What's the French for 'Paradox'?

There are precious few universal truths that all mankind agrees on, but one of them is this: French girls are hot.

President Sarkozy, who knows this well, recently convened the entire French nation to a debate. The president asked: what does it mean to be French in a multicultural France and a globalized world? The result is in: "je ne sais pas." Sixty-one percent of respondents in a recent poll said the debate has not in any way defined what it means to be French nowadays.

The vexed question of French identity takes me back to my youth, and a time before I knew the joys of matrimony; golden summers spent hitchhiking around Europe and dating French girls whenever possible. These noble efforts to do my bit for international relations gave me some insight in to the paradoxes at the heart of French identity.

I recall lazing in a park in Paris one sultry August afternoon. A French girlfriend and I were at an open air jazz concert with a group of her friends. The scene was ridiculously French: the jazz band played laconically, we picnicked on camembert and baguettes, sipped a little wine, svelte girls swayed, while cigarettes were smoked (regular and jazz). In contrast to my hairy Irish self, the only other males in our group were two well manicured guys with dress sense. The girls were all bisexual, naturellement. As least that was my working assumption. Everyone was as nonchalant as hell.

The only ingredient missing to make this a thoroughly French afternoon was a little anti-Americanism. I didn't have to wait long:

One of the girls spotted some camera-laden American tourists blundering through the park; a family with young kids. They looked happy, curious and friendly: in short, completely out of place amongst these depressed Parisian sophisticates. Sure, maybe they spoke a little loudly, but only compared to the moribund French.

"Typical Americans," she sneered, with a Gallic roll of her eyes. Then it kicked off. Everyone pitched in: Coca-colonization, cowboys, McDonalds, stupidity, no culture; all this interspersed with myriad quotes from Noam Chomsky.

They were happy to mouth off like this because they didn't know my dirty heretical little secret: I like America, and Americans. That and one of my most profound childhood memories is of visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy. To the horizon stretch countless white crosses, and pointedly, the occasional Star of David. The words on the colonnade at Normandy are seared in my mind:

"These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and mankind might inherit peace."

I can never stand the French sneering at a nation that paid such a price for the liberty of a far away country, so I snapped: "The only reason that you can sit here and mock America is because they came here and fought for you. Anyhow, your jeans are American, your Ray Bans are American, your Marlboro Lights are American and in case you didn't know, the jazz music you're listening to is not French. It's American. Even Noam Chomsky is American."

They didn't know what to say. This is but one of the paradoxes at the heart of the French identity: They profess to disdain everything American, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they must love Uncle Sam.

But French identity is not really threatened by Americanisation. Frenchness is far more acutely challenged by the millions of immigrants that have arrived from the former French colonies in North Africa. Some say the native French are dying off and that an Arab-descended population is colonizing the cities of France. Muslims already account for about 10% of the French population and the proportion is rising fast as the immigrants are having far more children than the natives. Some even predict that France might have a majority Muslim population within a couple of generations. There are already "culture wars", often all too literally: immigrant youths rioted throughout France in 2005 and 2007. This is what the French debate is really all about.

The French euphemism for young Muslims is jeunes, or "youths." French friends often went to extreme lengths to emphasize just how wonderful but misunderstood these jeunes really were, and how much color and life the North African immigrants had brought to France. Any French Muslims I met certainly seemed like very nice people, but there was something slightly hysterical about my friends' assertions: they were protesting too much.

These are just some of the many paradoxes inherent in the French mindset: alienated jeunes are fantastique, but a happy American family is to be derided. They claim to disdain America, but imitate everything American. They are terrified that their ancient nation might become balkanized, but refuse to speak about it. They claim to be a nation of philosophers, but they can't think straight.

Sarkozy is trying to get France to speak about the unspeakable. He must be applauded for that. As the "national debate" has so far failed to give any answers, the debate is now due to recommence after the March elections. I wish the French well in figuring themselves out. I certainly can't. But, whatever they eventually decide, I truly hope that they go on being French: the unpredictable, fun, interesting, ingenious and ultimately baffling occupants of one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.

I've often wondered how Eisenhower motivated his troops before they stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944. It can't have been too hard: Take a few hundred thousand young men, stand them on the English coast, then point south toward France and say this:

"See over there? That place is full of hot French chicks." The Nazis never had a chance.

Like global warming, the debate on French identity is a matter of global concern and inter-generational responsibility: We must not allow French girls to become extinct. Our sons and grandsons will not forgive us if they never know the infuriating pleasures they can provide.

They might get over the polar bears being gone, but not that.