A neo-Nazi fired a rifle at French president Jacques Chirac over the weekend. In what many observers called a surprising turn of events, the French politician did not respond to the gunfire by giving the young man the keys to the city and raising a neo-Nazi flag up the Eiffel Tower.
This is just one sign of how times have changed. Oh, I don’t mean that the cheese-eating surrender monkeys are, all of a sudden, the sort of hamburger-eating heroes who leap recklessly into the fray with no regard for their personal safety. For all I know, saying gesundheit — or anything else in German — is still the best way to get a table at a French restaurant.
But, from my own personal perspective, the frog-bashing business has changed a lot since I first started just a few years ago.
Obviously, I’m hardly the first guy to chronicle France’s status as the Boston Red Sox of military history or to ridicule the Frenchman’s proclivity “to eat with his hands and make love with his mouth.” People have been mocking the French since before the French were even, well, French. Recall, if you will, that in 49 B.C. the Gauls folded faster than a Vietnamese “masseuse”’s massage table when you hear your wife’s car in the driveway when Julius Caesar came a-knockin’. Afterwards, he was reported to have said to the generals of Gaul, “Get off your knees, my sandals are clean enough. Go make me some lunch… something light.” And this is how the Caesar salad was born. (Alas, the original recipe was lost until Caesar Cardini, a descendant of the emperor’s, rediscovered the method while sorting through some family records in the 1920s.)
Indeed, other nations have long recognized the cultural, ummm, uniqueness of the French. The Dutch, for example, have a saying, “It took no more effort than casting a Frenchman into hell.” The Italians: “Attila, the scourge of God; the French, his brothers.” The Germans have innumerable phrases about the French, which only make sense because people love to talk about their waiters. “The French write other than they speak, and speak other than they mean,” goes one German saying. “The friendship of the French is like their wine — exquisite, but of short duration,” goes another. “May the French ulcer love you and the Lord hate you,” is an old Arab curse. The Russians noted long ago, “A fighting Frenchman runs away from even a she-goat,” though I suspect this sounds better in the Russian.
And the English language is soaked through with anti-French bile. Phrases like “to take French leave” (to depart without permission, or less charitable but more apt: to flee) are less prevalent these days, but that has more to do with the fact that people speak English poorly. Much of our English heritage is derived from our forefathers’ eagerness not to seem French. Dr. Johnson, for example, remarked that he’d read that Englishmen preferred their weathervanes in the form of roosters, or cocks, as a subtle jab at the fickle Gauls, who turned whichever way the wind blew — Gaul being a play on Gallus, meaning cock (this, no doubt, will be great news to highbrow limerick writers as Gallus and phallus can now be rhymed).
All of that aside, it seems incontrovertible that these days, French-bashing is as “in” as women’s jeans that show more butt than a plumber touching his toes. Indeed, in this decade, mocking France’s poor hygiene, its contempt for Hebrew Semites, its enabling of non-Hebrew Semites, and its penchant for capitulation at even the slightest whiff of the Teutonic have become as run-of-the-mill as jokes about lost socks in dryers and shopping carts with one bad wheel were in the 1980s. Saturday Night Live, various comic strips, and a host of websites — of varying degrees of maturity — have all gotten in on the act.
Even the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is now used as often as the French say “screw the Jews.” Oops, sorry, that’s a different popular French expression. I meant to say “passé.” [NOTE: I am not the author of the term. Again: It’s from The Simpsons. But I do take some pride in its wide currency, as I believe I am its most successful popularizer.]
So the question remains: Why is French-hating so popular today? It’s not like they’ve denied us fly-over rights recently. We haven’t had to liberate Paris again (yet). French forces haven’t fired on us like they did during Operation Torch in North Africa. They haven’t stuck us with Vietnam, or propped up Carrot Top’s career the way they kept Jerry Lewis going all those years. And yet, if Major League Baseball goes on strike, smacking frogs with heavy sticks may finally become the national pastime, as God no doubt intended.
I think the answer is simple, though perhaps not as simple as Al Bundy’s epigram, “It is good to hate the French.”
When terrorists from the most French-coddled and French-influenced region of the globe blew up the World Trade Center, any number of commentators noted that the “End of History” thesis was over. History, many of us said, had come back with a vengeance (“And this time, it’s personal!” screamed my couch). Long-simmering differences between Christendom and Islam reignited with the end of the Cold War.
Well, it would only make sense that such fires ignited elsewhere as well. Remember, our differences with France — much like our differences with the Arab world — were always visible to those willing to see, even during the Cold War. The French maintained military independence from NATO. They regularly annoyed us in the U.N. and made our foreign policy more difficult, denying us air rights and whining about how our movies were more popular — with Frenchmen — than theirs were. Indeed, if the French had had their way when the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany would have remained a separate, and socialist, country.
