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French Version

Vive la France !

Much ink has been spilled about the Franco-American rift, supposedly inaugurated by George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. Pro-war “patriots” now eat “freedom fries,” we are told, boycotting French wines and cheeses out of love for the stars-and-stripes. Americans have also been urged to spend their tourist dollars in places more congenial than France (if there are any such places left).

The politics of silliness in the US has perhaps never reached greater heights, as the American right adopts ever more grotesque postures to justify the disasters of the Bush-Cheney administration.

It may therefore be of some interest to those outside the US to hear that not all Americans have abandoned their French fries, smashed their cellars of Bordeaux, or totally lost their minds.

There is another narrative about France that runs far deeper in the US. It starts with the legendary Lafayette, who fought alongside American revolutionaries against British imperialists. As a child, I learned in American history books that the US’s oldest ally is France, the source from which the ideals of the US Constitution sprang. It always seemed to me that what was best in American government was essentially French.

Many Americans like myself think of Paris as an “American” city, not in any colonialist sense, but recognizing that our most cherished traditions are inextricable from the French capital and its illustrious history. The very word “Paris” evokes reveries in the American imagination, dreams of romance, art, music, and literature. Would there even be an American literature without Paris, one wonders? Certainly, it would be a far more impoverished body of writing.

The “patriotic” hatred of things French in the United States belies a more insidious hatred of French ideals like free speech, separation of church and state, equality under the law. If the values of “philosophes” like Voltaire, Diderot, Jefferson, and Franklin were truly respected, there could be no debate about “freedom fries,” just as certainly as the US would have to radically alter its foreign policy in the Arab world. If the concept of the “citizen” were truly valued—as a generic marker of identity that is emptied of reference to religion and ethnicity—there could be little sympathy in the US for Israeli “ethnic-democracy” (on either side of the green line).

The Republican hatred for things French is as old as the American government. The Puritans and Whigs despised Jefferson and his liberal beliefs just as much as Republicans today despise the idealism of the French and those American Democrats who reject the neo-imperialism of the Bush-Cheney Administration. In fact, the current American president is an avatar of the Whig-Puritan, seeking to impose his own narrow religious views upon the totality of God’s creation. What frustrates such “patriots” is the fact that liberal French ideals are so deeply embedded in the US Constitution that they cannot be extirpated without destroying the entire edifice.

No matter how much contempt a Whig like Bush has for the ideals of the American “philosophes”, he is obliged to work around them, as unalterable conditions of US government. Republicans like Bush I & II, Reagan, and others tend to make honored gods of these ideals, precisely so they can be ignored as matters of policy.

Like the US, France too has been prey to the machinations of politicians who pay lip service to Enlightenment ideals while studiously avoiding their application, especially in former French colonies. The dual history of democratic idealism and its failed implementation outside the West has marred all European nations, including the Euro-American experiment called the United States.

Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq, my family and I spent an evening under the stars of Wadi Rum, visiting with a Parisian couple, Phillipe and Isabelle Chavignac. Despite the Franco-American “rift,” we enjoyed a memorable night together, spellbound by one of Jordan’s most magical sites. Though it was clear that the Chavignacs were totally opposed to Bush Junior’s policies, I wondered aloud about the motivations of the French government in opposing the war on Iraq. Was French opposition a matter of economics, I asked, or did it spring from a deeper and perhaps “old fashioned” belief in the ideals of the Enlightenment tradition?

I cannot altogether be certain what motivated the impassioned speech of France’s ambassador to the UN, days before outbreak of war, but I am confident that most French people, like the Chavignacs, opposed the US invasion of Iraq out of a disinterested respect for these ideals, a sense of outrage at the Bush Administration’s crass adventurism. Warmongers like Donald Rumsfeld with their rhetoric about an “old Europe” fool no one. There is nothing archaic about the “philosophes” love of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

That night, as the Chavignacs and my family broke bread in the desert of Wadi Rum, I took comfort in the knowledge that the bonds that unite American and French people are far too resilient for Chaplinesque figures like Bush to sever. Right now, such ideals may have fallen upon hard times, but even a passing acquaintance with US history shows that the pendulum eventually swings in the opposite direction. In the end, the USA remains a “French” nation, a constitutional fact that may yet be its salvation.

Amman,09 15 2003
Chistopher Wise
The Star
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