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Is God French?

Are you familiar with the saying “Heureux comme Dieu en France” (“As happy as God in France”)? The expression was used in Europe until the 1930s. It is of Yiddish origin: in the 19th century, Jews of Central Europe who suffered the brutality of the Russian and Austrian authorities imagined France as a republican haven of peace. In 1930, the German writer Friedrich Sieburg used the expression as the title of a book that idealized French society and contrasted it with the unsophisticated nature – in his view – of Germany.  The book proved a great success.

It seems to me that this idealization of France prevails today, not across the Rhine, but across the Atlantic. The idealization of French culture has given rise to a veritable literary industry, as illustrated by Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat in 2004 and French Women Don’t Get Facelifts in 2013; Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé in 2012; or Peter Mayle’s Provence Toujours in 1991. These books present a collection of clichés about a France that’s been dreamed up by American women: Those who fret about their weight or their children’s outbursts are led to believe by these pseudo-surveys of France that another life is possible. France is what we call a Utopia: Americans enjoy a partial, rather than a complete, view of its present-day reality. American tourists manage to find what they come looking for: Fashion, beauty, heritage, and gastronomy actually do exist.

Strangely, this passion is not symmetrical. The French do not idealize the United States, with the possible exception of those entrepreneurs who’d like to become capitalists in America because the French state curbs their ambitions. The United States has become the preferred destination of young French travelers, but that’s only because they view the United States as a vast recreational space. To Americans, France is often represented by Versailles and its court. To the French, the United States is represented, rather, by Times Square and Disneyland. Admittedly, French intellectuals are not as systematically anti-American as they have been over the last century. Yet so far, no French author has written a book with the title Heureux comme Dieu en Amérique (“As Happy as God in America”): To the French, the United States is a powerful country, but not necessarily a happy one.

This French severity – in France, we like to pass definitive judgment – appears unfounded on at least one count: specifically, the place of God in our societies.  France, which before the 1789 Revolution was the most Catholic country in Europe, has become the most secular. This secularism is often misunderstood by Americans. The term is untranslatable: The word “secularism” suggests the State’s neutrality towards all religions, a “wall of separation,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, between faiths and the State. Yet French secularism is not neutral. It is militant: It is in fact a State religion, bordering on intolerance. It is symbolized today by the controversy around the Muslim veil:  French law bans the veil in public places, particularly at school, on the grounds that it is a form of religious proselytism that breaches secularism, the official religion in all but name. In the United States, the ban on the veil would be unthinkable and considered discriminatory, which it is. We cannot deny the fact that the assimilation of Muslims disturbs Americans as much as it does the French. Yet Americans (for the most part) believe that acceptance of diversity paves the way to full citizenship, while the French (almost unanimously) prefer to eliminate this diversity.

Going back to the Yiddish saying (which, it must be noted, emerged before the Dreyfus affair and the deportation of Jews by the Vichy government), no one knows how to measure whether we’re happier in France than in the United States. It is equally unclear whether French women are thinner than American women, or whether their children are better raised.  Yet if God could speak on the subject, he would say that he was probably more comfortable in the United States than in France. Being truly French demands that one not believe in Him or, at least, not show it. Conversely, being truly American assumes that we believe in Him – In God we trust or at least pretend to. As happy as God in France and America: that would make a fine topic of meditation on what distinguishes our two countries and makes their relationship – more interesting than such elementary concerns as diets and plastic surgery.

Article published in the July 2015 issue of France-Amérique.

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