Wednesday, November 02, 2005

An Insomnia Report Exclusive: The Good People of France Aren't Too Keen On The Bush Administration

It is my good fortune to have an older brother who is well-
placed in the scientific establishment. His work is of a na-
ture that his current employer, a certain government
agency, considers it worthwhile to shuttle him off to far-
away world capitals to discuss the findings of his group
with his counterparts in other nations. Essentially, he gets
paid to go to Rome, London, and Berlin to advance the
glamorous causes of Science and Advancement and Human
Endeavor with his like-minded fellows across the globe. For
me, his markedly-less brilliant relation, it means that I can
visit these places for little more than the price of a plane
ticket, since his employers are picking up the hotel tab. This
translates into long spells lolling around in arrogantly-chic
cafes and wandering the narrow, twisty streets of cities
where even the trash receptacles are older than my home-
town’s most historic buildings.

When I went to Paris this past summer, I felt that it would
also be a good opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse of the
other side of the great, gaping Franco-American divide. I
took it for granted that there was such a divide, simply be-
cause you hear so much about it these days. It’s common
knowledge that the French "hate Americans", that they
ridicule our stupid pop culture and cast snide aspersions at
our tremendous power. In a lot of current discourse, mainly
conservative current discourse, the French are cast as an
exaggerated version of the stereotypical Volvo liberal.
They’re snooty, sanctimonious aesthetes lacking in physical
courage and personal hygiene. They’re prone to surrender-
ing and they get excited over incredibly pompous things.
They’ll spit in your face if you don’t speak their weird, mum-
bly language, but that’s just because they’re upset that they
have to give their terrorist-coddling government 134% of
their wages in taxes each year. These sorts of opinions are
common currency among that bleating jingoistic set that’s
so influential nowadays, but is there any truth to them? Or
is it that these people’s sad, shrill worldview needs an endless
supply of Not-American-Enough villains to keep from found-
ering in their sea of utter bullshit? I suspected the latter, and
a visit to Paris did nothing to dissuade me from this position.

Let me tell you about the French. There are sixty million of
them. So, of course, in a population of that size, you’re going
to have some assholes. Fortunately enough, I didn’t meet
any of them. Everyone I spoke with was wonderfully plea-
sant and engaging. Now, you hear a bunch of talk about how
their waiters are impossible and how the philosophy of cust-
omer service hasn’t crossed the English channel yet. There
is, perhaps, a touch of validity to this. A French waiter or
waitress gets paid, as a salary, just as much or more than
I do. As a result, they don’t have to suck up to strangers
for tips. So if they want to give you the cold face for what-
ever reason, they’ll go right ahead and do it without much
compunction. But I never felt anyone was rude to me. This
might be because I have a more stringent definition of what
rude is. If a waiter tells me that I’m the goofiest-looking
piece of shit ever to darken his restaurant, that’s rude. If
he tells me that he’s not going to give me the glazed duck
special because I’m not worthy of it, that’s rude. But if he
declines to make pointless chit-chat with me or forgets to
act as though the universe itself sparkles out of my asshole,
that’s not rude. That’s efficiency. That’s acting as human
being among other human beings, not the humiliating
master-servant relationship we get such a kick out of
here in our supposedly classless society.

But I’m not here to talk about waiters. I’m here to talk
about the French, specifically Parisians. They are, as a
whole, no more unpleasant to outsiders than New
Yorkers. They’re a rushed, overwhelmed, well-dressed
bunch who have better things to do than listen to a sun-
burnt man in a fanny pack beg for directions in a lan-
guage they rather not speak. Of course, most of them
speak better English than the average citizen of Wis-
consin, but you’ll never know that if you corner them
on the street and start jabbering at them in our un-
lovely tongue. From what I could tell, they hate that.
Stutter out a few words of half-assed French, however,
and they’ll gladly speak with you in English for as long
as you choose to keep up the conversation. They re-
quire that you attempt their language, but they’re
merciful enough to cut you off before you torture
their vowels into oblivion. That’s one of the things I
like about them, actually: they love their language
enough to resent having it mutilated. Maybe they
sometimes go overboard with it, but I can understand
the impulse.

