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The French National Character

March 16th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Feature:Nations

What this is about, including full list.

In spite of all that France has given the world, few nations are as heartily disliked in the English speaking world. French has become synonymous with snobbish, pretentious, rude and cowardly. This is a twentieth century opinion of course; in the 19th century France was full of overly emotional romantics who would start a war at the drop of of a hat.

Though much of America insists on seeing France as “cheese eating surrender monkeys”, its quick collapse in the face of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in 1940 shouldn’t blind us to the immense and catastrophic sacrifices of French youth in World War I, not to mention the feats of French arms and culture in the Enlightenment and Revolutionary periods and the fun of the Versailles court.

Even the negative stereotypes about the French have the veneer of civilization – that the French look down on tourists and foreigners because they are convinced of their own superiority. There is an abiding fear among non-French people that the Parisians may be onto something, that French food and literature and art and love are in fact the pinnacle of Latin evolution. Even Napoleon is hailed as a cultural giant instead of the brutish Philistine he probably was most of the time.

Strategy games have generally reflected this internalized concept of the French as being more civilized than their compatriots. Where Germany (as we will see later) has a hard time escaping its World War 2 legacy, strategy games throw aside the persistent popular opinion of France as weak kneed cowards in order to embrace the idea that maybe all those notions about wine and cheese and the Louvre and Cocteau and Monet and Moliere making a France worthy of admiration have something to them.

Like most types of soft power, culture is hard to model or make inherently interesting. Victoria 2 has the culture research tree and France (with a couple of other continental powers) starts with Romanticism researched while Britain doesn’t. Culture helps you gain prestige, but it’s hard to make it as sexy or useful as another National Focus slot or breech loading rifles.

Civilization has culture, of course, and it is turned into a land grab mechanic, and on the face of it only Civ 4’s Louis the XIV (who has the creative trait) and Civ 5’s French power of “Ancien Regime” seem to embrace the idea of the French as a cultured people. But in Civ 4, the salon unique building gives the city a free artist. The French wonders in both games (especially the Eiffel Tower) have major cultural bonuses. There is no escaping the idea that if any nation cared about art and music and haute couture, it is France.

But being cultured is more than being artistic. It’s a framework that avoids violence and uses soft power to seduce or delay conflict. With France, this is most evident in games that focus on the Age of Exploration, a period when France was continually in conflict with its European neighbors over scraps of land in both Europe and overseas. If any nation is going to get along with the natives they encounter, then it will be the French. Because they are civilized.

You see this in Sid Meier’s Colonization, of course. Relations with natives will degrade regularly in that game as you expand and start grabbing land, but this tension grows more slowly for the French. In the under-appreciated Conquest of the New World, France starts with a 30 point bonus to its relations with natives – a significant boost in a game where random raids can slow down exploration and expansion. The unspoken assumption is that the French weren’t really conquerors of the New World. Drawing on the alliance with the Huron, the coureurs des bois and the French crown’s reluctance to promote settlement colonies like their English rivals, France becomes a power that can slowly grow in power because they are too cultured to worry about brutalizing whatever “savages” show up.

Of course, French colonial history in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia was far from “live and let live”, but the overwhelming success of Britain and Spain in the rush for overseas territories makes it easy to imagine France saying “Well, we didn’t want that anyway. We have Paris.”

There are always exceptions. The Franks in Age of Kings get stronger cavalry, as do the French in Rise of Nations (they also get a very civilized bonus – supply wagons that heal.) In Civ 5, even, the French get two unique gunpowder units – the musketeer has been there since Civ 3 and is likely to stick around in future versions; nothing like the power of a good book.

But the problem of the power of French culture remains. How do you convey a national character that is about the power of ideas and art in a genre that has always preferred science and conquest? It’s not just the French – Greek culture is reduced to science bonuses, Roman culture is ignored in favor of legions, American and English cultural imperialism is never modeled…national personalities that center on the less tangible or easily militarized attributes never really come into focus well. We end up with nice guy mini-Champlains and the Eiffel Tower or Versailles or the Louvre underscoring how amazing France can be.

