Tuesday, June 9, 2009

France

Some people must be way more interested in the Air France crash than I am. It makes the news every day. Two days ago, it was because they recovered the tail. Okay, that was a big section and had some bodies in it. Yesterday it was the vertical stabilizer. Is this exciting? I fully expect to read that they have recovered the right aileron any day now. They'll probably also find some luggage -- most of it belonging to people from another flight.

Americans and French are noteworthy for their antipathies. The French view Americans as provincial and uncouth; Americans view the French as limp-wristed, quiche-eating pansies. Although Americans don't share France's negative view of themselves, I'll bet many Americans would admit that they're not as cultured as Europeans -- and they wouldn't care. It's not something we prize that much. We are more interested in being honest, brave, and direct than in pursuing high culture and art. I have to say that I share that bias. I'd prefer to be honest and cultured, but I prefer virtue to learning and sophistication.

The funny thing is that the French don't view themselves as anything like Americans view them. Yes, they consider themselves cultured, but not in the flighty, romantic way that Americans see them. The French are the champions of abstract intelligence; a Frenchman even invented the concept of IQ. But the French don't think of themselves simply as effete intellectuals; in their view, they are super-macho. Cultured, of course, not like the American barbarians, but macho nonetheless.

How can they think that way when they have been defeated in so many wars? To begin with, being macho does not win wars. Italians have plenty of machismo, but they were even worse in World War II than the French. But the French don't view their military history with shame. What they see is a long series of military heroes -- Clovis, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon, Philip II, Bertrand du Guesclin, Turenne, Conde, Louis XIV, Napoleon -- interrupted only by the embarrassing defeats of the Franco-Prussian War and World War II. The French long had a reputation for panache, reckless courage. The Italians called it the furia francese, the "French fury," and it was feared during the Renaissance. One of the reasons for the French defeats during the Hundred Years' War was the desire to charge and come to grips with the enemy, which the English were able to take advantage of in the battles of Poitiers and Agincourt. In World War I, too, the French owed part of their early failure to their desire to attack at all costs.

Whether the French still deserve their reputation as brave and powerful warriors, I will leave to the side. But it is interesting to contemplate how different their self-image is from that Americans have of them.

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