When it comes to bashing entire cultures, countries, races or ways of life, there are no bashers like American bashers. That is why the French appear doomed in the current prewar nose-thumb-a-thon.
Consider Dennis Miller vs. "Les Guignols." It's not a fair fight.
Here is Miller this week on the "Tonight Show," addressing the French:
"After we had the good taste to chisel the armpit hair off the Statue of Liberty you gave us . . .
"I say we invade Iraq and then invade Chirac. You run a pipe from the oil field right over to the Eiffel Tower, shoot it up and have the world's biggest oil derrick.
"I would call the French scumbags. But that, of course, would be a disservice to bags filled with scum."
Then there's "Les Guignols," a popular political satire TV show in France featuring puppets.
After a recent weekend of peace demonstrations, the show mocks the U.S. march to war. "The whole world is against the war," the narrator intones over a close-up of the White House, except for "a small village populated by cretins."
"We're going to attack Iraq!" the President Bush puppet barks in a boyish voice. Bush is labeled as merely "Resident of the United States," while beside him, the "President" puppet is the spitting image of Sylvester Stallone. The Bush puppet holds up a sign that says, "Oui a la Guerre." "He's a pro-war demonstrator," says the Stallone puppet. "There aren't many, but they are very convincing."
It's so French, right down to the faux marionettes. It makes fine distinctions, bashing not so much Americans, or America, as America's leaders.
Maybe it's hilarious if you're plopped on your couch in your native Paris. And maybe there are more vicious nights on "Les Guignols." In any case, according to people over there, a lot less pointed American-bashing is going on in France right now compared with all the French-bashing here.
Since humor is war by other means, this looks like another defeat for France.
But the French may get the last laugh. As the American salvos grow ever more shrill, the Americans are beginning to sound like little men stamping their feet. Huffing with indignation. Holding their breath and turning blue. They are beginning to sound . . . French.
For decades the French have been obsessed with America. Suddenly America is obsessed with the French -- which gives the upper hand to whom in this two-century love-hate relationship?
"It's sort of like, 'I didn't know you cared,' " says French sociologist Eric Fassin.
The French remind me a little bit of an aging actress of the 1940s who was still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it.
-- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
In Congress, lawmakers discuss trade sanctions on French wine and water. In Beaufort, N.C., a burger joint renames French fries "Freedom Fries." In West Palm Beach, Fla., a bar owner dumps his stock of French wine into the street. In Washington, the Hotel Sofitel Lafayette Square is so worried about backlash that it stops flying the French flag.
The name-calling sounds from sea to shining sea. Everybody's quoting the slur first uttered by Groundskeeper Willie on "The Simpsons" -- "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."
What did the French ever do to deserve this? Can it really all be about a foreign policy argument? Germany and Russia have sided with France, yet largely escaped American ridicule. And the U.S. never fought a war against France.
The Americans are acting as if it's personal. With France's reluctance to join the bandwagon to Baghdad, the French have again gotten under America's skin. The flap may say as much about the Americans as the French.
"If you look at it over time, what you see is a sense on the part of the French that there would be no America without France, which puts them in a situation of thinking the Americans should be eternally grateful," says Vanessa Schwartz, associate professor of history at the University of Southern California. "However, the Americans turn around and say the French would be listening to Nazi rock-and-roll music if not for the Americans."
One thing is sure: Disdain for this old friend is never far beneath the surface of American culture. So much of America's self-image -- egalitarian, plain-speaking, practical, macho -- defines itself best against a perfectly opposite foil: supercilious, obscure, effete -- qualities Americans conveniently bundle and label French. Never mind that both these summations of national character are stereotypes based on dubious kernels of truth. This is the murky realm where culture-bashing occurs.
"French culture is always associated with high culture," says Bernard Mergen, professor of American civilization at George Washington University, ". . . and boy, do Americans hate highbrows."
Consider the unfortunate Frenchness of: poodles, bidets, wine snobs, gourmets, turtlenecks, berets, haughty waiters, obscure literary theories, movies called "films," snails as food, frogs as food.
