The mousse that roared

Posted: Mar 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Ridiculing the French is the new national pastime, with the focus on cowardice in the line of fire rather than cowardice in love. David Letterman's remark is typical: "The last time the French asked for 'more proof,' it came marching into Paris under a German flag."

An Internet competition for selecting a new French national anthem, to replace the blood-stirring "Marseillaise," comes up with several imaginative suggestions, including Roy Orbison's "Running Scared," Elvis Presley's "Surrender" and Donny and Marie Osmond's "I'm Leaving It All Up to You."

The French lover, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, nevertheless lingers in myth, movies and memory. But anyone who ever watched "Casablanca" (and who hasn't?) [buy movie] knows that Ingrid Bergman falls not for an effete Frenchman, but for Humphrey Bogart, the dashing American.

Charles Boyer, the quintessential French lover, squishes when he walks. Gary Cooper makes the earth (and the female heart) tremble. What we like about the contemporary French actor Gerard Depardieu is that he's the klutz who renders the whole idea of a French lover as ridicule.

"True, you can sit outside in Paris and drink little cups of coffee," observed P.J. O'Rouke more than a decade ago, "but why this is more stylish than sitting inside and drinking large glasses of whisky, I don't know."

Now comes French science, or at least French social science. Elle magazine has a scathing analysis of the Frenchman, based on a Paris think tank's study of men in four French focus groups of 12 urban professionals, and finds the young Frenchman as fearful, intimidated and cowed by the demands of the modern Frenchwoman. He feels castrated and destabilized (castration will do that), without a masculine identity.

Men between 20 and 25 are characterized as "subjugated and feminized." Men between 25 and 35 feel "consumed" and "abused" by women. Concludes Elle: "One gets the impression that a new war of the sexes is emerging, with the former dominated becoming the dominatrixes." Why would we want such men fighting on our side?

English robustness has always been more to the American taste than French foppishness. We share food affinities with the English, too. In fact, eating habits illustrate why the Englishman is the stand-up guy in time of war, and the Frenchman is the run-away guy. There's no mystery to why Uncle Sam feels a greater fox-hole affinity to John Bull than to Marianne.

It's roast beef, like steak, that makes the man. In a fascinating new book called Beef and Liberty: Beef, Bulls and English Patriots, Ben Rogers explains how since the 18th century the English have expressed contempt for all those dainty French dishes of eggs and cream. English beef, by contrast, didn't have to be disguised with rich sauces. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is as honest and unpretentious as the British farmer.

Beef in this analysis is central to the British diet, feeding the soul as well as the body, shaping the love and loyalty of the yeomen who lives on the land and raises his contented cows, cultivating community. It's a patriotism reinforced in several wars with the French. Even, in fact, in a food fight over mad cows.

The French, more than the English and the Americans, use food metaphors to make their points and we should learn to read their character in their recipes. Not so long ago, when President Jacque Chirac was trying to make nice with his English neighbors, he lifted the embargo against their beef, knowing that the embargo was poisoning - literally and figuratively - the French-English relationship.

M. Chirac, known to appreciate truffles and snails, has lately talked of a taste for American hamburgers and banana splits acquired in the summer of 1953, when he came to America to attend classes at Harvard.

When Valery Giscard d'Estaing was president of France, he once described M. Chirac with a memorable metaphor. "Chirac can have his mouth full of jam, his lips can be dripping with the stuff, his fingers covered with it, the pot can be standing open in front of him. And if you ask him if he eats jam, he'll say: 'Me? Never, Monsieur le President!"

President Chirac imagines himself as the United Nations Security Council's chef-in-chief, calling for butter rather than guns. But as every chef knows, the secret to a soufflé is timing. If the chef's timing is off even a little, the business falls as flat as a Kansas pancake. In the end, the chef, like his dish, is merely the mousse that roared.