Found in translation | badaud, the bad flâneur

Badaud - mini jupe girl - USE

{badaud} noun m. |

onlooker, bystander
(informal, pejorative) gawker, rubbernecker

À Noël, les badauds s’arrêtent devant les vitrines.
At Christmastime, bystanders stop in front of the store windows.

attirer les badauds
to draw a crowd

Pronunciation [bado]


“There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses.”

| Raymond Williams

As individuals, we are often quick to judge “the masses,” without ever considering our place within them. I am routinely fascinated by all the faces in a crowd – but rarely do I focus on my own. Out of humility, lack of self-awareness, or perhaps fear of what I could find, I fail in this regard.

What is my role? What is my involvement? What is my responsibility?

I – and all of us – could look to 19th- and early 20th-century Paris for a little help.

Pourquoi pas!

Over this period, the popular press in Paris chose to focus on, and in doing so, defined a striking urban phenomenon: the crowd in the street. In time, a curious distinction came to be made between the badaud and the flâneur.

Originating in the 16th-century, if not earlier, the term badaud was a French adaptation of the old Provençal badau. From the 17th-century on, it became associated almost uniquely with Parisians.

While the flâneur was a keen observer of modern life, the badaud was the flâneur’s lesser half – his “bad twin.” Idle curiosity, gullibility, and ignorance summed up this character. The passive badaud shamelessly gaped and gawked at any remarkable sight, usually the ills of the crowd. On a basic level, while the badaud was part of the crowd, the flâneur remained above it (both in acuity and in caste) – watching from afar. Indeed, the flâneur became the amateur detective, actively probing life as it passed him by. The two figures came to represent dramatically different forms of participation in the public life of the city – specifically the City of Light.

The “Encyclopedia of Urban Studies” (2009) accurately contrasts the two: “Whereas the badaud was dismissed as a frivolous creature, satisfied with a superficial impression of the city, the true flâneur was presented as an astute observer capable of penetrating the hidden aspects of urban life and exercising control over the seductions of an emerging commodity culture.”

Auguste de Lacroix, in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1842), goes further: “The flâneur is to the badaud what the gourmet is to the glutton… The badaud walks for the sake of walking, is amused with everything, is captivated by everything indistinctly, laughs without reason and gazes without seeing.”

Admittedly, I am a mix of both – gourmet and glutton – and I see no fault in that. But from now on, I’ll try to be a little more flâneur and a little less badaud. See a little more, gaze a little less. At least I’ll see where it takes me.


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