Matt Evans: Our Relationship With France Is Complicated


Last weekend, Islamic terrorists murdered a whole bunch of people in Paris.  One of the attacks appears to have targeted the French president, in fact.

As you would expect, there has been an outpouring of support for the victims of this massacre.  One thing that has also happened, and that I did not expect, is the show of solidarity with France from so many Americans, from all walks of life and political persuasions.

By this, I primarily mean everyone changing their Facebook profile pictures to have the French flag overlaying their normal photo.

I didn’t expect this because I can still remember many occasions where part of the national dialogue was reasonably hostile towards France.  It wasn’t so long ago that “Freedom Fries” was a trending idea in the United States.  It wasn’t so long ago that you could buy anti-France t-shirts.

I don’t actually recall what the underlying problem was.  I think it may have been about France’s unwillingness to cooperate with the US on some kind of war effort somewhere.

But in any case, the point is, just a few short years ago France was the butt of some American jokes and some open disdain.

What happened?

After the Friday attacks, it didn’t take long for a different theme to emerge on social media.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I didn’t expect this because I can still remember many occasions where part of the national dialogue was reasonably hostile towards France.  It wasn’t so long ago that “Freedom Fries” was a trending idea in the United States.  It wasn’t so long ago that you could buy anti-France t-shirts.[/mks_pullquote]

Apparently, the folks at Missouri university, Yale, and so on, who have been protesting in recent weeks over their campus administrations not taking their demands seriously, are upset that the Paris attacks are distracting Americans from their issue.  Some of the tweets are pretty racist.  A number of them suggest that whites are finally upset about something because France is white.  A number have simply said “[expletive deleted] Paris”, while others started with that admonition and then added something specifically racial.

That was the nasty version of the reaction.

There was a more subtle reaction that came about a day later.  I’ll quote a friend of mine here:

“[I hope] that at least one of the folks who added some form of the French flag to their profile pic will also change their pic to the flag of Tunisia, Lebanon, or Kuwait.  Paris wasn’t the only place hit by terrorists on Friday.”

Ok.  Fair point.

Why the disparity in response?  Is it, as Mizzou supporters claim, racial in nature?

Why would Americans be falling over themselves to show their support for France when just a few years ago, many of them were falling over themselves to buy anti-French t-shirts?

Well, as someone who participated in neither trend, I’ll attempt to offer one explanation.

We are told that all people are equal.  This is of course completely false.  But I’m being pedantic.  What is often meant by this verbal sloppiness is one of two things

  1. All people are equally valuable [to God, for instance]
  2. All people should be treated equally before the law

These are both good ideas, so far as they go.

It is true that we should feel equally as bad about 1 dead Frenchmen as we should 1 dead Syrian – all else being equal – because both are equally valuable to God.

But these ideas don’t seem to fully capture the entire issue, in my view.  It is rarely the case that we think about violence against an individual only from the perspective of the death of that individual.  We also think about what that means in our own life.  Could that have been us?  Why or why not?  Was that attack against an individual also symbolic of an attack against a value that is important to us?

The idea of a nation is more than the sum of its individuals.  That’s one reason we have nations.  That’s why we talk about things like “assimilation” or “culture” or “national identity”.

Once the number of dead from an event gets to be larger than a handful of people, I think survivors begin to think about the loss in a different way.  We do not think about the Holocaust as “6 million people who were murdered who happened to be Jewish”.  We think, “6 million Jews who were killed as part of an effort to try and exterminate Jews”.  There were many more millions of people killed in WW2.  The holocaust has a special place in the modern history of the first world because of the reasons behind the killing.

When we talk about large numbers of deaths in the same event, especially if we don’t personally know any of the victims, the names of the individuals fade away, and what we are left with are the ideas behind the killings, and how much we think we are like the victims, or if we think the reasons behind the killings are good reasons, bad reasons, understandable reasons, senseless reasons, etc.

Large numbers cause death and violence to become more abstract.

So, viewed abstractly, how is a terrorist attack against Paris different from one against Tunisia?

Well, one narrative is that the difference is racial.  That is, white people identify with white victims, and do not identify as much with non-white victims.

At first glance, the data might fit that explanation.

But I don’t think it’s quite right.  For one thing, there are black people on social media who are showing solidarity with the French victims, and there were probably some black victims in the Paris attacks – France has never been racially lily white, and certainly isn’t today.  And I really don’t even understand what the current thinking is regarding the races of people in Middle Eastern and North African countries, or what kind of counterpoint they represent.

What I actually think is a better explanation is national identity and culture.

