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.