When I get started on my ‘move to France’ obsession with my friends or family, some of them just get it and can see exactly what I’m on about. Others, however, are the complete opposite of this and, aside from the obvious question of ‘why would you want to do that?’, there are often other comments that, at their heart, imply that they can’t really see what France has to offer (I’m being polite here – some of the opinions expressed can be quite negative :-) ).
As I’m of an age that I have watched all the Monty Python films, somehow, this kind of response always reminds me of John Cleese’s famous line in The Life Of Brian – ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ – except, of course, it’s the French that my friends are talking about. So, having the question posed to me, can I come up with a suitable response for my sceptical friends and family? Just what have the French ever done for us?
Actually, when you start to dig into this, there is a substantial list of things the French have been responsible for inventing or introducing to the rest of the world so, in no particular order and without implying any sense of priority that these are the most significant, here is my own personal top-ten list (well, top-ten and a bit as I’ve lumped a few things together to squeeze some extras in!)… and if you want to add to this list, then please feel free to get in touch with your suggestions.
As with many inventions in science, the development of modern antibiotics has a complex history with many scientists building on the work of others so it is often difficult to credit one particular individual. However, most science historians seem to agree that Louis Pasteur – alongside Robert Koch in the late 1870s – was instrumental in making the first significant observations on the processes involved. It is difficult to underestimate the impact that antibiotics have had on the world but, at the very least, many millions of lives have been saved by these drugs. Not a bad start to my list….
My wife loves horses but, as a means to explore the world (as opposed to your immediate surroundings), they are somewhat limited. Cars and boats have opened our travel horizons wide but, undoubtedly (for good or bad), the airplane (or aeroplane) is the invention that has made the world a smaller – and more accessible – place for everyone with the financial resources to buy a ticket. As with the first item on my list, it is not possible to attribute the airplane to a single person but the French have been there from the start and, even today, France is one of the leading nations in terms of aviation development with considerable economic activity in this area centred around Toulouse.
So, for example, we have Jean-Maris Le Bris who, in the mid 1850s, built and flew the first glider that managed to fly higher than its original point of departure (a height of over 100 m was reached) for a distance of over 200m. His design was, apparently, based upon observations of the Albatross in flight. We also have Louis Blériot who, in 1909 was the first person to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft across a large body of open water (the English Channel). Incidentally, Blériot was also a pioneer in the automotive field where he invented the first practical headlamps for cars. And, of course, along with the British Aircraft Corporation, the French gave us Concorde, perhaps the most beautiful and iconic passenger plane to ever fly – and the history of which was, sadly, clouded by the fatal crash in July 2000.
Style and fashion
Fashion has been an important part of French culture for hundreds of years with modern haute couture, which originated in Paris in the 1860s, making France one of the centres of world fashion. However, the things that might impress my sceptical family and friends (particularly the male ones) are likely to be less high-brow – demin and the bikini – both of which are of French origin.
I’m lucky enough that, for most of my working life, I’ve done jobs where formal dress (shirt, tie, suit) have not been required so denim jeans and I have a long history of our own. However, the cloth itself – which was coloured with an indigo dye to give the traditional blue colour – gets its name from the French city of Nîmes (de Nîmes) and was originally known as Serge de Nîmes, which was eventually shortened to denim. The term ‘jean’ derives from the French word for Genoa in Italy which is, apparently, where the first denim trousers were made. So, the French gave me the trousers that I love to wear as a symbol of the fact that I don’t have to conform to the 9-to-5 world of the smart suit (and, instead, I conform to the demin dress code of almost every other sub-culture on the planet – not so very rebellious really :-) ).
I suspect it’s because I’m male but the bikini is a French fashion creation that made a distinct impression on me. I remember as a 13-year old going on beach holiday with my parents in the U.K. when the sun did actually shine and discovering the delights of watching the bikinis (and their contents) walk past while I pretended not to look from behind my sunglasses. My transition into adulthood therefore owes a considerable debt to Louis Réard who, in 1946, invented the bikini. The original design was made out of less than 30 sq-inches of fabric (‘small enough to be pulled through a wedding ring’ according to the advertising). The name apparently derives from Bikini Atoll. While the bikini may not have saved many lives, it has certainly made lots of people very happy.
Talking of making people happy, there is nothing like a celebration, whether it is a personal achievement or a significant family event and, when that happens, what’s the drink that the majority turn to? Champagne, of course. O.K., so lots of us might resort to a cheaper brand of sparkling wine rather than the real deal, but Champagne is the drink of celebration. Its position derives from its consumption by French royalty and their promotion of the drink to other royal families within Europe – hence the idea that it is a drink for special occasions and an item of luxury.
The use of the term ‘Champagne’ to describe a sparkling wine has been the subject of all sorts of legal wrangling over the years and the wine makers of the Champagne region have developed a set of rules to define what actually qualifies for the label so they can protect their top-of-the-line product. For the producers and the wine experts, this is perhaps an understandable position to take but, for the rest of us, while we can drink the good stuff when we can afford it, most of us will just be happy to raise a glass of something fizzy as a ‘thank you’ to the French for inventing the genre.
In our modern world of ‘talking books’ and the MP3 player, it is difficult to perhaps appreciate the significance of the Braille system of reading and writing for the blind or visually impaired. However, in 1825, when Louis Braille – who was himself blind – first created the system of raised dots as a means of representing printed text, it opened up a whole new world for those who could not see to read the printed page. In fact, Braille was a development from an earlier code system created during Napoleon’s regime for military purposes. Louis Braille modified this to make it easier to use and, while it was originally used for a letter-by-letter translation of written text, abbreviations soon appeared within the system and the modern version can be considered almost like a form of shorthand.
