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26 May 2003 -- Opinion

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The French here in America, the Americans there in Paris

A few days ago I drove my born-in-Toulouse-but-now-an-American-citizen neighbor to LAX.  Claudine was off to Las Vegas to hook up with one more group of elderly French tourists in search of the real America.  Heck, I don't think it's there of all places, but maybe it is.  This time it's a group of fifty-two who will listen, in French, to whatever explanation Claudine can come up with for Las Vegas.  Ah, the life of a tour guide.  And she's grumpy - the international tour company she works for just cut everyone's salaries thirty percent.  Hard times.

She just got back from a trip where three events surprised her.  At a restaurant near the Grand Canyon a group of locals started throwing food at the French tourist group, just little items, mustard packs and that sort of thing.  She asked the restaurant manager to intervene, and he told her they all had to leave.  The French weren't welcome.  Then in Las Vegas a group of teenagers surrounded the tour group and taunted them calling them smelly French assholes and all that.  Finally, on her flight back to Los Angeles a man sitting next to her told she shouldn't be in this country, she wasn't welcome.  She explained that she was a US citizen, and he told her she wouldn't be for long if he could help it.  I'm not sure what he could do, really.

Are we to assume US tourists are treated the same in Europe?  Some of my friends here tell me it is so, they've seen stuff about it on Fox News, and I should not return.

Then there is the boycott of French products and services.  Bah.

It is curious about boycotts in general.  I believe Proctor and Gamble at their Cincinnati headquarters once or twice a year issues a statement that their corporate logo -- with that bearded man in the moon and a few stars - actually is not really the "Mark of Satan," and maybe the Christian right boycott should end.  Well, that particular boycott has sort of petered out.   Huggies and Pringles and Satan?  Not likely.

And a few weeks ago the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas sent a few busloads of people to Pittsburgh to disrupt the memorial service for Fred Rogers - that's "Mr. Rogers" of the children's television show who died recently.  Seems they think he was gay and corrupting our children.  Well, he was a bit strange, as are many of us from Pittsburgh.  And if you jump on the Westboro church website -- www.godhatesfags.com of course (honest) - you will also see they're calling for a boycott of the Duke University basketball program, but I just skimmed it and didn't get why Duke was on the list.  I must have missed something.

I haven't seen a whole lot of "boycott America" stuff out there in my French web surfing.  It's not there.  There is that satiric French site urging people to send pretzels to President Bush who fainted and fell off a sofa in January 2002 after gagging on one.   Remember that?  The site -- www.bretzelforbush.com -- says the pretzels will be stored at a secret location before being sent to the White House in a historic mass action.  I suspect they're not serious. 

As another friend in Paris has commented, and many an item I've come across shows, they're not spitting on Americans in the streets of Paris.  But she could be wrong and just not been at the right place at the right time.  It is true that I don't know any parallel person to my neighbor the tour guide showing Americans around France.  Maybe French folks do throw frog legs at American tour groups in rural restaurants.  Could be.  No data.

But Fox News is influential.  When their main guy, Bill O'Reilly, the "most watched newsman in America" says this

"I submit to you... that if a boycott of French goods in America takes place -- and I believe it will, believe me.  I think most Americans see this for what it is. The French being anti-U.S.  Their economy is growing at a rate of one percent a year.  If Americans cut back fifty percent buying French products, we put them into a recession.  It's time for the United States people, the American people, to say, 'OK, France, you want to do this, then we do what we can.'"  (Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - full transcript at http://www.foxnewschannel.com/story/0,2933,80794,00.html)

- then we're dealing with something serious.  Robert Novak, a major conservative commentator, has said on many a television talk show that driving France into a real recession - so folks over there lose jobs and people go hungry - is what we should do.  NewsMax - the conservative news service funded by Richard Mellon Scaife (yeah, Mellon Bank was founded in Pittsburgh by his family) - has led the main "boycott France" effort with full-page advertisements in the Washington Times -- see http://www.newsmaxstore.com/contribute/france/index2.cfm for an overview and http://www.newsmaxstore.com/contribute/france/list.cfm for the companies to boycott.  He spent a whole lot of money on this.  This, all of it, is playing hardball. 

I have another friend, a fellow who founded and runs a pretty successful software company, who will make his first trip to Paris in September. He thinks the French are pretty awful and expects to be... what?  To be "not shown the proper respect" for being an American?  And he added this in a recent note --

"My Director of Operations was in Paris a few years ago and was spit on by French teenagers, refused service for no reason several times and on several occasions people were just downright rude to her.  The quote?  These people were just not nice and I will never go back.   The rudest single experience of my life was with a French person here in Los Angeles.  Come Alan -- are you trying to tell me these are nice people?  Italians and Brits are nice - I know.  I have traveled in both those countries.  The French? These people are as arrogant and condescending as Americans are boorish."

