Neither Here nor There

Le Parti Socialiste

It’s Wednesday, May 9, less than 3 days after François Hollande became the French President-Elect in a moment that many, myself included, had dreamed would come. There are many reasons why I supported Hollande, not the least of which is his support for same-sex marriage equality. I am hopeful that under his presidency, the French government will finally recognize the fact that I am married to a French citizen and I’ll be able to apply for a visa on that basis. There are other important reasons for my support, of course; the older I’ve gotten, the more politically liberal I’ve gotten and—yes—I now consider myself a Social Democrat, firmly allied with the interests of the French Left.

If only they seemed more welcoming.

This afternoon, I came across an article in Le Monde, posted on the French newspaper’s Facebook page. I don’t always read the French press—I admit I should do it more often if, for no other reason, than to improve my French skills—but this article caught my eye:

M. Hollande reste un inconnu ‘socialiste’ pour nombre d’Américains
(“Mr. Hollande remains an unknown ‘socialist’ for a number of Americans”)

It was an interesting little article, one that focused in part on Americans’ perception of what a Hollande presidency means. Le Monde cited a commentator from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a UC-Berkeley professor of political science who had discussed this issue during a PBS special on Monday evening. The professor, Jonah Levy, noted:

“Aux Etats-Unis, un socialiste n’est pas un réformateur de centre gauche. C’est quelqu’un qui est opposé au système capitaliste et hostile à notre modèle américain.”

“In the United States, a socialist is not a reformer of the center-left. He’s someone who is opposed to the capitalist system and is hostile to our American model.”

That’s a fair characterization, I’d say. It’s political science. It’s an observation about what people think and the labels they use.

The Le Monde article went on to discuss points of friction that might arise between the Obama and Hollande administrations over issues like Hollande’s intention to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2012, and the merits of austerity measures to bolster the European economy. The article finished by pondering whether Obama and Hollande will get along, especially since “the horror of European socialism” will probably figure in the presidential campaign this fall.

Against my better judgment—and to my chagrin—I went on to read the comments posted (almost exclusively by those on the Left) in response to the article on Le Monde‘s Facebook page. It was surprsing … disturbinginfuriating. Even though I’d been reminded by a friend just a week ago that there is a deep, swift current of anti-Americanism on the French Left, I wasn’t prepared for what I read. Maybe that was because I expected well-reasoned commentary that would at least be germane to the topic at hand. Boy, did I have misplaced expectations!

Instead, I read a stream of insulting, sometimes vicious comments calling us Americans a “band of uncultured nags” who should mind our own business. Others obsessed over Americans’ understanding of the world (or lack thereof), especially geography (which really hit a nerve because it’s one of my strong points). We were accused of being unable to locate France on a map or, in a more tangential post, place Buenos Aires on the right continent. (Apparently, Americans prefer to put Argentina in Africa.) Another commentator was more pointed in her criticism of our ignorance of French geography; she was appalled that most Americans would place the French town of Tulle “in” Paris! Quelle horreur ! (Tulle, Hollande’s hometown, is a “city” of some 15,000 souls located in, well, the middle of nowhere, France. Without questioning the credibility of her source, I retorted by asking this commentator if she could, with precision, place Scranton on a map of the United States. By the way, Scranton, the hometown of Joe Biden, is a city five times the size of Tulle with a metro area thirty times the size of Tulle. I thought Chicago would just be too easy.) One commentator even blamed Americans’ fear of the word “socialism” on our misunderstanding of politics in general and our taste for the “easy clichés” of so-called journalists like those of PBS. (Wow, there’s a Frenchman who’s clearly never listened to PBS, or at least the American Right’s characterization of it.) Another commentator just called us fat, uncultured exporters of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. (I certainly hope he doesn’t have a McBaguette and a Coca Normal for lunch tomorrow. The indigestion would certainly kill him.) Thankfully, a few commentators pointed out that such criticisms were hypocritical non-sequiturs at best, one of them defying the critics to identify all 50 U.S. states and their capitals on a blank map. That didn’t deter the wave of nasty diatribe, though.

