This piece was written by Terry Downs, a former Washington Post magazine writer, who currently lives in Champrobert, France.
OPINION PIECE ABOUT FRANCE
by Terry Downs
French-bashers might consider this : France is smaller than Texas, has just 62 million inhabitants, and French is spoken by at most 100 million people world-wide, which is considerably less than the population of, say, Indonesia. But, apart from the French themselves and the Francophones of their ex-colonies, who speaks French ?
« Only » the richest, best-educated, most cultured people in the world, including in countries like England, Germany, Spain and Austria, which are France’ s traditional rivals or enemies, not to mention everywhere else, wherever there is an educated, sophisticated thin upper stratum, beyond those who, for practical purposes, speak English. Whereas it’ s undeniably useful to speak English world-wide, it’ s also undeniably « cool » to speak at least a little French, and always has been.
I contend that France today, given its size and actual power, is as influential as it has ever been , including under Louis XIV or Napoleon. Perhaps more so. The fact that French-bashers spend so much energy and time deriding France and denying its influence seems to me a clue as to just how important and pervasive that influence really is.
Here is a very small, seemingly trivial example.
Last night I spent about ten minutes watching the beginning of « Emmanuelle » on late-night TV ( I’ d already seen it when it first came out in Washington ).
« Emmanuelle », as almost everyone knows by now, was a low-budget, soft-porn French movie made back in 1974. This movie has by now been seen by over half-a-billion people in the world, and is surely the most viewed film of its kind ever, beating its 100 closest rivals put together in terms of box-office.
Why is that ?
Because « Emmanuelle » is a celebration, albeit a cheap one, of the legendary « French eroticism », or the French view of love, if you prefer, and I prefer to put it that way.
What’ s so special about the French view of love ?
Simply this : French women are the freest in the world, and have been since the days of the Roman Empire, and perhaps even before that. By « free » I’ m not speaking in so-called economic or political terms, since I don’ t believe that feminine freedom can be adequately measured by how many women hold cabinet posts in today’ s French government , nor how many self-made female millionaires exist in France today ( quite a few, usually in very feminine professions, too, like acting, fashion, etc. ) but how free women are in their relationships with men, on a day-to-day basis, in and out of bed, kitchen , dining room, office, boardroom, « salon »,playing field, etc.
Octavio Paz once remarked that the measure of any civilization is the freedom of its women, in a very deep sense. In this regard France wins.
As to the menfolk, need I remind the French-bashers that some of the hottest « American » financiers and supergeeks today are in fact Frenchmen working in America ? That the Rockefeller family name was originally Roquefeuille, that the Duponts de Nemours virtually own the State of Delaware, and much of the rest of the United States as well ? That these French Huguenot families, and others like them, helped build the United States, almost from the start ? That Henry David Thoreau, Crevecoeur and other early American writers were all of French descent ?
Julius Caesar said that it is the winners who write history. Sometimes that takes a very long time. Look at Rome and Greece : Rome conquered the then-known world, invested it with stable, relatively tolerant government, aqueducts, arenas, roads, gave Europe Latin as its linguistic base, and was the first example of a functioning pluricultural society. But who is really revered today ? It is the Greeks, the Athenians to be precise, that tiny club of aristocrats who literally « invented » us all, intellectually and culturally speaking.
It’ s not the creators of a better mousetrap, or even those who have played golf on the moon who will be exalted in a thousand years’ time. It will be those who wrote The Rights Of Man, and those who, over two thousand years ago, intuitively recognized women to be their equals : not their superiors, nor their inferiors, not therir sparring partners in the so-called Battle of the Sexes, but their fraternal equals.
Is it any wonder, then , that Paris is Mecca to the women of the world, who all make, or try to make, their pilgrimage to it ?
And need I point out that France is by far the most visited country on earth, hosting, on its relatively tiny territory, nearly twice as many tourists as go to the States each year ? Last year, over 75 million people visited France, that is to say over 13 million more than France’ s entire metropolitan population.
If America were such a stunning example of civilization, you’ d think that every tourist in the world who could afford the ticket—and most tourists now can—would flock to see the wonders of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Coca-Cola Headquarters in Atlanta, Disneyland or the take-offs at Cape Kennedy.
What do most do instead ? They come to France, where they can drink a nice glass of wine, enjoy an exquisite meal, take in beautiful art, architecture and some of the most pleasant countryside in the world.
But they really come to France, and have forever, even as conquerors sometimes, to bask in its perennial gentle aura, so that they may feel better with each other and about themselves, feel more loving, more lucid, more cultured ; more tender and kind : more human, in a word.