France's Bittersweet Love for US
America in Paris
PARIS — 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.
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.
France is divided, he adds. "The intellectual and government elite responsible for cultural policy have been suspicious of American cultural institutions. But ordinary people have a serious interest in America and American culture."
French seem enthralled by Wild West
Galeries spokeswoman Laurence Tankere says response to the show is ample proof of that. "The French really like American architecture and fashion and cosmetics," she says. "It's somehow classic and current at the same time."
Somewhere between the chain-link fences and red-brick walls designed to invoke Manhattan's concrete corridors, the expo takes a thematic detour into territory that has long fascinated the Europeans. Signaled by a Route 66 sign, the expo moves west with cowboy and Indian items, vintage Texaco signs, used Nevada license plates, ending with a tribute to the San Francisco origins of Levi's jeans.
Some Frenchmen, however, wouldn't be taken with the tribute to the Western mystique. At the June meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Denver, President Jacques Chirac refused to pull on cowboy boots for photographers along with the other world leaders.
US and France: allies and competitors
That small rejection captures a lot of the tension that marks relations between the two countries today. Globally, France has found itself in a growing competition with the US for influence - and oil and mineral rights - in Central and West Africa, once areas of French control. And the French decision to more fully integrate with NATO late last year gave rise to more tension when France demanded that, for the first time, a European officer would command NATO troops in the Mediterranean.
"There is a tension in relations these days," says Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, research director at the Center for the Study of French Politics in Paris, "and criticism [of the US] is growing."
In the eyes of ordinary French people there is a degree of hypocrisy in US policies, she says. "They see Americans talk so much about liberty but still make antipersonnel mines. People feel the US imposes its policies on the United Nations, but then won't pay its debt."
Ms. Costa-Lascoux says there's another factor irritating relations, one that other Europeans share. "There is a criticism that America is sabotaging the construction of the European Union, that it is against the European Union and doesn't want the euro, and what's more, that it is using Great Britain as a Trojan Horse in Europe."
The chill is also symptomatic of a larger malaise in France as it copes with several difficult transitions. To some, closer union with NATO and the move toward a single European currency, which has generated economic pressures, symbolize a loss of French independence.
The coolness at official levels is all the more reason why one American in particular should make the trip to the Galeries. Felix Rohatyn, the new US ambassador to France, who took over Sept. 11, faces some uphill work. But he can take some comfort in the expo. It may present a fun-house-mirror view of US culture, but it's also a clear reflection of America's popularity.