Just Above Sunset
October 31, 2004 - How we are seen by the French, who we so love to hate...

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Watch for more on this in Ric Erickson’s MetropoleParis next week, but Thursday we had some discussion on what one writer notes as a new phenomenon: the flood of critical writing about the United States now washing over France.


This all stated with this item -


The New de Tocquevilles

The French are just trying to understand.
Elisabeth Eaves -
Posted Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004, at 10:33 AM PT at SLATE.COM


Eaves opens this with the current situation as France looks at us –


America is a shark.  Full of religious zealots.  Who are deeply divided against themselves.


These are just a few descriptions of the United States gleaned from just-released French books devoted to deciphering and explaining the other red, white, and blue.  Parisian editors are dining out on a new subgenre that includes tirades, serious academic tomes, election-timed quickies by celebrity journalists, and even a novel, Frenchy, about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.


And Eaves cites one Clotaire Rapaille who she identifies as a French-born marketing consultant based here in the States who specializes in selling across cultures.  It seems he has also advised the Danish Lego people Americans do not read instructions and told French cheese-makers that Americans prefer their cheese "scientifically dead."


Yeah, yeah.  And Ric Erickson in Paris tells Just Above Sunset he knows this guy.  Ric has him pegged -


I think this is the same guy I saw in an Arte documentary a couple of nights ago.  If it is, US firms hire him so they can absorb his profound wisdom on commercial matters and markets.


As an example he gestured to a car in a parking lot.  A black Chrysler PT Cruiser.  He said it had been designed by Americans to look like a 'gangster' car.  He pointed out its aggressive grille, and its down-in-the-front slope, suggesting that this was intended to make the car look threatening.  He mentioned the 'gangster' bit a couple of times more.


What a complete lulu!  The guy drives a 70s Mercedes SLR hardtop, and has probably never seen a 1938 Dodge in his life.  He is thinking he looking at a Packard or Lincoln, and he is actually looking at a midget version of a bread-and-butter car. 


My dad owned one.  The down-in-the-front slope of the PT Cruiser is due to its small size - much smaller that a '38 Dodge! - and its undersuspended rear end.  My dad's Dodge had leaf springs with ten leaves in each one, and three people could sit in the back seat with a trunk full of machineguns without the rear end sagging.  Two full-size people wouldn't fit in the back seat of a PT Cruiser.  No self-respecting gangster would spit on it.


Curiously, one member of my email discussion group, Vince in upstate New York, actually knows Clotaire Rapaille!


Can't help but add a note here - I have to smile at Clotaire Rapaille's oblique observations on the latest French twist.


I had the chance to work with him a decade or so ago... and aside from his dead cheese insight (for a struggling French importer he advised "Americans don't want their cheese to breathe and grow and age to perfection, they want dead cheese wrapped in body bags and stored in the grocery's morgue..."), he's also responsible for advising Detroit of our retro yearning for deco-styles and safety of the womb that resulted in the design of the PT Cruiser.  His work for Proctor and Gamble (Folgers) years ago concluded that our first impressions/deepest memories of coffee relate to smell and not taste and that resulted in a series of end of the year ads that had a son returning from college?  (or the military?) – anyway,  to the safety (catch a theme here?) of home, and waking his parents on Christmas morning with aromas of coffee brewing.


I always kidded him that his most significant work was with toilet paper (another packaged goods client).  He concluded from his studies that it's not toilet training that creates the very first steps of independence in our earliest crawl to separate ourselves from our parents/birth experience... but toilet paper training, when we no longer need an adult in the room to help us accomplish our bowels, for it was with that accomplishment that for the first time in our lives we get to close a door and lock out our parents!


If you get a chance to look up his work, hear him speak, or better yet work with him... go for it, and pass along my greetings and regards!  His science is at times questionable, but his insights are ingenious!


G. Clotaire Rapaille (G for Gilbert - an earlier personality no doubt) - I'll have to track him down myself sometime and update you on his further exploits.


But this Rapaille fellow, Vince’s sometime colleague, last week told the SLATE writer something interesting - that this latest French “publishing boomlet” had a self-critical tendency: "France is in decline, France is becoming irrelevant. This is what I saw last year."  And because Rapaille is a former psychoanalyst, she quotes him explaining it from that perspective: "It's transference. The French have transferred their psychology of decline to America, so they feel better.  Now they have a mission: They are going to defend mankind against the United States."


My Paris friend Ric suggests otherwise -


The guy is full of it.  With guys like this to defend France it may as well be irrelevant.  The only guys in decline here are the bobos in the UMP who think Nicolas Sarkozy is a liberal gift to mankind.  The UMP wants to put France into the same hole the United States has fallen so deeply into.


Indeed.  I will have to get Ric and Vince hooked up to hash this out.  And if you don’t get the references from Ric, see September 5, 2004 - Politics and Celebrities, Headscarves, Hostages and Short People in these pages.  Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP are discussed there.


