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French or Foe?

by Polly Platt

When the stag came out of the forest and saw a horse for the first time, he thought, "Well, there is a brother! But why is his head so bare in the middle of summer? How naked and sad he looks!" When the horse saw the stag, he thought, "Ah, here comes a brother from the forest! But what is that big pine tree on his head? How can he possibly run with all that?"

  Cartoon - Frenchman greeting tourist
Illustration © Ande Grchich
All Rights Reserved.

And so it is with the French and the Americans. They look pretty much alike, they're both republics flying the flags of freedom, the rule of law and the rights of man, and both have planetary missions with what they consider to be obvious universally accepted goals: the French to "civilize", a word they coined in 1601, the Americans to "democratize."

But when they sit down to work together, the French, their heads heavy with 1,500 years of invasions and catastrophes, are wary of rushing into things. They prefer analyzing and analyzing before committing themselves. Their first reaction to any new proposal is No!

Americans love new ideas, new adventures. Their immediate reaction is Yes! Let's try it! If it doesn't work, they'll try something else. Americans are like hang-gliders, flying free of a past more mirage-like than real. They itch to act. Fast.

So, in working with the French, Americans tend to get impatient. They groan, "Analysis paralysis!" The French dig in with even more analysis. When the Americans gripe that the French are exaggerating, the French sniff that the Americans are "simplistic" (Hubert Vedrine, French foreign minister, 2001). The Americans snap back that Vedrine has "the vapors" (Colin Powell, 2001). It is through these puerile exchanges — exacerbated by media frenzy — that misunderstandings are propagated. In the end, Americans ask themselves, "French or Foe?"

Franco-American bridge
© Franco American Business Council
of West Florida

This merry-go-round has been going on for 200 years. It's called cultures. These two are worlds apart, while sharing many values. Americans are informal, Protestant and dedicated to achievement — which often means making money, as in, "The business of America is business." They like questions to be simple and straightforward, and proposals to be concrete, boiled down to a paragraph; a sentence, if possible, and a short one.

The French are formal, Roman Catholic, and interested in the quality of life. They are happy with abstractions, theories, ambiguities and paradoxes. A Frenchman strives for verbal inventiveness, intellectual elegance, lively reasoning and rigorous analysis. He sends his children to school all day with hours and hours devoted to that work of art, the French language. Many other hours are devoted to mathematics. Ever since the French Revolution, a Frenchman's level of math has been the yardstick for measuring his potential and his academic competence — crucially important in a country awarding the top jobs to its brightest scholars. The results — after much analysis! — are the TGV (the superfast train), the Concorde, the Airbus, the Ariane space missions, the discovery of radium and the AIDs virus, the pasteurization of milk, etc.

The Art of Living

Most important in France is how a person lives: his charm, his level of culture — what he has read, seen and knows, his bearing and how and what he eats — as well as his mastery of French. His life is a matter of being — living in the present. Beauty and the poetry of life are braided into it. The way the baker twists the tissue around a croissant, the way a scarf is folded, the color of shutters and the form of the railings on street corners are part of the poetry of France, as is a bus driver waiting at a stop for a late passenger waving frantically at him across the street, and a hairdresser working hours of unpaid overtime on recalcitrant hair. Dominique de Villepin, the present French Foreign Minister, is a poet. President Chirac has said on television that he never goes to sleep without reading Apollinaire.

Beauty takes time. Living in the present means taking time to smell the roses or to count one's centimes — centime by centime — in the supermarket, without loud sighs coming from next customer.... which you would expect in the U.S., where Americans would already be worried about being late to their next appointment. Their present is 10 minutes from now. Their time is a taut ribbon, segmented and rigourously scheduled, while for the French, time simply flows.

"I don't want to have to 'freedom kiss' my wife, when I really want to French kiss her."

Woody Allen,

American cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls this the opposition of monochronics (punctual, one-thing-at-a-time people) to polychronic "lateness-is-not-a-crime" people, for whom time is more like a dot that expands and contracts than a ribbon. Americans, Germans, Scandinavians, Swiss, Canadians, Dutch and Britons are strict monochronics; the rest of the billions of the world's inhabitants are polychronics in varying degrees.

Polychronic in their soul, the French adapt to monochronic time pressures when obviously appropriate; these days, they show up for meetings on time in their big multinationals and when negotiating with the famously time-obsessed monochronics. But their personal relations in Paris and all over the country are those of a village. In dealing with friends or civil servants or traders, they "take their time."

These varying cultural perceptions of risk and of time were elements in the latest Franco-American flap. American leaders were in a hurry to get their boys to Baghdad; they counted on their ability to "confound and awe" to bring them a quick victory. The French, analyzing carefully, worried about a "post-Saddam" regime in a complex country which is so prone to turbulence — a region where the French have had centuries of dealings. They saw no proof that Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction" and consequently no urgency in invading Iraq; and many legal and humanitarian reasons not to. One of them was the likely increase of Islamic terrorism, a concern which recent explosions in Saudi Arabia and Morocco would seem to validate.

With six million Moslems living in France, friendly relations with Islam have been a priority of the present French government. They felt that the arms inspectors could continue their work, and that the Saddam Hussein regime would atrophy and gradually disappear — like Nasser's — bloodlessly. France has seen too closely, too often what happens in wars and during the years that follow. Since the last terrible conflict, World War II, she has been engaged in an exciting and entirely new historical experiment: joining voluntarily with other nations of Europe to give up portions of their sovereignty, in order to avoid wars against each other forever.

Continued (Page 2) >> National Interests


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