Out of all of the countries I’ve listed in this article, only France is a “first world” nation.

One of the things we often see in 3rd world nations is sectarian violence.  I’ll let people argue about if 3rd world status causes violence, or violence prevents a society from escaping the 3rd world, but suffice it to say, I think they are related.

First world nations feel comfortable to us.  ALL of us.  If you are an American, no matter what color you are or where you live, you can feel relatively confident that fighter bombers will not strafe your neighborhood.   If you visit France, you will not have fighter aircraft flying over your apartment block dropping bombs on you.  You might see the Eiffel Tower; you might visit Euro Disneyland.  You have the opportunity to experience the most refined implementations of western culture – ballet, opera, architecture, cuisine.  All of it is on offer, and it is woven through the country, all available to you.  That is why people visit France.

Syria?  Getting bombed is a thing in Syria.  Don’t want to get bombed during your vacation?  All bets are off.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″] If you are an American, no matter what color you are or where you live, you can feel relatively confident that fighter bombers will not strafe your neighborhood. [/mks_pullquote]

Accordingly, people who have the choice to not go to Syria, do not go to Syria.  (They may go for humanitarian reasons.  They don’t take their kids to Syria for a leisurely vacation or soak up the culture.)

I have a friend from Syria, and that friend talked a bit about living there, and, especially about what living with the police in Syria is like.  I agree that we need to fix a number of police problems in the US.  But until you’ve lived in Syria, or talked to someone who has, you have no idea how incredibly good we have it as Americans – All of us, of every color.  I demand perfection in my own country, and criticize it accordingly, but I have some perspective of what a few other countries are like, and there’s no where I’d rather live than here.  Not everyone has an informed perspective.

You saw in the photos and videos from France that the French police and other first responders were there, restoring order, capturing terrorists, actually helping people.  That’s a first world thing.  It’s not a world-wide thing.

Here’s another thing.  I have no idea if there is some kind of super awesome style of dance in Tunisia.  But there is a New York City ballet.  And it can trace its roots (like most Ballet companies), to the Paris Opera Ballet, which has been a going concern since 1669.  Astute readers will note that Paris has had a continually operating Ballet company longer than the United States has been a nation.

(fans of Ballet may point out that it is thought to have originated in Italy.  France raised it to the art form that it is today.  That’s what they do.)

Like it or not, the history and culture of the US owe much to the history and culture of France.  The Statue of Liberty was given to us by France, not Libya.

Whatever their differences with us in recent geopolitical maneuvers, once upon a time, the French helped us win our war of independence against Great Britain.  Accordingly, any basic course in US history repeatedly mentions French assistance.   Iraq did not help create the United States.  France did.

As near as I understand it, the main disdain that some Americans hold towards France is really about the French sense of smugness and/or cultural superiority.  Well, so be it.  If you pick any aspect of western civilization, the French are well represented, and they know it.  Braggadocio is also something of a shared cultural value between Americans and the French.  I think it’s a bit of a good natured rivalry, more than any deep seated difference.

So, if you want to know why so many Americans are responding to France in a way that they haven’t responded to Iraq, or Syria, or anywhere in Africa, or Mexico, or anywhere in South America… I think it’s not all that hard to understand.  We are much more French than we might care to admit – and we are better for it.

Yes, people are equally valuable.

But cultures, societies, and nations are decidedly not.

I am called to care for the people of the 3rd world, but I have no special attachment to the governments or cultures of the 3rd world.  Not all cultures are equally valuable, either to me, or to God.  You may recall that God ordained the destruction of individuals because they lived in societies that were irredeemable.

Of course, if you’re not a Godly type, you can judge a culture by its results.

Libya is trying to decide how much female genital mutilation is acceptable.  Saudi Arabia is executing women for the crime of getting raped.  Afghanistan has reverted back to killing girls who want to learn to read.  In South Africa, raping children to try and cure AIDS is still a pretty popular way to self-medicate.

These detestable actions in other places are the actions of individuals we are commanded to love and value, but they exist within the context of cultures, societies, and governments, that are really hard for me to get excited about.

So, we see the attacks on France not as 130 dead white people.  We see these attacks as the 3rd world attacking the 1st world.  We see some alien, foreign culture of destruction and suffering, attacking a culture that is very much like our own.  We see failed nations moving backwards, throwing sand in the eyes of a brilliant nation that continues to serve as a crucible for the betterment of western civilization.

In my opinion, that’s the difference.

To close, I’ll leave you with a few words from a man much wiser than I.  No less a man than Thomas Jefferson once wrote the following:

“Every man has two countries: his own and France”