I made some comments previously as to Latin sensibilities and the rapport entre les hommes et les femmes in France: a peculiar mix of veneration and disenfranchisement of the feminine gender. My thesis was elegantly illustrated to me the day I that I tripped on the metro steps.
I had just come from a rather heart-rending, long-term goodbye at the airport and was feeling more than a little fragile. My immediate response to the shock and embarrassment of falling on my face in public was thus tears, only compounding my mortification. Seeing me crumpled on the steps in self-indulgent misery, three burly RATP guards came rushing to my aid.
“Are you hurt?” they said. “Shall we call the pompiers?”
I shook my head but the tears – damn tears – fatally undermined my agency. The three guards then decided that something was clearly amiss and responded in the best medieval fashion: one of them scooped me up in his arms, and they carried me off to a quieter spot where they could minister to my ills.
I was so stunned I could barely even protest. Being physically, literally, swept off one’s feet by strange men is not something which tends to happen ever so often to a woman in anglo-american society. In fact, it’s called battery. My inner lawyer was outraged, I was speechless.
The guards sat me down, patted my hand and straightened my belongings for me. Having established that I was uninjured, there remained the question of my tears.
“Are you unhappy?” asked one, solicitously and in genuine concern.
The answer, of course, was yes – I was terribly unhappy, a little heart-broken, even. However, I was also surprised by the question and – reverting as in times of crisis to my reserved anglo-saxon cultural background – I replied that I was perfectly fine. After further repeated assurances that I was not only okay but also running late, they allowed me to continue on my way with worried looks.
I left marvelling that only in France would direct enquiries as to the state of one’s spirits form part of standard first aid for a fall. But I was rather more discombobulated by the experience of having been physically manhandled by a stranger – even if in the most gallant and well-intentioned fashion. A line from a judgment in an old English assault case kept springing to mind: “any touch, ever so slight, may be an assault if it is done without consent”. Are my stiff English sensibilities as irrelevant in France as the English common law which defends them? Perhaps. The jury is still out on that one.