Opinion

Toast, fries, and kisses: Everything is better French

America is indebted to France for more than good food.

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For any Americans out there with a lingering distaste for all things French, a holdover from the Bush era perhaps, it may come as a surprise to discover France is rated a considerably better place to live than the United States.

True, the French government and the US have had a history of political disagreements, but now it's time for the Americans to move on. The French already have.

There is much to admire about the French, not just food or the Côte d'Azur. In its annual quality-of-life listing, the United Nations' Annual Report ranks France as the seventh most desirable country to live in – six spots higher than the US.

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Perhaps Americans could learn a thing or two from the French. France's national health insurance program is generally regarded as providing world-class service to all its citizens. Clean, modern public transportation, even in smaller French cities would be the envy of any American metropolis.

A friend who lives in a small village in the Loire River Valley did complain it took him an entire week to get a telephone properly installed in his early 18th-century house. I opted not to tell him I live 16 miles from the White House, and it has taken more than three weeks to get my cable supplier to fix a glitch and get all the telephones in my house working properly.

Much that is French, it seems, including some clever engineering, appears to function better than what's in the States.

Regrettably in recent years it's been difficult for Americans to say much that's nice about the French. Perhaps it's just too embarrassing to admit the French were right about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Recently, over dinner in a Paris restaurant, someone introduced my wife and me as "the Americans at the table." The restaurant owner shrugged and said, "Well, not everyone's perfect."

It was a cutting attempt at a joke, until I recalled all the snide things Americans have thoughtlessly said about the French for decades. Most recently there was the US congressman who moved to rename French fried potatoes "freedom fries," signaling that American pettiness knows few limits.

Some argue that the cultural animosity began when France's chauvinistic President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of NATO in the 1960s believing it to be in France's national interest. Washington chafed when de Gaulle built his own independent nuclear force outside of NATO. Ironically, that worked to the West's numerical advantage when Washington and Moscow negotiated strategic nuclear arms reductions.

In truth, generations of Americans have long identified with and romanticized Paris, despite the fact that the city was once known for shunning English-speakers. Now that city is again awash with Americans. Today, I saw French waiters, cabbies, and hotel desk clerks go out of their way to be helpful and pleasant, often using halting English. Self-check-in machines at airports have instructions in English as well as French.

Though not all French may be head over heels for Americans, it seems the French have managed to move beyond the animosity of the past more quickly than we Americans.

Americans really need to recognize the French are decades ahead of us in recognizing how interconnected the world has become because of globalization. While Americans still mentally barricade themselves behind their oceans, the French have made giant strides toward global accommodation and integration.

The West is indebted to France for much more than Manet, Monet, and Renoir. We forget it was French knights who checked the first Islamic invasion of Europe not far from Paris in the 8th century. The French victory at Tours blocked the spread of a militant Arab-Islamic culture, allowing Europe to develop its own rich civilization. Arguably, the French saved Christianity.

Absent the aid of a French cardinal named Richelieu, the Protestant Reformation might have collapsed and the American Colonies could have been radically different.

The world's intellectual debt to the French Enlightenment is incalculable. And no country did more to support the American War for Independence. Without the French, Americans might still be paying unconscionable taxes to the British royal family.

Several of our wisest Founding Fathers, including Jefferson and Franklin, recognized the richness of things French. Perhaps now it's time for this generation of Americans to rediscover the joie de vivre of the French. Become like that fellow I saw recently wearing a T-shirt reading "toast, fries, kisses, everything is better French."

Recently while buying a ticket at the Musée d'Orsay to see the Impressionist galleries, I inquired if there was a senior discount. Politely, I was told "no." Jokingly, I told the ticket clerk: "Then I need a wheelchair to get about." He laughed and told me I could get a wheelchair just the other side of the barricade, but first I had to buy a full-price ticket.

The leaven of self-deprecating humor can make even the coolest Frenchman thaw and smile.

Walter Rodgers a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's print edition.

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