A few years ago, a friend of mine spent a summer in the south of France with his daughter, who was in grade school at the time. Unfortunately, the daughter caught a bug toward the end of their stay, and my friend made multiple trips to the local pharmacy trying to find the right medicine for her. His French is imperfect, so he struggled to make himself understood by the druggist. After his daughter had gotten well, and just before they were to go back to the United States, my friend (a nice guy) returned to the pharmacy to thank the man for all his help . . . whereupon the druggist responded in perfect English. Dumbfounded, my friend asked, “But why didn’t you speak English with me when I was struggling to tell you what was wrong with my daughter?” “This is France,” the man responded, matter-of-factly. “We speak French here.”
This, indeed, is France. France and the French in a nutshell. Virtually every American who has been there has similar stories to tell (and not just Americans: the Germans, the English, the Dutch – practically everyone, really). Usually the stories involve snooty waiters who pretend not to understand your French (even if you’re French Canadian). One can’t imagine any other people behaving this way. The Germans love it when you try to speak German with them, though they usually want to practice their English on you. I’m virtually the only person I know who went to France and was never treated rudely – though, admittedly, I was only there for a week.
My one trip to Paris was in the fall of 2001, just after 9/11. The purpose of my visit was to attend the Front National rally, Bleu Blanc Rouge. At the time, Marine’s father Jean-Marie was in charge and I met him and shook hands with him. (I don’t remember if I met Marine, but I did hear her speak.) The rally was a large, festive, happy occasion that took place over a couple of days. It included a bazaar, with vendors selling all manner of vaguely (and not so vaguely) Rightish things. It was there that I bought the rune ring I wear to this day.
And it was also there that I gained a little understanding – just a little – for why the French don’t like Americans. One of our group would stop people in the street and ask them for directions LOUDLY and SLOWLY in English. This just elicited stares and hurried exits from the French. Another of my companions, an old woman, asked a waiter for Sweet and Low to put in her wine (that’s aspartame, for those of you across the pond). But the pièce de résistance was the charmless, crusty old duffer who wanted to find the Latin Quarter but got confused and kept stopping people in the street, growling, “Where’s the French Quarter?” We let that go on for a half-hour before correcting him, it was just too priceless. Most Americans think they have a free pass to behave badly in France, given that we liberated them from the Nazis. We will never let them forget this, nor will the French ever forgive us for it (for reminding them, and for being the ones who liberated them).
For their part, Americans are a very forgiving people. I even know some who aren’t at all fazed by the rude and haughty Parisian waiters. They find it amusing, and laugh it off. But some things we can’t forgive. For example, we will never forgive the French for hailing Jerry Lewis as a genius. And we can also never forgive the French for their philosophy. Nor should we. Joseph Campbell once said, “The French have been so imprinted by Descartes that anything that can’t be parsed to Cartesian coordinates they now declare absurd.” Descartes may be the greatest of French philosophers, but just about the only true statement in his entire grotesque philosophy is, “I exist.” And even this is no longer true, in his case at least.
Flash-forward to the twentieth century and we get the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, the perverse Stalinist imp who declared existence absurd. One of my professors called him “a flea on the back of Heidegger” (who likely had a hairy back). But it gets worse: Lacan, Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, and – the nadir – Derrida. A friend of mine once taught me “The Derrida Game”: “Name a bad philosopher. The first one who says ‘Derrida’ loses.” (This would be taking the easy way out, you see, since Derrida is so, so awful.) Truly, the French are almost as bad at philosophy as the English. (Name a great English philosopher. The first one who says “Russell” gets his head examined.)
And then there’s the food. Don’t get me wrong, the food is superb. But when it’s served in the U.S., why is it so damned expensive? The ingredients don’t cost any more than those that are used in, say, Italian cooking. So what gives? You guessed it: the French just think they’re better than everyone else, so we ought to pay more for their food.
Yes, it’s not easy to like the French. Still harder is it to love them. But suddenly I now find myself loving them. And the truth is that I have loved them all along. The French are like that relative who gets on our nerves when we see him at holidays, but who we would instantly defend if ever he were attacked, verbally or otherwise. We are allowed to rubbish Cousin Pierre, but when others (outsiders) do it, we take umbrage. And if ever we saw Cousin Pierre set upon by thugs, we would run to his rescue and teach the bastards a lesson.
In truth, there’s a great deal to admire about Cousin Pierre. He may be snooty, but it’s not without good reason. His cooking really is the best in the world. And his city, Paris, is arguably the most beautiful. (I have never been more impressed by a city than I was by my brief visit to Paris.) His sense of style, particularly when he dresses women, is impeccable. He has also perfected the art of living. Cousin Pierre is a happy midpoint between the uptight, super-organized Germans and the let-it-all-hang-out, disorganized Italians. Order and joie de vivre. Sex and sensibleness. There is truly a special quality about Cousin Pierre, even in what he does badly. I don’t know what it is, but he calls it je ne sais quoi.
And while the less said about Pierre’s philosophers the better, one cannot say enough about his essayists, novelists, composers, and painters. French cinema is a mixed bag, and hasn’t had much to say since the 1960s. Some of the most famous French directors are the worst, such as Jean-Luc Godard, whose work plays like a parody of pretentious, arthouse cinema. But on the other hand there is François Truffaut, who, if not a great director, was certainly a very good one. And Jean-Pierre Melville, from whose Le Samouraï (1967) I took my nom de plume. One also has to love an actress like Brigitte Bardot. Though the sex goddess of her generation, she has refused to have plastic surgery. A huge animal lover (and animal rights activist), she reportedly sleeps in an enormous bed filled with dogs. And she votes for the Front National. Ditto Alain Delon, the super-handsome, charismatic star of Le Samouraï (also a Right-winger, also an animal lover).
I am now filled with such thoughts as we approach the French election, where the divine Ms. Le Pen is competing against the odious Macron. I feel as if I am in a hospital waiting room. We’ve gotten a call that Cousin Pierre is sick and may not pull through. Anxiously, I wait for word. And suddenly I am filled with a new appreciation for Pierre, and all his good qualities. I feel guilty about all the times I wanted to knock that stupid little beret off his head. Even his snootiness feels endearing now. I didn’t realize it, but I love the guy. And now I’m facing the prospect of a world without him, and it feels terrible. In truth, I don’t love him because of all the good things mentioned earlier. I love him because he is family.
My anxiety is perfectly justified. If Ms. Le Pen loses this election, it does look like we are going to lose Pierre. Le Pen is gaining on Macron in the polls, but he’s still ahead. The French have been so enriched by vibrant Muslim immigration, their army (the army!) is now patrolling the streets of Paris, carrying automatic weapons. Anyone with a brain and two eyes can perceive that multiculturalism spells the doom of France. And yet this deracinated, cosmopolitan humanoid Macron promises more of it – and even admonishes his fellow citizens that they must get used to terrorism as a part of daily life. As Howard Beale would say, this is mass madness, you maniacs. If Le Pen loses, there is but one course: a coup d’état. This seems unthinkable. But it will be necessary, if France is to survive. Let’s hope the French are more sensible than the polls give them credit for (and how can we believe polls after Brexit and Trump?).
God, please don’t let Cousin Pierre die. Please let him pull through. We love him too much.
Vive la France! Vive Le Pen!
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