So, the French: their wine is better, their buildings are
classier, their children are more educated, their pants
fit more snugly, their vacations are longer, their chol-
esterol levels are lower, their prescription medicines
are cheaper, their senses of humor are more refined,
and their women are sexier. All these I take to be in-
arguable facts of existence, except for perhaps the last
one, which might be more of a personal fetish on my
part. No one–least of all the French--would argue that
their government is flawless or that they don’t have
some massive challenges to face (unemployment, the
difficulty in integrating new immigrants, an aging pop-
ulation), but nor should one dismiss their accomplish-
ments and their potential. Those ideologically opposed to
state intervention in the economy like to predict dire con-
sequences for France and the rest of the European comm-
unity, but speculation like this is most likely just wishful
thinking of the oddest sort. In a global economy, Europe’s
financial collapse wouldn’t be good for the United States.
Maybe it would prove a point various thinktank wonks
never tire of making, and I suppose that might be a plus
on their resumes or something, but I imagine that real
pain would be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

But that probably won’t happen. There will slumps and
renewals, times of prosperity and times of trial–just like
they’ve had for centuries and centuries now. Over there,
they’re less vulnerable to babble about the "end of history".
They’ve been through so much more history than us, after
all. One of the things they’ve learned from it is how to tell
their periods of ascendance from their periods of decline.
Here in America, a great many of us haven’t figured out
which is which yet. They talk of glory and mission while
we humiliate ourselves spectacularly again and again, they
get misty with pride as we sink further into the mud.

It would be a mistake, I think, to say that the French are
unduly smug about this. From what I could gather, they
tend to think of America as a very large puppy. There are
times when the puppy is adorable, times when it’s helpful,
and–more often recently–times when it pisses all over the
carpet. They’re nervous about America now because it
doesn’t seem to be growing out of it’s shredding-the-
newspapers-and-biting-the-neighbors-phase. They want
to contain the puppy. They want to discipline the puppy,
yet their ability to do so is limited. The puppy doesn’t
listen to them anymore. All the puppy does anymore is
mock their fondness for fine cheeses and deliver self-
righteous lectures about the War on Terror. It has grown
up indecent and they’re more disappointed than truly
angry. They’re worried about the puppy. They wish that
the puppy would get over this surly, rabid business and
go back to being the cuddly, exuberant thing they onced
loved. The French could devise the most compelling case
ever to prevent the puppy from mauling the mailman, but
the puppy would just make a couple of cracks about how
they’d all be speaking German if it wasn’t for it and, with
that, consider the matter settled.

When I left for France, I was modestly concerned that the
people there would consider me just another flea that’s
hopped off the puppy’s back to infest their fine country,
but this wasn’t the case. If I may overextend another
metaphor, Americans in Paris get treated more like people
who have to wear adult diapers because their bowels erupt
at inappropriate times. They keep their distance. If we find
our way into their space, we’re handled with their famous
delicacy. They have tact after all: only the most declasse
are just going to come right out and tell you that you have
a half-ton of crap in your pants. If you get into an extended
conversation with a French person, they’ll never mention
the sewery smell you can’t help but give off until you bring
it up yourself, confessing once and for all that you aren’t a
Canadian with explosive diarrhea at all, but an American,
an American dammit! Then they’ll nod their heads, make
a quick commiserating sigh, and discuss your embarrassing
malady with you until the wine runs out.

But that’s sort of an exaggeration, though. Yes, everyone I
talked to in France had nothing but nasty things to say
about George W. Bush, but he’s not their president. Their
dislike is sort of distant and abstracted. American liberals, I
think, hate him with much more passion. One reason for
this is because he makes us look bad. We’re personally
tainted by his ascendance and his continued legitimacy, we
become anxious to prove ourselves better than our l
eaders. Once we cross a border, there is an urge to re-
habilitate our country’s good name to the people of the
rest of the world. This is stupid. You have to get over it.
Yes, the French are going to judge you poorly because you’re
an American. While they’re doing that, they’re probably also
judging you poorly because of your shoes. At least you can
do something about your shoes, but there you are, telling
Pierre and Marcel and cute Genevieve from Bordeaux about
how hard you worked to get John Kerry elected. But you’re
boring them. You’re just putting a new twist on the old
Ugly American mold: you’re still putting the U.S. of A. at
the center of the universe and assuming that everyone
else is dying to hear your apologies for it. They don’t care.
If you want them to consider you different from the average
run of self-obsessed Americans, show them that you know
the names, parties, and general outlook of more than two
French office holders. Then they’ll want to talk to you. It’s
sort of selfish to demand that they spend all their time
bashing our politicians, especially when Jacques Chirac is
such a fecund source of material.