by Jake Lamar
17 April 2003
“It’s over,” I sighed. Sitting in my Montmartre apartment, watching the ecstatic takedown of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, I believed that maybe peace was at hand. Perhaps now, with the fall of Saddam, the threats, the attacks, all the ugliness, could come to an end. Maybe with its stunning victory in Iraq, America could now declare a truce in the war against its other bitter enemy: France.
For weeks I had been getting nervous queries from people in the States wondering if I’d been subjected to the ferocious anti-Americanism that was supposedly roiling in France. I don’t know what people feared would happen to me. Would I be tarred and feathered, jeered at on the streets? Would someone spraypaint Yankee Go Home across my front door? I told them the truth: that, aside from the snotty attitudes of most French waiters---who, seemingly as part of some professional code of conduct, project a withering disdain for just about everyone for one reason or another---I have rarely experienced any form of anti-Americanism in the ten years I’ve lived here. Some folks back home seemed dismayed to learn that, for the average French person, the much-hyped Franco-American hate fest is a largely one-sided affair.
Nobody’s pouring Coca-Cola down the toilet here. The Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in my neighborhood is, as always, jam-packed. And hip Parisian teenagers are still wearing baseball caps and shiny jackets emblazoned with the names of American sports teams they’ve probably never even seen play. You certainly can’t call France’s moviegoers anti-American. The week the war in Iraq began, the top five films at the French box office were 8 Mile, Maid in Manhattan, Catch Me If You Can, The 25th Hour and Chicago. At a book signing in late March, I met a Senegalese woman and asked her if she’d ever visited America. “No,” she said wistfully, “but that’s my dream.” If I had a buck for every African who’s expressed similar feelings to me about the USA over the past decade, I’d be able to buy a plane ticket for one of them.
Most people here were completely baffled by the rage Americans expressed toward the French. Some of the gestures have seemed absurd. Pouring a good Bordeaux down the drain is regarded as a sign of near insanity here. And the new “freedom” foods simply do not compute. A lot of French people are surprised to learn that Americans didn’t know that fries originated in Belgium and I’ve had to explain to several French people what French toast is. Here it’s called pain perdu (“lost bread”) and is consumed far less regularly than it is in America. But, more seriously, the French have been disturbed by the bitterness of the rhetorical venom coming out of America.
The rage had come as a jolt to me as well. I concluded many years ago that, on some fundamental level of human consciousness, the French and the American peoples would never fully comprehend each other. But not until the anguished weeks just before the war had I ever felt as if I were living someplace that America considered an enemy country. I was at a friend’s house, hanging out with six other black American expats, when the “shock and awe” bombing began. Watching the mini-mushroom clouds rise up over Baghdad, one of the brothers present tapped into a particular communal uneasiness when he said, wryly, “Paris is next.”
* * *
So I was massively relieved on April 9, when that ridiculous statue was dragged off its pedestal. Relieved that no more Iraqi civilians would be slaughtered. And relieved that no more soldiers---American, British, Australian or Iraqi---would have to lose their lives. But I also hoped that a victorious America would be magnanimous in dealing with those who had challenged its campaign, even the French.
Then the Prince of Darkness came to town. Richard Perle, prominent member of the ultra-influential Defense Policy Board, former deputy secretary of defense in the Reagan administration---where he gained his satanic nickname---met with editors of the International Herald Tribune in Paris.
“The freedom fries and all the rest is a pretty deeply held sentiment,” Perle said, two days after the fall of Baghdad. “I am afraid this is not something that is easily patched and cannot be dealt with simply in the normal diplomatic way. Because the feelings run too deep. It’s gone way beyond the diplomats.”
Was this true? Did Richard Perle really have his finger on the pulse of America? Did it even matter, given that he was one of the twenty or so people who were actually running the country? Should France be getting ready, as James Brown once put it, “for the big payback”?
The French find it strange that even some Americans who were iffy on the war attacked France for threatening to use its veto in the UN Security Council. Russia also threatened to veto a resolution for war and Germany was more vociferously anti-war than any other European nation. So why had France been singled out for such scorn? A week after Saddam’s fall, the French press was buzzing with rumors of boycotts on wine and cheese and drastic drops in tourism, the country’s main source of revenue. “Punish France, ignore Germany, pardon Russia”: this was said to be the strategy of George W. Bush’s hawkish circle.
Eighty per cent of the French, like eighty per cent of European citizens and millions of people in Asia and Africa, were against a full-scale war on Iraq. How could America be so angry with the French when, on this one point, anyway, France had most of the planet’s people---if not their governments---on its side? Sometimes I think the French are asking about Americans the same question Americans asked about hostile Muslims after 9/11. When Americans asked it, the question was filled with a plaintive searching. The French ask it with more of a nonchalant curiosity, if not a Gallic shrug: “Why do they hate us?”
