Pardon my French

A brotherly reader writes:

I recently had a chance to watch the new French film Banlieue 13: Ultimatum, which as far as these things go is a pretty good action flick. The point of the movie seems to be that the weak-willed French president is being dominated by a cabal of generals, intelligence agents, and industrialists, but that with cooperation, acrobatic skill, and aesthetic unarmed combat, the outcasts of French society (apparently consisting of Arabs, Africans, Asians, Sicilian Mafiosi and German skinheads) can bloodlessly seize the apparatus of state power and allow the president to do the right thing. Or something like that. Good action sequences, though.

Anyway, in one scene, the building-hopping acrobat Leito and the rogue agent Damien decide to talk about religion and society while dodging bullets.

Damien: It’s not the laws that are bad, but the people that enforce them.
Leito: Yeah, like religion. Incidentally, what’s yours?
Damien: I was baptized when I was a boy, but my only goal now is the civil code.
Leito: What?
Damien: My only goal now is the civil code.
Leito: You’re worse than a Mormon.

All I have to go on are some dodgy subtitles, but a discussion of civil society and religion in France seems like a weird place for Mormons to pop up. Are French Mormons known as fanatically patriotic to the civil code? Fanatically patriotic? Or just fanatical in general? I don’t know French and I don’t know enough about France to put this in context. Can any of your readers suggest what’s going on here?

24 comments for “Pardon my French

  1. Have you seen a clip anywhere I could look at?
    French Mormons, to my knowledge (French RM, sister and father are French RM, several siblings have lived there for a year or so, multiple return visits) have no such reputation. I’m not even sure what exactly “the civil code” would refer to.

  2. I would read this as viewing Mormons as dogmatic and uptight. Probably a reflection of missionaries being the face of the religion and a certain inferred zealotry.

    The Code Civil is the French legal system, based on the Napoleonic Code. At least theoretically, in common law countries like the US the law develops through judicial interpretation and can morph over time. In civil law countries like France the law is more rigid with less room for interpretation. So worshipping the civil code or making it the central point of life would equate with a putting form over substance. Inspector Javert from Les Miserables might be a relevant example, as might be the Pharisees.

  3. I know of nothing that would explain it, other than a gratuitous slap at we weird, mind-controlled, cultic Mormons. Those I knew on my French mission weren’t especially fanatic on any subject, and I suspect that except for a very few very missionary-minded young people, most of their colleagues didn’t even realize they were religious, much less that they were Mormons.

  4. I also can’t imagine anybody asking, “Incidentally, what’s your’s?” Either it would be assumed to be Catholic, or that someone was entirely secular — in either case, nobody would even consider the possibility that there might be a choice of religion. That sounds artificial, and, again, an excuse for a gratuitous slap.

  5. I haven’t seen b13:U yet, but I do know that the first B13 was a knock-off of Tango & Cash meets Escape From New York. And my description is making the movie sound better than it actually was.

  6. Thanks Jonathan, I didn’t know that there was a sequel. The original Banlieue 13 is one of my all-time-favorite action movies.

    I can’t say that I know anything about Mormonism in France or French culture, but I think that this dig at Mormons is much simpler than everyone is making it out to be. Rather than trying to equate Mormons with fanatics, I get the feeling the writers simply wanted to make the religion analogy and then were looking for a cheap laugh.I imagine the conversation went something like this: “what religion can we say that he is worse than? Aha, Mormons! They’re weird. This ought to get a chuckle from the audience.”

    The original Banlieue 13, though full of awesome action and stunts, is not exactly replete with well thought out intelligent dialogue.

  7. From my experience as an RM from France and overall francophile, I think warno is pretty well on the mark.

    Mormons are not very well known in France, except for stories from the media or history about extreme practices (like polygamy) and the presence of white-shirted North American missionaries (of whom there were far too many in the country throughout much of the 80’s and 90’s). I think in particular about one city where I served that several years prior had six companionships, where we now have one, and it certainly wasn’t because they were baptizing any more than we were (which is to say, hardly at all). I can only imagine what people thought when they must have run into missionaries on a semi-regular basis at home or just trying to walk the commercial stretch downtown. If we have a reputation there for seeming a bit extreme, it’s partly our own fault.