Oh my.

My reply was this:

"It is hard to generalize from specific experiences and anecdotes.  My friend from graduate school, Gerry, will never, ever return to England because of the way he was treated there, but then he loved Ireland.  He found the Scots rude and absolutely unbearable, but I find my old friend in Scotland, Brenda, just wonderful.  Of course, with that accent I can sometimes hardly understand what the heck she's saying.  But her attitude shines through - a good kid.  And it seems the London folks I met when there were apparently not the same folks Jerry ran into.  Different circles.  Such is the nature of generalizing.  There are a lot of people in the world.

"It seems to me you will find exactly what you believe about the French on your visit there in September.  That you see the French as, at the core, 'not nice' -- arrogant and condescending as you put it - then this is just what you will get.  That seems to me certain.  Step off the plane at CDG with the idea you are not going to take any shit, anyway, anytime, from any of these people who think they're so much better than everyone else and you too will spit upon.  The attitude you project will assure that.  Kind of like our new 'use maximum force and humiliate others into compliance' foreign policy - we're not going to take any shit, anyway, anytime, from any of these people who think they know something about the world.  Well, I guess, as a way of getting what you want in the world, I suppose that works.  I don't think so.  The jury is still out on that as a national diplomatic strategy, I suppose.  I could be wrong.

"I know you consider me too passive, and way too reluctant to pass judgment on people and on ideas, and just generally too accepting of what you think shouldn't be accepted.  Maybe I made friends in France and England, and have that friend in Glasgow, because I'm basically a wimp who won't stand up for myself, or my country.  Maybe so.  

"But arrive in France with that chip on your shoulder -- that people will pay you the respect and deference you deserve or they'll pay a huge price - and this will not go well.  None of these people know you, do they?  They will, almost all of them, most probably be simply curious and 'neutral' toward you.  Or they will be basically indifferent because they have their own concerns - wife and kids, car payments, a sore tooth and that sort of thing.  Expect respect and deference as your due?  Good luck."

This is not going to be settled easily.

My friend's attitude comes from a set of core beliefs he has held for most of his life.  And they are not that silly.  For him, personal responsibility, and total independence from others, is the prime virtue in life.  He believes in self-reliance -- and that charity, and helping those down on their luck, and providing second chances to people, is dangerous.  It actually hurts people.  It destroys initiative, keeps people dependent, keeps people being perpetual victims.  What do they really need?  Tough love.  Cooperation is a rather minor virtue for him, sometimes useful, sometimes necessary. 

And I'm just the opposite.  What's minor for him is major for me.  For me self-reliance is a good thing, but not something to worship as the one goal in life.  Community matters too, and for me, matters more.  He emphasizes one thing, I another.  Conflict arises, non?

I take the European view, he takes Robert Kagan American view (see the book review section).

I've had more than a few years of lectures on how the French know absolutely nothing about business and even less about personal responsibility, on how there are really no successful French businesses except by accident, how the French dont know how to really work, how they don't take work and career and career advancement seriously.  Those long lunches, four-week vacations and the thirty-five hour workweek amaze him.  And there's usually a bit on how the socialized medical system over there is evil and destroys initiative and so on and so forth.  Yeah, yeah.  Maybe so.

But in his latest argument against the French he implied he feels he will not be properly respected when he visits France.  France owes him, and all Americans, respect for the WWII stuff or something?  Huh?  It seems to me one earns respect, slowly, and as an individual.

This other thing is chauvinism?  French word.

Chauvinism.  The unreasonable and exaggerated patriotism, the French equivalent of Jingoism. The word originally has to do with idolatry of Napoleon, something to do with a much-wounded veteran, Nicholas Chauvin, who, by his adoration of the emperor, became the poster boy for blind enthusiasm for national glory and for the supposed national values.  Replace Napoleon with Bush, and replace Nick, above, with my friend.  Usually I just say something like, "You've got to be kidding."  And he backs off.  Its a harmless enough attitude here.  Not wise when visiting France.

Claudine will return in a few days with more stories.  My other friend will fly off to Paris.  And the core conflict here will not be resolved for any of us, as far as I can see.


Christmas lights at the famous café "Les Deux Magots" where one is supposed to argue out all these philosophic questions, or maybe that's done at the Flore next door.  Shortly after I snapped this I closed the hotel window and settled down with CNN International on the cable in the room.  I watched Al Gore give in and let Bush have the Presidency.  An odd night.

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22 May 2003