As many sound and revealing theories as have been proposed over the past year to explain France's confounding geopolitical behavior, they've all missed something fundamental.
The country's less than Western, less than ally-like stances would have seemed less baffling if we hadn't started from a wrong premise: Namely, that France is a member of the civilized world.
Savages naturally gravitate toward savages. And they facilitate savagery everywhere while impeding nations that seek to minimize it.
How else to explain France's (search) defiant feting and support of brutal leadership, as in Zimbabwe (search) and Iraq (search)? Why else would an old couple get beat up for protesting the Saddam Hussein (search) posters and Iraqi flags that were a staple of French anti-war rallies (search), where young Jews were clobbered with iron bars? How else to explain French sympathy for Islamic rebels (search) everywhere, most recently in the Ivory Coast?
France has a natural affinity for the globe's uncivilized elements. The more primitive, the better to define one's own deviancy down -- a deviancy that once prompted Mark Twain to observe, "In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog and a Frenchman is not perceptible."
But how does one account for all the charming, elegant French culture -- the art, the wine, the cheese, the language, the pastries -- those qualities that have made France what to the world appears to be a bulwark of civilization? My uncle, an Israeli composer, answered that question when he invited my husband and me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (search), and I answered: "We're low-class. We don't go to museums."
He replied: "We're also low-class. That's why we go to museums."
Connoisseurship is indeed a brilliant cloak for depravity: Don a lofty external disguise to mask a degraded internal character. Anything the French do is considered artful, including inventing the guillotine (search), which turned "beheading into an art form," as an ad for a guillotine-style cigar cutter read in a Sky Mall catalogue.
The guillotine inventors, meanwhile, perpetually pride themselves in having abolished the "barbaric" death penalty. Kill their killers they won't, but handing over 10,000 citizens for the gas chambers was never an issue.
The French even managed to innovate in animal cruelty. The popular dish Foie Grois (search) is liver from a goose that has been mechanically force-fed to make its liver work overtime and become soft and fatty. Last April, a top Paris restaurant celebrated its one-millionth 8-week-old duckling to be strangled and cooked in cognac and its own blood, then served with a souvenir numbered tag. Its owner reportedly remarked, "If for the chef each dish is a work of art, for me, it's ... the return of a happy moment. ... There is nothing more serious than pleasure."
Of all the contemporary diplomats, dignitaries and official ministers of the world, it was dashing French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin (search) who refused to answer the question of whom he would rather see win the war -- America or Iraq -- but who published an 800-page book of poetry. This poet calls Hamas a vital player in any Middle East peace process.
Always on the opposing side of civilization and on the cutting edge of degenerateness, the French are pioneers in decadence. What was the first place child rapist Roman Polanski (search) thought to go where he could thrive in exile? France , of course, where art redeems all. And who better to land the gig promoting France and French products than Polanski's kindred spirit here, Woody Allen (search)? Such men have called America "puritanical." Which must be the French understanding of the word "moral."
Consider the book that was a 2001 bestseller in France, The Sexual Life of Catherine M (search), (Grove Press), the true-life memoir of Parisian editor and art critic Catherine Millet who "loves penises," as the June 2002 review in Elle Magazine reads.
In one scene, writes reviewer Will Blythe, an entire caravan of cars gets lost on its way to an outdoor orgy at a sports stadium. At another point in the book, Millet writes: "In the bigger orgies ... there could be up to about 150 people ... and I would take on the organs of around a quarter or a fifth of them in all the available ways."
Whenever the American conscience wrestles with the introduction into our society of some risqué new practice, procedure or product -- such as lowering the legal age of consent, installing condom machines in schools, approving RU-486 (search) and dispensing it in schools -- proponents always reason, "The French have been doing it for years!"
Yet in Paris , where they speak in soft tones and posture demurely, they bristle when the gregarious, high-decibel American approaches with a question, and pretend they don't understand English.
During his stay in Paris, journalist Andrew Baker (search) witnessed a cyclist stop to beat an octogenarian pedestrian unconscious after the latter threw a baguette at his head for cutting him off. According to Baker's 2000 New York Press (search) article about his experience, the event was typical of a Paris day.
Now we know why in America , when someone accidentally uses a four-letter word in the presence of a child, he or she hastily adds, "Pardon my French."
Julia Gorin is the author of the newly released The Buddy Chronicles, available through bruiserbooks.com