If Americans hate the French so much, why do we try so hard to learn the secrets of their good life over there, why does the French "brand" -- even when phony -- sell so well, and why do we happily pay through the nose for a good French dinner and a bottle of their wine?
It came to me at a big French feed in Boston recently that these questions are more complicated than they seem. For it works the other way, too. The French sometimes sneer at us but they want our way of life, our "brand," and they even go for American fast food. Can we all be right? I think we can.
The occasion for weighing these heavy matters was the latest "Table Française," a quasi-social event organized by Boston restaurateur Jacky Robert for 40 or 50 diners, most of whom didn't know each other. We all agreed to sit among strangers at two long tables while chatting only in French and enjoying some of his fine cuisine and French wine. The linen, the crystal, and the silver raised the tone well above picnic level.
The clientele at these monthly dinners is typically 50-50 French expats and American locals, most of them polyglot academics, dabblers in international work, and Francophiles or Americanophiles.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that France is back after a long dry spell when everything French was declared taboo. The hang-up was then-President Jacques Chirac's decision to stay out of the "coalition of the willing" in the second Gulf War. As an American, you didn't dare even speak French in those days. Ask John Kerry, who was caught on camera showing off his French to a TV journalist from Paris. It still comes up.
Today the climate has eased for all of us.
Admittedly I am working with a slightly elitist sample here, but this gathering demonstrated how a free-wheeling discussion among informed people can get beyond the stereotypes and cut to the real issues that both separate us while also drawing us together.
The French-American relationship is probably the most over-analyzed of any two nations today. One friend of mine in Paris wrote a book that she cleverly called "French or Foe?" Despite our long history of cooperation, no one is ever quite sure.
The Boston crowd was up to the task of continuing this analysis. Amid much shouting, one group of diners came up with a list of stark differences that define us:
• The French today are most interested in vacations, drinking and love-making.
• Americans today (as yesterday) are most interested in work and success, accumulating wealth, and making a show of organized religion.
Thus the stage is set for near-total incompatibility -- except that Americans yearn for more of those French qualities and vice-versa.
Moving on to our governments, both sides seemed to feel sorry for their beleaguered leaders. Nicolas Sarkozy was described by one French woman as "intelligent but emotionally fragile" while an American man offered that Barack Obama is "intelligent but unfairly bludgeoned" by his opposition. Where we all converged was in the view that while both men were elected to bring about dramatic change, neither seems able to realize his promises in their hostile environments.
The debate eventually hit upon the mood of urban dwellers in both countries. "Americans on the street -- total strangers -- smile at me and say hello," said one French woman who is on the Harvard faculty. "When I go to France everyone looks mad as hell." ("Tout le monde fait la guele.")
She added that she feels most relaxed when returning to the United States after a visit to Paris. "I show my Green Card to the passport officer and he actually says 'Welcome home.' My heart flutters," she said, grasping her chest.
Surely the most contentious subject that arose was the degree of hypocrisy in each country. One French guest vented his distaste for the American rictus smile that comes so easily and means so little. Another took up the cry and said the false piety of religious Americans bothered him. And a third veered into the murky world of sex, especially the men's "adolescent obsession with breasts and bottoms." The French, he maintained, have long outgrown such obsessions, as is obvious from their advertising and on their beaches. Pretty much everything is on display and nobody bats an eye.
Next came adultery. Do the French really believe that a few hot-blooded adulterous affairs are good for a marriage? "Absolument," said a French woman. "It is a good substitute for fading desires in a long marriage. In fact one of our big thinkers has said more marriages have been saved by extramarital affairs than harmed by them." Several husbands at the table leaned in to listen but remained silent. I saw one man nod agreement.
The woman went on to opine that America's "recurring rapes, murders and dismemberments can be traced straight back to a culture of sexual repression."
By now it was the Americans' turn to poke holes in the French myths of excellent food at low prices in every village (long since gone), the office ritual of the air-kiss (four or two, depending on the province), and the ambiguous political leanings that seem soft on socialism (heart on left but pocketbook on right). And then there are the endless street demonstrations that are part protest and part street party. What are we to make of all this? None of the French could explain.
A couple of the French spoke up for the much more open opportunity in America, a quality that France suppresses by its bureaucracy and a "know-your-place" attitude toward upstarts.
The French and the Americans will be arguing their superiority for the foreseeable future. Like a good debate, it tends to end in a draw. But anyone interested in national cultures can be thankful for the show.
Anything is better than living in England, where I spent 20 years of my life. A Polish journalist, speaking at the end of his assignment in London, summed up the English best. "Indifference, in a word," he said. "They are indifferent to food, indifferent to sex and indifferent to each other."
Americans and the French needn't worry about such a fate.