Contrary to received postwar wisdom, Marshal Pétain could be both witty and trenchant. But he undeniably plumbed an abyss of falsehood when, in a 1941 broadcast, he announced: “Frenchmen, you have short memories.” Calling the French amnesiacs is like calling the Japanese milquetoasts. It would be truer to apply to France Saki’s celebrated epigram about the Balkans: the place produces more history than it can locally consume. Two Esquire contributors, Judy Jones and William Wilson, got matters right during the 1980s: “The French can recall the pecking order of the Merovingian dynasty … as clearly as you can remember your last love affair, and they’re likely to be a good deal more entertaining on the subject.”
Such common sense could well be unprintable in that magazine today, and certainly a veritable public-relations nomenklatura flourishes to persuade us of France’s prominent part in any Axis of Evil. Columbia University’s Robert Paxton made mischievous fun in these pages of one such attempt at persuasion: John J. Miller and Mark Molesky’s Our Oldest Enemy. Yet the agitprop keeps coming, with an already crowded field having been further enriched in 2005 by Richard Chesnoff’s The Arrogance of the French (“this book will open your eyes!” trilled polymath Sean Hannity) and Denis Boyles’s Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice, and Cheese. (Chances of a book called Vile Israel, Vile Ireland, or Vile Saudi Arabia ever being allowed into stores?) Dignified rebuttals like Bernard-Henri Lévy’s New York Times complaint about Our Oldest Enemy—that it constituted a mirror image of the dead-headed Americophobia he censured at home—met with a two-sentence response from the authors in a National Review Online effusion dedicated chiefly to explaining why Americans call the French “frogs.” One wonders if this childishness was ever noticed by Le Monde editor Jean-Marie Colombani, who had proclaimed that after 9/11 “we are all Americans now.”
To the rest of the world, France and America seem not the inveterate foes of Miller, Molesky, Chesnoff, and Boyles’s fantasizing but rather a pair of quarrelsome fraternal twins. Both are, at least by British standards, “proposition nations.” Both prided themselves, until almost yesterday, upon expecting and enabling migrants to assimilate. Both are currently, to different extents, way stations en route to the Camp of the Saints. Perhaps, then, a more suitable foreign-affairs guide than spittle-flecked oratory would be Joan Rivers’s rhetorical question: “Can we talk?”
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Everyone knows—not least because America’s mass media have so loudly told us—of France’s political and social crises. Had we not learnt about them, l’intifada of November 2005, the worst threat to French civil society since 1968, would have provided an in-your-face study guide. (It might have been still more effective but for French television executives’ confession, to Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Nov. 10, that they censored riot coverage for fear of aiding the Front National.) Strange that those same pundits who yap unendingly, in Iraq contexts, about the dangers of “appeasement” never dared suggest that France’s government was appeasing the thugs who torched 300 cities. No, the thugs were merely exercising their democratic rights against the evil legacy of colonialism, which is all whitey’s fault.
How many of those thugs—whose less murderous antics included scrawling graffiti saying “F–k France”—would have shown their faces at all if Chirac had ordered riot police to fire at will? Clemenceau and de Gaulle, to say nothing of Marshal Macmahon, would not have hesitated for a moment. Faced with such yahoos, they would have ordered enough of a bloodbath to make the Paris Commune’s suppression look like a Spice Girls reunion.
Now that the riots have died down, the true center-right governmental attitude has manifested itself. Interior Minister Nicolas “Sarko” Sarkozy, for all his tough talk during the riots about “hooligans” and “scum,” went on to demand positive discrimination for nonwhites: “I am shocked that there are no nonwhite police chiefs, judges, generals. … I don’t want to see just one French elite.” Absurd though this is, criticism of it would come better from neocons if their beloved Bush administration had not specifically rejected profiling Muslims at airports.
Moreover, the mania of center-right politicians—Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, José-María Aznar, and John Howard, not to mention the numerous American examples—for cheap labor via indiscriminate immigration ensures that if Enoch Powell-type sanity ever starts to prevail in the form of wholesale deporting, it is likelier to come from the social-democrat Left (in France as everywhere else) than from the Stupid Party in its various national manifestations. Howard sought to justify his own anti-union measures by invoking the riots as an instance of what befell countries that lacked such measures. Not a word passed his lips about the rioters’ ethnic or religious background. Besides, which, ultimately, is sillier? The French method of openly furnishing massive unemployment benefits? Or the Howard-Bush-Blair method of pretending that unemployment does not exist; of exporting to the Third World almost any jobs that might exist; and of massaging jobless figures to ensure that one hour’s work per week and 40 hours’ work per week are treated the same?