    While the French demonstrate a lot of trust, respect, and pride in the state, particularly in comparison to places like the US, I think they are suspicious of radical adherence to any idea or institution. This is the country, after all, that maintains an official list of active “cults”, from which (contrary to popular belief) the Church was removed many years ago.

  8. It’s a colloquial expression, Jonathan: “pire qu’un mormon”. It’s been popping up these past few years in French articles and chats, and is in line with a long French rhetoric tradition that uses mormons in comparisons. The image behind it is: Mormons are extremely strict, puritan, prude, somber, ascetic, dressed in dark suits…

    I picked up some of the following in French texts on the web:

    (in a film review): “the main actor shows as much emotions as a depressed mormon stricken by paralysis”

    “I’ll be as serious as a depressed mormon”

    “I was told he became as austere as a mormon”

    (on depressed female cashiers in an industrial-type restaurant) “These girls, in their Sodexho dress, seem to be able to love as much as a mormon in Amsterdam”

    (on the French writer , Michel Houellebecq): “an author as exciting as a depressed mormon with facial paralysis”

    (on a sport trainer): “he is more austere than a mormon”


    In the film, to be devoted to the “code civil” must be worse than being a mormon. Quite logical.

    Now what could Church PR do about this? Suggestions?

    (Note that in the 19th century and early 20th the term “mormon” was used in French texts to compare a bon vivant Frenchman living an exciting life with a few concubines. He also would be called “pire qu’un mormon”. Images change…)

  9. I am american, but live in France, married to a Frenchman, and I am actually very surprised to see this reference. Lately, the Church has had some publicity related to genealogy (The French are obsessed with Obama and so the fact that the Church presented him his family history made headlines), but the prevalent stereotypes in the States are largely unknown here.

    My husband has never heard the phrase “pire qu’un mormon” and in general religious insults aren’t that common. I’m wondering if the references Wilfried found online came from Canadian sources, where phrases and idioms are not at all the same as in France.

    We must of course keep in mind the people making the movie, whose politics shouldn’t be discussed here. ;)

  10. This type of reference comes up randomly in German books and media periodically. I was reading Uwe Timm’s Rot a couple of years back and saw myself described there as, out of nowhere, the protagonist strolled down a street in Berlin in a white shirt and tie and lamented looking like a Mormon.

  11. (I saw myself in that because, in the mid-1990s, I was a missionary strolling down Berlin’s streets in a short-sleeved white shirt and tie.)

  12. Bonjour Amanda

    It’s a good sign you are not aware of the environment where those phrases are used! You’ll find them especially in the more vulgar forums and chats. And with the kind of French vocabulary not learned at school.

    Not sure if same rhetoric is used as much in French Canadian environment. Sources I found that identify origin are French, Belgian and Francophone African countries. A google search with /qu’un Mormon/ and /comme un mormon/ and the like, reveals thousands of references, a fair amount of which are not tied to Mormon topics, but simply using “mormon” in a negative comparison.

    Of course, when famous singers like Lynda Lemay (ah, indeed Canadian, but just as famous in France) starts singing lyrics with such Mormon comparison, it’s spreading… Happily, in this song of hers it’s not too bad yet:

    J’attendrai sous ton balcon
    J’vais hanter ton horizon
    J’vais m’ancrer au bar salon
    J’vais prier comme un mormon
    T’idolatrer comme un pauvre con
    Un detraque qui ecrit ton nom …
    A l’infini dans des cahiers
    En graffitis dans les WC
    Je t’attendrai, Je t’attendrai, Je t’attendrai….

