You Want Freedom Fries with That?
By Gene Openshaw and Steve Smith
A Big Mac in one hand, a cell phone in the other, elbowing down the freeway in his Ford Expedition to his next appointment, the Average American Joe does lunch. Meanwhile in Provence, the Average Jean walks to his favorite bistro and takes two hours away from the office for a four-course, two-wine meal to catch up with childhood friends and escape from his work. Americans spend time, the French pass time.
|The philosophical differences between the United States and France can be linked to the ideas of Locke (left) and Rousseau (right).|
In this and in so many ways, the French and the Americans are different. Different in politics, economics, religion, culture, in what to do with gastropods (kill them with salt or eat them with butter?)...and what to do with Iraq.
Why? Some of the differences may be as simple as geography a lone cowboy crossing a wide-open prairie where anything is possible (America) versus a baker kneading dough in a crowded village with clearly defined limits (France). Some involve their different ethnic roots.
But perhaps the biggest difference in national character is their different attitudes to the "social contract," the unspoken agreement among citizens about how things should be run. In the late 1700s both countries used revolution to overthrow tyrants and establish democracy, or a "social contract" a popular catch-phrase of the day.
America's social contract was based on the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke imagined a society that maximizes individual freedom. (He coined phrases like "life, liberty..." that would appear in America's founding documents.) While we all agree that it's necessary to give up some freedoms for the common good like the "freedom" to steal or the "right" to kill Americans try to preserve the individual's freedom to pursue happiness. For Locke, government is, at best, a necessary evil whose control over our lives should be kept to the minimum.
The French social contract is different, requiring more individual compromises for the common good. When Simone fills her Renault at le pump, she pays more than twice for that gas than you and I do in America. And she does it willingly, knowing that the built-in gas tax will be used to maintain roads, design the latest TGV bullet train, and pay city bus drivers.
France was influenced by the social contract of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Stressing that man is, by nature, not a rugged individualist but a social creature, Rousseau saw government as not merely a necessary evil, but as the embodiment of the communal will an extended village. As in family relations, the compromises we make as individuals to live together don't diminish us, they make us more mature.
(Parenthetically, George W. Bush's vision of a "social contract" resembles that of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who saw the world as a dog-eat-dog place-like one big episode of the TV show "Cops" requiring a strong military/security network to save us from an existence that would otherwise be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.")
Regarding Iraq, perhaps these differences can explain why France favored Rousseau-like compromise and discussion among the family of nations (UN approval), while America chose to act unilaterally...Locke, stock, and barrel.
Which social contract is better? Today, the French have a statistically superior quality of life, at least judged by life expectancy, infant mortality, murder and crime rates, subsidized health care, a 35-hour work week, number of vaction days, and overall social security. They're less litigious. When a Parisian dines at McDonald's ("chez MacDo," as they say) and spills hot coffee in his lap, he doesn't immediately think to sue, knowing that the French legal system stresses working problems out before going to court.
On the other hand, they pay far more than we do in taxes, and routinely give up many cherished American freedoms. Gun control laws are so strict they'd blow Americans away. (New gun owners need government-approved visitation rights to even touch their guns.)
Sans complaints, they endure regular train strikes and farmers blocking freeways with tractors, supporting the worker's desires for a better quality of life even if the inconveniences to them are great. They submit to unquestioned police authority and searches that violate personal freedom. And would an American really want to live in a typical, cramped French apartment house where my inalienable right to flush my own toilet ends at 11:00 pm?
Conversely, most French would find American life to be over-scheduled, chaotic, yet bland with nowhere near enough vacation time for a civilized human being. Always-open mega-stores, 25 choices of lattes to go, and dirt-cheap gas but hopelessly inconvenient trains, would leave many French woozy. Americans may be more free, but the French get their teeth fixed for free.
Finalement, the two cultures have more in common than you'd think. Common history (Revolutionary partners, allies in two World Wars, both losers in Vietnam), both wary of Arab peoples, mono-linguism, love of films, pets, and Greg Le Monde. Both are facing a changing society as immigration fractures the common language and traditional values. When Americans are asked to describe the French, they routinely say "Rude and arrogant." What do the French say of us? "Arrogant and rude."
Most of all, both cultures share a similar threat: globalization. America embraces this threat as a challenge and an opportunity. The French see America making its culture at home in their house-bringing along more Big Macs, Euro Disneys, soap operas, work stress, and rap music. Many Americans fear a powerful United Nations that limits our freedoms; the French fear a powerful America that drowns their culture.
If we dig down to each other's cultural roots, we can see why two well-meaning, educated democracies can see an issue in completely different ways.
So, in the spirit of fraternity, equality and liberty we say vive la différence!
And hold the fries, please.
Gene Openshaw co-authors the Rick Steves guidebooks covering Paris, London, Rome, Venice, Florence, and Amsterdam, plus Mona Winks and Europe 101. Steve Smith co-authors the Rick Steves guidebooks covering France and Paris. He also manages guides and operations for Rick Steves' tour program.