December 14, 2006
Anti-French Stereotypes Still Served Up
by Myriam Miedzian
NEW YORK -- Last week, France launched a 24-hour newscast with channels in French and English. Its goals include providing a broader forum for France's perspective on political and cultural issues, and generally boosting its influence and image.
Judging by some of my recent experiences, getting Americans to change their negative view of France will not be easy.
In October, I opened a menu at an upstate New York restaurant and was shocked to find "freedom fries." I recalled that in 2003, local French restaurants were harassed by residents making reservations, only to cancel at the last minute in terms that usually included "frog," "fag" or "wimp." But by now, most Americans agree with the French that invading Iraq was a mistake, so I naively assumed that "freedom fries" were history.
Shortly thereafter, I was at a musical. One of the characters was asked, "Are you French?" He responded, "Of course," proving it by raising his hands in surrender.
Of course, perceptions of the French as craven and elitist have been in the background of American culture for a long time. But the Iraq war brought these prejudices to the fore.
Consider: In a 2003 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman said France was "becoming our enemy" over its numerous failures to support our Iraq war.
In 2004, TV ads accused war veteran John Kerry of looking - and speaking - French. Clearly a coward.
Then, there's Harvard political science professor Harvey Mansfield, who asserts that the French absence from Iraq proves they are "unmanly."
The Iraq war revived the notion that the French are cowards - as proven by their 1940 hasty surrender to the Germans. Historians, on the other hand, point to battle fatigue as a factor. A little more than 20 years earlier, in World War I, about 1.4 million Frenchmen were killed. The contemporary U.S. equivalent would be 10.5 million dead.
Besides alleged cowardice, another favorite target is French anti-Semitism.
An e-mail titled "News From France - Disgusting and Unbelievable" popped up in my inbox recently. It contained a list of horrendous anti-Semitic incidents that occurred "in the past week." Metropolitan Paris alone had "10 to 12 anti-Jewish incidents PER DAY in the past 30 days."
Just one problem. The incidents are virtually identical to those in a similar e-mail I received in 2005.
I did research and got the facts. The leading French Jewish umbrella organization provides a list of anti-Semitic incidents from January to Dec. 11, 2004. Total for France: 84. Metropolitan Paris: 33.
Unfortunate, high-profile events - such as the recent attack by soccer hooligans on Jewish fans at a France-Israel game - can give a false impression. In fact, according to the French government and the U.S. State Department, from 2004 to 2005 France experienced a 47 percent decrease in anti-Semitic acts.
Another favorite gibe is France's alleged unwillingness to face globalization. Mr. Friedman, who seems to have it in for France for some reason, asserts: "French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour workweek in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day. ... Western Europe looks like an assisted-living facility."
True, according to a 2001 World Health Organization report, France has the best overall health care system among 191 countries surveyed. U.S. rank: 37th. A 2005 UNICEF report on child poverty reveals a French rate of 7.5 percent. U.S: 21.9 percent. France offers free preschool starting at age 3, with teachers holding diplomas in pedagogy. In the U.S., preschool is largely unregulated and costs parents an average of $9,000 per year, and as much as $24,000 in some areas.
Sure, France has serious economic and social problems, including high unemployment - especially among young Muslims and Africans. Yes, its excessive protections for employees can discourage job creation. But keep in mind that the U.S. has an $8 trillion national debt, $800 billion in credit card debt and 47 million people without medical insurance.
How about putting more energy into dealing with our problems and less into bashing the French?
Myriam Miedzian, a native of Belgium who travels frequently to France, is the author of "Boys Will Be Boys." Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.