“The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference” (Alexis de Tocqueville)
I love France and the French. No, really. I trust their sartorial intuition and am intoxicated by their fields of lavender and sunflowers, their ancient hill towns, alpine mountains, rugged coast and wind swept countryside. The French people, particularly Parisians, are like an aging actress – seductive, entitled, proud, elegant, stubborn, self absorbed, mercurial and somewhat unpredictable. I have come to accept their political contrarianism as a sort of symbiotic fact of life. I also love to lampoon the French at every possible turn. The French insist on positioning themselves as a rational and more egalitarian alternative to American hegemony and its “McDonaldization de le Monde”. Every protagonist needs an arch enemy. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Moriarty. Superman had Lex Luther and Republicans have Obama The French need America.
America is a country where everyone has time to mow their three-acre lawn each week,but no one has time to cook their own food; a country where “evil-doer” and “do-gooder” are both negative characterizations; a country whose academic institutions are better known for their athletes than for their scholars; a country whose car parks are bigger than the buildings they serve; a country where it is possible to purchase (and theoretically consume) sugar-frosted honey-coated deep-fat-fried cheese sticks; a country where they play a brand of football which involves minimal use of the foot and maximal use of the hands; a country which calls itself the Land of the Free yet has the world’s second highest incarceration rate, behind Russia; a country where only the well-to-do ride bicycles; and a country where ( up until very recently ) petrol costs less than bottled water. – A French View of America, PurePolitics
Their cocksure arrogance and serial devil’s advocacy to anything American just begs for me to assault their penchant for wine, cheese, infidelity and the bloodless surrender. The French have infiltrated American culture and our lexicon. The French gave us the term, coup d’état, which involves taking over a government by force or deception while the leader is vacationing in Cannes. They gave us, “Je ne sais quoi” which means “ I have no freaking idea what that reminds me of so I am going to draw on my fourteen years in le Grand Ecole to say something sophisticated that means nothing.“ What about “Laissez-faire”? a form of government which is tantamount to a parent running a meth lab.
“Marie, where are les enfants?” “I believe the children are with your mistress, no?“ And, le piece de la resistance? “Raison d’être” translating to “reason to exist” which for the French, is to be par excellence – – preeminently supreme above all others.
“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” —General George S. Patton
I developed my tendency to take the starch out of the French while living in Europe. Working with our French operations was a sociological adventure. We had a worker’s council threaten to strike over whether we would install a sales management system. The labor union leadership did not like the idea of someone monitoring employee performance and potentially paying for those results. Imagine that! We had 35 hour work weeks with employees swapping building access cards in order to work longer than 35 hours – – trying not to get caught by those who were trying to enforce the 35 hour rule designed to drive full employment. We had executives that were cheaper to move aside than to pay a mandatory three year severance. They became frozen fixtures, too proud to leave and too angry to do anything other than criticize management. My French colleagues referred to the seventh floor which housed these malcontents as “le mausoleum”. The Parisian staff were by far, the most educated, unprofitable, dynamic, dysfunctional, sarcastic and elegant team we employed. Teams were merely a shell for individual contributors who competed with one another for success. This competition of individuals, many of whom were educated in the best schools, was unproductive and highly entertaining. Personally, I loved it. Professionally, it drove me crazy.
“France is a mouse with the skin of an elephant ; America is an elephant with the skin of a mouse” ! C. Nadeau
Whether it was the French’s decision not to commit troops to Iraq or a persistent condemnation of our foreign policy, the French remain committed to being distinguished as a mature alternative to adolescent America. It is lost on many of the new intelligentsia that our countries’ histories are inexorably bound by periods of mutual necessity and alliance: the French helping America gain its freedom during the Revolutionary War or US soldiers fighting and dying in places like the Ardennes and Normandy to liberate France. Somewhere along the way, our co-dependence yielded to cultural and philosophical differences with each side assailing the other for their self serving values and blind excesses. And just when we finally screwed up the courage to sacrifice our Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Brie cheese, French wines and god forbid, “French” Fries, along came French President Nicholas Sarkozy pledging to build a stronger bridge with the USA and position France to compete in the new global economy by loosening the noose of suffocating social programs. “Mon Dieu, Jacqueline! President Sarkozy is a capitalist loving, Walmart shopping, American loving traitor! Have you seen his new girlfriend ? The République française is in pieces, n’est pas?”
“In response to the recent terror attacks in Spain, the French government have raised their terror alert status from Run to Hide.” – Somewhere on a Wall Street trading floor
Thankfully, the French are so predictable. While Sarkozy initially robbed us of our ability to dislike or tease the French, he quickly yielded to popular demands and a deeply distrustful society. His proposals to reform pensions to mirror private sector schemes led to public workers strikes and eventually it was easier to kick the crepe down Rue St Germain than to start espousing Western notions of personal responsibility. The French are generally suspicious of success and feel that capitalism promotes a level of corruption and institutionalized discrimination in business and government. This distrust of government and business manifests itself in a refined intellectual cynicism where corporations and wealth are seen as having corrupted the ideal of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”
Like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, we simply cannot live with or without the French. Our contempt for one another should be overshadowed by the fact that we are both great societies and that we need one another. It is true that democratic socialism is not compatible with neo conservative capitalism. Yet, the USA is learning that we desperately need global partners and that we can do more to support the least among us in our society. The French, on the other hand, are learning hard lessons about the impact of economic immigration, the burden of massive social programs and inefficient labor law. We are in essence, stumbling toward one another in a blinding storm – – the aging actress and the powerful adolescent. We may end up together but we will always be odd bedfellows.
Vive le difference.