Courtesy Reuters

EXCEPTION TO THE EXCEPTION

By Norman Birnbaum

To the Editor:

Sophie Meunier discusses French attitudes toward the United States, but perhaps she would care to reflect on American attitudes toward France.

Perhaps a clue to the clash between American and French sensibilities can be found in the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholicism in France was rigorous but also included a certain acceptance of the inevitable weakness of the flesh. If we understand American Puritanism as the terrible suspicion that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying life, a dour American refusal to cultivate les douceurs de la vie would certainly lead to skepticism (mixed with envy) toward France.

Meunier instructs us that Americans are individualistic -- a familiar theme. But if we believe observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Professors Robert Putnam and Richard Sennett, and those exceptionally acute historical observers, our novelists, then Americans today are hardly individualistic.

Perhaps these differences were not far from French minds when Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine refused at Warsaw, in June, to affix France's signature to a vacuous declaration on democracy.

The French are odd. They suppose that their values are at least as universal as ours, and that they know a lot about history and statecraft. Is it possible that they are serenely undisturbed by American criticism, since they think that the real historical oddity is the United States?

Norman Birnbaum

Professor, Georgetown University Law Center

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