Last October I wrote a bittersweet farewell-to-France piece after six years in Paris, most of them as a special correspondent for The Washington Post. If largely complimentary, the piece also noted the frustration and embitterment of a people and country I have long admired. But the French, it turns out, did not appreciate my observations. What I wrote as a light-hearted piece of whimsy was translated in a local newspaper and has become the topic of poker-faced debate. My reader mail has been nothing short of alarming.
"What right do you have to use your...profession and your experience in France to reinforce the xenophobic tendencies of some of your compatriots?" thundered one correspondent.
A note arrived from the presidential palace. "You need to spend two or three years abroad to appreciate how great it was [in France]," wrote Elysee spokeswoman Catherine Colonna.
"Is The Washington Post a serious paper?" asked another indignant citizen. "Did you really think that all French without exception awake with a love for literature [and] write poetry while brushing their teeth?"
But all this was almost gentle compared to the remarks of a sullen columnist in the daily Le Figaro who was wounded right in his national pride, in his self-esteem, in his amour propre.
"So, you hate us," wrote Jean-Luc Nothias in a "Letter to Sharon." "Good-bye and good riddance. We, who don't know you, won't miss you." He went on: "After careful reflection you have decided that we French are 'vain and smug, childish and self-righteous.' We know it. But apparently we're also 'surly, small-minded, bitter.' It was time for you to leave, Sharon. We weren't made for each other."
Really, Jean-Luc, aren't you being a little sensitive? Perhaps a warning notice should have accompanied my personal adieu, my "Letter from Paris": "The following should be read with a dose of humor." Might that have helped?
In writing it, I thought even the average Frenchman might have detected the irony behind a comment like: "Before I used to admire...the men with slouches, the women with the exquisitely arrogant stares. . . . But suddenly their ubiquitous dogs annoyed me, and so did their insistence that I stay off the grass in the parks."
I thought French readers might have found some truth in my lament over their country's loss of spirit. On one hand, I wrote, the French are still "the undisputed world arbiters in matters of taste . . . . Love is important here. Passion is a given. Beauty a necessity." On the other hand, the myth of national glory is fading. Since the Cold War and German reunification, the French have "rolled up and hibernated . . . prudence has been the order of the day."
But no. Those who didn't want to kill me, wanted to understand me. "What's wrong with us?" journalists asked. My phone began to ring with requests for interviews. A television station wanted to fly me back for a national talk show: I declined. Canadian radio went through the piece point by point, asking for further illumination.
But it was only when Annette Levy-Willard of the newspaper Liberation called that I finally got a sense of the stakes. "My editors say there is an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy," she explained. She noted a recent article in the New York Times arts section bemoaning a lack of French creativity and another piece in February's Vanity Fair about France in decline. "They think it has something to do with nuclear testing," she said.
A conspiracy of Anglo-Saxons! Now that sounded familiar: Beware the Americans, the English, the Germans. Certainly nothing is wrong in France. That's only a perception by callous foreign observers. Who says the French are worried? There are no jitters over the coming millennium, European union, unemployment or the crushing national debt. There is no anxiety over the death of the contemporary art market, over the political center's losing battle with the nativist and xenophobic margins, over a state-supported film industry that produced not one nominee in the Oscars' foreign film category. Perhaps we Anglo-Saxons even orchestrated the strike that shut down the country for three weeks before Christmas.
This much seems clear: Whatever ails the Gauls will not be cured by the simplistic practice of blaming the messenger. Just as it will not be helped by cosmetic remedies such as the latest "Bonjour" campaign, entreating French citizens to be more polite.
What is wrong in France? This is a question to ponder; one brief article can't begin to provide answers. But something surely is in the air; some even believe that another revolution - that most French of political inventions - is around the corner. Perhaps, but against what? The French need to relocate their center, their raison d'etre. The reason too, come to think of it, for their tenacious amour propre.
Personally, I don't hate the French; in fact, I wish them well. I wish they'd reinvigorate their famed esprit critique, the spirit of critical thinking that is the one sure source of renewal in a free society. That's the sort of thinking that sent Candide out of the garden and back again, that had Emile Zola pointing an accusing finger over the persecution of Dreyfus, that got Jean-Paul Sartre pondering the absurdities of the beyond. That, no doubt, is the way ahead for France.
Of course the French can always blame their problems on others or, like columnist Nothias, deny it all. He concludes that the Anglo-Saxons and the French are having a "dialogue of the deaf." He writes: "The mutual incomprehension is manifestly cultural - total and unsurmountable."
But many of his compatriots feel otherwise, as my reader mail attests. The last letter I received came with a curriculum vitae attached and a request for information about moving to the United States. I was touched by the veracity of your comments and refections," wrote Alain Alexandre, a former principal dancer with the Nice Opera. "I would like to perform my art [in the United States], having experienced the hazards of the creative condition in a country like France, which practices a sort of official art."
Of course, he may have been only joking.