Polls showing that Nicolas Sarkozy, the more pro-American of the two candidates competing in Sunday’s runoff for President of France should cause us to reassess our attitudes toward that European nation often at odds with the United States.
Many Americans, particularly those on the right (and even some of this blog!,) have made it a sport of mocking the Gallic land. But, I have to admit having a particularly fondness for the French. And it’s not just the cuisine. You see, I was a French major in college and think their literature ranks alongside that of the English as the best European writing. (This is not to dismiss the literatures of other cultures, merely to highlight the breadth (and depth) of the French literary accomplishment.)
When I lived in France in the 1980s, I saw two distinct nations which we seem to be seeing in the runoff to the election. One France, the intellectual aspect (that of trailing Socialist candidate Segolene Royal), scorned our nation, finding themselves far superior to the “crass” and “uncultured” Americans. The other (that of Sarkozy) loved things American and remained grateful to our armed forces for liberating them from the Prussian threat in the First World War and Nazi tyranny in the Second.
While the intellectuals mocked our cultural product, average French people flocked to our movies — and fell in love with our stars (at one time it was Jerry Lewis; when I was there it was Mickey Rourke). I recall that a cinema in St-Germain-des-Prés, considered the “center of intellectualism” in Paris, the lines to see American movies were (after a flick’s opening weekend) considerably longer than those for French films.
When I hobnobbed with young French intellectuals (even those living at the Fondation des Etats-Unis, the American dorm in Paris), they looked down on America. Yet, when I taught English to young French professionals, they were eager to learn about American culture — and would rather have learned American English than that of the nation where the language first developed.*
In the small Breton town of Quiberon, the staff at the hotel (where I stayed) was cold to me when they thought I was Parisian (I had registered with my Paris address). Their attitude changed when they learned I was American.
In 1988, when running for President, Jacques Chirac, understood that many of his compatriots liked America; he distributed a campaign flyer prominently featuring pictures of him with then-President Reagan and his heir apparent, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. (I was struck that his campaign volunteers were passing this out in Paris.)
Once elected seven years later, Chirac slowly began distancing himself from his past pro-American attitudes and adopted those of French intellectuals, nationalists who, recalling the nation’s past, saw their native land as one of the great world powers, whose language had once been that of diplomacy. Chirac did not merely oppose America because his fellow intellectuals looked down on our “bourgeois” nation, but also because, he believed, France should serve as a rival world power.
Sarkozy understands better his nation’s place in the world of the 21st century. France is no longer the dominant power of the European continent. It is one among many European nations. And it need not oppose America merely to stand apart.
No, his election will not mean that France has become an American lapdog. But, should he win, particularly by a large margin as the polls suggest, it will show that France is not the American adversary that its intellectuals (and current leadership) want it to be. Nor is it the adversary that all too many Americans assume it to be.
Outside of Paris — and even inside the city (outside certain intellectual enclaves) — many French people are not nearly as anti-American as the headlines suggest. Sarkozy’s election should serve to remind us of that attitude. And help renew a partnership which helped us secure our independence in the eighteenth century — and helped France win back its freedom in the twentieth.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)
*When I taught English at a language school which used an “English English” text, I would give the American word (when the terms differed). Many of my students would respond by crossing out the English word and writing in the American (e.g., truck for lorry). Some told me they would rather have learned American English.