It is estimated that some 150 million people around the globe use Braille today and, while usage may decline as audio and computer technology does reading for those with eyesight difficulties, there are certain situations where it is still a very valuable tool (for example, in signage used in buildings). It is also true that computer technology has made the translation and production of Braille texts much easier. As a result, the written word has become much more widely accessible in those parts of the world where the alternative audio/computer technology itself is not so readily accessed.
Photography – and on to motion pictures
In my spare time, I’m a bit of a photography nut, a hobby my dad introduced me to when I was about 10 years old. While my hobby has gone in fits and starts since then, with the advent of the affordable digital SLR camera, over the last few years I’ve picked it up again (and even earned a few quid doing it). So I probably owe a debt of gratitude to Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, who was one of the inventors and pioneers of photography. Indeed, it is thought that, in 1825 (good year that – see Braille above), he produced the first printed photograph onto paper with a system that meant the image did not deteriorate with further exposure to light. As with other examples mentioned above, there are other claims to this ‘first’ but Niépce’s is a strong as any other.
Of course, the invention of photography was a precursor to the invention of motion pictures and the French had a hand in that also. Louis Le Prince is widely thought to have created the first motion picture camera and film projector in the late 1880s – although he was working in the U.K. at the time. The French have made other contributions in this area such as the Lumière brothers who, in 1895, held the first public screening of films at which an admission charge was made – essentially the birth of the cinema. The French have, of course, gone on to establish a strong cultural position in world film out of this heritage and, in the modern world, it is impossible to underestimate the role the moving picture – whether for entertainment or education – plays in our lives.
Life, the universe and everything – it’s all chemistry (O.K., with perhaps a bit of physics thrown in for good measure) and, when it comes to contributing to our understanding of the chemical world, the French have certainly played their part. Take Antoine Lavoisier for example who, in the late 1770s and early 1780s, named both oxygen and hydrogen and put together the first extensive list of the chemical elements – the first stab at what was to become the periodic table.
Probably one of the more famous French chemists is Louis Pasteur who, as any child exposed to school-level science classes will tell you, along with Claude Bernard, performed the first formal pasteurization tests in 1862. The process involves the heating of liquids (or foods) for a length of time followed by rapid cooling. This reduces the number of pathogens in the material and therefore slows down the rate at which it subsequently spoils. While similar processes are thought to have existed as a form of preservation for many centuries, Pasteur was responsible for developing it into a more exact form and understanding the chemical and biological principles behind it. While it has been used as a way of preventing drinks such as wine or beer from going off, it is mostly widely used with milk so, as you pour some on your Cornflakes or into your coffee in the morning, take a moment to thank the French.
Join the dots
Equally, the next time you blow a space alien to pieces, remove a sniper in an urban warfare scenario or take an arrow in the knee – all on your games console or computer of course – you might wish to thank French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. Descartes developed what we now call the Cartesian coordinate system in the 1630s. This is the mathematical system by which we represent the position of one item relative to another using axes and – whether in two dimensions (such as in a map) or three dimensions (as in a 3D virtual reality game) – it was a fundamental principle of mathematics that laid the foundation for various branches of geometry, algebra and calculus.
Whether you are a fan of mathematics or not, the ideas of Descartes are all around us in technology that we now take for granted, from the aforementioned computer games to the navigation systems that help land planes or underpin your car’s sat nav. Thanks, therefore, to René Descartes, for helping get to where we are (literally) today.
Play the odds
Anyone with an unsuccessful gambling habit might be advised to learn a little bit about probability theory – essentially, the branch of mathematics concerned with the probability (or likelihood) of particular random events happening. This might be as simple as the outcome of a coin toss or dice role or the more complex outcomes of the Euro Millions ball draw, although probability theory is also used to understand, model and predict all sorts of other, more complex (and significant) things like human behaviour to certain events, spread of epidemics and the climate systems response to increased CO2 concentrations. Anyway, the foundations of probability theory were laid down by Pierre de Fermat (who, incidentally, was working on the principles of what became the Cartesian coordinate system at the same time as Descartes but never published his findings), a lawyer by trade but also an amateur mathematician. During the 1650s, Fermat worked with Blaise Pascal and their early work looked at the probability of certain combinations of dice throws.
Interestingly, the French seem to have been keen to have a major role in the global gambling industry; Roulette was developed in the 1700s based upon an initial idea by Blaise Pascal, with the modern form of the roulette wheel being introduced in the 1840s by Louis and François Blanc. Perhaps this one shouldn’t be on my list of reasons to celebrate the French as I suspect the only long-term benefits from gambling come to those owning the casinos and betting shops?
A cut above the rest?
There is, of course, nothing funny about execution but, if you are going to do it, then the prize for doing it in the most horrific and spectacular fashion probably has to go to the French in the form of the guillotine. With the victim held firmly in place, a heavy blade suspended by a rope is dropped from a height of several feet to sever (hopefully in one go) the head from the body. Developed in the 1790s during the French Revolution, it was supposedly a more human and efficient means of execution than other methods routinely used before it. It is estimated that over 15,000 individuals were executed in this fashion during the French Revolution and, to add a further edge (ouch!) to proceedings, the public were present for the spectacle.
While there are guillotine-like devices recorded in other countries before this time, the French version is most certainly the ‘classic’ model. After the Revolution, it became the sole method of execution available to the authorities and its last use was in 1977 to execute a convicted murderer. Thankfully, you can now consider moving to France without losing your head as capital punishment was abolished in France in 1981.
So there you have it – my top-ten ‘what have the French ever done for us?’ items – some serious and significant and some less so but, for one reason or another, they all appeal to me. If you think I’ve missed one of your own personal favourites (including many of the major artistic or cultural movements that started in France), then feel free to add to this list via the comments.