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French Insights June 15, 2010

Posted by Austen Edwards in Travel Log.
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At the moment, I’m sitting on a train from Paris to Normandy and I wanted to take the chance to write about my impressions of European diplomatic culture, the French in particular. Over the last few weeks, our merry band of travelers have been going to dozens of site visits and scores of briefings at every international institution, think-tank, and house of government in greater Western Europe area. We spoken to diplomats and parliamentarians, interns and eggheads, all of whom have usually been really interesting to talk to.

Yet, somehow, during our separate site visits to NATO and IFRI (a Parisian think-tank), I came to the sudden realization that I was becoming increasingly annoyed by each Frenchman that spoke to us. Although they were generally very welcoming and hospitable, I could only get a sense of haughtiness and obnoxiousness. Now, I fully recognize that some of this perception stemmed from my own bias against Frenchmen (and for Germans instead) and some slight American hubris. But, even controlling for these variables (to use my limited Techie vocab), I couldn’t help but be irritated by some element of what they were saying. After some self-reflection and counseling from another (Francophile) student on our program, I was able to grasp a better understanding of the diplomatic culture in France and its similarities/differences to that of the US.

In many ways, both countries come to the table with the same attitude: a firm belief in our own ideological and historical exceptionalism and our near-divine duty to lead the globe while fiercely defending our hard-won independence. What is interesting, however, is the way in which we’ve chosen to translate this attitude into actual action on the world stage. For better or worse, Americans seem to be highly optimistic about our role of spurring the globe to reform the world stage incrementally. We, the Americans, seem to recognize that each period in which the international system was completely overhauled it was accompanied by insecurity and instability. However, we are too optimistic or idealistic to give up on making it a safer world, one agonizing step at a time.

The French, by contrast, seem to have gained a more pessimistic, disillusioned, or dismissive attitude towards the post-modern world stage – a product, no doubt, from their admittedly turbulent history over the last 150 years and the repeated disappointments of the international system they’ve experienced. When combined with their sense of inherit French exceptionalism, they appear to many Americans (often inaccurately) to have a self-centered, entrenched approach to international cooperation, where they simply dig in their heels on one minute detail or another to hold up the entire process. While it is undeniable that the French have a focus on defending “me and mine” above all else, I think it is more accurate to say that they hope for revolutionary (if reactionary) changes to the world stage and remain highly skeptical of the step-by-step reforms the Western (American-led) diplomacy yields.

So, while I can see important cultural (or more likely political-cultural) similarities between our two countries, I can easily see how diplomats on both sides can leave the negotiation table with frustration and bitterness towards each other. I can’t say that it explains all of the difficulties in Franco-American relations but this discovery certainly helps to clarify my personal frustrations with French diplomats.

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