The Genius of the French People

Have you noticed every country has national characteristics? Maybe not every single person in the country has that characteristic, but the vast majority of its citizens have at least traces of it. For instance, I’m an American and Americans, as a whole, are very inventive people. It’s a wonderful trait, but sometimes you become so immersed in your environment that you don’t even notice it anymore. And then something will catch your attention and you look around and really marvel at how strong that characteristic is in your family, friends, neighbors, even strangers. It’s definitely not the only exceptional trait Americans have, but it’s a very distinctive trait in our people.

What caught my attention today was France’s national character.  The French have a gift of beautifying things. The reason so much art and fashion originate in France is because the French have a genius for it. It’s elemental to their national character. One of the ways you can tell is to look at something that is traditionally ugly, like a subway. Subways are, by and large, unpleasant and grim. There are countries that have very clean subways. But only the French could–did–make it beautiful.

And it’s not limited to the Art Nouveau of the early twentieth century. If you’ve seen Amélie, even the modern subways have a strange beauty.  I must confess, though I have spent some time in Europe, I haven’t been to France! It’s strange that I haven’t. I’ve studied French history, French art, the French language (though I’ve never been great at it), and I would love to visit one day. I also know several French people, all of whom have this peculiar French gift of making things beautiful.


Metropolitan, the French subway system


Of course, the ugliest thing in the human experience is war. The horrible scenes, the destruction, the cruelty, the terrible suffering, and so often the pointlessness of it. But even war was not beyond the reach of French people. They can restore a little beauty, even in desperate, frightening, or devastating times. I’m not sure what this ability is ( je ne sais quoi ?)

These pictures are from the World War I era, and are courtesy of the Library of Congress. Most people did not own a camera or take casual photos; the candid nature of many of these photos is unusual for the time. By the way, if you haven’t seen A Very Long Engagement, a French movie that is set during the Great War, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

1915. Bomb crater in France

1916. The French infantry


1917. Wounded French soldiers leaving a hospital.


20 January 1919. French Red Cross nurse

June 10, 1918. A canteen in France


1918. French field kitchen


The first photo I found of this set. A bearded French soldier, circa 1918. Was he a cook, I wonder?


1914. Blesse. Wounded French soldier. You see his infected leg here. A surprisingly modern photograph – could it have been taken accidentally?


French children for adoption, presumably orphaned by the war. A sad topic… beautiful children.


A little French child to be adopted, presumably orphaned by the war. A sad and beautiful little girl.


1914. Remarkable photograph shows French Moroccan soldiers, between Villeroy and Neufmoutiers, France, caring for a wounded German soldier (lying in the grass). There is no hint of the cruelty so many prisoners of war have faced. The German man on the ground is quite obviously in pain, but it’s clear the French Moroccan soldiers are attempting to help him.


Please share your thoughts in the comments! I would love to hear what you think of this idea of national characteristics.

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