March 2003 - On French-bashing (Letter From Paris)
I pen this column on a typical grey blustery March day in Paris,
I think back to the weather I had during a recent three-week
trip to the States. I got everything from banks of snow and below
zero temperatures in Montreal and New York to sun and warmth
in Tucson and Mexico. But no matter what the temperature, there
were always blue skies. Somehow the North American continent
never gets into grey the way Europe does.
It always strikes me as strange
to erase miles in jet travel. One minute you're in sunny Tucson
with its wide streets and hardly any sidewalks and the whole
town surrounded by mountains and the next day you're in Paris
with its narrow streets and crowded sidewalks and the Seine River
as nature's gift. One day it's margaritas and dinner at 5:30,
the next it's red wine and dinner at 9. One day perfect strangers
are smiling at you (the States, in case you haven't guessed)
and the next you are greeted with polite reserve. One day you're
in a smokefree environment everywhere you go, and the next you
are smoked on everywhere you go (this morning it was in a GROCERY
But what is really odd is that
when you live in France and go to the States, you read and hear
almost nothing about France - unless France is acting up as it
is these days. If it weren't for the Iraq controversy, the only
thing I read about France the whole time I was in the U.S. was
the sad news that the ebullient enthusiastic three-star French
chef Bernard Loiseau had killed himself with a rifle.
That was it.
However, I heard a LOT about
Jacques Chirac and the French government's unwillingness to join
their American allies in an all-out right-now war on Iraq. Depending
on who I was talking to, Chirac was praised or damned. One thing
was sure: no one was indifferent. When I returned to France,
my son and his girlfriend were curious as to what the Americans
asked about the French and what they thought. I could only shake
my head and state sadly that most Americans don't give a whit
about what the French think. What the French think is not even
on the radar screen! And that is undoubtedly why France irritates
so much. It's the gnat making the elephant sneeze.
I mean, what is France? It's
one of those European countries where you eat a lot, late, and
....let me see, what else do we know about France and the French?
Oh yes, they invented this pretty plane, the Concorde, which
drove everyone nuts with its noise but that was a few years back.
They make really smelly, some say pretty good, cheese and drink
lots of wine. They wear (or used to) berets. They eat baguettes.
The women eat like horses but are pencil thin and chic. They
have a lot of pretty scenery on a very small amount of land.
And after all, why should we
know more than that? There are so many of those European countries.
How can you even tell them apart? And what difference would it
make if you could? As Donald Rumsfeld so charmingly phrased it:
Old Europe is irrelevant. Well, not quite and certainly not to
the people who live there. Though the French only have some 60
million inhabitants, they are way up there in terms of industrial
powers (fourth at last count) and productivity. They have what
is probably the best health care system in the world (rated first
by the World Health Organization) and are one of the only countries
in Europe to have a viable film industry. They have a lifestyle
many envy, and they export more of their savoir-faire to the
States than one might think (because French-owned companies take
The French - and people like
myself who have lived in France for a long time and partake of
its many fine points - don't think the French are irrelevant.
They can be cantankerous, chauvinistic, critical, cynical, cunning,
crafty and cutting, but they are not irrelevant.
That is what was so insulting about Rumsfeld's cleverly chosen
and dismissive words. It ruffled feathers because the subtext
was: you are our ally and therefore you must agree with us on
And that's where the French beg
to differ. No, they say. We really really don't think it's necessary
to rush to war with Iraq. Saddam is indeed a horrific dictator
who gassed his own people. But bombing Iraq and its people to
kingdom come is not the solution. Let's give the inspectors more
time to do their work and try to resolve the conflict peacefully.
This, coming from an irrelevant
gnat, was greeted with outrage. Who do those Frogs think they
are? A bunch of ungrateful chimps, that's what. We saved their
entire nation in WWII (true) and this is the thanks we get. Well,
thanks but no thanks!
The French view this differently.
For them, being an ally or friend means being frank and warning
the friend of impending danger. That's why they are sincerely
surprised at the uproar caused by their dissent. "But we're
your friends!" they say. Friends are supposed to tell each
other when they disagree! In fact, this is one of the most significant
Franco-American cultural differences I have found after living
in France for three decades. In France, if your friend is wearing
the wrong color of lipstick or making stupid decisions about
her life, your duty as a friend is to intervene - vigorously.
