Monday, September 05, 2005

A Meeting with Young French Firefighters

It used to be that I thought that there was a considerable part (well, let's just say "a part") of the population in France that was (sort of) pro-American or that at least was not anti-American and somewhat neutral. Since 9-11, I am sorry to say, I have been forced to have a change of heart.

I assumed that among military people and other people serving their country in uniform, notably, there was at least a degree of sympathy.

That may be the case.

But the anti-Americanism prevalent in France is so insidious and pervarious that it cannot keep from popping up in the most unexpected places. To be more specific, it's often more of a France-is-invariably-the-best mentality.

While meeting with a French veteran during a French-American commemoration in Cherbourg a year ago, I made an off-the-wall comment regarding the rumor that apparently, members of the French army would have liked to join the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. Sure, said the old-timer. (And maybe many would have, I hasten to add.) Except, he added, "we" didn't think the decision to invade was the right solution.

"We"? Collective thinking? Collective wisdom? Collective decision-making? (One that is invariably more lucid than Washington's policies?)

I was not surprised. I lost some of my last illusions on a train ride about three years ago. This was in late 2002, after a New York fire engine had taken part in the Bastille Day parade of that year (another event that at the time had me thinking, wow, somewhere there is a real bond between the two).

On a journey through France on the TGV, I met a group of young firemen in the dining car, either still in pompier school or recent graduates thereof. (Incidentally, when French speakers complain of the predominance of English over the French language, I like to point out that whereas the French use the word "pumper" for the person whose job is to take on buildings in flames, the Anglo-Saxons use the expression "combattant du feu". Which do they think sounds more compelling?, I then ask, wondering aloud whether that example might not be a telling one.) Anyway, the firefighters and I fell into discussion.

Eventually we started talking about 9-11, and they were extolling the courage of American firefighters when one of them said

But of course their fire engines are not as good as the French ones.
In normal times, I could have thought of many things to answer (have you made or do you know of an in-depth study therof, and how valid, and how definite, can it be said to be; aren't there differences [width and straightness come to mind] between old world and new world streets that need to be taken into consideration [and undoubtedly were, by the respective nations' truck companies, in conjunction, just as undoubtedly, with the firefighters who would man them]; if there were the slightest chance that a foreign fire engine were better than the ones Americans use, don't you think one of latter — at least — would raise all hell to either buy the foreign model or improve the build of the American ones).

But with these firefighters, I was taken aback.

France had to be best. It just had to. The country with the most logical people, and the most reasonable thinkers, and the most lucid intellectuals, just has to be best. This is taught from kindergarten up in a combination of deliberate and subconscious ways (from people — both parents and teachers — who have learned the same from their elders), it pervades the atmosphere, and it is reiterated a thousand times a day throughout French society.

Now, some may point out that only one pompier made the comment.

Yes, but none of the others contradicted him. None of the others even thought of contradicting him. It was taken as a given.

The subhead of this weblog reads as follows:

What expats and the mainstream media (French and American alike) fail to notice (or fail to tell you) about French attitudes, principles, values, and official positions…
We keep hearing from well-meaning expats (and MSM outlets) that such-and-such is the opinion of the French (the aparent absence of individual thinking in these matters seems to faze noone) and that a French(wo)man "made such or such a comment that reflects French thinking". What they don't notice, or what they don't say, is that over and over and over again, discussions amongst Frenchmen or interacting with foreigners, whatever the external subject matter, return again and again to the same self-serving message and the same basic paternalistic subtext (one that is shared throughout much of Europe, at least the Western part thereof):
We are more reasonable than you, we are more tolerant than you, we are more solidaristic than you we are wiser than you, we are more lucid than you, etc, etc, etc…
And if, as the sympathetic expats and MSM journalists report, it is true that such thinking is prelavent in France, it is 1) because it is self-serving and 2) because any thinking otherwise is frowned upon and remarked upon in disparaging ways ("Vous êtes anti-français/anti-européen?") and, yes, punished (if "only" by ostracism)…