A while back, the compilers of the Associated Press (AP) stylebook got into trouble for a tweet saying that journalists should avoid using the term ‘the French’ as it was dehumanising.
They were widely ridiculed for this. What is the alternative, their critics demanded to know?
One political scientist remarked that it would have to be “people experiencing Frenchness” and the French embassy in the US jokingly suggested it would rename itself Embassy of Frenchness.
Other wags saw the avoidance of ‘the French’ as an example of political correctness gone mad, of a left-wing obsession with not offending anyone.
However, when we have all finished laughing or scoring political points, there is a lesson worth learning here.
We must not use ‘the French’ out of laziness
I have fallen foul of this interdiction many times and know how hard it is to get around using ‘the French’ when I write articles.
At the same time, I know that the unfortunate tweet-writer had a point that is worth listening to.
What they meant was that we shouldn’t use the term ‘the French’ (or any other ‘the’ kind of people) by reflex without thinking about what we are saying. We must not drop it into a text out of laziness.
This goes for every generalisation we are ever tempted to make, and we do make a lot of generalisations, leading to almost as many misunderstandings.
There is a difference between a valid generalisation and a vague, sweeping one that sounds as though it means something.
The former is made with awareness that a generic label is being given to a group who share a single, particular trait but might not share much else.
It is careful to allow exceptions to the rule and diversity to avoid lapsing into stereotype.
‘The French’ can be the start of an informed, insightful statement or it can be an indication that the speaker/writer is about to share a prejudice with you.
‘The French’ have little in common
Too many journalists write about ‘the French’ when what they mean is ‘Parisians’ or ‘the people I know in my quarter of Paris’.
People in the south-west corner of France have little in common with the people in the north east. Also, an astonishing number of French people are proud to be second- or third-generation immigrants; some of them are almost more Spanish, Italian or Portuguese than French.
The unfortunate truth for those of us who make a living out of explaining this country to the rest of the world is that ‘the French’ have little in common.
No prevailing national virtues and vices
It is fairly safe to assume they all speak the same language, although not all of them will regard it as their first language.
They have a common history but they might see the past in different ways.
They live under the same political system but you are unlikely to meet two people who feel the same about what is done in their collective name in the Elysée Palace or the Assemblée nationale.
You would have thought that geography would also unite them, and it does – until you start talking about regional diversity, distances from Paris, and separatist movements.
When we get on to likes and dislikes, things get much more complicated because it involves a degree of mind-reading.
It is broadly true that the French express pride in their national cuisine in all its varieties, and their wines, but I would not want to go too far in claiming there are prevailing national virtues and vices.
Respect and understanding
Here is what the AP stylebook writers really want to say: it is fine to refer to ‘the French’ if you are really sure that what you have to say applies to all of them. If you are not sure, add nuance and be specific. We should all be more careful with our language.
In some, informal, contexts, it might not matter what you say, but if you are trying to be respectful and promulgate understanding, it does.