Vive this difference

Posted: Sep 18, 2006 12:01 AM
Vive this difference

Not so long ago, some of our congressmen were so angry at the French that "french fries" were booted off the menu in the House dining room. (The words, not the potatoes.) But something of a rapprochement approaches. The French seem to perceive the peril in allowing Syrian occupation of Lebanon and have contributed troops to lead the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed on the Lebanese-Israeli border. All is not lost, yet.

The love-hate relationship between Americans and the French is one of continued ambivalence. Not long after "les Anglo Saxons" (as Jacques Chirac insists on calling all of us) saved the froggies in 1944 and were showered with wine and roses in the streets of Paris, we were ridiculed as "Ugly Americans" for our rough and robust ways. These were, of course, the same rough and robust ways seen in such appreciated abundance earlier on the beaches at Normandy. Later, contempt became anger as American artists, fashionistas and even winemakers replaced the French to set the international pace in all manner of consumer goods.

"France doesn't know it," Francois Mitterrand, a former president of France, once said, "but we are at war with America." We were "voracious" in our quest for unchallenged dominance in the world.

"The France that Mitterand was talking about is the nation that's an ongoing invention of its snooty, elitist, self-satisfied, self-obsessed, humorless, Paris-dwelling governing class," writes journalist Denis Boyles in his book, "Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese." They wear our blue jeans and watch our movies, but imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery. The devil wears Prada, after all.

But change rides the autumn air. It's just possible that after the next French election in April we can rekindle an old love affair. A recent distinguished visitor to these precincts may become the next president of France, and he likes us. Nicolas Sarkozy, the 51-year-old minister of the interior, spent four days in the United States last week, charming everyone he met with the panache of a matinee idol out of a 1950s movie. Think Charles Boyer, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Gerard Philipe.

But M. Sarkozy is actually a new kind of Frenchman. He's head of the Union for a Popular Movement, to which President Chirac belongs, but he does not share M. Chirac's last-century economic theories. He wants to encourage free enterprise, that most American of economic theories, and thinks these views may propel him to the presidency. He takes pride in a mixed ancestry that includes a Hungarian father and a Jewish grandfather. He has the rough edges that endear him to Americans -- he likes "Miami Vice," and he's not ashamed to be called "Sarko the American."

Unlike Frenchmen who wouldn't dare speak English in public until they get their pristine syntax grammatically perfect, he managed a few sentences of pidgin when he met Nicholas Scoppetta, the New York City fire commissioner, at a ceremony honoring 9/11 firefighters: "I run. This morning. In Central Park. With T-shirt firefighters." He sounded a little like Gerard Depardieu, the awkward and loveable star in the movie "Green Card." The firepersons loved it.

He told Jewish leaders that "I am a friend of America. I am a friend of Israel." This resonates even with many of his countrymen, whose traditional anti-Semitism has been tempered by the violence of Muslim gangs like those who rioted for several days and nights last fall in the Paris suburbs. Sarkozy understands Islamist jihad and calls the gangs "scum."

He was rewarded with unusual access in Washington on his visit, meeting President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, as well as Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. He demonstrated the kind of attitude toward the United States that Washington had not seen in a long time. He's not quite the equivalent of Lafayette, but there were moments last week when it almost seemed so.

The French irritation with America grows out of wounded pride, a sense that France is not as important in the world as it once was, but a President Sarkozy might restore some of that lost pride, and with it an appreciation for stronger links with America. At home he's reaching out to the right of his party in the face of scorn of the French elites, who seem hopelessly left (and increasingly left out). "Some of the French elite hate me more than they hate America," he says. Vive the difference.