But we overlooked all of that for two important reasons. The French didn’t matter, and we had better things to do — like win the Cold War over French objections. Both of these things are still true in an absolute sense, obviously. But, with the Cold War over, the French matter more today in a relative sense — even as they matter less and less in an absolute sense.
While most of the West, if not the world, is Americanizing for good and for ill, France remains determined to stay French. The beautiful jabbering they call the French language is disappearing like an ornate sandcastle washed over by the global English tide. French officials debate for years over whether words like CD-rom are acceptable cultural imports (It’s not. “Cederom” is the accepted form), while the rest of the world increasingly treats France as the Betamax of world history — an interesting alternative, but no less irrelevant for it.
This would be touching, save for the fact that France increasingly defines being “French” as disagreeing with the United States. We support Israel, so the French hate Israel (and they really do hate it). McDonald’s is American, so noodle-armed French intellectuals flex their wine muscles by tearing apart a few Mickey D’s (even as France remains among the biggest consumers of Big Macs in the world). We say the war on terrorism is important, so they say it isn’t. We say Osama bin Laden launched the attack on 9/11, and so the number-one bestseller in France says the Pentagon attacked itself.
You can see the problem here. If you want a culture which is defined by thinking and doing the opposite of another culture, that’s fine. The British played this game with the French and became the pedestal upon which liberty, the rule of law, and the free market rest while France, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, remained simply a long despotism tempered by epigrams.
But this tendency becomes troublesome when a culture moves beyond the aesthetic and the culinary to the epistemological and the geopolitical. France can grumble about how much they hate our movies and food, as they spend their euros on both, all they like. Matters of taste are inherently subjective. But when the French start claiming that America is an imperial conqueror because we want to eliminate the terrorists the French have bought off for decades, well, them’s fighting words. When politicians start making apologies for the murder of Jews because they want Arab votes; when French diplomats start setting up roadblocks in the U.N. because it’s fun to embarrass America; when one froggy intellectual after another starts lecturing the United States on how to do things when so many of the world’s problems can be laid at unwashed French feet — well, that’s when frog-bashing is going to become an American pastime again.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
Though not for all Americans. Increasingly, France is becoming the North Star for domestic America-haters. The French have long said that being French is a state of mind, not an ethnicity (which is why they made Algerian students recite “Our forefathers the Gauls…” every day). Well, if you go by French attitudes alone, America has the largest population of Frenchmen never to have surrendered to Germany.
Cynthia McKinney, that awful woman, cribs most of her conspiratorial nonsense from French best-sellers and newspapers — even if she’s too dim to know it. America’s lefty intellectuals, long convinced that anything said with a French accent must be true, serve as a transmission belt for any and every anti-American pronouncement that comes out of Paris.
It’s funny: The assumption that France is more “progressive” than America is widespread among American liberal cosmopolitans, even though France in many ways represents everything American lefties are supposed to dislike about America. France was a colonial power, and still is far more of one than America. If you think dropping bombs in Puerto Rico was bad, consider that the French dropped a nuclear bomb in a minority neighborhood of the globe not too long ago. The French use nuclear power, torture animals to make their food tastier, laugh at sexual harassment, and have absolutely no racial affirmative-action programs whatsoever. French families are abandoning their older relatives at French hospitals so they can take extended vacations. French schools have been forced to issue “bully insurance” because playgrounds have become so dangerous. Over a hundred candidates in France’s parliamentary elections were under criminal investigation.
When you think about it, there are four possible explanations for why American leftists love France so much (aside from France’s historical love affair with Communism and Stalinism). First, the French are trying to outlaw hard work and, perhaps eventually, work entirely. Government agents stake out companies suspected of working their employees more than 35 hours a week. Some exiting employees are searched to make sure they don’t bring any work home with them. If you believe that requiring work is a form of discrimination against those who want to live well without working, then you’ve got to love France.
Second, the only sexual preference France doesn’t celebrate is heterosexual monogamy.
Third, France has always treated its intellectuals like celebrities, a seductive practice for American academics forced to drive around in old VW buses and live next door to men who actually work with their hands.
But, finally, the most important reason American leftists love France is that French elites say bad things about America. French intellectuals call us racist, stupid, imperialistic, simplistic, etc. — and that alone is proof of their intellectualism. So long as you call America “racist,” you could add that an enema is as good as a toothbrush and some professor of “communications theory” would applaud.
I’ve grown tired of these French-bashing columns because there’s not much left to say about a nation of 200 cheeses and one kind of toilet paper. Besides, the real threat isn’t the frogs across the pond. The real threat is their fellow hoppers here at home.