  13. Indeed, john f, and this comparison with clothes is also made in French.

    It would make a fascinating sociolinguistic study to inventory all these comparisons in various languages. Some other ones I found in French (my translation). Some, of course, also confirm positive images indirectly:

    “They left faster than a mormon who entered a porn cinema by mistake”

    “The F-GRXH [aviation] does not deviate more from the axis than an orthodox mormon on a bell-ringing church day”

    “Jacques Rogge [head of Olympics Committee], as serious and polyglot as a mormon, has promised a strict reorganisation of the Vatican of sports”

    (in a discussion on breast feeding & the need of healthy living): “Breastfeeding, that means I would have to live for a few months like a mormon. Hard.”

    (talking about a webmaster) “He is incorruptible, inattaquable! Worse than un mormon integriste! Eliott Ness is nothing in comparison”

    (in a critique of a performance meant to be humorous, and this one must indeed be from Canada) “The audience remained frigid like une mormone ontarienne the night of her marriage”

    etc. plenty more to be found…

  14. Wilfried, thanks for the information.

    Well, as they say in the PR biz, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. There’s more than one way for the church to emerge from obscurity. I’m not sure if the church Public Affairs department sees things quite the same way, though.

  15. Maybe they’re just trying to be edgy like House with the black mormon character. I bet they don’t even see it as that, though. Just a way to be ‘real.’

  16. john f.,

    “Short-sleeved white shirt and tie?” Things must have loosened up since the late 1970’s, when I served in W. Berlin (then part of the Hamburg Mission). We weren’t allowed to go anywhere without our jackets on, even in the summer. (Sometimes we’d take off our jackets while riding our bikes, but put them back on as soon as we arrived.). Wouldn’t be caught dead with American shirts, either, with their “American eagle” flyaway collar tips – German Seidensticker shirts with stiff collars were de rigeur…;)

  17. Frere Decoo,
    thanks for the song lyrics! Kind of charming, I think. I have fond memories of our french song sessions in francais 322.

  18. I get the impression that cultural references such as those quoted by Wilfried imply that “Mormon” in French is somewhat similar to “Amish” in American culture. It’s a religious group that is seen as being outside cultural norms. My experience in France and with various interactions with French-speaking people is that they don’t really know what a Mormon is, but they have heard (1) that it’s a cult, and (2) that Mormons are odd people, living apart from modern civilization. And the use of the word in songs is likely because the word rhymes with something else. Oddly, even these secondary references are hopeful for the church because French speaking people at least have heard the word. When I was a missionary in the 1970s, people often had no idea what a Mormon was–the word was completely foreign to them.

  19. Thanks for the memories, Rachel!

    Interesting comparison with the Amish, Dan. As a matter of fact, Mormons and Amish are sometimes taken together in French expressions. Moreover, some French confound the two to such an extent that that in the French version of the film Witness “Amish” was translated by “Mormon” (as reported on the web, I have no proof of it). I French-googled Amish + mormon and it’s amazing how many times the question is asked about the difference between the two, or people being corrected for confusing them.

    What certainly contributed to the confusion was the massive publicity given to the Pioneer sesquicentennial in 1997 –images of pioneer dress, bearded men with hats, the trail, wagons, etc. Also in French newspaper & journals.

  20. Didn’t take time to read what everyone wrote but just wanted to add that “mormon” is oftened misued here (in France). Oftentime, when someone use it in derogative way, if not connected to polygamy, you can bet they confuse “mormon” for “Amish”. That is, for many French people, Amish and Mormons have a common out-dated lifestyle and refuse modernity. As such, the phrase “as a mormon” (comme un mormon) as a response to the “I stick to the civil code” may mean that the person is rigid and does not evolve with his/her time. Warno clearly explains that rigid, non-evolutive aspect in #3.

  21. LOL @ Getting Mormons confused with Amish. As Wilfried said in 22, we probably deserve it since we flaunt our pioneer past.

    I was a Mormon missionary in France and I also heard the rumor that the 1985 Harrison Ford film “Witness” dubbed “Mormon” over “Amish” in the French version. But I never confirmed this.

    On the street in France I once asked a guy if he knew who Mormons were and he was like “Yeah, people who don’t use electricity and all that.”

    The fact that missionaries have such a strict dress code probably only strengthens this misconception.

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