Prejudices of the French by Albany Poyntz

The prevailing weakness of the French, collectively and individually, is to esteem themselves the type and model of perfection; the standard by which the universe ought to be regulated. An Italian author once asserted that the face of man was not made after that of God; but that the face of the Creator was to be imagined after that of man. The French consider all that resembles them, right: all that differs from them, wrong. This prejudice entitles foreigners to laugh at them, whether justly or not. The word “fat” appears to have been exclusively invented for the nation. Vain, presumptuous, haughty, disdainful men are to be found in all countries; but fatuité is the peculiar attribute of Frenchmen; nor does any other language possess an equivalent term.

The French, unhesitatingly, pronounce themselves the most polished nation of the universe; and Paris, the capital of the civilized world,—the city of arts, sciences, elegance of manners, and refinement. In Paris only, does genius receive due homage,—merit, encouragement,—or the mind its full development. But the temple they have erected to their national vanity, has begun to totter upon its flimsy foundation.

Notwithstanding their assumed pre-eminence, no nation is more prone to imitate the customs, usages, fashions, and forms of government of others. Just as the Romans placed the Gods of their defeated enemies in their Pantheon, the French, under Napoleon, brought back the customs of foreign nations.

For twelve centuries, the French possessed a system of government of their own; but they decided, at length, to adopt that of the English. A Revolution having occurred in England, and a King been beheaded in London, an analogous event appeared indispensable; and a King of France, consequently, ended his reign on the scaffold. In early times, one legislative chamber was considered sufficient; but as there existed two in England, their national vanity could not rest till gratified by a similar number. In all this, there is little to support the vaunted superiority of the French.

Till the close of the last century, the French wore what is still termed, on the continent, the French costume, or habit Français, with bags and swords, which in England we call a court-dress. But the English having laid aside these inconvenient appendages in favour of hunting and riding coats, the latter were quickly adopted by the Parisians under the name of redingotte.

The Lord Cadogan of Marlborough’s time, having found it convenient to double up his queue, and bind it with a bow of black ribbon, the whole French army adopted the fashion; and his Lordship’s name became immortalized in France by “les perruques à la Cadogan.”

The strong horses of Normandy required an easy but somewhat solid kind of saddle, the form of which had prevailed from the time of Louis XIV. But the English using a lighter and smaller kind, it was adopted in preference; and certain moral philosophers who proceeded to England to study the laws, manners, and system of government, having remarked in addition that the English treated their horses as Alcibiades did his dog, the horses on the other side the channel were forthwith anglicised by the abbreviation of their tails.

On the arrival of the Bourbons and the English in France, in 1814, the long waists and cottage-bonnets of the ladies were made the ground-work of innumerable caricatures. Yet a few years afterwards, generally they were adopted! This Anglomania has been as much a matter of reproach to the French for centuries past; as, in England, the preference of the English ladies for French goods and manufactures. A serious source of discussion between Napoleon and Josephine was her rage for English fashions.

In the early part of the Revolution, the Duke of Orleans made frequent excursions to England; in one of which he purchased a sword hilt of steel, the execution of which was admirable. On his return to Paris, he exhibited it to a celebrated steel worker, challenging him to produce its equal; on which, taking up the hilt, the man pointed out his own name to the Prince, as the manufacturer of the article, which had been exported to London.

During the brilliant campaigns of Field-Marshal Suwarow, the form of his hat and boots was copied by the military men of France; and when Bolivar and Murillo were ascertained to wear hats of different dimensions, the French partizans of the two chiefs assumed on one part, broad-brimmed Spanish hats, on the other, a narrower shape.

When the Russians came to Paris at the Restoration, another change took place. Instead of the boots worn to protect the legs from the mud, the wide trowsers of the Russians made to cover their boots, in consideration of the bitterness of their climate, were instantly adopted by the nation which pronounces itself the arbiter of Europe in matters of taste. The padded chests of the Russian uniforms, also worn as a defence against the weather, were imitated in defiance of climate and common sense.

Previous to the arrival of the Russians in Paris, smoking was limited to the operative classes, and soldiers who had fought in the German campaign. But from the moment the Russians began to smoke in the open street, the capital so famed for elegance, became polluted with the smell of tobacco. A modern man of fashion can no more dispense with his cigar-case than Bayard with his sword; and in imitation of the Spanish women, the fashionable Parisian ladies, known by the name of lionnes, have taken to smoking.

In order to mark their estimation of the Swedes, when they elected to be their Prince, Bernadotte, who is a Frenchman, they thought to do them the highest honour by calling them the French of the north. Two noblemen, the one an aide-de-camp of Napoleon, the other of the Emperor Alexander, having made acquaintance at Tilsit, the former observed, with the intention of paying a compliment: “You might really be taken for a Frenchman!” to which the Russian, indignant at his rudeness, replied: “Depend upon it you could never pass for a Russian!”

It is a favourite vaunt of the braggarts of France, that their children are born soldiers. “Stamp upon the soil of France, and myriads of warriors will start up!” says one of their popular writers.

In answer to this boast, observe the results of the drawing for the conscription, when the most trifling bodily defects are put forth to secure exemption from military service!—Nothing can exceed the despair of those who draw what is called “a bad number;” though a military career presents nearly the same advantages to a working man as any other to which he may devote himself.

The self-sufficiency of the nation stands perpetually self-convicted; and it is now proverbial in Europe to “be as great a boaster as a Frenchman.”