In the U.S. if you tell your friend her lipstick's the wrong
color or she's messing up her life, you may find yourself without
A February 27 letter to the editor
of The International Herald Tribune from Frenchman Bernard Vincent
of Orleans, France bears this out: "In the controversy about
what my country, France, owes to the United States, I would like
to speak for France, for very few do so in the American press
these days. I do not mean to say that the French have no debt
toward the United States. Without the landing of American troops
in Normandy, our "liberation" would not have been possible.
Anyone who has visited Omaha Beach and the American cemetery
nearby, and has cried there, knows that. Yes, we do have a debt.
But it does not ensue that we ought blindly and forever to applaud
whatever the U.S. government decides. Gratitude is no synonym
for automatic conformity or subservience. To disagree on an issue,
however important, is neither to betray, nor to act ungratefully.
To which I will add that, without the political, diplomatic,
financial, and military assistance of the French during the War
of Independence, the United
States might still be a British possession or protectorate. It
should, in particular, be remembered that at the final and decisive
battle of Yorktown,
Virginia, there were more French than American troops. In the
allied forces besieging the British Army and General Cornwallis,
there were indeed 10,000 American soldiers, 9,000 French infantrymen,
plus several thousand French soldiers and sailors aboard the
French fleet then blocking the Chesapeake Bay in order to prevent
the British naval forces from approaching the scene of battle.
After this we never asked the American people or authorities
to publicly manifest their gratitude, nor to grovel at our feet
and slavishly support our diplomatic errors. There is no justification
in resorting to the issue of gratitude
as a one-day argument."
France's dashing gray-haired
Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin expressed the same sentiment
in an interview with Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times (International
Herald Tribune, March 8-9, 2003). Discussing his anti-war position
and differences with the U.S., he told her that "To act
like I do, you have to know how much I love America".
Not only is the definition of
friendship different, the boundaries of what can and cannot be
said are different. The French are vocal. It's part of their
culture. They like to argue. They value dissent. They can disagree
violently over politics but remain friends. What I saw on my
recent visit to the States very frankly chilled my bones. I found
a very "for" or "against" atmosphere in which
debate was ruled out. Discussion with people who agreed with
you was no problem. Discussion with people who didn't was impossible.
9/11 is still fresh in the collective
mind - as well it should be. People are understandably sensitive
and not open to hearing anything that smacks even vaguely of
being unpatriotic or anti-American. Those supporting the war
with Iraq don't want to hear dissenting opinions from other Americans,
and they certainly don't want to hear them from the French!
So it was that I found myself
dealing in innuendos, beginnings of debates that never took off
because neither side wanted to up the ante. Two examples:
At a restaurant in Tucson, a
family friend told me he'd like to order Roquefort dressing for
his salad but didn't want to give his money to the French. I
remained silent because I saw that he was so hopping mad our
"discussion" would probably become a fight. Banker
friends of mine in New York City laughed hard over the cover
of the New York Post (the one showing the French and German Foreign
Ministers as weasels). Wasn't it funny? I didn't think so - I
thought it was tabloid garbage and did nothing to encourage an
intelligent discussion of our Franco-American differences. By
tacit mutual agreement, we switched the conversation to our children
As an American married to a Frenchman,
I was and am very troubled. Our countries are allies, friends.
(But does ally mean vassal?) Given the current state of Franco-American
relations, the media (Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The
New York Times) have sent their reporters out to see just what
a dangerous place France is and if it's safe for Americans to
come. Will Americans be chided, spat on, ripped off, aggressed?
The media certainly hopes so. It makes a good story. A friend
of mine, the correspondent of a well-known U.S. paper whose name
I won't cite because I'm sure she'd like to keep her job, told
me that her editor assigned her to stake out tourist places in
Paris and ask Americans if they had been victims of anti-American
acts. When she reported back that none had, the editor was most
unhappy. He sent her back out again! Franco-American relationships
CAN'T be good. Find something!
Trust me - I'm an American in
France and I've had no problems. Neither have any of my friends.
