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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2003 / 18 Adar I 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Trying to decipher the vexing French

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Ah, my friends - or, as the French would say, mes amis - I must gently take you to task today for being too hard on the recalcitrant, prickly, adversarial, antagonistic, contrary people of France.

The French, as you know, have been reluctant to support President Bush in his desire to disarm Iraq and turn it into the Arab equivalent of Idaho. They pooh-pooh the Bush positions, ridicule American diplomats, spray chilled Chardonnay in the faces of American hawks and generally annoy America's ruling class.

Why do they seem so nettlesome, so easily vexed, at times almost rude? Why do they appear not to understand - or, if they understand, why do they fail to express perpetual gratitude for the fact that without the power of the mighty American war machine they (and we) might well be speaking Hitlerian German today?

It is easy to let the French upset you. But I ask that you settle down for a moment and try to see things from their fey perspective.

And I'm just the person to explain that perspective to you, too. After all, when I was in high school, I took two years of French, learning how to say such words as oui, a Scottish term that means tiny.

When I was in college, my deep study of the language took me through a class called "Advanced French Reading," which allowed me to point to various items on a French menu and ask, "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" (That's French for, "Would you eat something spelled that way?")

But those aren't my only qualifications. When I was almost 13, I spent 20 minutes in France. My family spent a few days in Geneva, Switzerland, and wandered by car across the Swiss-French border.

And late in 1999, I spent nearly 10 days in France, even attending the opera in Paris on Christmas night. (Talk about funny. "My Big Fat French Wedding" was just a hoot.) The opera, of course, was sung in Italian, but the words were flashed in French on an electric sign above the stage, letting me misunderstand things in two languages.

Beyond all that, I've known several actual French people. So if you're looking for someone to explain the French, leave it to this Swedish-German American man who once could understand nearly everything said to him in Hindi.

Part of what you must understand about the French is that they live in a difficult part of the world. It is the Old World. In the Old World, a lot of stuff is worn out, including many ideas. By contrast, those of us in the New World shadow box with new ideas each day. New ideas in a country where your garage may be 900 years old are not to be trusted.

But there's even more. France's location makes it difficult for its citizens to trust other people. In the United States, we have to worry about only two neighbors, the Canadians (some of whom are of the French persuasion) and the Mexicans. In France, by contrast, neighbors are everywhere, and some are downright disconcerting.

Starting at the bottom of the country, you've got your Spaniards; your Mediterranean sea serpents, if any; your Italians; your Swiss; your Germans; your Luxembourgers; and your Belgians. And right over a ribbon of water so thin people sometimes swim across it, you've got your British.

It's easy to worry about a couple of neighbors, but France is relentlessly distracted by all these folks on their borders, especially the Germans, who developed the annoying habit of invading France in the last century.

So the French have a lot on their minds. That explains why when we come around and ask them to support us as we head off to Baghdad, they're likely to think of us as a nuisance.

Also, don't forget that France is about 50,000 square miles smaller than Texas. The French almost certainly would deny that size matters, but we're talking here about a state our president used to govern. The French find it humiliating that George W. Bush once ran a state bigger than their whole country.

So the French have lots to work through before they can leap on a Bush bandwagon. But don't give up on them. There's always hope for a people clever enough to have invented French fries.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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