Why should there even be such a thing as a Francophile? Is to be assumed that when you’re not a Francophile you automatically at risk of being a Francophobe?
Non-fiction books about the French culture, those that put the French on a pedestal those who shoot them down are everywhere. Peter Mayle started it. Because a little controversy doesn't hurt some of the most popular books on French culture; French Women Don't Get Fat, Lunch in Paris, Bringing up Bébé, Sixty Million French Men Can't be Wrong sell like petits pains.
When you live in the United States long enough, as I have, people forget that you have not always been one of them. So I get quite the earful of mystifying French bashing, especially coming from people who’ve never set a foot in France and don’t intend to. Once they learn I'm French, or hear my accent, the reaction is often, "You're not like them.' Sometimes I'm the only French person they’ve ever met and I just don’t fit the description. I’m friendly. I’m not rude. I don’t act all superior and intellectual. I don’t wear a beret. I don’t speak like Maurice Chevalier. I don’t have bad teeth (okay i do, damn molars ...but shut). I take showers on a fairly regular basis. They’re delighted to know me, and relieved that there is at least one nice French woman out there.
For the most part I'm stoic and resigned about this. I try to educate people about France and the French, about Paris and I spend a whole lot of time explaining that all French people are not ambulatory clichés. I do criticize the French of course, but for the same reason I get to criticize the Jews: by being one.
Gone (for now) is the time of 'Freedom Fries', and of 'Boycott France' bumper stickers proudly displayed by ‘real Americans’. When the French government did not support the US in invading Iraq it became very much acceptable, at least temporarily, to openly unleash ones hatred of the French. Hating the French is like hating the Jews. People don’t know what or why they hate, they just do. I continue to make the analogy, however unsavory, because prejudice is a subtle and catchy thing. Of course it doesn't compare. The French have not (yet) been exterminated for their Frenchness. But I'm making the point that ignorance and prejudice, when combined with just the right amount of government sponsored propaganda against any culture and it’s open season.
It's Bullying 101, if you ask me.
A nonfiction book recently came out, which I have not read yet. The title is “Paris I Love You but You’re Bringing me Down.” By Rosecrans Baldwin. I’m understanding this is one couple’s experience with living in Paris for 18 months. I’m not going to make a comment about a book I am yet to read. But I will make a comment about a review of that book I did read today on the New York Times, that made my jaw drop a few floors. This review was written by a book reviewer named Susannah Meadows. Here I will quote an exerpt from the New york Times’ Arts section of Thursday May 31st, 2012. You can read the entire review here.… She writes “Mr Baldwin also gives the pompous city he adores the ribbing it deserves. “Every Parisian man wore a scarf,” he observes. Some even wore coats.”…
Aside the fact that the single quote chosen reveals precisely nothing about the book or the French, (What? Men in France wear scarves? … and coats? You mean just like every man in the world where the temperature might drop below 50? ) I was struck by the choice of adjectives. Paris a what city? Pompous? Of all the adjectives you could use to describe Paris, this is the one she decided fitted best? Did the reviewer think no one would read her review? (Perhaps no one ever has in the past.) When did she decide that Paris was a pompous city? Is it really what the author of the book tried to express, or is this the reviewer personal opinion of Paris? And why would Paris deserve a ribbing?
I was curious and dug a bit to find that the reviewer had lived in France and also reviewed “bringing up bébé” and made copious disparaging remarks against Parisians there as well.
It freaks me out just a little that in the eyes of some people, France, Paris, French people will never do anything right. I'm fine with the concept that everyone is entitled to their own prejudice. My problem is that in the U.S. it's culturally acceptable to make negative blanket statements against the French and France. Why? What other segment of population, what other country triggers and receives such unchecked, negative generalizations? How many cities and countries 'deserve ribbing'? There are none that come to mind, and that includes countries against which we’re actively at war. No decent Americans would delight, all in good humor, in casually dissing Africans, Asians, Armenians, or Italians, or the Swede, or the Dutch, or the Japanese. Not in polite conversation. It would feel and be seen as morally reprehensible to express casual hatred of a population as a whole. But somehow, it is perfectly all right to express hatred and dislike of the French in books, conversations, articles, and in book reviews. It’s a fun sport. The French are bizarre, they are offensive. Their molars are a mess. We don’t understand them so don’t like them. Of course the peculiar fascination oscillates between both extremes. The French also get put on ridiculously undeserved pedestal as has been done lately in many non fiction books. French Women Don't Get Fat? Oh yes they do! Just look at my butt.
I know... I'm making way too much of a short review. I'm too reactive. (Too French?) But think about it, when this sort of thing happens over and over again, to your own people, and your ears are constantly ringing with ignorant, denigrating remarks big and small, you grow a bit weary.
When we travel to any other countries we expect to be surprised, we absorb the customs with eager curiosity and an open mind. We delight, in fact, in the differences. Why not apply this to France? I would reassess the French bashing. It reveals much more about the person who indulges in it than it reveals about the country it bashes.
I’m grumpy when I have to defend my country of birth. It’s just a country, with lots of different people in it, snooty ones, simple ones, generous ones, ignorant ones, the full spectrum of humanity, just like here. The only difference is that they all wear berets.
(all pictures of that pompous city of mine are by me.)