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French or Foe? (continued)

National Interests

In this flap, both the U.S. and France acted out of what they perceived to be their own interests, whether they said so or not, but both also acted according to the principles of their culture. Americans, convinced that their mission is universal, just and right, felt that since their power was dominant, their allies should agree with them and fall in line. The French, who have also always been convinced of their own mission of leading the side of the just and the fair, and who have long been worried about what they perceive as the one remaining superpower's "unilateralism", were shocked that the U.S. demanded obedience from its allies — turning them into vassals not unlike Soviet satellites.

  Do you want Latvia or Estonia fries?
Recent displays in the U.S. resemble protest action against Germany during World War I, when sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage and frankfurters became hot dogs.

As William Pfaff put it in a recent column, the French "are interested in a slow development of civilized and tolerant international relations, compromising on problems while avoiding catastrophes along the way." During the height of French domination of Europe, the French 17th century mathematician-sage Blaise Pascal, fearful of the law of the jungle, put it like this: "If there can be no justice without force, there must likewise be no force without justice."

What is new in this quarrel is the virulence of the American anti-French smears and ridicule, seen in Europe as a measure of this administration's determination to dominate or destroy. In their often stormy love affair — and it is indeed a love affair, with strong passions sliding from time to time on both sides perilously close to hatred — France and the U.S. behaved like an old married couple who have adored each other for 50 years but argue interminably every day about trivia.

"Should we ban French wine, Belgian waffles or Russian dressing? If Mexico votes no, should Mexican restaurants also be banned?"

Jose Serrano (D-NY),
U.S. House of Representatives.

In the past, the Franco-American flaps have been either commercial, about bananas, genetically modified corn, beef with hormones, etc., or diplomatic — the southern command of NATO, the choice of the head of the U.N., the supposed snub of French Foreign Minister Charette to American State Department Secretary Christopher. But this time, the accusations are acrimonious and irresponsible to the point of slander, and almost all have been coming at the French.

Allies In the Pursuit of Liberty

The French are not "flabby" and they're not "cowards." Just to cite their 20th century conflicts, their bravery has been a matter of record in two world wars, Indochina, Algeria, Chad, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast. On May 16, in an unprecedented letter addressed to the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and several leading U.S. newspapers, the French ambassador to the U.S. denounced the disinformation and lies about his country in the American media, including the insinuation that the French government gave French passports to Iraqi leaders so that they could escape the country.

As for the so-called ingratitude of the French toward American soldiers fighting in France in two world wars, one has only to go to the war memorial in Normandy to see how much the French appreciate American aid... and to remember that the French themselves lost over 120,000 soldiers in the Second World War and another 500,000 civilians in the Resistance, on top of their almost 2 million soldiers killed in World War I.

  Franco-American symbol
© French-American
Chamber of Commerce

Speaking of memories, do Americans remember that it was the French treasury and its army and navy — 44,000 men under Rochambeau — who joined the American colonists to defeat the English during the American Revolution, leaving 6,000 dead French soldiers on American soil? And do they remember how — in 1793 — President Washington broke the Franco-American treaty of 1778 and refused to help the French revolutionaries in their war against England? France felt doubly betrayed: by the breaking of the treaty, and by their allied republic's refusal to help in what they saw as their common cause: the war liberating Europeans from crowned heads.

France has never been a docile ally, but an independent one with strong convictions of its own, and the only constant ally throughout U.S. history. A demonstration that France understood all too well the American trauma of the September 11 terrorist attacks, was President Chirac's immediate flight — the first one by a head-of-state — to the side of George W. Bush.

Terrorist bombs have been exploding in France for years. Armed guards bristling with automatic weapons have been patrolling the airports. The gleaming, elegant metal trash cans on Paris street corners have been replaced by transparent plastic bags. That grand symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, is still standing thanks to both the French secret service and anti-terrorist forces, who overpowered Algerian terrorists in 1994 while their hijacked plane refueled in Marseilles.

A Time For Reconciliation

I have no doubt that the two countries will kiss and make up. They must. Franco-American cooperation in intelligence gathering since 9/11 has bolstered security and is vital in the war against terrorism, which may persist for years. Let's hope the imperial threats of Colin Powell and others that "France must pay" for its opposition to the Iraq invasion is just ephemeral rhetoric. Because of their different cultures, rather than in spite of them, the two countries need each other more than ever in a world grown more and more interdependent and threatening.

Polly Platt Polly Platt (1927-2008) was the bestselling American author and public speaker whose books tell you everything you need to know about dealing with the French and enjoying France – whether you're visiting, living or working there. Her first book, French or Foe?, now in its third edition and dubbed the "Bible" for Anglo-Saxons in France by the Financial Times, is a romp through the business, social and cultural complexities of the French. The work draws on the experiences of American managers in her seminars, as well as her own life in Paris since 1967. Some of the material in this article is drawn from the book's preface.

Platt's second book, Savoir-Flair, 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French (first published in July 2000 and now in its second printing), is a natural complement to French or Foe?. Her last book, Love à la française – What happens when Hervé meets Sally?, was published in 2008.

Platt and her husband, Alexander Grchich, a Serb who was a high UNESCO official, have 14 grandchildren — seven of them French. Polly died of pneumonia and heart failure on December 26, 2008 in Vienna, Austria. Learn more...

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