Tuesday, July 14, 2009

France and the US

It seems like Bastille Day is a good time to think about our relationship with France.

On the one hand, it is odd that we would not be more Francophilic given that we most likely would not have a country without them. The French were instrumental in our revolution in terms of money, troops, and training. The French and the British were enemies and seeing the colonies break away would not only embarrass the British, but cost them gold and soldiers they then could not use elsewhere. The United States was to a degree a French proxy and we owe them a large debt. That is why major figures like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were the first American ambassadors to France. It was our most important international connection.

But perhaps this is part of the reason why we are hesitant about embracing France. The American mythology has a ragtag, underequipped band of militia men defeating the world's most powerful military because they devised the brilliant ideas of hiding behind trees and not marching in a straight line. Why don't we scoff at this absurdity? Is it because it plays to the American ideals of self-reliance and strength in avoiding the prim etiquette of the British?

There have been times when all things French were in style. It is not an accident that the historically best selling American car is called "Chevrolet" and that Julia Child was a fixture on television for decades. France is equated with culture in our collective consciousness and Americans have an awkward relationship with culture. On the one hand, we aspire to it, but there is also the deep cultural insecurity that we discussed last week. French goods are often seen as overrefined, signs of puffery, form being put before function and thereby an affront to the more pragmatic Yankee sensibility. MacGyver would never be a French hero.

But then there are more recent issues. The need to intervene on their behalf in both World Wars, especially in light of the rapidity of the Nazi success in the second after which they were deemed insufficiently grateful. Their position as an independent minded ally in the Cold War when we saw the US as team captain and the French as the pitcher who kept shaking off our signs for a fastball. Their pushing back over the invasion of Iraq leading to the wonderfully mature relabelling of "freedom fries." (Maybe for today, we ought to revert to that, only now calling them "liberte egalite fraternite fries.")

What is the reason for the odd American ambivalence towards the French?