire, Napoleon, Marguerite Yourcenar, Louis Pasteur and others.

Only two French presidents have ever been sentenced to prison for crimes related to their office – the late Jacques Chirac in 2011 for paying salaries to fictitious employees while he was mayor of Paris, and his protégé Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 for abuse of power and manipulation of the judicial process while president. Chirac died in 2019 without serving time, and Sarkozy now spends his days at home in Paris with lawyers fighting to have his sentence stricken.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, an extraordinary cinema star,  performed in a seemingly effortless style – doing his own stunts and developing a masculine swagger. He was a professional boxer early in his career.  He studied acting for three years at the Conservatoire des arts dramatiques. Following a series of small roles, he burst upon the world stage at 27 with the lead in Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) in 1960. The French loved him and mourned his death in 2021.

Belmondo

 

 

When Jean-Paul Sartre was arrested during the 1968 student riots in Paris, he was promptly pardoned by President Charles de Gaulle on the grounds that “One does not arrest Voltaire.” That suus up Sartre’s place in France as a public intellectual, serious philosopher and writer of novels, plays and essays. He can claim to have brought “existentialism” into common parlance. Sartre graciously accepted de Gaulle’s pardon. He never tried to rival Voltairre but did not need to. He was a French icon in his own right.

Satre

 

 

Khatia Buniatshvili, the Franco-Georgian piano sensation, is attempting the impossible – to present herself as a half-dressed fashion model and a serious concert pianist wrapped up in one bundle. In her public performancess, you get a bit of both. She began as a Plain Jane from the remote Soviet Georgia but in her teens put herself in the hands of Western glamor houses such as Esthé and the Sony image-makers. Now she moves like a French torch-singer, flinging her unruly head of hair as she  swoons over Rachmanimov, Schubert and Schumann. The whoosh of her flying tresses is almost audible over the music. Concert-goers, including me, are confused by the duality.

Khatia

 

Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa is a Frenchman to his bones but he is also proud of his Hungarian ancestry. Elected president in 2007, his extended family in Budapest celebrated his victory in the glare of the international media. He is the first Français of Hungarian origin to reach such heights. Sarkozy had a tendency to speak his mind in vulgar tones, leaving him with a diminished reputation today. In 2008, during his term as president, he toured the annual agriculture festival in Paris and mingled with crowds, shaking hands. One young man in the crowd stepped back and shouted “Ah non. Touche-moi pas. Tu me salis!” ( Oh no, don’t you touch me. You’ll get me dirty!) Sarkozy shouted back, “Casse-toi, pauvre con!” (Get lost, you bloody idiot).

Sarkozy

 

The talented young French president Emmanuel Macron, 46, hides some of his talents. He is a master of the piano. He studied the instrument for ten years and was playing the big Schumann and Liszt piaces when he turned his attention to building a serious career and, eventually, to trying to run France. His path to the presidential Elysee Palace is a textbook case of winning electoral success. But his determination to modernize institutions of the country probably makes him a short-term leader. Since the electoral honeymoon, protesters have  flooded the streets at regular intervals. Workers call him “president of the rich”.

Makron

 

Lydia Jardon, Concert pianist and producer, began her piano training rather late in life – age 8. Raised in the south of France, she made her way into the Parisian piano world by sheer determination, facing down teachers who often contradicted each other. In the confusion, she ended up “lost and very lonely”, she recalls, and “often in tears” after her stressful lessons.

Lydia

 

 

Blessed with a silken, sexy voice and a gift for punchy, socially conscious songs, French singer/actor Yves Montand was above all a great showman.  He was also a perfectionist. Every gesture, every link with his musicians, every note, every tremolo was endlessly rehearsed. In films as well, he left nothing to chance, applying meticulous efforts to get into character long before shooting, and staying there. Untrained in drama, he proved he could be a thug, a lover, a comic actor, a Formula One driver, a boxer, a sly and scheming uncle, a singer, whatever the script demanded.

Montand

 

 

END

 

 

 


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