The Importance (to the French) of Being Malin
Esquire, October 1960

Si vous savez déjà ce que veut dire le mot "malin,"
ne lisez pas plus loin.

see also


I PROBABLY would never have given any thought to the word malin, or the importance Frenchmen attach to being malin, had it not been for my three-year-old son. When we went to France for four years, Colin, then not quite four, was flung directly into French schools. In no time at all his talk came to be larded with words like chouette ("swell",) machin ("whatchamacallit"), and malin.

The first two were entirely new. But malin seemed familiar. I was reasonably sure that it meant something vicious and unpleasant. And when I checked in the dictionary my suspicions were confirmed. Malin had some twelve official meanings, the first five or six of which were adjectives like "evil," "spiteful," "malicious." Yet for Colin and for Frenchmen generally, I began to notice, being malin was regarded not as a bad, but as a good thing.

The first clues came from Colin's school. He went early and got home late, and soon was working on an enormous satchel of books at an age when his friends back in America were on nothing more complex than coloring bunnies red. His accounts of what went on at school were, of course, maddeningly sketchy. Still, it became clear that the strict discipline maintained by his French teacher masked a furious anarchy which would burst out whenever she left the room. Colin, like most of his classmates, was a prey to little accidents. Jean poked him in the leg with a pen nib. Henri got him in the right eye with a fist. A genius named Chayid gave him a cookie and, after it was eaten, demanded a hundred francs in payment for it.

“He said, 'Do you want a cookie?'" Colin explained, trapped for once by the need of cash into telling us about school. "So I took it." Offering a sweet for a sweet, Colin took a cookie to school for Chayid, but was repulsed. Eventually he had to fork over the cash. But far from resenting any of this, Colin took it all cheerfully. He readily agreed with his mother that the cookie episode was sheer chantage (“blackmail”),but he obviously felt the weakness lay with him for not being smart enough to avoid the trap. And he exclaimed approvingly of Chayid, "Il est malin, celui-là !” 

This sort of being malin fitted my notion of the word well enough. So Colin's wholehearted admiration for being malin seemed a bit puzzling. Then, in the Spring of 1957, Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Paris and the meaning of malin came a bit clearer.

Two hours before the Queen's entourage was to cross the Champs-Elysées on its way from the airport the corners of Place Clemenceau were already stacked yards deep in people. As it usually does in France Système D (for débrouillard) applied. Débrouillards are experts at making out for themselves when order has broken down.

Officially there was to be no parking on the Champs-Elysées. But the big boulevard would be kept open, it had been announced, until five minutes before Her Majesty's party arrived, when all traffic was to be stopped in its tracks. An hour before H.R.H. hour the moving traffic had dwindled to a few cars. A few minutes ahead of her arrival I noticed people in the crowd in front of me began to crane their necks and shout. "Ooh la la," they cried. "Regarde ça!" It was exactly the gleeful slightly malicious noise you hear at a French boxing match when a fighter lands a good right to his opponent's liver.

Everybody was watching a little green Dauphine which, its sun roof jauntily slid back, was waiting at the light. When the light flickered from red to green the car jackrabbited forward to the next intersection, made a fast U-turn and headed back. Approaching the traffic light in front of the waiting crowd, the driver slowed, dawdling as much as the brisk traffic would bear, obviously hoping that when the police stopped everyone to let the Queen pass, he would be in a good position to see her. The watchers hooted admiringly and scattered applause broke out.

The wait for Her Majesty became a game of waiting to see if the man in the green Dauphine would succeed or not. When the Queen finally rolled by, he was three cars back from the crossroads. But when he stuck his head up through the sun roof and got what most of the faithful sidewalk-waiters-upon-majesty could not - a good look at Elizabeth - the big crowd's rousing cheers were at least as much for him as for the Queen.

When the crowd broke up I heard malin coming from all sides. As we all straggled away I reflected that the crowd's enthusiasm had partly grown out of the occupation when the Germans' represented all civil authority and Parisians came to delight in seeing anyone use the system to beat the system. I began to glimpse fully how much being malin had come to mean to Colin, to his schoolmates, to Frenchmen, no matter what the dictionary said.

Even at that, it wasn't until we were back in America, and I saw Colin suddenly transplanted from the malin world of France, that I began considering the importance of being malin as something very like a national philosophy. We got back in summer. School was out. But there was television which Colin had never seen before. Especially the Westerns. He knew about cowboys - les cowboys, and Indians - les peaux rouges, because one of his favorite French comic book characters, a young reporter named Tintin, had visited L'Amérique. He watched the chases and the gunplay with delight, occasionally asking a question in mixed French and English. The shows weren't hard to follow. I discovered, though, that a good deal of the time he was rooting for the villain.

This came to me when we were watching a rerun of a film he had seen before. There came a moment when the hero finally got the drop on the villain. This looked like the end to me and I got up to leave. Colin held me back. "Watch," he commanded. "He," he continued, pointing with obvious distaste at the hero, "is le plus fort. But the other is more malin."  Sure enough. When the brawny hero called on his adversary to drop his gun, the malin man threw it so it slid across the room toward his wounded henchman whom the hero seemed to have forgotten. In an instant the tables were turned again. Eventually, of course, the hero won out. "The other should have won,” said Colin with evident regret.

"Which one?" I asked.

“The malin one," he replied.

When school came, the change from France turned out to be easier than we had expected. Though it was a crowded public school the principal and a staff psychologist took considerable pains to fit Colin into a group where he would be "well integrated" under a teacher who would be understanding about whatever difficulties he had adjusting to American ways. In France he had been constantly aware of what rank he held in class. Its leaders were heroes whom he hoped some day to replace. The class laggard was a figure of cruel fun, tolerated but mercilessly patronized like a natural fool in an Elizabethan drama. In America, along with no books to take home for study, there appeared to be no class leaders. And certainly no class slowpoke. On the other hand, nobody seemed to poke him in the eye anymore. One day I asked him about this. "In America," he said sweepingly, "nobody wants you to be malin . They are always telling you to be nice and not be tricky or trip people or things like that."

"Is that what malin means?" I pursued. "Tripping people?"

Colin thought a moment. "Not exactly," he said. "It's more than that. It's .... " He paused. "Sly," he said finally, then added, "No, not just that either." He thought some more. "There just isn't any American word for malin ," he said at last.

"But what is being malin ?" I asked.

"Being malin is, well, 'Tintin was malin when he dropped the marbles so the men chasing him skidded all over," he explained at a burst. "Look," he continued. "I'll tell you the most malin thing that ever happened to me. The most malin . We had a tug of war in the Champ-de-Mars. It was the American students against the French. Monsieur René got us all started, eight on a side. We pulled and pulled. But they looped their rope around a tree. We were trying to pull the tree down. We were plus fort, stronger. But they were more malin." He reflected a bit. "At school now," he went on, "the teacher would say it wasn't fair. But Monsieur René said it was all right."

Summing it up, he said, "Here you don't have to be malin. There's so much stuff." He looked around as if to conjure it all up. "With grain for instance, we have tractors and stuff like that. But in France they still have to beat it with whips and their hands and stuff. So they have to be malin. See?"

As a Frenchman once remarked, language is character. I am now a confirmed Francophile.