To Americans, France is the land of overpriced wines, smelly cheeses and surly citizens--a bathing-optional country where Jerry Lewis is worshiped as a comedy god.

To the French, the United States is a vast, garish land filled with criminals, cowboys and lousy lovers--a nation whose badly dressed citizens speak a language so bereft of nuance that they must forage in other tongues to find bon mots.

America and France, Mars and Venus. Now the Brookings Institution is attempting to broker a greater understanding between the two countries by creating the Center on the United States and France, which opens on Sept. 1. On the same day, the French Center on the United States opens at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (IFRI) in Paris. The Brookings and IFRI centers will maintain a "close working relationship," says Philip Gordon, the center's newly named director.

Surprisingly, the Brookings center on French-U.S. relations will be a first in this country, says Gordon. There are lots of policy centers devoted to the Middle East. Ditto for Germany. But rien devoted to France, until now.

Part of the reason is that France often goes its own way on policy, Gordon says. Other European countries are content to let the United States take the lead in world affairs. But France systematically stands up to us on matters ranging from the Middle East to NATO to GMOs (genetically modified organisms. The French are deeply suspicious of them; we love to play with DNA).

Gordon currently is the director for European affairs at the National Security Council and doesn't officially start work at the center until Dec. 1. Once on board, he'll be required to spend lots of time in France. "It's a hardship life; what can I say?"

Gordon hopes that the center will increase understanding of France among American policymakers and the public, and even puncture a few myths along the way. Like that old wheeze about the French devotion to Jerry Lewis, perhaps?

"That is actually true," Gordon laughed, adding that the center "does not have current plans to study this phenomenon." Some things about the French, he says, "are impossible to explain."

THE AUGUST EXODUS: Speaking of France, the recently war-torn Balkans and France are the destinations of choice for many local thinkers seeking a vacation getaway that's equal parts work and play.

Jeff Gedmin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spent early August leading a fact-finding tour in the Balkans. Among those who helped Gedmin to locate facts were Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow in foreign studies at the Brookings Institution, and jet-setter Bianca Jagger..

Over at the Cato Institute, trade policy analyst Aaron Lukas and foreign policy expert Gary Dempsey are preparing to head for Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro or Albania "for some post-war Balkans tourism. We'll be looking at youth attitudes toward the U.S. and the state of black market trade," Lukas reports.

AEI senior fellow Jeane Kirkpatrick is spending most of August in France, where she is working on her next book, "Good Intentions." Her tank-mate Richard Perle also is in France, doing research on export controls.

Not everybody has fled tank town, we've learned.

"I think I'm one of eight people in Washington who are not taking a vacation this month," said Dan Griswold, Cato's associate director for trade policy studies. "The other seven are at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital. Even John Hinckley gets to go out for a brief (if supervised) vacation."

A SAD STORY: Don't know about you, but we'd trade August in the Balkans with Bianca for the weekend that the American Enterprise Institute's David Wallace just spent in Cleveland with Halle Berry.

Wallace, manager of media relations, was back home to attend the premiere of Berry's new HBO movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and got to spend quality time with the to-die-for star herself.

Seems that Wallace's father is the physician who delivered Berry and then was her gynecologist. "I couldn't believe it, either," Wallace said. "I'm having T-shirts made."

Here's the sad part: "Much to my dismay, Dad did not share this information with me until she was a rising star (on her third movie) and unattainable," Wallace said. To make matters worse, daddy recently reminded David that Halle's mother gave their family boxes of cookies each Christmas. "He had always encouraged me to send a thank-you note but I blew it off, not knowing of her goddess affiliation."

QUICK THOUGHTS: The Tinker Foundation will sponsor a major conference in Mexico City in September for Mexican journalists covering the United States. The topic: "The Media's Impact on Elections." Featured speakers include Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, Delal Baer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Dan Balz, the Washington Post's own high-impact politics reporter. . . . Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, and Barry Munitz, president of The J. Paul Getty Trust, have joined the board of directors of Public Agenda. . . . As of Sunday, India's population passed 1 billion, estimates the Worldwatch Institute. That makes India the second member of the billion-people club, after China.

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