February 02, 2005

In Defense of France

For me, the best place in the world to sit down and write is the Café Deux Magots in Paris. Though it has what must be the worst service of any food-serving establishment anywhere, it has palpable history and guidebook-recommended atmosphere. As every tourist to Paris learns, even Hemingway and Sartre used to write there.

I can see why. Since waiters rarely, if ever, come to your table, you don’t suffer from interruptions. Also, there is no wi-fi, which for me is a pre-requisite, since the Internet is too distracting. The hum of indistinct conversation provides the perfect ambiance. And there is enough space on my wobbly table–barely–for my laptop and a hot chocolate and toast with goat cheese. Except for the smoke from neighboring diners, this is the life.

I have lived overseas for four years. It was only dumb luck that my move to Europe coincided almost exactly with Bush’s first inauguration, which I watched, jet-lagged, on the BBC from a run-down London hotel. At that time, I was on a three month assignment, which became six months, then a year. I’m still here.

In London with few friends, I started taking weekend French lessons to meet people and pass the time. I had studied French in high school in Michigan, but I was far from fluent: my first teacher’s name was “Madame Martinez,” which gives an idea of her native language skills.  In our senior year, two of us who had continued the courses throughout high school dared to take the college-level Advanced Placement exam. We both failed miserably, and I earned the worst possible score.

So classes in London were a bit of a shock; taught by real French people with real French accents — that is, completely incomprehensible. I started over with the basics, and probably would have stayed at that level. However, at that point I was introduced to an extremely beautiful, intelligent French woman, who I am lucky to say is now my fiancée. Since we met, my French has improved, though I still make dumb mistakes — for example, I always call the local grocery store the “champignon” (mushroom) rather than the “champion” (its name).

Now we live in Paris, where we are closer to her family, and we intend to eventually move to the United States. But until then, when I return to the United States for bi-monthly visits, I sometimes suffer from “reverse culture-shock;” the feeling of being a stranger in my own country. In particular, I have trouble understanding the anti-French sentiment that has swept parts of America.

I was living in London during the 9-11 attacks. The next day, the lead headline of Le Monde was “We are all Americans,” and the accompanying article began this way:

In this tragic moment when words seem too weak to express the shock we feel, the first thing that comes to mind is this: we are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, just as surely as John Kennedy declared in Berlin in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Indeed, how could we not feel profoundly bound to the people of the United States, just as we have during the gravest moments of our own past – a people who are so dear to us and to whom we owe our liberty, and thus our solidarity.

Like most nations, France mourned with us and supported us in Afghanistan as we pursued Al Qaeda and as the international community sought to rebuild the country. (French soldiers are still there: two were killed last October.)

However, the relationship went sour when the Bush administration insisted that Iraq was a deadly threat to our security. The French opposed invading Iraq on the preposterous sounding grounds that WMD inspections worked, and should be given another chance before military action was considered. Of course, commercial interests drove them to some extent — as they drove us too. (You don’t hear much moralizing against Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe for example, because he doesn’t affect the price of oil, on which our economy depends.)

Back then, when the primary US argument (and the only British argument) for war was Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD’s, France’s opposition incensed many conservatives, who said things like “if it wasn’t for us, you’d all be speaking German right now,” while saying to the Germans, who also opposed the Iraq war, “if it wasn’t for us, you’d all be speaking…uh, never mind.”

But here’s where it starts to get weird: it turns out that inspections were working. Now I don’t really expect ranking government officials, who when asked if they had made any mistakes during four years in office, respond

“I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it…I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't — you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”

to admit that they made a colossal error. But what surprises me is that virulent anti-French sentiment persists even now among the right wing. I recently came across a Web site that proudly proclaims it was “anti-French before it was cool be anti-French.” This is in addition to sites like i-hate-france.com, which has a picture of Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower; francesucks.com, which has a link to “X-RATED online FranceSucks.com gear;” fuckfrance.com; and 27,500 other Google matches for “France sucks.”

In fact, among those who like the word “sucks,” France is without peer:


Now even if, unlike David Kay — or anyone else who has checked in person —, you still think there may be some WMD’s hiding in Iraq, you have to admit that the level of vitriol directed towards France is unique.

Unique among nations, that is — but character assassination is the same fate shared by all critics of the Bush administration, especially if they used to be considered a friend. The list of officials who have been punished for questioning Republican dogma extends right down to the most recent victim, former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman —now known as the “Traitor Biatch,” despite her service as chair of Bush’s New Jersey election committee.

