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The Politics of an American in France

Blech! How boring to discuss one’s political views! But, it’s easier than replying to all of the emails regarding the latest international political crisis individually. I promise it won’t be too painful.

Disclaimer:Below are my opinions as an American living in France. I don’t speak for anyone but myself. All thoughtful comments and questions welcomed, but keep it clean, folks.

“Expatriate” doesn’t equal “ex-patriot”, as some people may think. Americans move to France for many reasons: to teach, to work for a French branch of a US company, to work for the US embassy or non-govt orgs such as UNESCO, to marry a French person, to study French, or simply to learn about a new culture. Some fall in love with the place, others go back to the US after a few years. But in general, most Americans abroad are still American citizens, hold US passports, call themselves Americans, and may even be quite active in American clubs and associations like the Democrats Abroad or Monaco-USA Club. For most of us, living in France isn’t meant to be a snub to our home country, even if we feel happier living here. Think of us as little ambassadors.

I usually find myself explaining to French friends why America is the way it is. For French people who’ve never been to the US, our ways seem very odd at times. This happens both ways, obviously, as I continually find myself explaining why France is the way it is to other Americans who have never lived here. This is especially difficult during times when our countries’ governments aren’t getting along. I majored in political science in college and studied it both in Paris and the US. I used to side with the US on most political matters (social and culinary matters are another story). However, I have to admit I’m quite proud of the French government and its stance on Iraq.

I like to think that living abroad gives me a better viewpoint on my country. I can read the US news, the international news, and get many different angles on the same topic. I always feel like I’m in a fishbowl when I’m in the States, everything seems distorted, news is more like…entertainment. But step outside and I see things more clearly. I realize not everyone has the chance to do this, which is too bad. I think the average American would understand America better if they could step outside for awhile, too.

Many Americans took part in last week’s anti-war marches in Paris, much to the shock and delight of the French protesters.

As a little ambassador for America, I like to think I’m doing my bit to show the French that not all Americans are like George W. I try to explain that all Americans are not religious zealots or nationalists just because we constantly repeat the words “God Bless America” and, well, wave our flags all over the place. When you’re American, this is something you just do, and it seems normal, “All-American”. For Europeans, it looks, well, fanatical. Before I ever visited Europe, I became friends with a German exchange student at my college. He was shocked to see so many flags everywhere: on people’s homes, on cars, at parties, for decoration, etc. He said that anyone displaying a flag in Germany was considered a nationalist (read: right-wing radical or Nazi). Living in Europe now, I see that, aside from sporting events and government buildings, displaying a flag just isn’t done without political overtones associated with far-right groups. I’ve had to tell French people more than once that American waving flags aren’t necessarily right-wing reactionaries. And I’ve had to tell my American friends to stop sending me little American flag pins. It would be very insensitive to wear one of those around here (the French are still upset about the right-wing wacko, Le Pen, and are quite wary about anyone waving a flag).

And I really don’t know what to say to European friends who ask why Americans use this phrase “God Bless America” so much. After all, what makes us think that America is God’s chosen country? As if he picks favorites…). I read an interesting article in the British paper The Financial Times about how the US government’s obvious religious beliefs make Europeans very uncomfortable. I remember the collective European (worldwide?) cringe when Bush first spoke about the “Axis of Evil”. While France is 92% Catholic, they are still, politically speaking, sensitive to other religious beliefs. So using religiously loaded words like “good” and “evil” in political discussions is seen as something left to fanatics like Bin Laden and his ilk. After all, these are subjective words. “Bad” doesn’t equal “evil”, as Nietzsche showed in his book “Beyond Good and Evil”. While Bush’s habit of using religious symbolism in his political speeches may comfort average Americans, across the Atlantic it comes out sounding a bit too much like we’re on a Holy Crusade.

Two final issues I’d like to address. First: “Everyone wants to be like us.” (aka “Everyone envies the USA”). I used to think this, too, even about the French. “They’re just jealous,” I’d say whenever they criticized US culture. But now, I know I was wrong. Again, I can’t speak for everyone in France, but I know that no matter how much they admire the US in some aspects, or are jealous of certain other aspects, they don’t really want to be like America. The only way I can think of illustrating this is to compare us to Japan in the 80s. Even though the US was behind in car and electronics manufacturing, and even though we weren’t nearly as efficient or hard-working, we never actually wanted to BE like Japan, did we?

Finally, the one that annoys me the most: “We saved their asses in WWII.” There are whole books written on this, so I will just point out two things. First, the US waited five years to come “save” Europe (who may not have needed saving if they had the US assistance at the start). Second, if you’ve ever read any history book, you know that the US could never have defeated England in the Revolutionary War without France’s help (that’s why almost every US city has a street named after General La Fayette). What you may not also know, is that the French monarchy gave so much money and military might to the Americans to help them gain their independence, that France practically went broke, its own people starving to death (this was one of the catalysts for the French Revolution, by the way). So during those years of German occupation all the French could think was: “We saved their asses from the Red Coats”.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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