The Washington Post

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and those awful French

A Frenchman! (John Minchillo/AP)

We’ve been allies more often than not, but there’s something about those Chevre eaters that really gets our goat. We don’t rename our English Muffins Freedom Muffins or our dangerous pistol-based games Freedom Roulette. No, we reserve a special degree of vitriol for the French. There is something about them — what the French might call an “I don’t know what,” to borrow a joke from Austin Powers. It is that air of seeming to know better, that tendency to regard us as yokels.

It is not that they dislike us. It is that they seem to feel we are perpetually underdressed. We are fur-hatted barbarians with such a limited understanding of cheese that we slap our name on a substance that resembles congealed orange sputum and tastes vaguely of despair. “Mmm!” we say. “American!” They grimace, with the infuriating grimace of One Who Knows Better. “The best stomachs,” we tell them, quoting Voltaire, “are not those that refuse all food.” “Au contraire!” they say.

“Speak English!” we retort.

It’s the democratic stomach versus the discriminating palate.

And this brings us to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the saga of the powerful, elite Frenchman, head of the IMF, who was indicted in New York City for the alleged rape of a hotel chambermaid.

But the amount of Francophobia this case has unearthed has been stunning. We must defend the perp walk — not because it is transparently just, but because the French think it is a bad idea. What do the French know? In de Gaulle’s own words, how can they possibly expect to govern a country with 246 different kinds of cheese?

Glance at any article on the subject and the caricature emerges — the French as grizzled, elitist, hairy-armpitted, casual adulterers with incurable lusts for cheese and accents aigu. But there is more to them than that. They are also socialistes!

We are so Francophobic that James Franco has difficulty getting his films seen. Or maybe that’s not why.

The French claim they were right about our flawed justice system. But if there is one thing that we have learned from years of solid Francophobia, it is that the French are never right about anything.

They ought to go back to the Rive Gauche where they belong, with their bicycle races and their goofy-looking breads and their smudgy paintings of water lilies. There’s a reason all their roads are called Rues: It’s because when you walk along them you rue the day you left the good old US of A, where we do things right!

Our justice system functioned perfectly! The problem was that the people involved were imperfect. Blame the French!

“Our law,” we boasted, “is not a respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter who you are; we will see that justice is done! Discrimination is all very well for palates. But for justice, it is absolutely wrong!”

Now the charges are being dropped as the character of the alleged victim is being called into question — she has lied in the past, on immigration forms, and had conversations about profiting from this accusation. And the French are crowing. “See what happens when you don’t discriminate?” they say.

Well, maybe.

Monsieur Strauss-Kahn, we Americans note, is clearly a Neanderthal, one who has been able to achieve tremendous prominence because the French, in their infinite sagesse, have placed his private life and attitudes toward women off-limits. I am at least glad that these have come scuttling into view, in the harsh light of public scrutiny. Now he faces more charges in France. The saga is not yet at an end.

But I worry that the upshot of this case will be to make America more like France, where when the word of a chambermaid — the French seem to italicize this word — is stacked against that of a Powerful Man, the conclusion seems foregone. It’s the justice of the discriminating palate, with everything that word implies. “We know something you don’t!” the French crow. Liberty? Equality? Only if you’re already in the fraternity!

Better to be stuck with our flavorless cheese and Trader Joe’s wine.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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