The only trouble with coming to France right now is the fear
struck into your heart from reading the news in the States, news
which for the most part is pure hype. The concierge at a hotel
many Americans stay at reported that his American clients told
him they were afraid to come to France because of what they had
been hearing and reading in the U.S. press and on U.S. TV. Once
they got here, they found to their delight that there was no
cause for fright.
Maybe the question should be:
Is it safe for the French or supporters of France or Americans
married to French people to travel to America these days?
Safe, yes. Pleasant, no. Malheureusement.
February 2002 - Reflections on Some Sharp Words for the States
and musings on the East-West Paris Divide (Letter From Paris)
I love to read newspapers and
am very fortunate in that I can read both The Herald Tribune,
which is delivered to my door every morning, and Le Monde
which I buy every evening along with my baguette. Reading in
both languages opens doors, for you get the actual words and
context of a story in a way you don't when they have been translated
and re-cast in another language. An example in point: French
Secretary of State Hubert Vedrine's comments this month on America's
becoming too unilateral. He called the Bush administration's
exclusive focus on the war on terrorism "simplistic".
After reading the report in Le Monde, I waited for the
predictable comments and, sure enough, in they came. A few days
later, a very on-the-defensive Robert A. Levine, described as
"an economist, defense analyst and former official in the
U.S. executive and legislative branches", wrote an article
in The Herald Tribune stating that "the United States
and France do have different national interests. And on those
interests, the United States will continue to act as a unilateral
superpower. It will because it can." Hey dudes, we've got
the guns and you don't! What Levine is basically saying is that
"if you're not as powerful as we are and you don't agree
with us on everything,, don't criticize". He - and the Bush
administration - seem impervious to the fact that allies would
like to be consulted, not told. But for Levine, "telling"
the French and not consulting them is logical. For, he writes:
"the French role in the Middle East, or with regard to Russia...is
truly not very important to us." Well, here I am sitting
in France, reading that what this country, the fourth economic
power in the world, does or thinks just doesn't matter. And now
everything begins to make sense. No wonder the attitude of the
U.S. toward its allies is: "Don't call us, we'll call you."
They don't really count! Oh well, Robert, even though France
is is peanuts to the U.S., I still like living in this country
which, thanks to you, I now realize is "truly is not very
One of the things I like the
most about Paris is that just by taking the metro or bus (or
a good hike) you can totally change your environment. I thought
of this one Sunday in February when I was invited to a "
literary tea " on the Parc Monceau in the most incredible
apartment. The home of the Menier family (a French chocolate
fortune), this apartment is now rented out (probably for a small
fortune but I didn't dare ask). It features marble accoutrements,
floor to (high) ceiling bookcases, and most of all, lovely large
French windows looking right on to the Parc Monceau.
had often looked in to the windows of apartments like that while
walking in the park but never dreamed that one day I would be
inside one of them looking out. Time for tea and we changed neighborhoods
in the twinkling of an eyeas we drove from this exclusive area
to the ethnic area of Bellevue where our son lives. If you've
got a hankering for Chinese food or couscous or deli food, this
is the place to come. I even saw a " Chinese Kosher "
bakery here one day !
I keep thinking of how different
parts of Paris are these days as I go hunting for the house or
apartment of my dreams. One real estate agent I was with commented
that she was surprised that since I lived in the west of Paris
I would be looking in the east of Paris. " West doesn't
go East " she commented and although I laughed, I think
there is some truth in this. East probably doesn't go West either.
Traditionally, the East of Paris has been composed of working
class people with leftist views. The west is composed of white
collar workers with conservative views. In between the two is
the Latin Quarter whose inhabitants like to think they are very
liberal. The other characteristic of the Latin Quarter is that
the people who live there consider it a Very Big Deal to venture
out of it. They consider a trip outside its confines a real adventure.
One day I visited an apartment
in the 20th arrondissement which is about as East as you can
go in Paris. Since I arrived early and it was time for lunch,
I sat down in a Vietnamese restaurant and ordered a steaming
bowl of " Phô " with noodles. I could have been
in New York given the ethnic mix of French, Africans, Chinese
and Arabs. That was definitely " East ".
The apartment was exactly as
advertised. The only thing the owners didn't mention was that
there was a stone wall right in front of the living room windows.
Nice view, folks ! Go west, young lady. Right back home - until
the next visit, that is !