In any event, the SLATE writer notes at least seventeen French books published this year on the United States or relations with it, most since September.  This she says is in addition to a number of books from the previous year, plus all the US titles in translation available in France – and she notes Kitty Kelley, Graydon Carter, and Bill Clinton -


… and you can find entire bookstore tables devoted to decoding the country that rebaptized frites as frites de la liberté. New titles vie for attention with copies of the genre's prototype, which some would say has yet to be improved upon: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1835 he brought news of the New World back to the old, with prescient observations like this one on local government: "The people wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their desires into execution without intermediaries."


So what’s with these new Alexis de Tocqueville wannabe writers?


She mentions that novel about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.


The protagonist in Frenchy, who runs a French food store, suffers prolific insults, and a veteran urinates in his garden. Still, one of his nicer neighbors tells him that America "has nothing to do with those guys in Washington." The review in Le Figaro said the novel was "as valuable as the best courses in international relations at the most prestigious universities."


Somehow one doubts that.


But then there is former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin – mentioned in these pages here June 8, 2003 Opinion and January 18, 2004: In Defense of Humiliating Others.


He has a book titled The Shark and the Seagull.


It's about the rotten state of trans-Atlantic relations. (I'll let readers guess which country is which in the book's title.) The takeaway, though, isn't clear. The shark refuses to be halted. The seagull listens. They must reconcile their values, which will save the world. Or something like that.


Well, even Colin Powell found Dominique de Villepin enigmatic, if ever so suave.


Eaves also cites these titles: France Against the Empire, Empire of Chaos, The Emperor of the White House, Imperial America, The Good Fortune of Not Being American, and Democracy With an Obscene Face.  This last one was written by Jacques Vergès, who seems to be the lawyer who volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein, and she notes this book is illustrated with photographs of prisoner abuse inside Abu Ghraib.  Oh my.


But the idea here is that these new books are not all polemics.


Anti-Americanism is certainly present in France, but the chattering classes are making a serious attempt to understand both the United States and the Franco-U.S. dynamic. Earnest broadcasters ask the new Americologists questions like, "Do we hate Americans because we try to imitate them?"


Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States and editor of The United States Today: Shock and Change, says there are two major explanatory fads afoot in the attempt to understand U.S. behavior: It's all about the neocons, and it's all about religion.


With few exceptions, French writers "superbly ignored" neoconservatism for years, Parmentier told me—then suddenly noticed it about 18 months ago. "Now because of the Bush administration, many French observers—guys who have no interest in the facts, but who are interested in big ideas—have discovered neoconservatives and see them all over the place. They call Cheney and Rumsfeld neoconservatives, which is totally absurd," Parmentier said.


Parmentier it seems does like many of the new books but has high praise for one, Messianic America: The Wars of the Neoconservatives, by Le Monde journalists Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet.  We are told -


It's a full history of the neocons, from their hatchery among the Democratic left in New York to their post-9/11 influence on the presidency. The publisher's blurb explains that neoconservatives think America is the embodiment of good and that it "can assure its own security and remain true to its moral mission only by exporting democracy, by force if necessary." French readers may acquire a more sophisticated understanding of U.S. foreign policy than many an American liberal.




Oh yeah, that religion in America thing?  Eaves cites Guy Sorman –


The author of Made in USA focuses on the fact that a full 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God.  Americans are "a mystical people," he says, and he has a theory that all religions in America are converging into one as their modes of worship become more and more alike.


Oh yeah, that victim thing?


A third theme emerges in many of the books: It's all about Sept. 11. Except, while there is general agreement that the United States must have been traumatized and profoundly changed by the terrorist attacks, no one seems to be sure exactly how. Indeed, Sorman went looking for evidence of a transformation and found that "American society has remained self-centered, too busy to fuse into a single nation capable of taking an interest in faraway cultures. No more books on Islam are sold, no more foreign films seen than before the attacks; students are not moving any faster toward learning foreign languages."


We are an insular folk – xenophobic, as it were.


But the wrap-up is cool, as Eaves asks questions about that -


Can Americans learn anything from foreign anthropologists studying their own?  Sorman says the point is moot.  He has "no illusion" that he could be influential in the United States—unless he emigrated.  "No one is interested in what foreigners have to say, not liberals or conservatives," he said.  "The beliefs of Americans are so profound, they are so convinced that they are building a new civilization, with a universal appeal, that the comments from outside are insignificant."


To which our friend Ric Erickson replies –


And irrelevant.  If Americans care what the French think about them, then the Americans believe in mumbo-jumbo, which is about as silly as believing that there's a shed of democracy in America or ever was. The Romans got used to dictators, and their empire continued on for centuries afterwards. Romans were pragmatic.




But Eaves does quote a passage from Made in USA where Sorman give us this: [In America] it's taken for granted that a community left to its own devices will spontaneously organize, without waiting for higher authorities to do it. This democratic ideal, shaped by the history of the United States, can lead American governments, in their foreign interventions, to expect the same of other societies. Sometimes in vain.


And Ric says AMEN.


And who cares what they think?  They’re French.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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