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That said, it is fair to conclude that for Anglos, contempt of France’s economic policies is really only a second-order issue. What sets Anglos dancing with rage is more often France’s wartime record: its queasiness—until the 1990s —about open discussion of Vichy in particular and Nazism in general. The flip answer to such complaints is Fred Reed’s verdict on French military failure:
I note … that the French have Germany on their borders, a condition associated with military failure for everybody enjoying the same circumstances. Americans cannot always distinguish between military prowess and the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, a great many Americans cannot find the Atlantic Ocean.
A more detailed answer would involve citing the May-June 1940 Battle of France (90,000 French dead inside four weeks); the catastrophic impact that France’s Western Front hecatomb of 1916-1917 had on subsequent birthrates; and the fact that the Liberation was nothing short of a civil war, its body count being given by different sources as anything between 10,000 and 100,000. (One alleged collaborator caught up in the mêlée—Sacha Guitry, the playwright—lived to joke about his fate: “It was the Liberation, so they threw me in jail.”) To read American laptop bombardiers’ denunciations of Vichy, you would suppose that all the French needed to do to overthrow the Occupation was to listen to Rush Limbaugh. Quaintly enough, postwar politicians of all stripes—from de Gaulle downward—thought differently and favored minimizing the Occupation’s lasting effects rather than opening the Liberation’s wounds afresh. (They also minimized the lasting effects of treasonous communists like Maurice Thorez, but laptop bombardiers seem never to deplore that.) Far from indicating an amnesiac disposition on France’s part, this strategy attested to the power of history over French minds and to how fragile the most basic social contract would be if the genie of mutual postwar recriminating slipped out of the bottle.
What this whole nasty historiographical wrangle demonstrates anew is the silliness of judging a major country at its worst (who could possibly respect an outsider who condemned all America because of Hollywood?) and the need to judge it at its best. Even the most ignorant Francophobes must have some vague concept of what the French can achieve at full throttle, and if they lack such a concept, Fred Reed’s aforementioned article spells it out for them:
Correct me if I’m wrong—did the French not produce Zola, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Laplace, Galois, the lovely prose of Alexis De Tocqueville, and indeed about 12,000 shelf-feet of such like? … The French respect intelligence, whereas we are deeply suspicious of it. I’m not sure that intelligence has much place in diplomacy, other than to let one make bad choices in better prose. Still, misjudgment engaged in with class at least makes better reading for later students of history. Whatever their failings, the French do not cultivate boorishness. … We didn’t either, once.
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What can the French do well? One thing they can do, if not well at least better in the last two decades than at any stage since 1793, is to take seriously decentralization and federalism. Cabinets from 1982 on have felt obliged to give a little administrative independence to the west and south in particular and to make noises about regionalism. Brittany and Corsica now maintain their local dialects—the times are long past when Breton schoolchildren could be thrashed for speaking Breton instead of French—and have their own political parties, varying from mere seekers after autonomy to violent extremists. If Paris tried to demonize all symbols of Breton or Corsican glory the way that successive American legislators have demonized the Confederate flag, it wouldn’t solely be Muslim street kids lighting fires. Even the assassination of Corsican prefect Claude Erignac in 1998 failed to inspire the centralist force de frappe against the locals that it would have provoked a generation earlier.
In many areas of French life, France does, admittedly, continue to mean Paris: “beloved monster,” as veteran British journalist John Ardagh called it. Not only are publishers, radio stations, TV stations, and the main performing arts venues Paris-based, but intellectual life tends to be Paris-obsessed, if only because the last attempt (pre-1982, that is) at encouraging a regionalist mystique occurred under Vichy and thus had to be repudiated afterwards. In theory, Parisians should be suffering from the most unfortunate conformism and self-absorption. One recalls Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cartoon, “View of the World From Ninth Avenue,” and suspects that the Parisian intellectual hothouse must be similar. It is nothing of the sort. Those ghastly totalitarian Frogs —so freedom-hating that they lack even a First Amendment to guarantee them endless gangsta rap and cinematic porn—manage to demonstrate an ideological liberty and seriousness that, for most Americans, are not so much inconceivable as simply obsolete.
They show it in the most unexpected ways. From 1975 to 1990 TV presenter Bernard Pivot presented a sober, fair-minded literary television program, “Apostrophes,” which at its peak had an audience of six million. Each political movement in France has at least one literate newspaper or periodical allied to it. The conventional Left has its Nouvel Observateur. The more theoretical Left has Le Monde, which once, in its zeal to avoid Eurocentrism, devoted an entire essay to “Why the Filipino cinema isn’t very interesting.” The hard Left has Libération. The conventional Right has Le Figaro, which occasionally dares to publish Jean Raspail. The classicist-Nietzschean Right of philosopher Alain de Benoist has Éléments. The technocrats have L’Express. And the Front National has Rivarol, this last possibly most significant for its wicked lady cartoonist, who signs herself merely “Chard.”