It was enough to make me feel lost in the middle. Neither here nor there. Unwanted by the Right because I’m a homosexual immigrant. Unwanted by the Left because I’m an “uncultured” American. 

I drafted a quick comment, seeking to appeal to reason and invite a bit of decorum, not that it succeeded. I subsequently reworked and elaborated it with an introductory paragraph for my Facebook Wall. I leave you, my dear readers … French, American, or other … Right, Left, or other … with these words:

(I apologize for my French mistakes and for the quality of the English translation since it was written in French to begin with.)

Ce n’est pas que la droite qui sont cons après dimanche soir, c’est clair. L’anti-américanisme dans les commentaires des gauchistes sur un article du Monde posté sur Facebook cet après-midi est écœurant. Au lieu de fêter un grand changement politique avec leurs alliés outre-Atlantiques, ils préfèrent de prendre en gros le peuple américain pour des “incultes notoires” car il y a des Américains qui ne comprennent pas les différences entre nos cultures et nos systèmes politiques. Quel bon commencement !

S’il vous plaît, mes chers amis français de gauche, n’insultez pas le peuple américain, dont un grand nombre vous ont félicités et ont fêté avec de la joie dimanche soir. On a tous nos propres incultes, n’oubliez pas ceux de la France qui étaient nombreux aux urnes le 22 avril. Oui, c’est vrai, ils existent en France aussi, tout comme les Américains qui ne le sont pas. Au moins pour moi, ma devise reste toujours “Vive la France, vive l’Amérique, et vive surtout le changement.” Le reste, c’est à vous.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

It’s not just the Right that are jerks after Sunday evening. That’s clear. The anti-Americanism in the comments by some Leftists to a Le Monde article posted on Facebook this afternoon is sickening. Instead of celebrating a great political change with their transatlantic allies, they prefer to characterize the entire American people as the “notorious uncultured” because there are some Americans who don’t understand the differences between our cultures and our political systems. What a great start!

Please, my dear French friends of the Left, don’t insult the American people, of which a great number congratulated you and celebrated with joy Sunday evening. We all have our own “uncultured.” Don’t forget those of France who were numerous at the polls on April 22. Yes, it’s true—they exist in France, too, just as Americans who aren’t uncultured also exist. At least for me, my motto still remains “Long live France, long live America and, above all, long live change.” The rest is up to you.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

12 thoughts on “Neither Here nor There

  1. Well, Michael, you’ve hit several nails on the head here. As an American who has lived in Ireland for 11 years, I would make the gentle suggestion that you will always hear this kind of drivel, as I always have here, and, while you will feel the need to respond, which is important, like me you will start to pick and choose your arguments. The Irish have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. and her people, and are forever trying to decide which stance they’ll take. There are many reasons for this, including our shared history, the huge Irish diaspora (so many millions of whom are in the States), and the large number of American multi-nationals here who employ many thousands of Irish people. It has been a sometimes painful, often humorous journey to learning about the perception of my country and fellow countrymen in Europe. As my British husband has often said, the United States is envied around the world and because (at least in the past) we have been the world’s leading country in so many areas, it is also disliked (even hated). I found it very difficult to take in my first couple of years here, but as I grew to know so many Irish and had more and more opportunities to speak to Irish people of all political persuasions I learned that people’s ideas about the U.S. are often complicated and nuanced. I have learned to see my country through others’ eyes and it has taught me a great deal about where I stand politically. I still love my country and its people but from afar I am able to take a more objective view. I suspect that in time, you will be able to do the same. The loonies in online comments are the worst, though – you’re right about that!

    We are moving to France next week after a very long 5-year wait to sell our house in Ireland. While I, too, am left-of-center on social issues (and great news that Hollande supports gay marriage, by the way) I am a bit worried about his stance on small business (we will be starting one) and the possibility that he will do away with the auto-entrepreneur scheme, which came in under Sarkozy and has allowed small businesses to proliferate all over France by removing crippling social charges that these same businesses used to have to pay even when they were not making any money. Time will tell what will happen, and I suppose for the moment Hollande has bigger fish to fry.

    Thanks for this excellent post, which certainly spoke to me.

