Studying in Paris may not be as much of a culture shock as say, Amman or Beijing. Yet, despite being in another relatively affluent and culturally “Western” city, gaps in political understanding are not easily bridged.
The French follow our government’s actions closely and that’s no surprise, given the American tendency to invade foreign nations… I refrain from telling the French that the rest of the world doesn’t particularly follow their denunciations of this and that. It doesn’t really amount to much. The French closely followed the midterm elections, questioned me about why people voted for Republicans, and asked me to define the Tea Party – questions to which the American media still hasn’t found a satisfying answer. I have learned that sometimes it’s better just to avoid political conversations. The French model and their political orientation is so far removed from the United States that it is impossible and misleading to make comparisons. And considering that many of these heated political conversations occur around 1 a.m., often times my efforts at cultural rapprochement tend to deteriorate with my level of awareness.
One French difference that I find refreshing is the absence of that American cultural curiosity of the need for politicians to prove that they are “relatable,” “authentic,” or part of a cadre of East-Coast-Ivy-League-Wine-Sipping-Elitists. The sentiments of “I want to vote for someone I could drink a beer with” or the fears that the president is too emotionally distant have never been expressed here. The president is someone to run the country, not your drinking buddy. Likewise, there isn’t the strong mistrust and resentment against “elitism.” In France, education is a badge of honor, not something of which to be ashamed. Half their culture is what “real Americans” might find elite—an appreciation of wine, cheese, and fashion. Explaining Weshop to my boss at the cheese shop, I joked that Wes students are a little “bougie”—we (are forced to) buy organic, we like to eat pita and hummus, and we feel that we know about other cultures. The joke was lost on him, I realized—someone who make his living selling artisanal cheese that costs three times more than the supermarket. Likewise, our red-state blue-state cultural semiotics are lost on them—their culture and political parties are oriented differently. At the art gallery, a French friend asked my if I was vegetarian—I responded that I was not, but that many of my friends were, Wes being a bleeding-heart, liberal, granola-crunching kind of place.
Again, lost. He didn’t understand how vegetarianism connoted being politically left-wing. It doesn’t in France—vegetarianism is extremely rare, and the “bio” [organic] movement has been embraced on a much wider scale. They have the same urban/“flyover country” divide, but our cultural signifiers aren’t the same.
But most striking besides not being able to make the same self-mocking liberal jokes (try explaining “bleeding heart liberalism” when you live in a well-established “welfare state”) is that our connotation of the right wing doesn’t exist here. While a recession in the U.S. prompts a reaction for smaller government and lower taxes, the French react by seeking assurance and support from the government. Thus while their right-wing may make the same fear-mongering poses, their positions on domestic issues appear to an American more like a Democrat, maybe a “moderate.” The Communist party is relevant and active—a minority, but not entirely marginalized as in the United States. Socialism isn’t going anywhere—and it seems that France has started to recover from the recession and doesn’t quite understand the depths of our cynicism and disgust with our government.
Of course, there are a few things about America that I will defend without shame. Being in Europe, I appreciate that I grew up with the belief that a “real American” can be anyone. My Russian friends in high school who immigrated in 1991 ate lox sandwiches, instead of ham and cheese or PB&J, seemed to me the most typically “American.” France is still in the process of figuring out what it means to live in a multicultural society. They don’t even have statistics on race or religion, as it is seen as being against their view of a secular government. They recently banned the burka, and it is punishable by fine—supported by over 80 percent of the population. My discomfort with the infringement on freedom of religion and speech is shared by two-thirds of Americans, according to CNN, who would oppose such a law. While I don’t argue that burkas may suggest that woman do not have all of the rights I take for granted, I question what the law would actually accomplish. The women who choose to wear the burka now don’t have that choice. I doubt that their families will change their minds just because the French government decreed it. So now women who were previously able to leave their homes in a burka are confined by French law. This is progress? Haven’t the U.S. and Europe inflicted enough good-intentioned damage in the world in the name of freedom?
Even though the historically secular French see our culture as being absurdly religious ever since de Tocqueville went on a road trip, I do smugly appreciate my American right to wear a burka or promote atheism on highway billboards, if I choose.