It’s no surprise that the French have a complicated relationship with the United States. One that is certainly reciprocated, as the Americans and the French seem to both love and detest what is most unique about the other’s country. This love-hate dynamic is uniquely examined through the prism of politics in a recent essayby Steven Erlanger in the International Herald Tribune.
The French have always found American elections amusing, in a horror movie sort of way. They grumpily regard the American president as in some unfortunate sense also their own, but they see the campaign through their own cultural lens.
They value sophistication above almost anything, and so they regard their own hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his messy romantic life and model-singer wife, as “Sarko the American.”
But this year has been difficult for the French. Sarkozy has generally supported American foreign policy and has praised the United States’ openness and entrepreneurial verve. And the sudden emergence of Senator Barack Obama – black, and seen as elegant and engaged with the larger world – has sent many French into a swoon.
But the combination of two recent surprises – Governor Sarah Palin and America’s terrifying financial meltdown – has brought older, nearly instinctual anti-American responses back to the surface.
These two surprises, one after the other, have refreshed clichés retailed under President George W. Bush, confirming the deeply held belief of the French that the United States remains the frontier, led by impenetrably smug and incurious upstarts who have little history, experience or wisdom.
Even worse, from the French perspective, Americans are reckless optimists, incurably blind to the tragedy of life, to the weary convolutions of history and thus to the need for lengthy August vacations and financial regulations.