Sat, Nov 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

French and UK teenagers compared

By Agnes Poirier  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The latest think tank report on British teenagers behaving badly, so badly they top the rankings of the worst-behaved youth in the Western world, makes irresistible reading for the French chauvinist. Irresistible because, by contrast, French teenagers reveal themselves as among the best behaved, along with the Italians and Portuguese.

In short, French 15-year-olds fight less (38 percent compared with 44 percent of British 15-year-olds), binge-drink far less (3 percent to 27 percent), seem less sexually promiscuous (22 percent to 38 percent) and when they are, they use condoms more (82 percent to 70 percent). They eat more with their parents (89 percent to 64 percent) and hardly hang out with friends on weekday evenings (17 percent to 45 percent).

Having said that, I never thought that French teenagers were particularly well-behaved. On the whole, they still seem today the way we were 15 years ago: moody, awkward and serious, with little social flair.

Our expression skills varied from a shrug to a puff to raised eyebrows, to all kinds of body gestures accompanied by sounds of one to two syllables, such as "bof," "mouais," "putain" and "super."

Though not particularly articulate, we were, however, craving the attention of adults. In our book, adulthood was super-cool. We couldn't wait to be older and do what adults did: talk for hours, argue theatrically over politics, make up over a good meal, smoke, wear glasses, stay up all night over the issue of lost love, take to the streets, call riot police names and go to cafes.

As early as 13, we would mimic adults by falling desperately in love, pretending to embrace lost causes, battling over abstractions, practicing saying the word "non" with conviction in front of our mirror, drinking espresso by the bucket and puffing on our cigarette-holders without inhaling.

Why were we fighting in the streets, while wearing our best polo shirts, for which we had saved for months? Why were we drinking, when we needed a clear head to write love letters? Why were we having sex, when we knew we should make suitors wait and drool? Why were we having a takeaway (it hardly existed then) with friends, when the food at home was worth selling your soul to the Devil for?

We were serious Parisian poseurs. When I say "we," don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about a little clique: it was a time when social segregation hadn't overwhelmed us. It was a homogenous "we" from all creeds and social origins. We represented a democracy of mildly rude French adolescent youth.

Today, however, a different portrait of youth in the west is emerging and if, according to the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, Freedom's Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World, teenagers from Latin European countries still behave differently, they are closely following in the steps of their British counterparts.

Soon, in France, too, social class will be the most powerful indicator of behavior. The riots in France a year ago seem to have heralded this new age in which children's personal and social development depends entirely on their parents' profession or, worse, on the state of their bank accounts.

British society can appear extreme. Seated at a cafe in London, I remember hearing the voice of a 10-year-old boy: "Papa, would you be so kind as to pass the salt?"

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