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Nailing French Jell-O to the Wall

Spectator contributor Joseph Harriss collects some of his best articles and columns in an enlightening new book on France.

By 10.16.12

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An American Spectator in Paris
by Joseph A. Harriss

(Unlimited Publishing, 328 pages, $17.99)

Some professor once said we should show humility when trying to describe national cultures, they are so complex. I hate that idea. What's most amusing about living among the French is that they beg to be characterized. They never stop analyzing themselves and they expect us to do the same. They virtually invented navel-gazing.

We foreigners who live in France almost always end up in a love-hate relationship with them. There is much to justify both emotions. Just when you think you have grasped some arcane feature of their ways, they do the opposite, so I say we are duty-bound to keep trying to understand them.

Joseph Harriss, a seasoned foreign correspondent and a key contributor to The American Spectator, has spent most of his adult life wracking his considerable brain over French politics, French culture, French history, French women, French food, and the shifting role of France in today's world. His best work is now collected in a new book, An American Spectator in Paris, with an appreciative introduction by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the Spectator's editor-in-chief.

Harriss comes closest of any writer I know to nailing French Jell-O to the wall.

He has been at it probably longer than any Paris-based American writer. In fact this month marks the 50th anniversary of his first story on France, filed to Time. He continued to write for Time for seven years, then moved to Reader's Digest for another 18 years as roving correspondent around Western Europe, with various short-term gigs in between. His thoughtful and wide-ranging Spectator output provides the core of this book, 41 articles, about one-third of his contributions over a period of eight years. All are freshened up with contextual introductions, and closed with newsy updates.

Harriss has avoided the path of many observers of France who find the easy targets (smoking, drinking, loafing, sleeping around) and fire away. But Harriss states at the outset that is book is "not an exercise in French-bashing." He likes the country and its people. He even married one. He speaks the language and seeks to "shine light on many aspects of the reality of France today".

These concentrated gems, most of them 1,500 words or so in length, amount to pithy, well-crafted essays on the country's strengths and weaknesses. He is a fine writer and has avoided the annoying Timestyle locutions most ex-staffers continue to practice in their memoirs and other writings.

A disclaimer is in order. I have lived among the French in Paris and Bordeaux for 15 years (I also married one) and have written occasionally on the country's problems. And yet Joe Harriss had me nodding and shouting "Aha!" as he delivered his sharper insights. I learned more than I care to admit from this book.

The opening selection sums up the self-destructive French attitude to life succinctly and accurately, although I had never put the pieces together in quite this way. His subtitle is "How the French became afraid of freedom."

"France has a bad case of chronic socialism," he writes. Straining to stay balanced, he concludes, "This wasting malady drains an energetic, creative people of their self-reliance, paralyzes them with fear of risk, and reduces them to a state of infantile dependency on the state."

He traces the socialist grip on France to Leon Blum, the socialist-communist Popular Front prime minister elected in 1936. Many of the people's entitlements date from this era, and the French will fight violently against any attempt to remove or reduce them. Watch them on the streets of Paris a couple of times a week, as I did when I lived there -- nurses, professors, autoworkers, farmers. No sector is too small or too large to get a march going. It often ends up as a street party, further confusing the outside observer.

Global realities have left the French confused. They elected another socialist in June, and are now described in some media as the "sick man of Europe." Harriss rightly faults President François Hollande and his team for failing to tell the people the truth about their precarious situation. The public deficits burdening France "are not mere cyclical difficulties that will go away by themselves," he writes.

His essay on the late Jean-François Revel is particularly enlightening in its explanation of French anti-Americanism. He quotes Revel as writing that the French could not countenance their own loss of status as a global power, and developed an "irrational, endemic bitterness over American success." The hostility came from both the left and the far right, "who hated democracy and the market economy that went with it."

He adds that even after 9/11 the hatred remained out in the open. "Terrorists were justified in attacking the United States, the line went, because its ostentatious wealth and success was a provocation."

France's cultural heritage, the pride of the nation, is also a bit of a sham. "The Frenchman's idea of a pleasant evening watching television is either an American serial like Desperate Housewives or a western, preferably with John Wayne," Harris says.

My own late brother-in-law, also a fan of the western, used to refer to our wives as the Soeurs Dalton (the Dalton sisters).

Yet this book is not depressing. Living in France, one finds humor in the day-to-day and nothing escapes Joe Harriss. The battle of the sexes -- and sex itself -- is unavoidable. Previous Presidents François Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy had messy love lives and current President François Hollande is no neater. All come in for perceptive jibes and detailed accounts of their problems.

There is more. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Harriss notes, probably would be president today if he had not got caught with his pants down in New York, then Washington, then Lille. He is today a joke even to the French. Just last week DSK told a French news weekly that he considers himself innocent of all the sexual adventure charges against him. "Lust is no crime," he said. I could imagine him in a curly wig, à la Voltaire, prancing around in the nude with Belgian hookers. By day, he was director of the very starchy International Monetary Fund. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Harriss displays his reporter's chops best in his longer investigative, analytical pieces on big subjects. This book includes two of his exceptionally solid exposes -- one on the dim future of NATO, the other on UNESCO's murky functioning. He is fearless in his criticism, as a good journalist must always be, and relished the opportunity in this book to reproduce the UNESCO response and his own response to the response.

I asked Joe in an email if he was running out of ideas. "I'll surely hang it up one of these days, but, as Saint Augustine prayed about chastity, not yet, oh Lord."

I, for one, hope he never hangs it up.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.