L’intifada gave Chard, predictably, a field day. She skewered the birthright-citizenship doctrine in one sketch that depicted a spectacularly sub-Saharan couple; the woman, obviously about to give birth any second, assured her male partner, “According to the ultrasound, it’s French.” A more recent Chard drawing portrays a grotesque, bespectacled egghead announcing: “Human rights are for humans, not for fascists.” Le Pen, for all his backslapping persona, has a humanities degree from one of France’s top colleges, although Indochinese and Algerian combat gave him little time or inclination to cultivate his inner wimp. The monthly Le Spectacle du Monde, milder than Rivarol, always contains earnest discussions on high culture as well as politics. A random sampling of Spectacle du Monde back numbers over recent years reveals detailed, lavishly illustrated coverage of the “Lost Dauphin” Louis XVII; Georges de La Tour’s paintings; Talleyrand’s diplomacy; Brahms’s music; Saturn’s moons; Chinese Communism’s horrors; and what is presumably the sole instance on French soil of a John Major glove-puppet.
Down at the shallow end of the gene pool, French tabloids—Paris-Match, Voici, Gala—are quite bad enough but have far tinier circulations than their noxious British counterparts, and their direct political influence is effectively neutralized by French privacy legislation (which sharpens their eagerness to pursue non-French figures like Princess Diana). The idea of any French press baron, even the late Robert Hersant, enjoying Murdoch-type powers over an entire public culture would be nonsensical. Of course, France has its own “anti-racist” demagogues forever bemoaning “hate speech” and invoking the 1990 Gayssot Law against it. But by Anglo criteria they are tame stuff: French multiculti apparatchiks suffer from the fatal handicap of being sincere.
Some of France’s comparative media decorum may be connected with the position of Christian religion in modern France: anomalous but hardly to be ridiculed. Statistics of France’s Christian belief seem to point every which way. Eight out of ten Frenchmen call themselves Catholics—last year Lourdes attracted more pilgrims than Mecca—but only one in ten goes to Sunday Mass. France’s Catholic episcopate is almost as discredited as the U.S.’s, although for different reasons: not indulgence towards perverted clerics (of whom France is, by American, Irish, or Austrian standards, blessedly free) but its driveling demands for ever more Third World immigrants, plus its open scorn for traditionalism and the Latin rite. The ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, despite losing several priests recently, attracts almost as many Mass-goers as other French Catholic churches put together.
French Protestantism survives but remains a strikingly reserved, upper-middle-class affair. This hampers it in publicity terms but helps it in moral ones. Gen. William Boykin said of Bush in 2003 that he “was not elected by a majority … he was appointed by God.” The notion that Chirac was appointed by God would not cut it with Descartes’s countrymen.
For this, France’s schooling system surely deserves some credit. One difference between Bush and Chirac is that the latter speaks grammatical English. Beavis and Butthead would find few French sympathizers. Not only does France’s baccalaureate still make ferocious cognitive demands—though maybe less so now than before 1968—but the country’s whole teaching process takes precious little account of Dr. Feelgood. Instances of French didactic toughness could be multiplied; one will do. An Australian youth was accepted in 2005 as a novice in a French monastery. Alas, though devout, he knew no French. Solution: the monastery compelled him to undergo French language lessons at an elementary school, where his early-20s self was daily surrounded by six-year-olds. No one gave a flying falafel, to quote John Derbyshire’s graphic epithet, about how this experience would affect his “self-esteem.”
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Does all this strike readers as prima facie evidence of a land on its last legs, a land that has no future except Mark Steyn cheerily administering Old Yurrup’s extreme unction? Possibly. Ardagh, in the last lines of The New France (1973), decided otherwise: “The French genius, as we knew it, is going into partial eclipse … I have faith it will finally reappear—as it has done, repeatedly, ever since Charlemagne.”
Each visitor to France has his own quintessentially Gallic anecdote; here is mine. In 1988 I ended up, one night, on the Franco-Italian border, squelching through the snow in my slippers and pajamas because the French train authorities wanted to check all our passports. Among other passengers were two Tunisian males, looking as much like terrorists as central casting could have wished. It was obvious that the Tunisians’ passports had been faked. It was equally obvious that the authorities could not have proved this fakery in a court of law. I shall remember all my life the resigned sigh with which one guard expressed his vexation at being powerless: “Vous représentez un problème cartésien, messieurs.”
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.