* * *
“The French!” Martin snarled. “The French!”
He’s a liberal Californian economist who teaches at one of France’s top universities. The party was at his Paris apartment and I would guess that about two thirds of the thirty or so guests were French. A small cluster of Americans stood in the corner, debating the invasion of Iraq. When it came to the subject of France’s opposition to the war, Martin, ordinarily a calm and eloquent, eminently reasonable scholar, seemed almost beside himself with rage, his fists balled up at his sides, his voice rising in condemnation: “The French! The French!”
I won’t attempt to quote him exactly but he went through a familiar litany: We saved France’s butt in two World Wars. De Gaulle kicked American troops out of France in the Sixties. France let Bosnia self-destruct in the 1990s. Chirac is pals with Saddam. The Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis. The French were brutal in Africa, especially Algeria. Now they have a weak military. So they want us to protect them. But they don’t support us when we need them. They are envious and resentful of America’s power. They don’t play fair. They’re a bunch of ingrates!
“But I’m not for the war!” Martin pointed out. “I marched against it last week!”
None of us Americans leapt to France’s defense but none of us shared Martin’s anger. Most of the French guests, meanwhile, were in the center of the living room, dancing to Brazilian music. Back in the debate corner, one of my fellow countrymen suggested that a French veto against the war would not have represented some kind of Machiavellian maneuver against America or a desire to protect France’s economic interests in Iraq. “Maybe it’s truly principled opposition,” he said.
Martin wasn’t having it. He was convinced that France had a slew of ulterior motives. In this way, he reminded me of the many French people I’ve talked to who are convinced that America is interested only in Iraq’s oil and/or the establishment of an empire. But he was expressing himself with a passionate intensity the French don’t often display. One of the few Europeans who had been listening to the debate asked Martin why he lived in France.
Martin was taken aback. “I love France!” he said. He professed his admiration of France’s culture and art, its exquisite cities and beautiful countryside and, yes, its people. When he complained about “the French,” he explained, he meant the country’s political class. “You can love a country but hate its politicians.”
In fact, Martin’s attitude mirrored something I’m always saying about the French: “They’re not anti-American, they’re anti-Bush.” After all, the French adored Bill Clinton. And with his contemplation of “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” Clinton revealed an intriguingly French turn of mind.
* * *
“The Americans have really stepped into the shit, haven’t they?” a popular French novelist said to me on Day 6 of the war.
“We’ll see,” I replied.
After the grim fireworks of Shock-n-Awe, coalition forces seemed bogged down in the windswept desert. The cover of the left-of-center newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur was typical of the told-ya-so media representation of the invasion. The photo was of a determined, but slightly bewildered looking, American soldier clutching his rifle. The headline read: “The Traps of a Crazy War.” There was a subtle sense of relief on the streets of Paris. I would not call it gloating exactly. Most French people didn’t welcome the suffering of Iraqi, American, British or Australian people. They were just relieved that French lives were not being lost as well.
Two weeks later it looked, to some, as if France had planted both feet firmly in a pile of merde. America was triumphant, Saddam on the lam, the Iraqis liberated. Jacques Chirac made a conciliatory phone call to President Bush. While some French policy experts were questioning the government’s obstinance on Iraq, ordinary citizens still seemed content to have missed out on the war. The April 10 cover of Le Nouvel Observateur showed the falling statue of Iraq’s dictator but featured the headline: “The Traps of the Post-Saddam Period.” A middle-aged Parisian watching TV images of young Ali Ismail Abbas, the little Iraqi boy who lost most of his family and both his arms in the war, asked: “Is this what the Americans meant about disarming Iraq?”
Even if the French political class wants to make nice now, the American political class, as represented by Richard Perle, sees scores that need settling. And it’s difficult to imagine France ever being as agreeable a junior partner to the States as Britain is. Especially if Iraq was only the first country on America’s enemies list. “If the question is who poses a threat that the United States deal with,” Perle told the editors of the International Herald Tribune, “then that list is well known. It’s Iran. It’s North Korea. It’s Syria. It’s Libya, and I could go on.” Fortunately, France was not on the list. Not yet anyway.
Ultimately, I think what drives Perle and company mad is France’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge America’s superiority. But maybe, in this triumphal American moment, a cantankerous, contrarian France might not be such a bad thing for the USA. After all, when it comes to military crusades in the Third World, France, like so many other European nations, has been there and done that. But unlike other Europeans, the French will not hesitate to lecture young America on how to handle its new dominance.
Perhaps, to preserve its sense of superiority, America should think of France as being in the position of the slave who, during victory parades in ancient Rome rode in the chariot with the conqueror, standing behind him, holding a golden crown, and whispering in the conqueror’s ear the warning that all glory is fleeting.