Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I Love America: exploring the French fascination with Uncle Sam

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made no secret of his admiration of Anglo-Saxon business culture – particularly in the United States. This has delighted many French entrepreneurs and executives alike: maybe, just maybe, under Sarkozy it will become easier to do business in their country…and to be more competitive on the world stage.

There is some fear, however, that the ambitious politician will go too far: in his determination to make a clean break – or ‘rupture’ – from the philosophies of May 1968, will he do damage to the State-sponsored systems the French take such great pride in? No one, after all, wants a healthcare system similar to that which is applied in the U.S. of A.

This has nothing to do with a backlash against America. Au contraire: Americans here and across the ocean are admired for their aforementioned business prowess, and the culture is, indeed, exotique. However, scandals like those involving Monica Lewinsky’s sexual antics with the former president and Janet Jackson’s bare-breasted Superbowl performance caused many a Frenchman to roll their eyes and smirk. In a country where politicians are practically expected to have mistresses and images of half-naked women are used to sell everything from shampoo to phone plans, the uproar surrounding the two American women seemed, to the French, rather ridiculous, but nonetheless, typique. What, they shrug, do you expect?

But as much as the French may find traditional American values a little extreme, or some of the country’s political policies to be unappealing, unabashed anti-Americanism here is relatively insignificant. Certainly, during the height of France’s disagreement with the United States at the beginning of the Iraq war, it did not reach the depths that the anti-French movement did in the U.S., where White House menus were relieved of any reference to the Fifth Republic. Instead, the cuisine-obsessed French were amused: French fries (or make that, ‘Freedom fries’) hail from Belgium.

For every Francophile there exists an admiring French Americanophile that tips their hat to Uncle Sam. Those who lived through the Second World War are quick to shower praise on America for its crucial involvement in the liberation of France; without the American forces, many admit that they probably wouldn’t have lived long enough to disagree with the USA’s invasion of Iraq. Disco star Patrick Juvet still makes the airwaves regularly with his hit, ‘I Love America.’ French celebrities such as Juliette Binoche, Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou have all established careers for themselves in Tinseltown. Vegas-style showman Johnny Hallyday models his act (and his lifestyle – he is often photographed riding a Harley) on American productions. And, unlike Hallyday (who fled to Switzerland), rebellious singer/songwriter Michel Polnareff fled to the States to evade taxes, where he quickly set up shop as a composer to the American stars. (One assumes that the I.R.S. isn’t letting him get away with the same coup that he did here in France.)

Many Americans, on the other hand, would be surprised to learn how many of their famous compatriots speak fluent French when interviewed here – among them, of course, France’s adopted son, Johnny Depp.

Even the not so rich and famous express a fascination with what they refer to as ‘the American way of life:’ young Parisians talk of leaving Gai Paree for the real big city, New York. Paris-based American-style diner Breakfast in America recently expanded from its one location on the Left Bank to another in the Marais because so many French people flock there to sample its selection of enormous hamburgers, down-home pies and blue-plate specials. Many a Frenchman (and woman) dream of conducting their very own American road trip, complete with a gas guzzling Mustang and a séjour in one of those shabby roadside motels that are so often featured in Hollywood films. And, if one could buy a baseball hotdog from a street vendor in Paris like those cops in the NYC police dramas do, life would be magnifique.

So, when during the election Nicolas Sarkozy preached the merits of the American system, 53 percent of the nation agreed. But even his supporters declare that he must proceed avec caution: as admiring as they may be of the United States, the French still prefer when many things are done à la française.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Vous êtes d’où ? Identifying one’s I.D.

For the past few months, those vying for the French presidency have spent a lot of time debating what France is all about, what it should be about, and what needs to be done to get there.

Living abroad puts into question the identity of one’s own nation – especially in a city like Paris, where people from across the globe are crammed together onto one tiny, congested geographical surface. What they say is true: after spending time away from home, you tend to appreciate it more, even when you’re not in a hurry to return. It’s interesting to hear one’s country described by outsiders, and it drives one to learn all of the things about their homeland that they were ashamed they never knew. In Paris, sharing one’s culture is a municipal sport, and people can’t get enough of it.

People here don’t know much about Canada, as is the case for most of the world. They know about Quebec, but can’t understand the twangy French accent and old vocabulary that hails from the time when Louis XIV was busy invading the Western world. (Quebec films are subtitled in France.) Some of them have even visited Canada’s controversial francophone province, but they certainly don’t feel the connection that many Canadians seem to think they enjoy with the Fifth Republic. Quebec is a place where they speak a funny-sounding French, where it’s freezing in winter and hot in summer. They’re not as prickly about smoking as they are in English-speaking Canada. And, bien sûr, the people are very nice.

There are few Quebeckers here in Paris, and Anglophone Canadians seem even more exotic. Tell any curious shopkeeper that, no, you’re not from Montreal – the last placed you lived was a Pacific Coast town called Vancouver, in the province of British Columbia – and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. Canada may be the second largest landmass in the world, but the only images it conjures up are, for the most part, igloos and maple leaves. (No one believes it when you say it doesn’t snow in Vancouver, and when it does, it’s highly unusual.) The more traveled might describe it as a rich country that doesn’t make war; a vast land of beautiful, untapped nature. And the people are very nice.

There is one time when Canadians might become less hospitable (they may wrinkle their noses a bit), and that is when one compares them to Americans. Want to insult a Canadian? Tell them that Canada is like the 51st state.

This has nothing to do with anti-Americanism, nor with the fact that one administration has so successfully managed to render the nation it governs so unpopular on the world stage. Many of us Canadians (the majority, hopefully) can identify the difference between clueless politicians and the people who are, for the time being, stuck with them. Anti-separatist Canadians have been doing the same thing for decades with Quebec.

But Canada is not the 51st state, despite all of the similarities it shares with its still powerful neighbor to the south. Why, with all of its space and beauty and riches, would it need – or want – to be? It’s true, the country is prosperous in large part thanks to its American cousin; an enormous portion of Canada’s economy depends on it. Many entrepreneurs not only thrive on, but prefer, doing business with their energetic, ‘let’s-get-down-to-it’ associates in America. For now, however, Canadians can reap this enviable benefit without changing their identity, and that suits most of us just fine.

Each year, Canadian students are tasked with describing their nation’s identity. It’s a question that has been pondered for the last 140 years. What, teachers will ask as they scrawl notes on the chalkboard, does Canada mean to you? Igloos? Snow? Maple leaves? Hockey? Nice people that say, ‘eh?’ all the time?

It’s tough to say, and a rather unfair question to pose. Only a fraction of the population in the far north resides in igloos, and many of us think those people are nuts for wanting to be there. A great number of us hate snow, and avoid any bar with a hockey game on television like the plague. And only people from the province of Ontario say, ‘eh?’

Canada is too big, and its population of 33 million (that’s three people per square kilometer) too scattered, for its identity to be compiled into one pat summary. What Canada is to someone born in Niagara Falls could be entirely different to someone raised in Halifax. The cultures between provinces (and even regions within provinces) are so diverse that in many cases, Canadians don’t feel the same kinship that compatriots from smaller countries experience. Perhaps the best way to sum Canada, and being Canadian, up, is this: you just feel it.

So we shouldn’t complain that the most common thing stated about us is that we’re very nice. As such, a Canadian passport, when living abroad, is good to have. Just ask any Moroccan living in Paris.