As the most powerful nation
on the earth gets ready to choose its new leader, every major
French newspaper, magazine, radio and TV station is primed to
cover the event, whether live from various points in the States
or in Paris studios with carefully selected American guests and
French political commentators.
elections - The tie
case you think the French aren't paying any attention to the
U.S. elections - think again.
The French are obviously interested
in every aspect of the race from profiles of the candidates
to negative advertising to the intricacy and complexity of the
Electoral College. As an American in France, it's fun to watch
the French try to explain the latter. It's roughly the equivalent
of trying to explain the French "grandes écoles"
system to Americans nobody understands it but everyone's
sure there must be some good reason for it.
Once the straight part has been
done, the fun the French take on life in America
begins. In a special 36-page pre-election issue, the French daily
Le Monde in collaboration with The New York
Times gave readers a taste - no, a smorgasbord - of America.
On the menu, an interview with a typical American family, a story
about Native Americans and an article on a new generation of
chefs "made in USA".
Although the story on the typical
American family touched on how the parents would vote, the French
reporter zeroed in on certain cultural differences. "Laura
drank a 'chocolate chip frappuchino' in a glass as big as a European
flower vase," the journalist wrote at one point, emphasizing
how big everything in the U.S. is. (The French drink strong espresso
in tiny porcelain cups).
And when asked what worries the
family could possibly have in the prosperous Clinton era, Jamie,
the mother, replied: "Getting enough sleep." (The French,
who now have a 35-hour work week, have a hard time relating to
Finally, the reporter's observation
that the family "tries to eat dinner together", something
"rare" in suburban America, underscored another important
cultural difference: 90 percent of the French eat dinner together
sitting down every night.
That's for the typical American
family: Silicon Valley is another favorite for French reporters
who are drawn to it like bees to honey. It is, of course, the
quintessential symbol of American prosperity. Additionally, approximately
15,000 young French men and women currently live and work there.
(As the French economy improves, though, some of them are now
returning to France.)
Over these past pre-election
months, French viewers have seen both the upside of the Silicon
Valley success story with its instant millionaires - and the
downside with reports on working mothers who live in shelters
because they can't afford the astronomical rents.
Other reports from the States
show families with three cars, four garages, several computers
and phones, giant TV screens and mammoth houses. Although it's
never asked, the underlying question is clear: Do people really
need all that? Especially if to get it and keep it it means that
your main preoccupation is "getting enough sleep".
Which brings us to the question
of where it's better to live - France or the U.S. - a subject
addressed in a recent issue of the French weekly magazine Marianne.
In the "what's better in
the U.S." column, the journalist pointed to the ease with
which one can change jobs, the constant renewal of policymakers,
nonexistent unemployment and diminishing poverty, universities
and laboratories which attract researchers, a judicial system
legitimized by local democracy, a press which really does its
job, fans who don't tear up stadiums, and convivial relationships
with neighbors and merchants.
And those are only a few of the things on the "what's better"
Is there anything left? Fortunately,
yes. In the "what's better in France" column, it's
thumbs down for a system which doesn't take care of those left
out by the Internet boom. It's also thumbs down for the "politically
correct" movement in the States. Both phenomena are unknown
in France, mainly because the Internet boom hasn't come of age
yet and because the French are too independent to adhere to any
one line of thought (they're too busy fighting with each other
to want to be or talk or think like each other). The journalist
gives a resolute thumbs up the French public school system and
the TGV (fast train), the Social Security system, and the shorter
As for the elections themselves,
the French are mystified by the low voter participation (it's
75 percent or more in France compared to 50 percent or less in
the U.S.), the lack of any real difference between the parties,
the colossal amount of money spent on the campaigns and the focus
on scandal (George W.'s arrest for drunken driving 25 years ago)
and personality and popularity (the appearance of both candidates
on Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey) at the expense of
a real debate on issues.
One of those issues is the death
penalty, abolished in France under the late President François
Mitterrand. Former Justice Minister Robert Badinter, head of
an international campaign against the death penalty, will present
a petition against it to the next U.S. President.
No matter who gets elected, America
will continue to fascinate the French - for better or for worse.