The Coneheads needed a plausible country of origin: France.
This season on "The West Wing" no one is pulling for Zoe Bartlet's new boyfriend, the suave scion of French royalty.
And yet . . . there's something seductive about things French. Americans may hate escargots -- but they'd love to hang out at Deux Magots. France is the fourth-favorite destination of the American tourist, after Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The French invented joie de vivre, and know how to practice it, for which Americans have never forgiven them. They average 37 vacation days, compared with 13 for U.S. workers. After all that joie and red wine, they live longer, too: French men to 75, women, 83; American men, 74, women, 80.
And imagine a world without the Enlightenment, the French kiss, champagne, Malraux, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, "The Pink Panther," Manet, the Concorde, cream sauce, Gauloises, absinthe, existential dread, Bardot, Robespierre.
Maybe we could do without some of those. It all depends on your appetite for Camembert.
The last time the French wanted more evidence, it rolled right through Paris with a German flag.
-- David Letterman
The surrender gibes hurt more than the cheese chuckles.
"There are some unfortunate words that have been written here concerning the two world wars," says Nathalie Loiseau, spokeswoman for the French Embassy, "as though America forgot what France has suffered."
In World War I, 1.4 million French soldiers were killed and 4.3 million wounded. The defense of Verdun, where 400,000 died, remains a great source of pride for France, says Lt. Col. Steve Arata, assistant professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "The French Army was just tough as nails."
In World War II, hoping to avoid another generation being slaughtered, the French placed their trust in the Maginot Line -- one of the greatest military blunders ever. The French army collapsed in six weeks.
"You can blame leadership, you can blame French doctrine, but you can't blame the spirit of the French soldiers," Arata says.
"In 1944, [the French] land at Normandy with Patton's army, they fight across France with Patton, they perform brilliantly, they take just as many casualties as the Americans do."
Arata says he wishes France would help the United States against Iraq. "Their army fights brilliantly today."
What Bush should do is send in someone the French really respect, like Jerry Lewis.
-- Jay Leno
In politically correct America, the French are one of the last groups it is still okay to bash. One reason may be there are so few French Americans to object -- just 2 percent of European immigration since 1820 has been from France.
But origins of the friction may lie deeper. For two nations that seem superficially so different, there's an element of sibling rivalry. What has changed since Francophiles like Jefferson and Franklin threaded French values through the American fabric is that now a different sibling is on top.
"What the French and the Americans share is an unbelievable confidence that their own culture is enlightened and should be spread everywhere," says Schwartz of U.S.C. As a result, both countries share "an enormous sense of arrogance."
"We think we're entitled to our arrogance, and they're not entitled to theirs. How dare they be arrogant when they're 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys?' They have never gotten over having been the hegemonic nation where the language of the world was French. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. We won't like it, either."
Bush reaches the gates of Heaven. God says he must prove his identity, as even Einstein and Picasso did before him. Bush asks, "Who are Einstein and Picasso?" Satisfied, God lets him in.
-- Translation of a
French Internet joke
It's one of those moments since the empire faded when the course of events is bending somewhat to the will of France. France can't prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it has made it more complicated for Bush to proceed.
Fassin, the sociologist at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, says that may account for the intensifying din in the United States and the relative restraint in France.
"U.S. condescension thus gives way to frustration and bitterness against the 'ungrateful ally,' as the French don't seem quite so powerless after all," he says in an e-mail. "This could also explain why feelings are not so intense in France: There is less resentment, as there is less powerlessness."
In a telephone interview, he adds: "That's the paradox: Everyone knows there is only one superpower. It seems there's no reason for the U.S. to worry. These reactions in a way, instead of hurting the French, make many people somewhat proud."
Trust a French intellectual to find a paradox. But it is something to think about while driving the grand boulevards of the nation's capital -- a city designed by Pierre L'Enfant, a Frenchman.
Yes, Washington itself is another reason to love or hate the French -- depending what you think about traffic circles.
Staff writer Christina Talcott contributed to this report.