It is yet one more measure of the vast differences exisiting between two nations – geographically divided by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but, mentally, deep oceans apart – that what is a veritable institution on one side of the Channel, is totally unknown on the other. So, for the benefit of our Anglo-Saxon readers the Froggy in me will begin with a brief explanation of the etymology of the term ‘le Système D’, followed by a definition, along with some examples of its modus operandi in daily life.
My non-French-speaking Anglophone readers will certainly have realized that, in regard to the word système, the two languages converge so closely that deleting the grave accent and the last letter leave us with an English word meaning ‘a scheme, or plan of procedure’. But it’s the capitalized fourth letter of the alphabet which imparts that same French flavour to the expression as garlic does to a roast leg of lamb when pushed in near to the bone: for this ‘D’ represents the initial letter of the commonly-used reflexive verb se débrouiller, literally meaning ‘to disentangle’ or to ‘extricate oneself.’
You unimaginative, sheep-like, stick-to-the-rule Anglo-Saxons tend to adopt a submissive attitude towards those relatively minor obstacles which everyday life, at some moment or other, inevitably places in our path. These little problems may be of a practical nature, can be caused by rules and regulations, or by those officially appointed to make sure they are applied. In contrast, the more creative, individualistic Frenchman has developed what is termed ‘le Système D’ – an implicit, institutionalized anti-code, perhaps not always perfectly licit, but never more than marginally detrimental to others, which relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each to improvise an immediate solution. De plus, ‘être débrouillard’ is a positively-perceived trait, an attribute it is considered desirable to possess when confronted with life’s daily hassles and, as such, a quality which French parents encourage in their offspring.
In its most rudimentary form, le Système D consists in improvising a practical solution to a concrete problem by adapting any material at hand. Let me illustrate this by two examples. A few summers ago, I spent a couple of weeks’ holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Now, in view of the long journey ahead and the likelihood of encountering dense traffic on the way, I decided to set off well before dawn. However, while loading up my car of that time, an old 2CV, I realized I’d forgotten to remove the many insects that had come to a sticky end on the windscreen over the previous days.
‘I’ll go and get the window spray,’ my Englishman said. On coming back I directed the nozzle towards the glass and applied my right forefinger to the button. Nothing happened.
‘The bloody thing’s U.S.,’ he muttered in dismay. ‘What the heck are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux !’ my Frenchie replied. ‘On va se débrouiller!’ – ‘Don’t worry, old chap ! We’ll sort something out!’
Being a bit slow-on-the-uptake, what my English part didn’t realize was that the same, even better results can be obtained, totally free of charge, simply by using a few sheets of newspaper, a drop of water, and a bit of elbow grease. Soak the newspaper in the water, rub away and squashed insects disappear like magic!
‘Elémentaire, mon cher Watson!’
On another occasion, a rather more serious problem enabled me to come up with a more daringly imaginative application. I was driving along with Priscille, my girl friend of that time, when a red warning light started flashing on the dashboard of that same old 2CV. Of course, I pulled up immediately, jumped out and proceeded to lift up the bonnet. It didn’t take long to see where the problem lay. The fan belt had chosen that moment to come apart. Now, as my more mechanically-minded readers will know, this type of breakdown, while not being a disaster in itself, would have made any further attempt at motorized advancement liable to seriously compromise the future health of the engine. So, I had to find a makeshift solution to get me as far as the nearest garage.
‘Oh, shit!’ said my Anglo. ‘We’re stranded. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux!’ my Froggy replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘Il n’y a pas de problème. On va se débrouiller.’
Needless to say, he’d already found a solution. Now, the armour of Priscille’s virtue constituted an impenetrable shield against every conceivable type of incursion, whatever form it came in, whatever direction it came from, and whatever part it was aimed at, and I had to use all my charm to get her to divest herself of her tights (after all, weren’t we in a tight spot?). But the rest was plain sailing. After twisting them into a rope, I knotted them round the pulleys of the dynamo, and hey presto! two minutes later I was breezing along again. C’est ça, le Système D!