La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?


  1. margaret21 · May 14, 2020

    Oh gosh, I didn’t know about rouvrir . Thanks. Yes, polémique is a bit of a national sport, and in many ways I admire the French willingness to take up arms, as it were, for things that matter to them, and not to give up at the first set-back. On the other hand, I did sometimes feel that the battle was just for the sake of having a set-to, rather than because it was an issue really worth expending lots of energy over. At the moment, a quiet life has its appeal

    • MELewis · May 14, 2020

      Indeed! A quiet life does have its appeal and that ‘never say die’ attitude is beginning to wear my patience. What we need now is some good news and sunny weather to distract people!

      • margaret21 · May 14, 2020

        We can manage the sunny weather …

  2. midihideaways · May 14, 2020

    In our village, the lockdown produced an eerie kind of peaceful quiet – none of the youngsters out on their noisy scooters and motorbikes, or the joyriding kids with their over-dimensioned car stereos, and hardly any general traffic. Walking along the main street you could hear the noise of the river and the song of birds – now that peace is gone once more!! 😦
    I very much admire the French spirit of standing up and fight for what they feel is right. BUT some of the things they fight for are just way out, and I wonder if they live in the real world… Sometimes I get very tired of the controversies.

    • MELewis · May 14, 2020

      I know what you mean. We are lucky to live away from the noise of scooters but I can imagine how annoying it must be — and how much you appreciated the respite. It will be interesting to see if people are more willing to make changes when they compare how wonderful it was to listen to birdsong during the confinement. I fear it will be sadly forgotten.

      • midihideaways · May 15, 2020

        Oh yes, I think it has already been forgotten!! This morning the noise level seemed to be as it was several months ago 😦 One of those things, I guess…

  3. francetaste · May 14, 2020

    There’s a saying that the French live in paradise but think it’s hell. Nearly everybody was caught flat-footed on the virus.
    I can’t take another round of gilets jaunes. Pensioners are among the few with uninterrupted income. Everybody saw how much better the Earth fared when people weren’t driving around. The GJ’s two biggest demands–earlier and fatter retirements, and lower gas taxes–are very unsympathetic these days.

    • MELewis · May 14, 2020

      100% agree! I think people are overly critical of leaders. No country’s performance was perfect, and ours was among one of the better examples, all things considered. The idea that they all knew this was coming and didn’t act strikes me as naïve. If only we could forget about politics and individual interests for 5 minutes and all row our boats in the same direction.

      • francetaste · May 14, 2020

        Well, the leader who suggested blasting light inside of bodies, or else Lysol, is deserving of all the criticism and more.

  4. Garfield Hug · May 14, 2020

    The way you handle controversy is well done. I try to get others to agree to disagree with me. Often times it gets ugly as most don’t like to be proven wrong or feel they lost in the argument. If only people are as adult about it like in your case !

    • MELewis · May 15, 2020

      Thank you! I can always see both sides, no matter how strong my opinions are. But often people just can’t. Then they either go for the jugular or back off — neither of which makes for interesting debate. I do get tired of so much controversy though…

      • Garfield Hug · May 16, 2020

        Agree! And the sad part is, it gives rise or fuel office politics and I hate it when that happens. Life is already stressful and I am so glad now that my office does not condone this as frankly we have no time.

  5. Ally Bean · May 15, 2020

    I don’t mind a little bit of controversy when it is a conversation based on logic and facts. But alas so often people around here go off on tangents that are apocryphal rather than factual– and nothing of value comes from the conversation. I’m good at seeing both sides of anything, but if someone is close-minded and locked into fanciful ideas there is no true conversation. It is just them spewing propaganda, so I tune them out.

    • MELewis · May 17, 2020

      Agree! It is so rare when people are able to have intelligent discussion without anyone getting upset or extreme. Most often they shut it down by making some absurd statement to which no reply can be made. Then I politely change the subject.

  6. acflory · May 15, 2020

    Great post, Mel. I suspect I’d fit right in as I’m furious with my govt for also going with the ‘rouvrir’. I’m very much of the opinion that lives are more important than the damn economy because economies recover, eventually, dead people do not.

    Anyway, we shall see how well all our countries go in trying to control this virus. I would seriously advise caution though.
    Stay well.

    • MELewis · May 17, 2020

      Thanks, Meeka! We are surrounded by different extremes of behaviour but mostly people seem to not be too worried. I try to counter this with reasonable concern but not hysteria — a fine line indeed. But when the enemy is invisible and sometimes without symptoms, it’s hard to know where to draw it. As you say, we shall see. 🤞

      • acflory · May 17, 2020

        Yes, it’s a very fine line. I hope things continue to improve. Stay well. 🙂

  7. kairosia · May 15, 2020

    A debate coach, I’m all for la polemique as long as we have both polemicizing *and* listening.

    About the variations on réouvrir: are all those spellings intentional, ironic, or cases in point? (rouvrir, rourvir, rouvir) I always have found it difficult to keep up with the subtleties of French humor.

    • MELewis · May 17, 2020

      Ah, listening! This is one of my pet peeves. There can be no debate without it, yet how precious a commodity it has become. A debate coach? What an interesting occupation!
      As for ‘rouvrir’ there are only two (with réouvir) and no irony that I’m aware of. Orthographe is a subject that the French take very seriously! If you saw ‘rourvir’ it is a typo.😉

  8. Ellen Hawley · May 17, 2020

    When I was a kid, no family party was complete without a political argument. I can hold my own, but it does get wearing, especially when everyone’s defending their position and no one will budge an inch. But harmony for the sake of harmony, especially right now? That looks a lot like sticking our heads in the sand.

    • MELewis · May 18, 2020

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I suppose there are occasions on which harmony however artificial must reign. Work situations, family get-togethers…sometimes we do have to keep the peace. Here in France people generally just do their own thing in public and it is rare that a stranger will say anything, no matter what they are actually thinking. But the media is a different story. Lately I’ve started tuning out more in the evening as the endless debates over masks and restaurant openings are just too wearing.

  9. nessafrance · May 19, 2020

    I must admit to being a little conflict averse, which has always made it hard for me to understand the French taste for la polémique. Having lived here for 23 years, I suppose I am getting used to it. Nonetheless, I do get a little tired of the habit of being up in arms about everything. Some French friends agree that this tendency holds things up rather than getting them done better. If we have to disagree, let’s do it politely and respectfully.

  10. zipfslaw1 · June 7, 2020

    You know what they say—there’s no meal in France that does not include discussion of (1) food, and (2) the French language!

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