SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- In 1988, when I was living in France, a famous winemaker, Jean Delmas of Haut-Brion -- a vineyard that happens to be owned by Americans -- asked me, "Do you watch 'The Dan Rather'?"
I said yes. Every day. In those days, before global satellite channels and the World Wide Web, a French pay channel, Canal Plus, showed the "CBS Evening News" each morning at 7 a.m. with French subtitles. It was called "The Dan Rather" in the same way that older Frenchmen and women referred to the international edition of The New York Herald Tribune as "The New York."
"Do you watch it?" I said to Delmas, who is French, but grew up in England.
"I make my children watch it," he answered. I thought he was going to say he wanted them to speak and understand English as well as he did. But he said, "I ask them how many times France was mentioned."
The answer was almost never. He worried that if his children watched only French news, they would imagine that France was the center of the world. Once it was, of course, which is at the heart of the current silliness between his country and mine. The American problem is that we are now the center -- and are disinclined to recognize the legitimate sovereignty of countries that disagree with us.
That same year, I walked from a house my wife and I rented near Grasse, in the hills behind the French Riviera, to a tiny village named Bar-sur-Loup. Turning a corner, I came upon a green-and-white, made-in-the-USA street sign that read "Yorktown Road." That was the official name of the street on which once lived Adm. Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse. In 1781, he commanded a French fleet that sailed from the Caribbean to the coast of Virginia and prevented English ships from resupplying and reinforcing the army of Lord Cornwallis, who was then forced to surrender to George Washington at Yorktown.
Times have changed. Then there were 3 million Americans and 26 million Frenchmen. As Richard Brookhiser writes in the current issue of American Heritage magazine: "If the famous Americans who visited France between the two revolutions" -- theirs began in 1789 -- "sometimes gaped like rubes, they had reason. They WERE rubes ..." One of them, Benjamin Franklin, called France "one great garden (filled with) everything that can soothe, charm and bewitch."
Brookhiser is the author of a new book on the founding father who succeeded Thomas Jefferson as the rube representing the new United States in Paris -- "Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution" -- and he writes intelligently and romantically, too, of the ups and downs of French-American relations over the centuries. Morris, descended from French Huguenots (Protestants) who fled to America to escape religious persecution, was disgusted by the horrors of the French Revolution, saying famously, "The French want an American constitution ... without reflecting that they have not American citizens."
Yes, the French are different from you and me. Morris' biographer writes:
"When the United Nations awarded France one of the five (permanent) seats on the Security Council, it was no longer a recognition of current strength but a sentimental nod to past glory. This shift in the balance of Franco-American power breeds arrogance: arrogance on the part of the United States, the new cop on the world beat. But even greater arrogance on the part of France, which has so little else left."
That is true and well said. But if it is "Western values" we are determined to impose on the world, we would do well to remember the essential French role in forming many of those values. We would also do well to remember that the French, in all their foppish anti-Anglo-Saxon snootiness, were trying to warn us that invading Iraq and making it over was not going to be as easy as we were being told by exiles in London and by the best and the brightest in the Pentagon and our White House, that jewel in a city laid out by French planners.
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