A Look at French-American Relations on Bastille Day

On sunrise walks along Morgan Hill’s San Pedro Ponds Trail, I often meet John and Jacqueline Lanusse, a friendly French couple who stroll there for their morning exercise. If I happen to meet the two Friday, I’ll make sure to wish them a “Happy Bastille Day.”

July 14 is France’s most important national holiday, so I thought it appropriate to consider in this week’s column how French culture influences our lives here in the South Valley. Although they’re not a large population in our region, there are people of proud French origin living among us – like John and Jacqueline. And there are also a few fracophiles, as proven by the “French Language Meetup Group” that gets together in Morgan Hill to discuss French culture and news.

For more than 200 years, France and America have had a close relationship. In fact, the United States would never have existed if it weren’t for the French. As every kid learns in high school history class, in our early years, Benjamin Franklin sailed to France and charmed the French court into providing military and financial aid in America’s revolutionary war with Britain. You might say that France played midwife in the birth of the United States of America.

Ironically, America’s squabble against British tyranny unintentionally helped bring about the downfall of French tyranny as well. The aid we received drained France’s treasury, leading to a collapse of its economy. This in turn set up a chain reaction resulting in disgruntled French citizens storming the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789.

That famous event marked the beginning of the French Revolution which led to the end of dynastic rule in France. So “Bastille Day” – or “Fête National” as the French call it – is celebrated every year as a national holiday in France.

With our common quest for independence, the United States and France have developed a unique friendship over the years. At times, it has been quite cordial, with the French somewhat proud – and also somewhat amused – by the country they helped create in the New World. One 19th-century French gentleman named Alexis de Tocqueville even did his own self-guided tour of America to try to figure us and our brand of self-government out. His book “Democracy in America” is a classic foreigner’s look at our culture.

And the nicest birthday present we ever received came from France in 1886 to mark our Constitution’s centennial. It was a sculpture titled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” but most folks call it “The Statue of Liberty.” Lady Liberty is now the iconic symbol of American freedom.

Fine wines are another gift from France. For decades, Americans looked to the French as the suppliers of the world’s best wines. But in 1976, a contest took place in Paris that horrified the French wine industry by suggesting American vintages can be just as delicious.

In a blind tasting done by French wine connoisseurs, several California reds faired better than their French counterparts. This “Judgment of Paris” was no fluke. Earlier this year, a rematch was enacted for the 30th anniversary. Again, California’s wine came out ahead of France’s best vino.

Perhaps this competition demonstrates the spirited rivalry that’s been going on between France and America. After all, when American athlete Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France so many times, he was accused

by some of the French of taking steroids. Mon Dieu!

There’s a myth among many Americans that the French are snobbish. When I worked in London for an international news service, I traveled to France several times but never found any truth in this stereotype.

The French people I met tended to treat me with great cordiality. They are genially gracious hosts – including the Parisians whom I found warm and welcoming in their magnificent city along the Seine.

One thing I did observe – with great embarrassment I’ll add – is that it’s we Americans who can be a bit snotty when traveling in Europe. While touring Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, I met a family from Tennessee also visiting the museum of Impressionist art. I asked what they thought of France, and they immediately started listing all the things they hated about the country.

The plump wife made this brilliant observation: “It’s just ain’t like America over here.”

“But that’s the point,” I said. “France isn’t America. It’s its own country with its own culture.”

“Well there ya go,” she said in a defiant drawl. “That just proves the French are so un-American.”

Our American arrogance toward the French seems to have grown even worse since then. Three years ago, our nation’s anti-French sentiment got particularly nasty when we were upset by the fact France refused to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Of course, France wasn’t alone in nixing our military plans. Germany, Russia, Belgium and China also opposed it. But some kind of knee-jerk reaction ignited and spread across our country to consider the French as diabolical to democracy.

Political commentator Bill O’Reilly called for a boycott of all French products. The House of Representatives cafeteria changed “French fries” to “freedom fries” and “French toast” to “freedom toast.” And a certain condiment company had to issue a press release stating that “the only thing French about French’s Mustard is the name.”

There were even some fanatical Americans on redneck radio talk-shows demanding that we tear down the Statue of Liberty and send it back to France. I’m embarrassed to think what fools we must have looked like in our rabid franco-phobia.

Perhaps, it was all just a lover’s squabble. As nations, America and France have long had a passionate love-hate relationship.

Fortunately, there’s been more love than hate. And I’d like to believe that once the Iraq war ends, we can both kiss each other on the cheeks and make up.

And to begin the peace process here in the South Valley, I want to wish all the French folks a most happy Bastille Day!