In the case of France, however, America continues to need and seek its help in the war on terror. Like all European nations, France works relentlessly to find, disrupt, and prosecute terrorist cells. The French know what terrorism is because they have lived it too. Algerian terrorists have attacked France repeatedly, and as recently as 1999 two terrorists, who now are linked to Al-Qaeda, were indicted for having bombed the Paris metro. After 9/11, while our government was devising a new homeland alert system of questionable efficacy, the French simply “re-activated” le plan Vigipirate which was devised in 1978, first activated in 1991 during the Gulf war, and updated in 2000. Le plan includes increased security in sensitive public buildings, tourist areas, and public transport, and among other measures, puts machine-gun carrying soldiers on the streets.

The Financial Times recently interviewed Jean-Louis Bruguiere, “the French magistrate who specializes in Islamic terrorism and who is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost legal experts on the subject.” The British interviewer wrote

No European nation has invested its law enforcement community with broader authority to detain terrorism suspects and infiltrate suspected jihadi cells than France. For instance, while the British, Danish and Swedish citizens sent home from Guantánamo Bay are all free men now, the four repatriated French detainees were arrested the moment they arrived on their native soil and have not been heard from since. Under French law, they can be incarcerated for up to three years without charge.

Luckily, cooperation between American and French anti-terrorism authorities apparently hasn’t wavered despite the anti-French rhetoric.

[Bruguiere] maintains that co-operation among western intelligence services is as strong as ever, and unaffected by the rumpus over Iraq and other political tensions.

I’m sure our government would also say they are doing everything they can to cooperate with French anti-terrorism authorities; it would be self-destructive not to.

So if the French were right about inspections and WMD’s in Iraq, and if we are cooperating well in the war on terror, what is all the fuss about?

Anti-French rhetoric, which has been fanned repeatedly by Bush administration officials and the Bush re-election campaign, serves several right-wing purposes. Because the right evokes French military defeats more often than even the British, opposition to the war becomes equated with wimpiness. (Never mind that many military experts and CIA reports believe that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, not more.) If the other guy looks wimpy, you look stronger, and as Bill Clinton said, in dangerous times the American people prefer a leader who is strong and wrong, rather than weak and right.

The French also serve as scapegoats for the administration’s failures; it’s not, for example, that the case we put to the UN was weak or erroneous: it’s those damn French who tricked fellow Security Council members Russia and China into opposing the war. It’s not that the administration’s diplomacy failed with key allies like Turkey: it must be that wily (former foreign minister Dominique) Villepin who screwed things up for us by rallying all those politically influential African nations against us.  The subsequent treatment of France serves as a warning to any friendly nation that a public disagreement with US policy will be met with swift retribution. So much for the Marketplace of Ideas.

In addition, France-baiting aggravates our internecine culture war. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a Karl Rove PowerPoint slide somewhere that shows that Francophiles are more likely to vote Democrat. After all, the French are the very definition of the liberal “elite” — every French high school student must study philosophy!

So it’s important to keep in mind attacking France is a right-wing occupation; it’s a tactic that serves to divide the nation, and it’s a conservative strategic initiative. It is a trap to be avoided. The next time you hear anti-French rhetoric, it’s worth wondering why the speaker is saying “France sucks,” rather than criticizing a country that wants to do us harm.

Of course, I would say that — after all, I have good reason to be biased.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs, Politics | Permalink  | 


Vive le France! They were also our indespensible ally in the revolution... American might not exist without France! Also, they gave us the statue of liberty (merci!)

Posted by: SheaNC | Feb 2, 2005 9:32:43 PM

France saved us once before... now can she do it again?


Posted by: Yo | Feb 12, 2005 12:32:47 PM


I was waiting for something like this post for years now!

My life is just the opposite from yours: I left France and I arrived in the US on 28th August 2001...I still don't understand how this whole france-bashing thing happened...We gave our full support until Bush asked us to do irelevant things (like invade Irak!).

The worst being that even now that it is clear that China, Russia (permanent members of the SC of the UN) and many other countries wouldn't have vote for the war; that there was no WMDs in Irak; that the world is less safe today than it was before; that oil prices have gone up by half, most Americans continue to believe France is not an ally anymore (if not an ennemy!).

France is strong on terror, but not on world take-over!

Ok, I have one more comment: France is a secular country! That fact can explain a lot!

Thanks for revealing what France really is to the US: a friend. If your friend never tells you when you're wrong, it is not a friend!

Posted by: vincent | Feb 15, 2005 3:24:54 AM

I agree with Vincent above. France has been and continues to be a friend. However, the sentiment is US is not always governed by logic but more often than not ruled by the manipulative media. Thanks for the upfront write up.

