I went to the covered market this morning, and like every Sunday, the Communist Party was out there campaigning, in this case, for the European Union elections next week. Or maybe I should say against, since the prominent word on their posters was the word NON (i.e., “no”). As in say “no” to the uncaring European Union, who doesn’t give a damn about the workers. OK, I can see their point, but isn’t it just a wee bit negative to use the word “no” as a campaign slogan? How can you tell people to go out and vote (this was indeed a “get out the vote” campaign) for an institution that you are simultaneously declaring isn’t worth a hill of beans?
European Union elections are historically ill attended. Apathy or downright animosity keeps people away from the ballot box, as does the generalized fuzziness about what exactly one is voting for. For if everyone regularly complains that the “bureaucrats in Brussels” make undemocratic decisions that filter down and muck up the life of the common man and woman, they also are allergic to electing the deputies who at least give a semblance of democratic process.
But in France, this seeming contradiction bothers no one, since complaining is an age-old tradition and saying non is often the only honorable way to respond to a question. For example, let’s say you ask a store clerk if they have bananas. They will not equivocate like an American shopkeeper, who might say with a sad smile, “oh no, I’m sorry we don’t but we should have some tomorrow,” or “gee, I just sold the last one, and boy were they tasty” (both comments geared to getting you come back another day). No, they will look you squarely in the eye and say: non, or even more emphatically: pas du tout (not at all). Because in France, equivocating and unnecessary smiling are considered signs of weakness. That shopkeeper may have lost a sale, but she has saved her honor, and what’s more, she has defended La Gloire, that is, the glory of France.
The general rule here is when in doubt, say no. It may be clothed in other words, however, like “maybe.” It took me years to figure out that when my sister-in-law responded to a question with pourquoi pas? (“why not?”) she in fact meant “no, anything but that.” Being direct is also frowned upon (unless you are a shopkeeper or the Communist Party), so “maybe” or “why not” sometimes have to do the job of “no.” If all this sounds complicated, it is, at least for a foreigner.
Fortunately for me, the elections aren't an issue, since I don’t have the right to vote. Because after 14 years country I still don’t have the nerve to face the red tape involved in getting dual citizenship. And perhaps this is where I must admit I’m turning a little bit French: when I think of going to the Préfecture and facing that bureaucratic madness, my instinctive response is: non, non, and pas du tout.