So, working with the French, Americans get impatient. They groan, "Analysis
paralysis!" The French dig in with more analysis. The Americans gripe
that the French are exaggerating. The French sniff that the Americans
are "simplistic" (Hubert Vedrine, French foreign minister, 2001). The
Americans snap back that Vedrine has "the vapors" (Colin Powell, 2001).
Thus, misunderstandings creep in right away and Americans ask themselves,
"French or Foe?" The title of my book is timelier than ever -- alas!
This merry-go-round has been going on for 200 years. It's called cultures.
These two are worlds apart, while sharing many values. Americans are informal,
Protestant and dedicated to achievement -- which often means making money,
as in, "The business of America is business." They like questions to be
simple and straightforward, and proposals to be concrete, boiled down
to a paragraph; a sentence, if possible, and a short one. The French are
formal, Roman Catholic, and interested in the quality of life. They are
happy with abstractions, theories, ambiguities and paradoxes. A Frenchman
strives for verbal inventiveness, intellectual elegance, lively reasoning
and rigorous analysis. He sends his children to school all day with hours
and hours devoted to that work of art, the French language. Many other
hours are devoted to mathematics. Since the French Revolution, a Frenchman's
level of math has been the yardstick for measuring his potential and his
academic competence -- crucially important in a country awarding the top
jobs to its brightest scholars. The results -- after much analysis! --
are the TGV (the superfast train), the Concorde, the Airbus, the Ariane
space missions, the discovery of radium and the AIDs virus, the pasteurization
of milk, etc.
Most important in France is how a person lives: his charm, his
level of culture -- what he has read, seen and knows, his bearing and
how and what he eats -- as well as his mastery of French. His life is
a matter of being -- living in the present. Beauty and the poetry
of life are braided into it. The way the baker twists the tissue around
a croissant, the way a scarf is folded, the color of shutters and the
form of the railings on street corners are part of the poetry of France,
as is a bus driver waiting at a stop for a late passenger waving frantically
at him across the street, and a hairdresser working hours of unpaid overtime
on recalcitrant hair. Dominique de Villepin, the present French Foreign
Minister, is a poet. President Chirac has said on television that he never
goes to sleep without reading Apollinaire.
Beauty takes time. Living in the present means taking time to smell the
roses or to count one's centimes, centime by centime, in the supermarket,
without loud sighs coming from next customer.... which you would expect
in the U.S., where Americans would already be worried about being late
to their next appointment. Their present is 10 minutes from now. Their
time is a taut ribbon, segmented and rigorously scheduled, while for the
French, time flows or speeds up, according to what's happening.
American cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls this the opposition
of monochronics (punctual, one-thing-at-a-time people) to polychronic
lateness-is-not-a-crime people, for whom time is more like a dot that
expands and contracts than a ribbon. Americans, Germans, Scandinavians,
Swiss, Canadians, Dutch and Britons are strict monochronics; the rest
of the billions of the world's inhabitants are polychronics in varying
degrees. Polychronic in their soul, the French adapt to monochronic time
pressures when obviously appropriate; these days, they show up for meetings
on time in their big multinationals and when negotiating with the famously
time-obsessed monochronics. But their personal relations in Paris and
all over the country are those of a village. In dealing with friends or
civil servants or traders, they "take their time."
Their varying cultural perceptions of risk and of time were elements in
the latest Franco-American flap. American leaders were in a hurry to get
their boys to Baghdad; they counted on their ability to "shock and awe"
to bring them a quick victory. The French, analyzing carefully, worried
about the "after-Saddam" in that complex country prone to turbulence that
they have had centuries of dealings with. They saw no proof that Saddam
had "weapons of mass destruction" and consequently no urgency in invading
Iraq; and many legal and humanitarian reasons not to. One of them was
the likely increase of Islamic terrorism, which recent explosions in Saudi
Arabia and Morocco would seem to vindicate. With six million Moslems in
France, friendly relations with its Islam communities have been a priority
of the present government. The French felt that the inspectors could continue
their work and the Saddam Hussein regime would atrophy and gradually disappear,
like Nasser's, bloodlessly. France has seen too closely, too often what
happens in wars and after wars, and has been engaged since the last terrible
war, World War II, in an exciting and entirely new historical experiment:
joining voluntarily with other nations of Europe to give up portions of
their sovereignty in order to avoid wars against each other forever.
