It’s time to wave the red, white and blue. Bastille Day is here and France is honoring the start of its revolution back in 1789. France remembers its founding values on this day: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Although they don’t always like to admit it, the United States and France go way back and it’s no coincidence that they share the colors of revolutionary republicanism on their national emblems.
Americans prefer to think of themselves as having a historical monopoly on the values of liberty, equality and brotherhood of man. But we’re happy to concede to France a monopoly on the values of romance and style. We’re a lot like the Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris who would rather spend time in the Paris of the writers and the artists of the lost generation living on in perpetuity, a 1920s without end. Paris is the romantic capital of our dreams. When the actual France intrudes on this pleasant reverie, we get a little testy. This might account for the recent flurry of features on the supposed malaise of modern France.
Liberté? Hey, France is spying on its citizens’ telecommunications, too. And things aren’t getting any better for the Roma people in France under Socialist president Francois Hollande. They still face forcible expulsion and unchecked harassment. As for other immigrants, let’s not even get started on the ongoing head scarf controversy.
Égalité? Didn’t you read the news about the plight of French youth who face record high levels of unemployment and bleak future prospects? Some say the best advice to give les jeunes is to get out while they can. Others express doubt about the real usefulness of the bac, the famously meritocratic exit exam all French high school students must pass if they hope to proceed to university studies or a decent job. Yet it lumbers on, deeply entrenched by a massive administrative structure, reminding one that France is the country that invented bureaucracy.
Fraternité? Does the word sororité even exist? Well, yes, it does but nobody really uses it and the internet will redirect you to the American English word sorority if you even try. We care a lot about how French women look and the fact that, supposedly, they don’t get fat or dress like slobs. France’s national symbol is of course the lovely Marianne whose representation has been modeled on a series of famous French actresses from Catherine Deneuve to Laetitia Casta. Disagreements over casting for the figure usually revolve around the appropriate bust size for the partially bared revolutionary lady.
Civil liberties, immigration policy, high stakes testing, women’s rights? In case any of the foregoing sounds familiar, it may be because the real issue is that France and the U.S. have more in common than they’d care to admit. You can’t even count on fine food any more. In another body blow to American romanticizing of French reality, it turns out that more and more French restaurants are serving frozen ratatouille microwaved to order.
So wake up Owen Wilson. You’re living in the past. Since this is a holiday, though, let’s try and look on the bright side. Its economy is showing a few glimmers of recovery. With two female candidates in the running, in 2014 Paris will have a woman as mayor for the first time in its history. The French intervention in Mali has been judged a modest success and African troops who served there will lead the way in today’s Bastille Day parade. Its under-20 soccer team—as diverse in its makeup as all French national teams since the 1990s—just won the World Cup, its film culture remains vibrant, and, frankly, despite the contretemps about the microwaving, its food still rocks. As Americans well know, living up to the ideals of a republic has never been easy. You must remember this.