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Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.


France's Admitted Strong Points  | e-mail post

My post yesterday on France brought me a message from a long-time friend in Chicago, I'll call him Slats Grobnik (I'm sure he won't mind). Unlike Mike Royko's Slats who was a commonsense working-man, I consider this individual one of the most erudite and articulate people I have the fortune to know, and do find it unfortunate that we have lived in different cities since college. However, as neither of us is likely to move, it is at least nice that e-mail provides such a good conduit for communication. Oh, and my friend's erudition in no way interferes with his genuinely down-to-earth sensibilities.

In any event, Slats took some legitimate issues with my comments on France yesterday, as well as fairly points out some of the things for which we should appreciate the French:
Barry, I have to take exception to the tone of your post on the decline and fall of French civilization.

Factually, when speaking about the quality of French engineering or its isolationism in matters of trade, you are correct. However, your swipe at DeGaulle was more than a bit unfair. Yes, DeGaulle was an arrogant, imperialistic and fatuous man, and easy to ridicule. But, as far as "deserting", the role that he played in rallying the morale of a defeated people could only have been performed outside of France, at that time. A resistance organization needs leadership outside its own country and subordinate leadership underground inside the country, which Jean Moulin occupied until his death.

As far as French anti-semitism is concerned, it's been a problem throughout most of europe just as racism has been in the U.S. However, I believe that the vast majority attacks on Jews in France have been perpetrated by arab immigrants, not French citizens. Attacks that have been loudly condemned by the government and the press.

In light of the cultural cross-fertilization that occurred between the U.S. and France during the twentieth century, it's unfortunate that France has been singled out as whipping boy by many on the right.

The film noirs of the postwar years and the rebirth of cinema during the seventies would have been unthinkable without the French gangster films of the thirties and the New Wave of the sixties. And Godard owes a debt to Hollywood he has never sufficiently acknowledged. American jazz musicians were influenced by the music of Ravel and Debussy. And the French public embraced Charlie Parker and Miles Davis before they were widely known in the U.S. (I'm not going to throw in the influence of French literary theory in U.S. colleges, for obvious reasons).

The French government notwithstanding, those who bash France still have to come to terms with a formidable record of cultural achievement that has shaped, and continues to shape, western civilization. Not to mention a culinary tradition that is the envy of the world.
I will certainly concede that my criticism of de Gaulle was a cheap shot, and in addition to Slats' comments, fails to recognize the genuine leadership he provided in France at the start of WWII, being the only French commander to force a German retreat during their invasion of France. I will certainly cop to taking some rhetorical liberties in my post.

I also agree, to a certain extent, with Slats' comments that France has been singled out as a whipping boy of some on the right. I personally feel most such France-bashing is ridiculous, and typically only engage in it under specific areas of criticism. I have certainly expressed complete incredulity at such bizarre examples as the "Freedom Fries" brouhaha. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I was only prompted to write after stumbling upon a simple-minded and simply ridiculous defense of the French.

I would disagree with my friend that France has been singled out, as it implies that they have not been complicit in such actions, when in fact, I think that their arrogance in spite of a continuing decline in their relevance helps them single themselves out.

As to anti-Semitism, I would argue that the simple fact that the Vichy government could be effectively established in France as an instrument of the Nazis speaks to a higher level of anti-Semitism (as Chirac himself even acknowledged in the 1990's) or the fact that their British ambassador would in no way be censured by referring to Israel as a "shitty little country," (can you imagine if a U.S. ambassador made a similar comment about Sudan?). Also, government action against anti-Semitism only stepped up in the past year or so, after it had reached such a point that Jewish emigration from France to Israel doubled from the prior year, with 2002 emigration to Israel finally catching up to its 1972 level. An arguably balanced look at French anti-Semtitism comes from a New York Times magazine piece from February, "A Frenchman or a Jew?" [reprinted here]

However, in the course of my post, I neglected to mention some of the great things about France. I am not certain how much of a genuine criticism this is, as it could be fairly argued that even Stalin and Hitler may have had good points. Suffice it to say however, that Slats is absolutely correct in some areas. While it is easy to point to the (possibly more anecdotal than actual) French love of Jerry Lewis to mock their cultural sophistication, the French have been culturally positively influential (in both senses of positively).

Although I would argue that French cinema today, with the works of Catherine Breillat being a chief export, is not the French cinema of the 30's or 60's. I personally find Breillat's work interesting, in a prurient way, but we aren't talking about Truffaut or Godard. And again, I am certainly not complaining about the France of history, but rather of the France of today.

I guess the real complaint must be about my tone and about the general dislike for anti-French rhetoric. I will try to be more fair in the future. On the other hand, if the defense of the French can only come down to good food, good music and good film, then one must ask whether we should judge them as a modern nation-state, or simply as effective arbiters of aesthetics.



Update: Interested in French foreign policy or postwar Europe? Read my piece on "Kojève's Latin Empire and Contemporary French Foreign Policy." It provides a great deal of insight into French thought, some of reaffirming our stereotypes, but also providing context for such a worldview.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Wednesday, December 01, 2004
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