Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Reading commentary Americans write about how things work in France is incredibly frustrating. It tends to be a random mix of stuff that's right with stuff that makes me go "What the...? Where did that come from?"
Then one day it finally dawned on me where it's coming from. Most of the time when North Americans write about France they're not actually writing about France at all -- they're writing about America.
Whenever an American wants to write an essay describing the American way of doing something, it's important to set it off with a contrasting example of a first world country where things are completely the opposite of the way things are in the U.S. That country is France. Always. Whether things really are done differently in the real-life country of France is quite irrelevant. There are two ways of doing things, the American way, and the opposite of the American way, and to put a human face on "the opposite of the American way" we like to add a beret and horizontally-striped shirt and call it "France."
And so with that background I want to talk about an amusing article that was sent to me by Æsahættr: Hillary equals France.
I don't want to be too critical of this article since it's obviously a humor piece (and one that's nice to the French for a change...), but it fits the standard model pretty well: When comparing the French to the Americans, the author (Bill Maher) got some stuff right and some stuff wrong, but the one point where he was truly right on the money was a point about Americans.
Each culture has its own set of shared assumptions, and one of the most deeply held assumptions by the American people is that the American way is the best way; that all great ideas, advances, and innovations come from America, and the rest of the world is watching with envy and scrambling to copy "the American way" of doing just about anything.
You may be saying "Come on, Chanson!! The people of every country think their own way of doing things is best!!!" And I will respond with all sincerity: Not like the Americans do. The other half of you are probably saying "The reason Americans think that is because it's true!!!" And I'll grant that there's more than just a grain of truth to it -- there's a boulder of truth to it. That's probably why this belief is so popular. ;^)
Nonetheless, there are many cases where this unquestionable article of faith is wrong. And in those cases, it's a big stumbling boulder in terms of solving problems and improving things in the U.S.
Talking to the average European-on-the-street, as horrified as they are by Bush, there's still a strong sense that America leads the way -- largely in technology, but in other areas as well -- so there's no shame in watching closely and adopting practices seem to be working on the other side of the pond. (Case in point: Sarkozy -- who just won the French presidential election by a wide margin -- is perceived as the "Americophile" who will be leading France in a more American direction.) On the American side of the pond, by contrast, there's a perception of Europe as the "failed system" -- the standard example of how not to do anything.
Now let's look at this in purely mathematical terms: even if it's true that more innovation comes from America, who has the advantage? The people who use your ideas only? Or the people who use your ideas and their own as well? The American founding fathers weren't above having a two-way exchange of good ideas with other countries (notably France, as pointed out in the article), and America is all the better off for it. So why scrap this fine tradition?
Bill Maher gives an excellent modern example: Health care. Why is U.S. health care in the state it's currently in? Why, it's because American health care is the best in the world!!! And la-la-la I'm putting my fingers in my ears and not listening to you if you say anything different!!!
But seriously, (from a snail's eye view at least) the health care system here in France is excellent. As someone who grew up on U.S. healthcare, I am constantly impressed by the quality and comprehensiveness of the French healthcare system. I talked about the contrast a little bit in my post about those wacky health insurance companies!!! Just to take three day-to-day quality of life issues that are important to me -- healthcare, transportation, and public education -- all three are far superior in Europe. Now if you're about to remind me of the taxes, I'll just put it in crass capitalistic terms: sometimes you pay more for something that's better.
I've been hesitant to talk about the above in lo these many years of blogging because I don't want to alienate my American audience (or unduly worry them with the fear that those evil European socialists gotten to me and melted my brain). If you disagree with me, that's fine -- I welcome dissent here, and I don't claim to be an expert on economics. But I'm not speaking as a knee-jerk "France is always best" cheerleader -- I'm as willing and happy to criticize French folly as I am to criticize anyone else's (recall grammar police among others).
Regarding some of the other points made in the article:
The French do indeed like to swap gossip about their leaders' personal lives. Of course I heard about the fact that Royal never actually married the father of her children and I heard the rumor about Sarkozy's marriage being on the rocks. My husband even told me he'd read that Sarkozy's wife didn't bother to vote in the election, so notably she didn't vote for her husband. Now, one reason Royal's non-marriage was a non-issue was the fact that it seems like half of France is in the same boat. Not just my generation and younger either -- it looks like whether you've legally married your S.O./co-parent has been viewed as something of a minor technicality for some time.
Mahler is right, however, that politicians' personal lives don't show up as serious election issues. I talked a little about the relationship of the French with political sex lives in my post about Hillary Clinton. I think part of it is the fact that more than a hundred years ago there was a French president who died while receiving a B.J. from his mistress, and French politicians since then...? Well, they've had a hard time topping that one.
Another point for Americans to be aware of is that French history doesn't start right around the time of the French Revolution and cover France exclusively as a republic. From what I understand, it starts with "Our ancestors, the Gauls..." and runs through quite a bit of monarchy before that whole enlightenment-and-democracy thing. And since nobody's going to tell the king that it's not okay for him to maintain a mistress or two, it turns out that "the king's mistress" is a frequent stock character in the French history books. Obviously people will have somewhat different expectations for democratically-elected leaders, but still I think this sort of thing affects the public expectations about how leaders are going to behave.
Regarding the claim that "there is no Pierre six-pack" -- that's a funny line but... The author seems to be claiming that in France everybody's an intellectual and there's no political pandering or voting on the basis of emotional/symbolic issues. That's an interesting theory, but let's try to stay here on the planet Earth with us please...
That said, what I saw and read of the presidential debate here in France seemed fairly serious: The main issues covered were apparently economic theory and energy policy, and in particular how reliant France is (and should or shouldn't be) on nuclear power. I didn't see any discussion of how the candidates measured up in terms of pronouncing the word "nuclear" so I suppose they both did okay on that point. Y'know, for French people.
The last point I'd like to mention -- touched on briefly in the article -- is immigration. I'd like to devote a separate post to immigration and race issues in France -- how they are similar to related issues in the U.S., and how they're different. I've avoided the subject up until now because it's even touchier than anything I've spoken of in this post, and unfortunately it's a subject whose analysis suffers from more wrong-headed "France is the opposite of America" rhetoric than any other issue I've seen. Plus I'm not convinced that my readers are actually interested in this issue, so I hate to get myself mired in controversy for nothing. But I'll write up my ideas on the subject if you guys are interested.
Until then, this is Pierre six-pack signing off!!! :D