Those (sort of) rotten French

As much as French-bashing remains a guilty pleasure, seriousness and satire do not combine well in Chesnoff's book.

french book 88 298 (photo credit: )
french book 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us... And Why the Feeling is Mutual By Richard Z. Chesnoff Penguin 208pp., $23.95 With all the hypocrisy and buffoonish posturing that's taken place on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, Richard Z. Chesnoff's latest book, The Arrogance of the French, would seem to have no shortage of material for a bit of partisan satire. An award-winning journalist who lives in France and writes from an American perspective, Chesnoff has subtitled his work "Why They Can't Stand Us - and Why the Feeling Is Mutual." The cover art - a caricature of a Parisian waiter standing haughtily before a French flag - raises hopes that this will indeed be a comic tirade replete with all the well-worn, perpetually amusing cliche's about frogs, la langue francaise and France's less than impressive recent military record. The book does indeed earn an occasional laugh with its many anecdotes about French snobbery and self-righteousness, but the author also makes the regrettable decision to weigh down the humor with attempts at real analysis. In other hands, seriousness and satire could have been combined to the benefit of both the book's comic and intellectual value. In this form, though, Arrogance simply feels uneven - as inconsistent and infuriating as French foreign policy. It's a wasted opportunity, because French-bashing, always a guilty pleasure in the English-speaking world, is as en vogue as ever following the last few years of trans-Atlantic, trans-Channel sniping. Even for American and English citizens fully opposed to the war in Iraq, it was hard not to give in to a bit of reactionary hostility in the face of France's lecturing, hypocritical and self-serving position before and during the war. One of the most aggressive European colonizers and among the very last to give up its holdings in the Third World, French opposition to the war seemed more and more opportunistic and less and less about morality as the build-up to the war progressed. It was during this period that the idea for Chesnoff's book was proposed to him by an editor. The resulting volume is a slim, modest tract on what the author says "may well be the most perverse relationship in modern global relations." That's quite a designation, given France's longstanding rivalries with virtually all its neighbors; among the better borrowed quotations, Chesnoff shares the advice of an English lord who once told his countrymen, "You must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil." For much of the book, Chesnoff revisits familiar theories explaining the French distaste for the United States, all of which basically boil down to the idea that France has never gotten over losing its status as a major world power. Though Chesnoff claims - somewhat self-contradictorily - that England remains France's "ultimate rival and enemy," he says the US earned lasting French enmity with its rise to global dominance. The author then predictably reminds readers of all of France's best-known sins - among them the deportation of 75,000 Jews to Hitler's death camps, and later De Gaulle's massively deadly campaign to hold on to Algeria - and he adds some new ones for good measure. The curious French habit of harping on American shortcomings while overlooking Soviet crimes is convincingly established during a section on the aftermath of Khrushchev's so-called Secret Speech - though it would have been more convincing still if Chesnoff had gotten the year right. Elsewhere, the author provides a de rigueur survey of French support for various dictators and oppressors across the Third World, particularly for Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He goes on to identify French sources of corruption at the UN, as well as the myriad economic concerns that may truly have motivated French opposition to the most recent Gulf War. These sections nicely fill in gaps in the knowledge of those who tuned out the various scandals and allegations of the past few years, but better and more original is Chesnoff's argument about the role of the school system in shaping French contrarianism, which the author suggests needs to be addressed as much for the good of France as for the country's relationship with America. To his personal credit but to the detriment of his book, Chesnoff ultimately refuses to focus only on instances of French pomposity and incompetence. Though the bulk of the book is devoted to French bad manners and the country's self-interested foreign policy, Chesnoff knows too much about his adopted homeland to bash it without restraint. The writer frequently finds his neighbors irritating and ridiculous, but he also acknowledges the reasons he spends so much of every year living alongside them, and is unable fully to adopt the comic tone and flippancy that would have made the book a successful compendium of France jokes. Attempts at seriousness also come across half-baked, however, because of the author's apparent belief that no more than a paragraph or two should pass without some kind of throwaway punch line. Two "addenda" send readers off with a final taste of the author's problematic ambivalence: Chesnoff fails to provide either a funny or offensive comeback in "How to Respond to Rude French People," while a second section provides a list of French companies only after acknowledging the ineffectiveness and "econom[ic] immorality" of boycotts. The French-American relationship would no doubt be stronger if the two countries could find it in themselves to adopt less one-dimensional views of the other. In The Arrogance of the French, however, the author's inability to take a firm position - serious or satirical - weakens his ability to be either.