Saturday is Bastille Day. This commemorates that wonderful spontaneous moment when the French peasants declared as one that they had rights. They had the right to serve salad after you've already eaten a whole meal; serve cheese after you've just eaten a salad you didn't want in the first place; wear a black turtleneck, even though it is quite hot outside and you haven't bathed for at least a few days.
If you didn't know already, I am a believer in the axiom of the immortal Al Bundy of the everyman's sitcom "Married With Children" who declared, "It is good to hate the French."
Why is it good to hate the French? Well, because you've got to hate somebody. And who better than the French?
OK, maybe that's not the best argument in the world. But the fact remains that there's something written deep into the genetic code of the American character that draws us to giggle at the French.
This is quite odd since America fought a bitter war against our colonial overlords, the British, and we couldn't have possibly won without the aid of the Frenchies. And yet, Americans love the Brits and can't stand what one character on "The Simpsons" calls "the cheese-eating surrender monkeys."
We watch British movies, read British novels and import British sitcoms and game shows. Meanwhile, most of us would choose to watch a French film only if the option to stop an industrial fan with your tongue were already taken.
One explanation is that the French weren't of much use during World War II. The Germans stormed into Paris and stayed there. Hence the old joke, "Why are the boulevards in Paris lined with trees on both sides of the street? So the Germans can always march in the shade."
Some of the French did fight in uniform, as when they fired on U.S. forces during Operation Torch in North Africa. Being French they didn't fight for long. Oh, and later they claimed to have liberated Paris, with some administrative support from the U.S. Third Army.
Despite what you've heard from the French, most of them didn't join the resistance. That is except when the war was over, at which point thousands claimed to have fought the Germans tooth and nail, when in fact the worst they did was serve the occupiers abnormally small portions of foie gras.
It's a similar phenomenon to the millions of Americans who claimed to have voted for JFK only after he was killed or the thousands of baby boomers who swear they attended Woodstock but were nowhere near it. The French even have the phrase "maquis d'apres-guerre," which means "resistance fighter, postwar."
But, as a student of unfair French bashing, I think the World War II stuff misses the point. The French have been incredibly brave fighters when given the opportunity, as they were during World War I (though sticking us with Vietnam wasn't their finest moment either). Besides, Americans have mocked the French since the earliest days of the Republic.
Which is really the point. The egalitarian rhetoric of the failed French Revolution notwithstanding, France has always represented what the American colonists were really rebelling against. We may have fought the British, but we were overthrowing the European - i.e. French - way of doing things.
It's difficult to exaggerate how much grief the French gave America for our first hundred years. France was cultured and we were the first White Trash nation. For example, one of the leading French intellectuals of the 19th century, the racist Arthur de Gobineau, fretted that the "rubbish" people of the United States would eventually destroy it.
But in the 20th century, particularly after WWII, America pulled way out ahead of France, and now France is a speck in our rearview mirror. That's why Americans hold a certain "look who's king of the mountain, now" attitude toward the French. For example, Billy Wilder once noted that France "is the only country where the money falls apart and you can't tear the toilet paper."
This explains why the French are so legitimately nasty toward the United States. Anti-American books fill the best-seller lists in France. The author of the book "No Thanks, Uncle Sam," Noel Mamere, is a member of the French Parliament. Mamere concludes, "It is appropriate to be downright anti-American."
When the French Minister of Defense, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, resigned in protest over America's attempt during the Gulf War to liberate a country other than his, he declared that America is dedicated to "the organized cretinization of our people."
But that's OK. We can afford to be gracious winners.