You like me! You really like me!
Whenever I go to France, I find I become an instant small-scale "celebrity" in whatever circle I seem to be frequenting. The tendency is for people to immediately drop their conversations in other parts of the room (faculty lounge, dinner party, chess club or wherever) upon the first exclamation of "Ahhhh, Monsieur est américain!" and I am inundated with questions on what I think of France, of world politics, of the French government, of the American government, of education, the arts, pop culture, and just about any other topic under the sun. I get swamped with invitations to dinner or to café outings, and enjoy a level of popularity I could never possibly attain here at home in the U.S. Here at home, I'm boring and ordinary. In France, people seem genuinely fascinated by my every opinion and they make me the center of their attention. The only way I can reasonably explain this discrepancy is that it's not me in particular that French people adore, but more generally Americans and all things American. We as a people are exotic and intriguing to them.
A lot of Americans go to France and claim to have a very different experience from what I have described. My best guess is this is because I speak the language and most of those who've had a "bad" experience don't. But I ask them, how can someone take an interest in you if they can't even converse with you? I know for a fact, from my own consistently positive experiences, that French people don't dislike Americans in general. And the French (at least most of them) don't even dislike individuals who don't speak their language. It's just that without the language, there is no basis for any relationship with you as an individual whatsoever – there is neither like nor dislike. But American travelers in France who don't speak French – and I suspect that the source of this is in their ego, which simply can't come to grips with a lack of interest in them as an individual – tend to rationalize their social isolation and neglect in France by choosing to believe that French people don't like Americans in general. Which is of course completely false.
Would you like fries with that?
In recent years, one of the most broad, striking and ridiculous cases of reinforcing the total myth of the French disliking Americans was the "Freedom Fries" affair. When the Second Gulf War began, the majority of the international community argued that the U.S. should not invade Iraq. One of the most vocal countries opposing the invasion was France. Did this mean that French people hate Americans? Hardly. When my French friends and I spoke about the invasion and French opposition to it, they explained it to me like this: They viewed the Americans as their friends. They believed the war was a big mistake. When you see a friend about to make what you consider a big mistake – for example, getting behind the wheel of a car when he's had too much to drink – you don't just let him do it. You try to talk him out of it – or even try to take his car keys away if you have to. Of course many American political leaders didn't perceive things that way. In their finest moment of mature intellectual debate and dignified statesmanship some members of Congress declared that french fries would henceforth appear on all menus in the House restaurants as "Freedom Fries." So who doesn't like whom? Yet this petty incident, based on erroneous assumptions about French attitudes toward Americans, was one of the driving forces in an Anti-French campaign across the U.S., ironically causing more people than ever to think that the French don't like Americans, and proving once again that you can't believe everything you hear.
A Beautiful Friendship
I've spent substantial portions of my life in France, and have met and gotten to know so many French people that there's no way to count them. I have never personally met a single one who doesn't like America and Americans. I'm sure there must be one or two freaky weirdos out there in France who don't like us, but I've yet to come across them myself. If you ever doubt how much the French just can't get enough of American culture, take a look at the movie listings in a French newspaper, or check out in a French TV guide how many American series and films appear on French TV every day, or listen to a French radio station online to hear how many American songs they play. The great majority of films, TV programs, and pop music songs are American, along with a large number of magazine articles on American celebrities. When was the last time any of us took such a fervent interest in someone we didn't like?
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a
American Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart's) final line in Casablanca, spoken to the French Capt. Louis Renaud (Claude Rains)