France has maintained a ceremonial tradition directly derived from the usages of court life, when a breach in protocol could cost a courtier his apartment at Versailles, when royal infants were born in public, and when foreign princesses arriving to wed the French King were requested to disrobe completely at the border and change into French clothes. France has an almost oriental sense of decorum. As a Chinese professor told Giraudoux: 'Our countries were made to get along. They are the only ones which both have a cuisine and a politesse.'
But with the Jacobin reaction against the courtly tradition, good manners were denounced as a class weapon. There arose a countertradition of deliberate gruffness. Rudeness in the Jacobin mentality was a way for the common man to affirm his equality. If you called a man a bougre or a jean-foutre (the two most common Jacobin epithets) you showed that you were as good as he was. In contemporary France these two traditions coexist.
Visitors are baffled by the tangle of perfect courtesy and incredible rudeness. This does not mean that some Frenchmen are rude and others are polite. It means that the same man who kisses a lady's hand in a drawing room will half an hour later be grossly insulting to a fellow motorist at a red light. Such inconsistency is only possible because good manners are considered a form of currency which makes it possible to obtain certain amenities in life and thus should be used thriftily and not on strangers.
The polite tradition is considered a rampart of French civilization, a code of behavior which makes life in society possible. Since the 12th century, books on etiquette have been advising the French on how to mop up the sauce and blow their noses. In 1559 Mathurin Cordier wrote in his Mirror of Youth for the Formation of Good Manners and Civility: 'If you blow your nose with two fingers and snot falls on the ground, place your foot over it.'
Politeness in the French sense is not natural, but contrived. It is precisely because it is artificial that it is recognized as a mark of special attention. It is, as Montesquieu remarked, an embellishment. To present his hand to a lady passing from one room to another he rushes toward her as though she were in danger of falling; he runs to pick up a glove or a handkerchief with as much precipitation as if he were withdrawing it from a fire.
The French gendarmerie's book of etiquette, which is called Advice from an Old to a Young Gendarme describes the correct way to shake a hand: 'The way to shake a hand is equally a sign of good education. It must not be squeezed, or brandished, or slackly dropped. The shaking of the hand must be straightforward and without brusqueness. Too brief, it is discourteous; too prolonged, it indicates a familiarity which is permitted only among intimates.' Attention must be paid this basic daily ritual of French life. The factory foreman spends ten to fifteen minutes each morning shaking the hands of all the workers in his keep. The busy waiter in a café, his hands wet from rinsing cups and saucers, extends his folded elbow like an amputee to regular customers. Ostracism in France is to spend a day without shaking anyone's hand." — From Sanche de Gramont's, 1969 "The French - Portrait of a People"
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia