Freedom fries and French toast

By David Applefield

Being an American in Paris in the spring of 2003 is no longer just about being an American. It’s about how each of us sees the planet we live in, and how we manage to cope with world events and media that overshadow the will of individuals. It’s also about how we feel global issues should be decided on when the consequences of decisions are capable of destroying not only life and property but our belief in a positive future.

The battle lines are now drawn along non-national boundaries, sides which are entrenched in our opinions — not the passports we hold. Many Americans in France actively or passively resist being identified with the decisions and attitudes of their government. We come from Minnesota and Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee and Colorado, Florida and Connecticut, but our minds and hearts belong to our own personal lands of distinction.

So, the question today for expats is no longer where you’re from. It’s to what degree do you continue to own your own mind. The “us vs. them” logic — George W. Bush’s “you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality doesn’t float on the Seine. The reality is that the “us” has changed. Some of us are us and most of us aren’t. The dichotomy falls within the culture and country and individual soul. The dividing issue isn’t who wants to let a dictator get away with thuggery and roguishness. It’s rather who’s going to remain silent to another type of thuggery, one that uses self-righteousness as a shield.

The real weapons of mass destruction just may be the terms used to annihilate our common sense, our notions of right and wrong, our ability to discern between temporal danger and long-term destruction of our basic beliefs… Cries of anti-Americanism in France are being ground up in America’s wacko media mills. The wave of anti-French sentiment comes from the very same embryo, and both are abstract hybrid vehicles invented to roll over and crush the reputation and credibility of France, a country whose sole crime has been the audacity to oppose the omnipotence of the world’s only superpower. This transatlantic row isn’t over Iraq — there will always be an Iraq — it’s over influence and economic dominance.

Regarding life in France… fortunately there is still a pretty large mass of people here who understand that foreign policy and its use of the media to propagate itself have little to do with national cultures and their individuals. Just look around Paris and you’ll quickly be able to breathe comfortably again. The French are reading our greatest authors, attending our latest films, sharing the research of our most accomplished thinkers.

The international consternation over one government’s uni-directional sense of false dialogue is also felt by many Americans themselves living in France, who hesitate to criticize their country in times of war. But, disagreeing isn’t unamerican. Dissent ultimately could be seen as a courageous form of patriotism needed to take on the bigger war, our ability to act intelligently with humane ideals.

Over the past year, I’ve received hundreds of emails from concerned and sometimes panicked Americans worried that France had become a frightful place, overrun by anti-semitism, anti-Americanism and gutless pacifism. Yet, many readers have sent condolence notes apologizing for the lunacy of mediatized hate campaigns that launched such ideas as dumping French wine, empowering ironic monologues by late night TV comics, and polluting the already confused concept of political correctness to include terms like Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast at the Congressional cafeteria on Capitol Hill.

France suffers from its own flaws, but on the whole I think we as residents in an adopted land should applaud the democratic example of our hosts, and the general largesse of the public in sorting out policy from people. I feel both proud of the deeper American traditions of liberty and dissent within me, and the current French receptivity to unfettered dialogue.

As we go to press, the war is on the minds of everyone. Diplomacy has failed because the biggest kid on the block doesn’t like the rules and the rowdiest kid knows just how to get his goat. We’re on the sidelines powerlessly watching the action. We send emails and petitions. We talk to friends and neighbors, but between breaths we go on buying our baguette, walking our dogs and looking for ways to be convinced that things will be okay.

This article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Paris Voice.