By Richard Z. Chesnoff
Sentinel, $23.95, 179 pages
REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER
If you still insist on ordering liberty fries, if you order domestic wine and American cheese, if you prefer Washington in the summer to Paris in the spring, you are certain to enjoy Richard Chesnoff’s little book, “The Arrogance of the French.” Mr. Chesnoff has spent a lot of his years in France as a foreign correspondent and still splits his time between southern France and New York.
But why, I don’t know, since he doesn’t seem to have much use for the French. He works hard to like them and say nice things about them, but finds the task something less than easy. In fact he is often reduced to using brief French exclamations such as “Zut Alors!” — whatever that may mean — in an effort to lighten his criticisms.
Still, the title of his book is a good indication of how he really feels about them, although at best it understates his case. And lest you think I do him an injustice, explain away, if you can, his listing of French companies doing business in the United States, businesses you just might want to boycott.
In fairness, Mr. Chesnoff doesn’t think the French are all bad. He reminds us that they were of significant help in the American Revolution. For instance, at the decisive battle of Yorktown there were more Frenchmen than Americans fighting the British. Which is why when the Americans landed in France during World War I, Charles E. Stanton, speaking for the American commander Gen. John Pershing, announced, “Lafayette, we are here.”
But it’s pretty much downhill after that. One thing about the French, they are rarely there when you need them. Iraq, of course, is the most recent example. But there’s also their refusal to let American bombers overfly France on their way to bombing Libya. And the biggest insult of all — French President Charles de Gaulle demanding in 1958 that American troops be withdrawn from France, prompting a high government official to ask, “Should we dig up our dead in Normandy and take them home, too?”
Perhaps one of the reasons Mr. Chesnoff has trouble respecting the French is that he is Jewish and anti-Semitism is a fact of life in France.Mr. Chesnoff quotes Walter Wells, the editor of the International Herald Tribune, on the subject: “Many Americans have the impression that anti-Americanism in France is a disguised form of anti-Semitism. The French dislike American foreign policy because it favors Israel … . It is another manner of enunciating an old and sad reality: this marvelous country of human rights sent many thousands of Jews to die in Germany, not without a certain pleasure.”
As a rule it is easy to skip introductions and get right into the meat of the book, but Mr. Chesnoff’s introduction, which is short and sweet and written from France, is an essential part of what he has to say, mainly because he has spent 14 “self-flagellating years” trying to figure out why the French are the way they are and why their attitude toward the United States is the way it is.
Among the questions he seeks to answer are these: Why would a Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and those who followed him, thumb their noses at the leaders of the very Atlantic Alliance that saved their republic? And “why did the French so treacherously turn their backs on us in the war against terror.” And “why was that waiter in your Paris restaurant so insultingly arrogant?”
To these I add a question of my own. Why did that fancy, overpriced Paris restaurant serve unripe avocado slices in my salad that time back in l984? I don’t suppose even Mr. Chesnoff can answer that one. But he has several answers to the question of why are the French so anti-American, the main one being that they resent playing second fiddle to a nation they generally believe has no couth. (My language, not his.)
French resentment of America appears to be a major reason for their attitude toward the war on terror which, Mr. Chesnoff asserts, “has been about as enthusiastic and effective as its l940 defense along the Maginot line.” Indeed, Mr. Chesnoff relates incidents of the French making common cause with some terrorists including Mohammed Daoud Odeh, who headed the PLO hit squad that slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic games.
Mr. Chesnoff also is highly critical of “French misconduct” following the first Gulf War in the oil?for-foodprogram under which Iraq was allowed to sell oil in order to be able to buy food to feed its hungry people.Most of the money from the initial sales, however, went directly into Saddam Hussein’s coffers while a large share of the profits that came from selling the oil on the open market at a higher price went to French middlemen.
In addition he lists a number of major French trade and financial dealings with Iraq and finally asks if anyone has “Any lingering doubts” about why France so vehemently was opposed to toppling Saddam. Incredulously he writes that polls show that at least a third of the French were rooting for Saddam Hussein.
Surprisingly, after all his criticism of the French, French leaders from de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac and French shortcomings, Mr. Chesnoff winds down his little book — 179 pages all told — telling us how much he likes the place. “I personally find the quality of my day to day life in France far superior to anything that I could afford back home in the U.S.A.” And this:”… in my French country home, I have the serenity that I, personally, have never been able to find in any American city, the sophistication I have never found in the American countryside.” And more. Perhaps Mr. Chesnoffhopes his French friends will read through the highly critical first 90 percent of his book and then forgive him because he’s so nice to them in his last few pages. It should be hoped for his sake that that will be the case. Otherwise he may find that he has written himself out of any friendships he may have developed during the 14 years he has spent in his little corner of French heaven.
Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.