    1. Thanks so much for your response. The nuanced love-hate relationship between our peoples is indeed something that I am learning on a day-to-day basis, and I am sure that will never change. It’s certainly not a one-way street either … I mean, just reading my blog, you come across as many veiled insults as you do accolades! I was just taken aback by the viciousness of the tone of some of the commentators, but I think what bothered me most was that it wasn’t even germane to the topic. It was just an occasion to America-bash. Sigh. What can one do except NOT play the ugly American in hopes that things will get better. But, damn, if it wouldn’t hurt to have the other side feeling the same way!

      Congratulations on your move! I knew it was coming up but I didn’t realize it would be so soon. Best of luck for the business! That’s not an easy proposition under any circumstances, so … fingers crossed for you.

      1. Thanks for the finger-crossing…we have come to know some of the obstacles and we’ll need all the luck we can get. I do completely understand how lousy this kind of crap makes one feel….didn’t mean to minimise it in any way, just to commiserate and suggest that things will get better! American-bashing is, indeed, a worldwide sport!

        Through reading your posts I can tell you are not an ugly American in any way 🙂 Cheers to you, and I look forward to your continued very interesting and informative writing. By the way, I hope to be as proficient in French as you are before too long…it will take a bit of doing but I’m working on it. Thank God my dear husband is fluent.

        Best to you and Michel,


  2. Good for you speaking up like this (my husband said)…..I read your french with out right enthusiasm even though I don’t know it well at all – but I could get the gist even before I read the translation!!! I’m a( little)? pissed that this has happened – but happy you did something about the article.

  3. Great blog Mike (or is it Michael now?) I enjoy reading your posts and of course I like seeing your photography. The images you create inspire me to get out there and make some images of my own.

    We lived in Scotland for a couple of years and experienced first hand that love-hate relationship that Europeans have with the US. Many people hated the US, what it stood for and the US military, but on a personal level they were so kind and nice to my family and we were a US military family. It’s that old — “I don’t like the US, but I like you. You aren’t like the rest of them”.

    I’ve stopped reading the comments on news articles for the most part. I’m a slightly right-of-center person and 99% of the comments on any article can be boiled down to — It’s Obama’s fault or It’s the conservatives’ fault. It doesn’t matter what the article is about, it could be about baking a cake and the comments will still devolve into the same things.

    1. I love that comment: “It could be about baking a cake …” Truer things have not been said! Thanks for the compliment on the blog. As for the name, nah, you can still call me Mike, maybe even Sammy. It’s funny, I’m known by so many names now, including the French way of saying both Michael and Samuel (emphasizing that last “-el” syllable). My 40th birthday cake even had my name spelled “Michaël”!

  4. Michael, the trick is almost never to read the comments after an article. The letter column of the Times (of London), they ain’t. And that’s the point: they’re not well enough moderated or edited. So any fool can say anything foolish and always does. That makes it depressing, but the comments represent the troll minority only. PS Thanks for your blog and keep it coming!

  5. Hello Michael,
    Can you imagine how many idiots are living on the earth, either here or there, on both side of the oceans, or of the political spectrum ? People who “howl with the wolves” as we say in France. We’ve always had this special relation with USA because of that huge influence we have everyday to deal with. Fascination, but also distrust, as we’re living in a small country comparing to the big USA. All this story about north-american geographic knowledges is as old as French people eating frogs or listening to accordeon music… There’s no excuse for bad behaviors, but they don’t deserve to make you sad or angry. My mother always says “bien faire et laisser braire” (do it right and let them bray).

    Cheers !

    1. I agree completely, Nicolas, with your assessment of why there is such an enduring love-hate relationship between our two countries. As I said in response to a comment, above, it certainly goes both ways. I guess I was surprised to see such anti-American sentiment on display in the context of François Hollande’s election. Had the United States DONE something to warrant criticism, okay, but not for this … especially since it seemed evident to me that the commentators didn’t quite understand what they were reading. The Le Monde article, at least to me, was fairly clear in what it was reporting. The commentators grasped at what they wanted to hear and spiraled downward with it.

      I love your mother’s advice, Nicolas, by the way. Words to live by!

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