American Views of the French

Article excerpt

THE American view of France today is a hard thing to encapsulate. Judging by some columnists, France is a power with too little to contribute militarily and entirely too much to say concerning American policies abroad. It is also a country portrayed as soft on militant Islam and the resurgence of anti-Semitism within its portals. This view shows up in the work of conservative, but generally perspicacious columnists like Charles Krauthammer and George Will, and most extremely, in columns by Ann Coulter.

In one of her pieces (December 20, 2001), Ms. Coulter avers that 'for decades now France has nurtured, coddled and funded Islamic terrorists', and mostly tongue-in-cheek, one supposes, advocates an American attack on the French, one of those 'pipsqueak nations [that] try to impose their pipsqueak values on us'. In another column of May, 2002 Coulter continues in a similar vein.

All this notwithstanding, one may still conclude that for today's average American, France is simply not a mainstream concern. Anaesthetized by remote-impelled television and by computers, the average American -- admittedly a debatable term -- knows less than he or she should about the world in general. France is a place such people maybe visit once in a lifetime, and that's it. In the heartland there is still some sense of a country that is snobby and hostile to Americans, but this is a view based on experience of the past, not a much more pro-American present in France. If wisdom means knowing when the page has turned, many Americans simply are not wise in this regard.

A Frenchman working for Sorrento Cheeses in upstate New York told me recently that he has encountered a goodly amount of Francophilia, detailed below, but in a different couche of society, also a lack of comprehension about how rapidly France has become modernized and been made more comfortable. This Breton, in the US with his family and presumably invited to a number of functions or dinners, regularly gets questions on whether there are such things as electricity over there! This group would largely be either indifferent to France, or fearful/hostile, as noted above.

American Blacks of course used to find French treatment of them better than what they endured at home. Black jazz players in particular had warm, understanding audiences in France, including among its top intellectuals, who might oppose American policies in the world, but who certainly loved digging improvisatory riffs that came their way. In the age of Coleman Hawkins or Louis Armstrong, and right into the 1960s, that empathy and relative lack of discrimination was truly welcomed. Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker are still revered in France, especially by those over 40 or so. But today's African-Americans by and large do not think much about the hexagon and its inhabitants either.

Of course there has long been a minority of mainly well-to-do Americans who have been mad for things French, and who remain so. These are mainly the ever more caricaturable babyboomers and/or yuppies of middle age and just beyond. 'Good Americans when they die go to Paris', ran the old adage -- but that of course did not apply to Pittsburgh steelworkers or those working the slaughterhouses of Chicago which Upton Sinclair's novels opened to the world. In the 1920s an expatriate brigade of important American writers obviously found freedom from constraints and cultural stimulation in a Paris that Baron Haussmann had made so liveable. These were things they felt could not be located in a more materialist, brash, conformist world at home. Henry Miller and Anais Nin in the '30s were followed by a slew of writers making an obligatory trek in the '40s and '50s to Paris and its toleration for a variety of liberationist views and what we now call lifestyles. Also for its art, wine, and literature.

Today, again among a minority, Francophilia is alive and well in America, part of a certain snob artillery Joseph Epstein dissects in a recent book on the subject. …