Reader Christophe Kotowski sends a link to today’s International Herald-Tribune (a.k.a. The New York Times in Paris), in which New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein offers an solution to my earlier confusion about American policy towards France and Germany:
It was on display again last week, that old double standard. On camera, Germany’s chancellor got a muscular handshake from America’s president and a meeting that let bygones be bygones. France’s president got the official cold shoulder and columnists’ heated denunciations.
Yet France and Germany had taken the same position on the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Both were offering to help train Iraqi security forces, but not to send soldiers. Both argued that only accelerated Iraqi sovereignty and a larger UN role could secure peace.
Apparently, it sounded different in French. Somehow, to American ears, it always does. At this point in strained trans-Atlantic relations, an obvious explanation comes to mind: In the American imagination, France is a woman, and Germany is just another guy.
The French themselves depict La Belle France as a bare-breasted “Marianne” on the barricades. They export high fashion, cosmetics, fine food – delicacies traditionally linked to a woman’s pleasure. And French has always been Hollywood’s language of love.
Germany, meanwhile, is the Fatherland, its spike helmets retooled into the sleek insignia of cars like the Mercedes and the BMW. It also exports heavy machinery and strong beer – products associated with manliness. Notwithstanding Goethe, Schiller and Franka Potente, German is Hollywood’s language of war, barked to the beat of combat boots in half a century of movies.
Such images simply overpower facts that do not fit the picture – like decades of German pacifism and French militarism since World War II. So what if France was fighting in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere in Africa and deploying a force of 36,000 troops around the world, while Germans held peace vigils and invented Berlin’s Love Parade. For Americans, it seems, World War II permanently inoculated Germans against “the wimp factor” and branded the French indelibly as sissies. […]
Frank Costigliola, a historian at the University of Connecticut, gives many such examples in his book “France and the United States: The Cold Alliance Since World War II.” He contends that assigning France negative “feminine” traits has always served to delegitimize French points of view. “Associated with France as a woman is France as hysterical, or France as crazy,” he said. “It really is a knee-jerk reaction.” Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, agreed. “It’s an American stereotype and an American strategy,” he said. “There are elements in our culture that the Bush people can play on in stereotyping France as feminine.” […]
To the film critic Molly Haskell, it seems that France has been cast as the femme fatale, “the seductress who’s leading all Europe away from us.” “It’s this insidious evil woman,” she continued, “and the others are probably good guys who are just being led astray.” What does not fit that script is forgotten – like Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der’s pre-election promise that Germany would not take part in a war against Saddam Hussein even if the United Nations authorized it. Or the fact that in his youth, President Jacques Chirac of France made banana splits at Howard Johnson’s in the United States before serving as a French Army officer.
“The Germans are getting away with it because we are so eager to tar and feather France,” said Ann Douglas, a cultural historian at Columbia University and the author of “The Feminization of American Culture.” “The constant need to denigrate France – and feminization has always been the way to go – is because France has always maintained a separate voice.”
A female France is a made-to-order enemy for the Texan in the White House, Douglas contended. With a sagging American economy, and the fear of appearing weak that often underlies aggressive masculinity, she said, French-bashing has new political appeal. […]
Just as stereotyping France is wrong, it would be a mistake to read too much into such a facile interpretation of American views of France. However, the divergence in US policy towards France and Germany seems to make little rational sense, so perhaps one shouldn’t neglect the importance of gender metaphors too quickly.
There is much that is wrong with the mental image people have of France and Germany. For instance, the photo below jives somewhat poorly with the wimp image of France:
Jacques Chirac, somewhere in the mid-1950’s
I have actually seen film of Jacques Chirac speaking English from back in the days when he was still mayor of Paris. His English is – or at least was – quite good, and he hardly hardly has a record as a knee-jerk anti-American.
In fact, the truth about the French state is very nearly the opposite of this image of a feminised state. Women couldn’t vote there until 1946, and the women’s right movement is still relatively weak in France. Think about it – would a genuinely feminine nation have had a painting of a topless woman on its currency?
Delacroix – Liberty leading the people
Before the euro, this was on every 20 franc note, if I recall correctly. “Marianne” (I have no idea how the woman in this painting ever came to be called that, but that’s her name) is such an important symbol of the French state that she is generally portrayed just as you see her here: top down and perky. France even has an official pair of breasts which define the proportions used in official statues of her. For many years, Marianne’s form was based on measurements of Brigitte Bardot (taken back when she was a young hottie) and later Catherine Deneuve, but since 1999, Laetitia Casta has been the bearer of the official French bust.
Well, at least they’re nice knockers
All this strikes me as about as feminine as Penthouse magazine.
George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, has for some fifteen years been advancing the idea that human thought is driven by metaphors. There is a good on-line site for this branch of cognitive science at the University of Oregon. Lakoff, however, has drawn a great deal of attention to his theory in recent years by promoting it as an explanation for American politics, starting with this fairly famous open letter published during the first Gulf War and this article subtitled Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. His articles, and particularly his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, are rife with examples of exactly the sort of metaphor that the IHT is exposing here.
The question is, is this merely a rhetorical device, or do people really think this way?
Defending France from “femininity” is not something I’m terribly interested in doing, and that is why my “defence” of France is at least half condemnation. But, if this logic really explains francophobia, then France is under fire not only because of dubious perceptions of it but also because there are still people who believe that women’s politics are not legitimate.
Ms Bernstein, however, concludes her article on an optimistic note by taking the France-as-woman metaphor and running with it:
Still, said Kupchan, now a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University: “Deep down inside, Americans feel deeper affinity for France than Germany. If France is female, there’s also an attraction, a lure, a romance.”
France will survive. America is not as powerful as its promoters might believe, and scowling in Paris’ general direction is unlikely to make very much difference in the end, except perhaps by encouraging Europeans to return American stereotypes by conceptualising the US as a petulant child. However, the gender politics that this new francophobia implies – within the Bush administration and the general public – are probably more troubling than francophobia itself.