Posted by: M | Feb 17, 2005 6:53:31 AM

Excellent analysis, Latte. Oh, and great blog altogether BTW (I took the liberty of adding a link to it in our Outstanding Blogs section).

I'd like to have something smart to add but you've said it all, and wonderfuly too :-)

Posted by: WhyNot | Feb 19, 2005 7:16:59 AM

As someone who speaks French, has visited on a number of occasions, and once was a self-styled "francophile", I must say that I am disappointed with what has transpired in this relationship as well. Though I support Bush and I do believe that a democratic Iraq will in the long run contribute to America's security, I also know that the French are very good at fighting terrorism. Many opportunities have been lost over this nasty little brouhaha. But let's face it- France is a post-military society and they're just not that important anymore. "Vive la France?" Probably not...

Posted by: joe | Feb 27, 2005 7:47:13 PM

"Defense of France" is an interesting title. It is quite ironic because that is exactly what we have done for the last 65 years. We liberated them after they surrendered to Hitler. Then we had missles deployed in Europe during the Cold War to protect them from the Communists. So "Defense of France" was a great idea for a title. We are still friendly to France. France gets on our nerves but we don't hate the French. Heck, I had french toast just this morning. Seriously though, France is not an enemy, but they are a rival. Most Americans though, feel that the real reason France opposed the war was because of they were on the take in the Oil For Food Scandal. Saddam used the oil for Food money to buy off members of the security council like France, Russia, and China. Guess who opposed the war?

Posted by: Glen Dean | Mar 5, 2005 3:08:38 PM

A well written piece. Keep in mind:
a)French citizens are not the French government
b)same for US
c)Apathy is just as high as in the US (in my experience
both in Paris and the Provinces)
d)The nature of anti-French sentiment in the US is always either incentive, jingoistic, exploitative or from low-brow sources.

Posted by: jimmyjay | Mar 8, 2005 2:37:12 AM

I don't agree with Glenn at all. Most Americans nor anyone else for that matter was aware of the 'Oil for food scandal.' Most of them still don't according to what I read. They still don't realize Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and they continue to talk about Iraq's WMD.

Posted by: Dianne | Mar 9, 2005 8:03:35 AM

It is sad to read this.

Sad, first, because it *is* necessary to defend France.

Second, because even more sadly, no one here seems to have the faintest idea of from whence the anti-French sentiments arise.

This ignorance has fascinated me since junior-high when I was sent to the vice-principals office (also sadly, Texas had corporal punishment in schools in those days) for having answered “France” to the question of who won the battle of Yorktown (and thus who actually won the American War of Independence for the colonists).

No. I’m not going to review here what should be the common knowledge of any educated person. If you really want to know why the American Aristocracy hates (they do) France – and why this feeling is widespread amoung the uneducated (the same poor souls who see the “Death Tax” as a major problem facing the country – when they have trouble feeding their own children) you must seek the answer on your own.

A good starting place is Bertrand Russell’s “Freedom versus Organization” Chapter V: The Aristocracy.

Those who do not learn from history …

Posted by: Nereid | Mar 12, 2005 11:08:11 AM

I think Jonathan Richman sang it best (URL links to a snippet).

Posted by: GiveParisOneMoreChance | Mar 13, 2005 11:06:07 AM

Glen Dean posted the following comment:

"Saddam used the oil for Food money to buy off members of the security council like France, Russia, and China. Guess who opposed the war?"

Check again Glen and you'll learn that U.S. Companies were the largest recipients of Sadam's bribes.

Posted by: Herb Samuel | Mar 14, 2005 11:06:46 AM

"Glen Dean posted the following comment:

"Saddam used the oil for Food money to buy off members of the security council like France, Russia, and China. Guess who opposed the war?"

Check again Glen and you'll learn that U.S. Companies were the largest recipients of Sadam's bribes. "
Complete garbage "Herb Samuel". It is all linked together to the POWER CORPORATION OF CANADA. The inverstigations will eventually lead there I do believe. It's a French-Canadian (Desmarais family)owned international corporation with amazing links to international banking, oil, and the United Nations (BNP Paribas, the "French" bank that held the U.N.'s Oil-For-Food account is their bank, as is Total the oil company, and as is Vivendi Universal the international media congolmerate). I just started a blog covering some of those items, and it is in it's infantile stages at the moment, but we'll get there eventually. Americans have no clue what's going on. But our northern neighbors do. It's time we got wise. Go to www.NorthAmericans4Peace.blogspot.com to have a look-see.

Posted by: Billy Bob | Apr 20, 2005 7:31:45 AM

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