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Letter From Paris: What The French Don't Understand About Us (And I Don't Either)

I am reading Janet Flanner's Paris Journal 1944-55. She is a luminary to some, including me, for the "Letter From Paris" column she wrote (under the name Genêt) for The New Yorker magazine from 1925 until 1975. I aspire to be a variation on her writer-journalist theme in today's media-morphing environment. I would like to give Americans a sense of the larger world--a Parisian world, a European world, a global world--that has exploded from the culture of the last 10 or so years and is zooming forward in time and space through modern conveniences that only grow faster every day.

I want my fellow Americans to get another point of view--from one of their own--who, in some ways, has a clearer vision because she lives abroad and gets wider media coverage. And whether you want to believe this is true or not, it is. I want Americans to get a sense of how the rest of the world feels about us. Don't tell me this doesn't matter. It does. I want to show Americans how other people in the world live and what they think and why. I want to help grow American consciousness into the scope it once had but now has lost.

The irony is that during this decade of globalization, American culture has grown backwards into a much more insular milieu of fear and prejudice that George W. Bush's reign of terror--not 9/11--created. There is no question that Barack Obama is changing and repairing the perception and reputation of the United States throughout the world, and that he is making the world more friendly to Americans again, but the stark reality is this: He is up against those who still want to make us smaller than we ever were throughout history.

I was told by a former Salon.com editor that they had a hard time getting readers interested enough to click on international stories. In other words, they don't. When I tell people this fact about Salon readers, they're shocked. What does this tell us about the American consciousness?

Since the time of our Founding Fathers, Americans have a celebrated history as expatriates in France, and cultural exchange provided great interest on both sides of the Atlantic for the French and Americans alike. What news is currently creating riptides across both our cultures?


The guillotined Marie Antoinette got a bad rap for allegedly saying, "Let them eat cake." According to biographer Antonia Fraser, that is a myth. But the French Queen's reputation was damaged for many things she didn't do. And why? It was the 18th Century version of political fallout. France was running out of money--partially for their investment in our American Revolution--and the French people were actually hungry. There was a nationalistic prejudice against this Austrian-born queen, and she was often blamed for her ineffectual husband's poor governing skills.

The big political fallout currently being examined in France has been labeled "The Trial of the Century." Here's what Time said:

The trial pitting French President Nicolas Sarkozy against fellow conservative and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has just opened and already the French media is buzzing with words like hatred, treason and war. In the same courtroom in which a French revolutionary tribunal sentenced Marie Antoinette to the guillotine in 1793, a panel of judges will hear whether de Villepin was actively involved in a smear campaign that was apparently designed to torpedo Sarkozy's ultimately successful 2007 presidential bid. The outcome will determine whether the flamboyant de Villepin's political career dies on the spike of a guilty verdict -- or allows him to continue his anti-Sarkozy drive, further strengthened by an acquittal.

So what we're talking about here is that de Villepin and three others are accused of spreading dirty and false rumors--a smear campaign--about and toward Sarkozy in hopes of influencing the presidential election in which both de Villepin and Sarkozy hoped to become the standard bearer for the Right. As we know, Sarkozy won this primary as well as the general election.

What a concept. The French are actually trying someone for allegedly practicing dirty politics. In the U.S., we reward political cheaters. Many believe George W. Bush stole his first election against Al Gore, and he did it in the light of day with Congress and the public watching--and with the help of the Supreme Court of the United States. Who would have believed this could happen even 10 years ago? Not to mention the Swift Boat Campaign that killed John Kerry's candidacy. I could go on and on, but who has the eons it would take? Dirty campaign torpedoes have become commonplace and effective (if morally corrupt) political strategy in the U.S.A., especially as practiced by the GOP, while the Democrats have impotently twiddled their spines and brains. I am not naïve. Politics are politics everywhere, but Americans might take heart in the fact that French courts are actually addressing this question--no matter how it turns out.

Moving along to the 2nd point of cross-cultural interest: American Health Care Reform--a subject about which the French are fascinated--and why wouldn't they be with the American circus being paraded across their computer and TV screens?

My journalist/editor friend Joelle came over for dinner last night. She showed me a spread in Grazia magazine about an American woman named Kelly Cuvar who is making sure her health care insurance nightmare is being heard. She is "in her thirties" and was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19 and has never been in remission since.

"My cancer is easier to deal with than my fear of not being insured," she tells the magazine. "Cancer is horrible, but the health system is worse. How is this possible in the world's richest country?"

From Joelle: Ms. Cuvar was diagnosed as a student. When she graduated, her parents' health insurance would no longer pay for her. All the private health insurance companies rejected her case, until finally she got a policy with Blue Cross Blue Shield, but it only covered her up to $1,500 a month. She then got a job, but her employer's insurance did not cover Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the only hospital capable of treating her rare form of cancer. In 2006, she clocked up bills worth $80,000. Finally, the hospital agreed to treat her for free, but she still needs medication that costs $12,000 per month. Last April, she lost her job, so she has decided to remain unemployed so she can benefit from Medicaid.

"The French can't understand that Americans are hitting the streets to protest against a health insurance system that is supposed to help them," Joelle said.

How could the French understand? It is excruciating to see American citizens going against their own best interest yet again. It's as if the French Revolution had instead been a celebratory parade for the fact that the French people were starving to death.

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com.

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