Vive le Cooperation
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page A23
ST. BRIAC, France -- This elegant seaside village in Brittany is a place the Kerry campaign would probably rather forget this week. The Democratic candidate's parents courted here, and the young John Kerry spent holidays along its rocky coast. For a politician who must convince America that he really likes hot dogs and stock-car races, St. Briac is just too French.
Which is a shame. Because Kerry, the Democrats and the United States as a whole could learn something from this village and the country whose values it reflects. I know that's heresy, in the perennial season of French-bashing. But the truth is that Kerry's cosmopolitan background, and his comfort level with other cultures, are among his strengths. They can help an isolated and unpopular America reconnect with the world.
St. Briac embodies the qualities that people love about France, however much they may dislike French politics or foreign policy. Its streets are tidy and well-maintained; its homes are stylish without being showy. Like France as a whole, it conveys a sense of amour-propre, or self-love -- a quality that may sound obnoxious to American ears but would be less so if it were translated simply as patriotism.
I've had a rare chance to see France up close these past four years. I moved here in 2000 as executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and then, after the paper changed owners, stayed on to write this column, which will continue on my return to the States. It was a period in which French-American relations were at their lowest point in decades, and I often shared the anger so many Americans felt at the French government's arrogance and disdain.
But as I prepare to return home, it's the virtues of French life that stick in my mind. Thus, this farewell letter to a country that, for all its grievous and self-destructive faults, has a few things to teach the United States about life.
The French sum it up in the famous phrase savoir vivre -- "to know how to live." I'm not talking about the usual icons, such as French cuisine, which to my mind is overpraised, or French coffee, which, frankly, made me miss Starbucks. And I'm not talking either about French private life, which often seems more barren than romantic.
What I have grown to love about France is its public life: its beautiful parks and common spaces; its tidy streets cleaned every morning by an army of men in green uniforms; its towns and villages that announce themselves with a coat of arms; and its most public good of all -- the French language and culture. The passion of the French for their country drives foreigners crazy, because it often seems mingled with a disdain for other cultures. But that's a fault Americans should find familiar, and forgivable. The French are stubborn; they love their country and don't want it to become a homogenized subsidiary of Global America Inc.
I used to despair that the French would never adapt to change. From their rigid unions to their risk-averse corporate bosses, this is a nation of classic conservatives. They have created a system that protects the good life -- leisure time, parenting, French culture. When I arrived four years ago, this conservatism seemed on a collision course with 21st-century reality, but that state of denial is ending. The most popular French politician these days, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, proclaims the need to change. And French unions are beginning to remove the straitjacket of the 35-hour workweek.
Looking at France and the United States, you can't help wishing the two would learn from each other -- rather than continue shooting spitballs across the Atlantic. America could use a little of France's adoration of public spaces; we could learn that market solutions aren't automatically the right ones, that a nation's quality of life is precious. The French could learn how to embrace the diversity of their African and Arab immigrants, how to adapt to the demands of the global economy, how to revive the creativity of a culture in danger of becoming a museum piece.
John Kerry shouldn't run away from the part of his background that would help him rebuild connections between Europe and America. For an America that needs friends, it's a useful gift.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company