They value sophistication above almost anything, and so they regard their own hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his messy romantic life and model-singer wife, as “Sarko the American.”
But this year has been difficult for the French. Mr. Sarkozy has generally supported American foreign policy and has praised the United States’ openness and entrepreneurial verve. And the sudden emergence of Senator Barack Obama — black, and seen as elegant and engaged with the larger world — has sent many French into a swoon.
But the combination of two recent surprises — Gov. Sarah Palin and America’s terrifying financial meltdown — has brought older, nearly instinctual anti-American responses back to the surface.
These two surprises, one after the other, have refreshed clichés retailed under President Bush, confirming the deeply held belief of the French that the United States remains the frontier, led by impenetrably smug and incurious upstarts who have little history, experience or wisdom.
Even worse, from the French perspective, Americans are reckless optimists, incurably blind to the tragedy of life, to the weary convolutions of history and thus to the need for lengthy August vacations and financial regulations.
While the French see themselves as the heirs of urban revolutionaries, with a strong distaste for politicized religion, the American revolutionary spirit seems to them these days to come like a hurricane from the uncosmopolitan right — from the dry, dull flatlands of Texas ranch country or the emptiness of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Wyoming, and now from the odd sunset communities of Arizona and the bizarre bars, churches and hockey rinks of Alaska.
The financial meltdown also seems inevitably American, a product of the reckless audacity that the French pretend to abhor, but often secretly admire. But however careful France’s own banks may have been, the United States is so large and so dominant that the French are afraid of being hit with what one economist, Daniel Cohen, called the “toxic waste” of the scandal.
This year, mocking the candidates has become an industry, with the satirical puppet show “Les Guignols de l’Info” recently adding a squeaky-voiced Senator John McCain puppet to the jug-eared Obama model. In general, though, Americans are portrayed as Sylvester Stallone, lunky and thick-headed. Ms. Palin has been a kind of godsend.
The French know exactly what to make of her, said Frédéric Rouvillois, and that is the problem. Ms. Palin may be an American dream but she is a French nightmare, said Mr. Rouvillois, a lawyer and social historian who has just written a book titled “The History of Snobbery.”
“She’s a caricature of a certain America that hasn’t parted with its boorish ‘Wild West’ side,” said the impish Mr. Rouvillois, who has also written a history of good manners. “For the French snob, the only admissible American is from the East Coast, knows Henry James, is comfortable in French, a sort of European on the other side of the Atlantic.”
A little, yes, like Senator John Kerry. …
France, like most of Europe, is quite taken with the Democratic candidate, whom the French regard as a “métis,” politely translated as someone of mixed race, usually used for those of African colonial ancestry. Mr. Obama is seen uniquely as an American métis with global experience and antecedents in Africa, through his Kenyan father, not in slavery.
Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote in the magazine Le Point of Mr. Obama as a new type of American black politician.
“Obama is, certainly, black,” Mr. Lévy wrote. “But not black like Jesse Jackson; not black like Al Sharpton; not black like the blacks born in Alabama or in Tennessee and who, when they appear, bring out in Americans the memories of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan — no; a black from Africa; a black descending not from a slave but from a Kenyan; a black who, consequently, has the incomparable merit of not reminding middle America of the shameful pages of its history.”
He goes on for a while, but you get the idea.