In this current flap, both the U.S. and France acted out of what they
perceived as their own interests, whether they said so or not, but both
also acted according to the principles of their culture. Americans, convinced
that their mission is universal, just and right, felt that since their
power was dominant, their allies should agree with them and fall in line.
The French, who have also always been convinced of their own mission of
leading the side of the just and the fair, and have long been worried
about what they perceive as the one remaining superpower's "unilateralism,"
were shocked that the U.S. demanded not counsel but obedience from its
allies -- turning them into vassals not unlike Soviet satellites. As William
Pfaff put it in a recent column, the French "are interested in a slow
development of civilized and tolerant international relations, compromising
on problems while avoiding catastrophes along the way." During the height
of French domination of Europe, the French 17th century mathematician-sage
Blaise Pascal, fearful of the law of the jungle, put it like this: "If
there can be no justice without force, there must likewise be no force
What is new in this quarrel is the virulence of the American anti-French
smears and ridicule, seen in Europe as a measure of this administration's
determination to dominate or undermine. In their often stormy love affair
--- and it is indeed a love affair, with strong passions sliding from
time to time on both sides perilously close to hatred -- France and the
U.S. have been like an old married couple that has adored each other for
50 years but argues interminably every day about trivia. In the past,
the Franco-American flaps have been either commercial, about bananas,
genetically modified corn, beef with hormones, etc. or diplomatic -- the
southern command of NATO, the choice of the head of the UN, the supposed
snub of French Foreign Minister Charette to American State Department
Secretary Christopher. But this time, the accusations are acrimonious
and irresponsible to the point of slander, and almost all have been coming
at the French.
The French are not "flabby" and they're not "cowards." Just to name their
20th century wars, their bravery is a matter of record in two world wars,
Indo China, Algeria, Tchad, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the
Ivory Coast. On May 16, in an unprecedented letter to the White House,
the Pentagon, the State Department and several leading US newspapers,
the French ambassador to the US denounced the disinformation and lies
about his country in the American media, including the insinuation that
the French government gave French passports to Iraqi leaders so that they
could escape the country.
As for the so-called ingratitude of the French toward American soldiers
fighting in France in two world wars, one has only to go to the war museum
in Normandy to see how much the French appreciate American aid... and
to remember that the French themselves lost over 120,000 soldiers in the
Second World War and another 500,000 civilians in the Resistance, on top
of their almost 2 million soldiers killed in World War I.
Speaking of memories, do Americans remember that it was the French treasury
and its army and navy -- 44,000 men under Rochambeau -- who joined the
American colonists to defeat the English during the American Revolution
-- leaving 6,000 dead French soldiers on American soil? And do they remember
how in 1793, President Washington broke the Franco-American treaty of
1778 and refused to help the French revolutionaries in their war against
England? France felt doubly betrayed: by the breaking of the treaty, and
by their allied republic's refusal to help in what they saw as their common
cause, the war liberating Europeans from crowned heads.
France has never been a docile ally, but a convinced, independent one,
and the only constant one. A signal that France, as friend and ally, understood
only too well the American trauma of 9/11 was President Chirac's immediate
flight, the first of a head of state, to the side of George W. Bush. For
terrorist bombs have been exploding in France for years. Armed guards
bristling with automatic weapons have been patrolling the airports. The
gleaming, elegant metal trash cans on Paris street corners have been replaced
by transparent plastic bags. That Paris's symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is
still standing is thanks to the French secret services and the French
anti-terrorist forces who overpowered Algerian terrorists in 1994 while
their hijacked plane refueled in Marseilles.
I have no doubt that the two countries will kiss and make up. They must.
Franco-American cooperation in intelligence gathering since 9/11 has bolstered
security and is vital in the war against terrorism, which may go on for
years. Let's hope the imperial threats of Colin Powell and others that
"France must pay" for its opposition to the Iraq invasion is just ephemeral
rhetoric. Because of their different cultures rather than in spite of
them, the two countries need each other more than ever in a world grown
more and more interdependent and dangerous.
Adapted from an article by Polly Platt, recently published in Discover