Writing in Le Monde, columnist Pierre Georges explores
this relationship: "One can't spend a half a century, as
children of the war, owing them what we owe them and not come
And that's why, as America turns
out to vote, the French interest in the elections is anything
The tie that binds may at times
be tenuous, frustrating and complex - but it's definitely there.
(UPI - November 7, 2000 by
Harrier Welty Rochefort)
To French society
January 2002 - Meeting Sarkozy, the Mayor of Neuilly (Letter From Paris)
|As I sat at my desk
contemplating signing up for gym or taping my mouth shut after
having eaten so much over the holidays, the phone rang. On the
other end of the line was a friend of mine who teaches English.
She told me she had a great idea. It would be nice, she said,
if I would sign a copy of my first book and bring it to the office
of the Mayor of Neuilly, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was her latest
pupil. It would be a great arrangement for both us she'd
get him in touch with one of his constituents and I'd get some
publicity for my book. Sure, no problem, I said, and turned up
at the appointed time. He didn't, though, and while we waited
she told me how when she had started lessons with him a year
ago, he could hardly say a thing and that now he was making rapid
progress. " He's never late, though, " she said, just
as he came rushing in.
You have to know Neuilly
and French politics to appreciate this story. Neuilly is the
most affluent suburb of Paris and an excellent springboard for
an ambitious politician to make a jump for the presidency. Nicolas
Sarkozy, whose father was a Hungarian refugee who, so the story
goes, rode into France under, not in, a train, is clearly intending
to do so. Meeting the fellow who may be the future President
of France was, then, no small matter. Believe me, if he becomes
President one day, I won't let him forget our little rendez-vous
December 2001 - Christmas in Paris and a French
tune for Judith (Letter From Paris)
December could be summed up as
hectic and heartwarming.
Hectic. We all know about Christmas
shopping and the Christmas rush. It's no different in Paris.
Well, it's a tad bit different in that weather-wise we are not
favored here with a white Christmas. It's almost always a gray
Christmas, sometimes a rainy Christmas, but never a white Christmas
with snowflakes gently falling to cover the ground. I'd like
to say that all are filled with Christmas cheer but I fear that
worldwide everyone is just in one big rush to get
the shopping done, the gifts bought, the tree up, and none of
these acts are accompanied by any particular manifestations of
smiling and good will to all. In fact, to tell the truth, the
crowds are mammoth and the traffic terrible. People walked around
looking preoccupied and worried. Would they have their gifts
bought in time ? And Christmas dinner ! It's the biggest most
important dinner of the year, not counting New Year's Eve which
is often celebrated in restaurants. But for Christmas dinner
families are at home and (other than for the children) the meal
is as important as the presents. Oysters on the half shell, smoked
salmon, foie gras, turkey or goose with the stuffing, chestnuts,
various purées, salad, dessert and all kinds of wine and
champagne are on the menu and have to be bought and served in
style on this night of nights.
When you're just about to tear
your hair out thinking about all there is to do before the big
day, you might stroll, as I did, past the displays in the windows
of the Galeries Lafayette and watch the children watching the
animated Santas. Their innocent delight brings some needed perspective
on the holiday hassle.
So much for the hectic
part. I'm always amazed at how calm things get once you forsake
the beaten track. One day right before Christmas I drove to a
part of the 14th arrondissement right behind Montparnasse where
for some odd reason there was nary a soul. I strolled down the
street and fell upon a store whose window was tastefully decorated
with the most beautiful accessories cases for glasses,
pretty little velvet purses, beautiful brooches, gorgeous silk
scarves. I entered and spent a wonderful half hour poring over
the tasteful merchandise, then wandered next door to stock up
on tea at Le Palais des Thés and drove home with the redolent
odor of their special cinnamon Christmas brew perfuming my car.
Heartwarming. My husband's son
and wife arrived with the newest arrival to the family : Judith
Rochefort, age 3 months. Judith brought a dimension to our Christmas
we hadn't had since our own children were small. I knew I'd become
very French when I took her in my arms and sang a French standard
for children : " ainsi font font font les petites marion
ettes ainsi font font font trois petits tours et ils s'en vont
" complete with hand movements. I also gave her my rendition
of " Rock a Bye Baby in the treetop " all the while
wondering about that line " and down will go cradle baby
and all ". Oh well, it will be years before she can understand
it and by then I'll have come up with an explanation.