In Defense of the French
(lovingly dedicated to Ross & Mimsy)
Well, somebody had to do it, and no one else stepped up. Being who they are, the French have made a lot of enemies in their history. Their imperialist ambitions ran into the last century in Algeria and Northern Africa, and what used to be called French Indo-China, which encompassed all of Southeast Asia east of India and south of China. Then there’s their haughty attitude — that hasn’t made them many friends, either. You should think of me as the public defender for an ax murderer. We all know the fellow is perfectly reprehensible, but he’s still entitled to a proper defense in the court of public opinion. Well, I’ll do what I can.
Probably no one has more enmity with the French than the British, who have fought numerous wars with them over the centuries. That sentiment has carried over to modern times. In the 1990s mad cow disease was problematic, and it was found in some British cattle. After rectifying the problem, and with everything properly inspected, they sent the first shipment of beef to France. Who better than they?
Before going further, I must say a few words about the French language. If you wished to develop a tongue for a snooty people, you could do no better than French, and yet it is an elegant language, like ballet for the ear. It sounds elite and intellectual, which is how they like to think of themselves. However, it uses far too many letters (the majority being silent), and is formed dangerously deep in the throat. Comedian Steve Martin used to have a bit about choking to death in the attempt to speak the tongue. And radio host Thom Hartmann has a theory about why it sounds so strange; there must have been a King with a serious speech impediment, and everyone copied it if they knew what was good for them.
The French have inflicted the world with many evils — Napoleon, Robespierre, Cardinal Richelieu, the Marquis de Sade, Marie Antoinette, John Calvin, Devil’s Island, the Foreign Legion, grand mal seizures, the faux pas, the always ostentatious beret, and of course, mimes. And I think they owe everyone an apology for Gerard Depardieu.
Americans have not traditionally been fond of the French. In his essay, “The Damned Human Race,” Mark Twain postulated that humans are the end result not of evolution, but degeneration: “Below us — nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman.” In 2003 France declined to join Bush’s little Coalition of the Willing for the invasion of Iraq. All of a sudden, French fries disappeared, to be replaced with “freedom fries.” (well, that’ll teach those frogs!). I have myself been to France, and to me they seemed emotionally aloof. The few times I attempted communication with them, they just looked at me blankly, refusing to acknowledge that anyone else could properly speak their language. What a bunch of stuck up bastards, I thought, correctly. Some years later I was relating my experiences to someone who had lived in France for awhile. “No no no,” she said. “It’s not because you’re American. They treat everyone that way, even each other.”
The French are not renowned for their sense of humor. What can you say about a people who think Jerry Lewis is the funniest thing ever? Nor do they have a long string of great leaders. Even if you count Napoleon, from there you’re pretty much left with Charlemagne and Charles DeGaulle, and maybe Joan of Arc.
I’ve just reminded myself that I’m supposed to be defending the French. Very well, then. They have contributed some great thinkers, among them Pascal, Descartes, de Tocqueville, Diderot, Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and surely I’m forgetting some. There were the explorers Cartier, La Salle, Jacques Cousteau, and scientists Foucault, Laplace, Lavoisier, Becquerel, the Montgolfier brothers, and husband-and-wife Pierre and Marie Curie (the first woman to win a Noble Prize)..
You want writers? Wow, do they have writers. Anais Nin, Camus, the Andres Malraux and Maurois, Balzac, Jules Verne, Moliere, Montaigne, Rabelais, Boudelaire, Voltaire, du Maupassant, Dumas, Ionesco, Colette, Zola, Simone de Beauvoir, Anouilh, Coco Chanel, and don’t forget that there’d be no “Les Miz” without Victor Hugo. I’d say that’s a pretty impressive list.
In music there’s Berlioz, Bizet, Ravel, Debussey, and Massenet — that’s a lot of beautiful music. We should probably include Jacques Tatie and Edith Piaf, as well.
If you go to any art museum in France, you’ll see the walls crammed with neoclassic detritus like Jacques-Louis David, Poussin, Watteau, and Fragonard. They can’t get enough of this stuff. It’s just awful, but hang on. They all pale before the excellence of Gaugin, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Delacroix, Rodin, Matisse, Arp, Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Braque, Brancusi, Dore’, Utrillo, Seurat, Renoir, Duchamp, and the list goes on and on.
Just for their arts and literature, the French are worth putting up with. But then there’s that marvelous cuisine. Forget that their word for fish is “poisson.” They gave us the éclair, the crepe, the croissant, and the ubiquitous baguette [Note: in France I quickly discovered that “boulangerie” is not a lingerie shop, but a bakery]. From them we have roux, Brie, Camembert, Vichyssoise, coq au vin, and bouillabaisse. They blessed us with bourbon, Champagne, cognac (which any brandy should aspire to), and fine wines.
No people are more ignorant of history, including their own, than Americans. If it hadn’t been for the French fleet at Yorktown, we might still be a British colony, so we owe them (“You say you fight zee British? May we be of a-sees-TANCE?”). They also gave us the Statue of Liberty, out of friendship. That was really nice of them. We will always be grateful for Bridget Bardot, Anouk Aimee, Yvette Mimieux, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve, and for the ladies, Louis Jourdan and Yves Montand have set many a heart aflutter.
Because of the French we have French press coffee (oh yeah), the French braid (very stylish), French doors & windows, French toast (yum!), the French maid costume (a classic), and — Mon Dieu! — the French kiss. And don’t forget Madame Guillotine, a surefire remedy for plutocrats and oligarchs.
I say the French are alright. It’s not that they’re looking down their noses at everyone else, it’s just that their noses are shaped that way. They’re better educated than we are, their workers are more productive, earn more, and work less (average work week is 35 hours), all thanks to strong unions. They have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, and alcoholism. And by the way, they also have national health care for everyone, and college is free. Finally, thanks to them for Captain Jean-luc Picard, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Clouseau, and Pepe le Pew. So let’s hear it for the bleu, blanc, & rouge. Vive la France!