In America, we basically have two stock stereotypes of the French.
Stereotype #1: the French person who always wears black, hangs out in cafes and art cinemas, and spends their evenings at parties where people drink red wine and debate the relative merits of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Sartre. These are the people who, as Edmund White put it in his memoir of his years in Paris, Inside a Pearl, “keep up with the latest books and read the classics and [know] everything about serious music and the history of the cinema….”
I’m sure that they both exist, although personally, I don’t know anyone of either sort. There’s definitely another sort of French person, though. We Americans are barely aware of them–we see them once in a while in news stories about riots, but that’s about it. These are the people who live in the banlieues défavorisées (note: in English, banlieue always refers to these low-income, undesirable suburbs, but in French, the term is neutral and can refer to a nice area or a bad one–to specify one of the bad ones, say banlieue défavorisée), perhaps in HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré, “rent-controlled housing”).
Millions of people live in the banlieues–there are around 12,000,000 people in the greater Paris metropolitan area, and about 80% of them live in the banlieues. Add in the residents of the banlieues around big citys like Lyons and Marseilles, and the number really climbs. This quote from a Wikipedia article will give you the general idea of where the banlieues défavorisées fit into France: Ever since the French Commune government of 1871, they were and are still often ostracized, considered by other residents as places that are “lawless” or “outside the law”, “outside the Republic”, as opposed to “deep France”, or “authentic France” associated with the provinces. (Here’s the source that the Wikipedia article cites: Anne-Marie Thiesse (1997) Ils apprenaient la France, l’exaltation des régions dans le discours patriotique, MSH.)
I’m not totally clear on the history of the banlieues. Wikipedia relates them to the urban growth policies of the Third Republic (see above). Add to that the observation that hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during the massive renovation of Paris in the second half of the 19th century; there’s some disagreement about how many of these people might have been able to find new housing within the city, but it’s likely that many of them relocated to the banlieues, and particularly the poorer residents–I’ve read that rents in Paris tripled or something during this period. In the 20th century, after the war, France allowed in huge numbers of immigrants to supply labor during a period of strong growth, and their descendants are heavily represented in the banlieues défavorisées today.
Yesterday I went to the movies to see Un Français, a sort of “American History X” movie about a French neo-Nazi skinhead. Today, I’ve been watching La Haine (hate, hatred, aversion), a film about three street kids whose friend has been injured in a riot. These are movies about the people of the banlieues défavorisées, and the vocabulary that you come across in these movies is sometimes very different from what we learn in school. A number of these examples from the movies are in a form of slang called Verlan, but more about that another time. (I should point out that I had to get these translations from the web site dictionary.reverso.net and in some cases translate their monolingual definitions from French into English, because these words are mostly not in regular dictionaries.)
- la keuf: policeman.
- keufé: under police surveillance, I think.
- le keum: guy.
- le flingue: firearm.
- foutre la merde: mess around. (Literally: “to fuck the shit,” I think.)
- le fric: money, “dough.”
- le pote: buddy.
- buter: a number of standard meanings, but in slang, it is “to kill, to bump off.”
- se casser: a number of standard meanings, but in slang, it is “to leave,” as in casse-toi: “get out of here.”
- relou: “heavy,” as in behavior.
- le bédo: a joint. (Translation by phildange.)
- enculé: As a noun, it’s something like “motherfucker,” but it’s much more interesting as an adjective, where it works something like “fucking” in English, but with the construction enculé de (examples from dictionary.reverso.net; you’ll have to look it up yourself, because I am editing out some incredibly foul instances!):
- L’enculé d’Arthur Sellers a écrit les 156 épisodes “That fucking Arthur Sellers wrote 156 episodes”
- Je vais me le faire cet enculé de bâtard “I’m going to get that fucking bastard”
- Un putain d’enculé de kamikaze du Hamas l’a fait sauter dans une pizzeria “Fucking Hamas suicide bomber piece of shit blew him up in a pizza parlour”
An addition to the post from a commenter (lightly edited):
These slang words follow a pattern. It’s a bit more complicated than it looks–here’s how it goes.
Keuf for instance, is the verlan of “flic” shortened .
Ke-fli ( the “e” after “K” is added as always to create a whole syllable from “K”) . Then ke-fli is shortened, a trend followed by several different French slangs, to make “ke-f” . The spelling “Keu” is there to be sure people won’t pronounce it as kéf , like it would otherwise ..
Keum is the same . Mec, Ke-m, keum .
Meuf for femme, too . Me-fa, Me-f, meuf . (Of course verlan is based on phonetic, not on spelling, as you could see in “relou” for lourd, the silent “d” doesn’t appear in verlan .
My favourite French slang is le louchebem, originally a coded language for the butchers of les Halles . Louchebem means boucher, butcher, in louchebem, and gives an example of how it works .