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France's Bittersweet Love for US

America in Paris

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1997


Americans planning a visit to Paris this fall might want to make a note of the third floor of Galeries Lafayette, the French version of Bloomingdale's.

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The venerable department store is staging "Expo New York," a promotion of American products that is an entertaining window on French views of the United States.

The expo presents an America where citizens decked in flag-emblazoned clothing subsist on Coca-Cola and Oreos, worship Marilyn Monroe, and watch endless Mickey Mouse cartoons before shucking their cowboy boots, turning off the rap music, and snuggling down between denim sheets for the night.

Everything has a price in this America, from $2,000 models of the Statue of Liberty to life-size cardboard cutouts of Bill Clinton ($60).

And the French love it. Goods fly off the shelves at an impressive clip.

The expo comes at a time when some here see French-US relations, strained by policy and defense issues, at a new low. But popular enthusiasm for American culture, so clearly displayed at the Galeries, is often at odds with official attitudes and exemplifies Europe's deep-seated and enduring ambivalence about America.

"All of Europe has a love-hate relationship with the US," says Richard Pells, author of the book "Not Like Us," which examines cultural relations between the US and Europe. "But it's especially intense in France."

Marie Bonnet, whose young son is blasting bad guys in a Western video game while she browses, admits to mixed feelings about America and says she sees truth in the broad brushstrokes of the expo's depiction of American culture. "It's very fun, but at the same time it's a little crazy," she says, gesturing to the neon lights and loudspeakers.

Crazy? "Yes," she says firmly. "The US constantly talks about freedom and equality, but look at the treatment of blacks, in the past and today." And how is it, she asks, that a country that produces the TV series "Baywatch," with its scantily clad women lifeguards, can also give rise to sexual-harassment lawsuits when a man simply compliments a female colleague?

And, she continues as she watches her son fire away, the US is so violent. "But even so, the United States has an energy and an openness; that's what we like so much," she says, adding that she'd like her son to study English there when he's older.

Ms. Bonnet's ambivalence is played out at the highest levels in France, says Mr. Pells, a University of Texas history professor teaching at the University of Bonn. It's due in part to resentment about living in the shadow of a world superpower, he says, but also to a longstanding competition between the US and France over the export of their respective cultures and languages.

"It's a special conflict that doesn't exist between [the US] and any other country in Europe," Pells says, comparing it to the tension between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war.