“France-Amérique is a Francophile dream”. So says a certain Pamela, who has written to us from Maryland. Thanks Pamela: your kind words are ample reward for our efforts. But they also puzzle us. What, precisely, is Francophilia?
There is no country besides France that sparks this indescribable passion. The only real “philia” to be so widespread around the world and throughout the ages is French. The opposite phenomenon would obviously be Francophobia, though it is fairly uncommon and temporary, and usually provoked by a one-off event, such as France’s refusal to take part in the military offensive against Iraq in 2003. If there is such a thing as Americanophilia, it is, more often than not, limited to aspects of American society, such as its economic efficiency, and of course, to gratitude for America’s liberation of Europe, on two occasions. Yet there is no global and lasting Americanophilia that would be the equivalent of Francophilia. Which brings us back to Pamela.
We chose not to bother her with questions, and avoided asking her to define what she meant by Francophilia or how our magazine lived up to her expectations. Yet we bring up her observation while adding a pinch of cheekiness that is more French than Francophile, and which makes Americans often greater Francophiles than the French of France. For Francophilia is as much a love of an ideal France as it is of a real one. We know that American Francophiles are sensitive to the art de vivre, cuisine, fashion, literature, cinema, chateaux and landscapes, manners, and even seduction skills that they attribute to French women and men. For the American Francophile, all of these civilizational characteristics are, consciously or unconsciously, set against a supposed American “lack of refinement.” Yet does this Francophiles’ France really exist? Or does it still exist?
Everyday French society is not always sophisticated, French women are not all thin and elegant, Parisian housing projects look more like the Bronx than Loire Valley chateaux, and frozen couscous is more often on French households’ dinner menu than foie gras with crunchy green beans. Most books published by visiting American women, and so many movies – Woody Allen’s in particular – carefully cherry-pick, within the real France, those pieces of the dream that live up to Francophiles’ expectations.
Likewise, in the pantheon of the Francophile, French art, painting, architecture, and literature belong more often than not to the past, and are not the products of contemporary creation. Versailles, the Francophile icon, still radiates like a dead planet whose light continues to shine even as its center is extinguished. Admittedly, Francophiles are not entirely wrong, because while Versailles is no longer the décor for feasts and revelry that it once was, it still stands, and its gardens are untouched. Should we marvel at its shimmering rays, or mourn its vanishing center? Francophiles are more inclined to do the former, while many of the French, critical by nature and perhaps even jaded, prefer the latter. Which plunges us into a constant dilemma at France-Amérique: should we confine ourselves to the ideal France, or thrust ourselves into the real France, at the risk of distressing some Francophiles?
We prefer to steer a middle course: we emphasize beauty, without reinventing it the way travel brochures do, by erasing all of the roughness in the landscape and in society. We also make sure not to confine ourselves to the old, and to avoid worshiping a France that no longer exists. Whether it is art de vivre, literature, cinema, or fashion, we find it more rewarding to share with our Francophile and Francophone readers a vision of France as it is, eternal yet ever-changing (Marcel Proust, certainly, but also Patrick Modiano; Hardouin Mansart, yes, but Jean Nouvel, too) and the Franco-American relationship as it is, harmonious or not, though inevitably passionate. In our view, proper Francophilia, like Love, requires us to appreciate the other for their faults as well, and to find happiness in the unexpected. N’est-ce pas, Pamela, dear stranger from Maryland?