It may be hard to appreciate, but it’s better than being considered the pushovers of 1940. (Screenshots to follow)

Next up, the great power of central Europe, Germany.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Jozef

    Excellent article. I haven’t realized that before, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense. I should’ve questioned the French portrayal especially in Colonization, but I never did.

    The only thing I don’t fully agree with is the American cultural imperialism. I think Civ4 did a really good job of portraying it as entertainment – Rock’n’Roll and Hollywood and Broadway create trade goods that make people happy, but don’t contribute too much to culture. And in my opinion, it’s true that way.

    The effect of American culture on others is very dependent on the others’ preconception of the US. During communism, American cultural products (mainly movies and music) were used as a propaganda tool to show the “moral decadence”; after communism fell the attitude turned 180 degrees. So if you want it modeled in games like Civilization, either keep it as a trade good where nations can decide whether they want it or not, or model it as a factor in diplomatic relations only.

    (Sorry for going off-topic so much, but I was actually thinking recently about how nice it would be if there were factors that would “extremize” or moderate already existing attitudes by other leaders.)

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  • simo

    I would argue that you have partly excluded the other strategy type-cast of France as the pinnacle of Feudalism and Warrior-Nobility. This is depicted in strategy games through repeated heavy cavalry units and bonuses that the French always seem to get: and the tale of the french knights at agincourt has a long influence in the english-language mind.

    Some examples: AOE2 with the classic Paladins, AOE3 with their curiassier, RoN, EmpireTW, etc. You could even argue that this is reflected earlier in history in RTW:BI (the franks and their paladins).

  • simo

    and i do think this is a great article :) as are all the others

  • Sam

    My greatest memory of the French in games comes from Joan of Arc in Civ III. Military, and ultra (or should that be ) expansionary. If the French ever started on a different continent from me, by the time I got there the entire landmass would simply be a mass of burgandy (no pun intended).

  • Darren Jones

    Glad to see im not the only one who enjoyed conquest of the new world. I remember playing this on my trusty old 486, in later parts of the game pressing the end turn button would result in a 20-40 minute wait whilst the computer plotted its turns, and many great games using the PBEM function, the first time i had come across PBEM as an option,

    for those who missed out you can get it from GOG for a few dollars

  • Shaun

    This was a great article to read as someone that has focused their collegiate studies on French history. The National Character series (once completed) REALLY needs to be compiled in some sort of larger and more comprehensive manner than just fiddling through the links to the various articles.

    Oh and as a shameless plug – I’m going to conduct a marathon. I’m going to play as France in a mix of Total War/Paradox games from 1080ish-1947. M2:TW, EU3, E:TW, N:TW, VIC2, HOI3. And it will all be streamed live. I would be honored if some of the Flash of Steel guys would pop in chat and say ‘hello’ while I’m taking on this challenge. First session starts this Sunday (20th) at 10PM EST. Going to try to get in a couple hours each night. Link below.


  • Peter Sahui

    Fascinating article as always. Simo beat me to the punch – I think of the French as the Heavy Cavalry Faction more than the Cultural Faction.

    I think the problem with modelling soft power is the same problem with modelling institutions, government, civics, etc — grand strategy games tend to be fundamentally built around “force of arms -> territorial control -> tax dollars -> more soldiers -> repeat” models, which basically gives short shrift to anything that isn’t boots on the ground.

    Shaun, that’s a pretty ambitious challenge! Good luck with it!

  • Chris White

    Really enjoyed this one Troy, thanks!

    It seems like France would make for a really creative and interesting setting for a city builder, perhaps set in the Victorian era.

  • Stef

    Oh Dear, it’s so stereotyped. One fear what one does not understand, you could summarize it that way. USA culture can easily be embraced; It’s another story with a fair number of European cultures.

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