The Blog

Everything Old Is French Again

The confessions of a former Francophile.

7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2003 • By JOEL ENGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT for creative ways to mold my teenage daughter, I accidentally discovered an efficient weapon in a pile of clothes earmarked for Goodwill. "Whose is that?" Maggie asked.

"Mine," I said.

"You wore a beret, Dad?!"

To prove I had, I put it on--and watched her collapse into a puddle of laughter. Soon, though, hilarity morphed into horror: A friend might happen by and see me like that.

Bingo. Since then I've been able to bend the poor girl to my paternal will by threatening to show up at school wearing the damn thing.

What she doesn't know is that I don't have the nuggets anymore to actually go out in public looking like Jacques someone, as I did nearly three decades ago to cover my unwashed hair during a mostly unwashed year in Paris (one does have to blend in).

In those days--when you couldn't apply for membership in the sophisticates' club without swearing that France was the world's only civilized country--going from Berkeley English major to beret-wearing expatriate poet living in a seventh-floor garret above a Tunisian bakery in the Latin Quarter was only logical. True, it had been 50 years since Hemingway stopped by Gertrude Stein's in the Rue de Fleurus and tried to write that very bad thing that you needed to forget (and hide from your wife) in cafés where you could drink cheaply and well. But even in the '70s, when you could drink cheaply or well but not both, France was still where romantics like me went to find art and truth and beauty.

America? L'Amerique, I enjoyed telling my buddies in the bars of St. Germain, was ze armpit of ze planet. They nodded avec enthousiasme and recited its endless evils. I agreed with everything they said, which of course made me one of them. It was a heady feeling to be superior--to be French. American culture was an oxymoron, I declared, and as reward was proclaimed the new Voltaire. Oh, how I loved it (picture Jimmy Carter reveling in Stockholm's applause). No matter that the jukeboxes blasted American rock-n-roll, and that the most popular movies were American. For that matter, I earned my living in the streets and subways playing guitar for an American woman who sang American songs, and could make an extra month's rent whenever I wanted by selling a pair of my authentically-American Levis.

Back at home 14 months later I rarely wore my beret, though metaphorically it still tilted just-so on my head for several years--long enough to almost stroke out my patriot uncle 10 or 12 times over dinner arguments. But at last I came to see France as an effete country of effete snobs whose best days were witnessed by Franklin and Jefferson and to see America for what it is: all things considered, the greatest force for good in ze planet's history.

That means I've broken ranks with generations of educated Americans for whom the Enlightenment trumps Yorktown and Normandy--and indeed, Baghdad. To most of our reigning intelligentsia, France and everything French still matter more than, say, Illinois or anything Midwestern. They still hunger for the pseudo legitimacy that only French approbation can bestow. Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton sought it for eight years. "Cowboy" George W. Bush stopped trying after a few months.

No wonder the elite press, most of academia, and Hollywood royalty keep trotting out the "unilateral" fiction. In their Harvard-Sorbonne math, 40 allies minus 1 French veto equals unilateralism. There's no point in suggesting that Chirac's Gallic nose in the air was intended not for the greater good but to cynically protect his country's own financial interests, or that France undermines us out of envy, given that America bestrides the earth as a colossus while La Belle Republique now has more in common with Le Petit Prince. Alas, old love affairs die hard. The worship of Paris continues unabated, unaffected by either facts or progress.

How utterly ironic.

Did we not all learn that liberalism--a political ideology with its roots in, yes, the Enlightenment--rejected authoritarian governments (like Iraq), defended freedom of speech and expression (rights not enjoyed in Iraq or anywhere in the Arab world), championed the individual's right to pursue happiness as he chooses (which he cannot in Iraq), and battled racism (for instance, the pan-Arab call for jihad)? Liberals are good, liberals are tolerant, liberals are--above all--catalysts for progress and justice who don't need Security Council resolutions to validate righteousness. Anyway, that's what I learned in the early '60s, when liberals were built like JFK. So I was raised a Democrat, proud to be on the good side of every battle.