French Lessons

I have a complicated relationship with France.  I love so many aspects of the culture and long for some of the simple, soothing rhythms of French life.  And yet, after decades of their snobbish contempt for me and mine and their overtly hostile behavior in recent years toward American domestic and foreign policy, my begrudging admiration has been tested and has devolved into a simmering level of disgust. 

I am heartened by newly elected French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s thoughts on immigration reform in his country and for the first time in decades, I think perhaps the French might be more than cheese-eating surrender monkeys.  We might be able to learn some lessons from them yet.

In the early 1960’s, my aunt Lucy left Chicago for a summer in Paris.  She was 19 years old and eager to learn and embrace a culture that would be decidedly different from her upper middle class suburban upbringing.  On the boat to Paris she met, and fell in love with, a much older French artist.  In a plot worthy of a Meg Ryan movie, she landed in Paris with this mysterious painter and stayed for the next 40 years until her death in 2002.
Part of the charm of Paris for Lucy was immersing herself in French culture.  She and Toto married and moved into a bohemian community of artists and musicians.  She learned the language so fluently that on a visit back to the States in the 1970’s, she struggled to find the nuances of communicating in English, nuances that came naturally to her in French.  |

Her days Paris were spent trolling the markets for fresh fruits and vegetables and debating with locals at neighborhood cafes.  By the end of her first decade in Paris, a stranger passing on the street would not have been able to discern for a moment that she was born in Chicago and still held loosely to the hard “a” of the North Side.

During our visits over the years, often meeting up for summers in Belgium where my grandfather settled after retirement, we discussed politics and culture over coffee and cigarettes on the patio.  Lucy’s opinions were colored by her French experiences and as the years unfolded, she became more and more a French socialist, almost all traces of her capitalist, freedom loving American upbringing disappearing.

At the time I was dismissive of her beliefs and frankly more than a little offended.  How could she have turned her back on the culture that raised her?  How could she have become so judgmental of all things American?  It seemed disloyal and unappreciative.

As I grapple with the immigration reforms that appear to be back on life support in the Senate again this week, I find myself admiring Lucy’s transformation from baseball and apple pie to cheese-eating socialist.  She went to France because she wanted to experience France, not to take her corner of the United States with her in an effort to Americanize her life there.  She learned the language, embraced the cultural behaviors and rhythms and even embraced the political environment.  She wanted to live in France as France presented herself. 

But the French today are watching unabated immigration change who they are.  Unlike my aunt, more and more immigrants to France wish to take their home cultures with them and bend French culture to meet their desires.  France is becoming decidedly less French in the process.

"If some people are bothered by France, they shouldn’t hesitate to leave a country they don’t love," Sarkozy has said.
Can you imagine the firestorm that the left would unleash on a conservative American Presidential candidate had he or she had the bravery to be so blunt?  “America, love it or leave it” would leave liberals foaming at the mouth.  Instead, we have politicians on both sides of the aisle attempting to court future potential voters rather than protect our culture.  Both parties are scrambling past each other to be the party that opens the already damaged flood gates.

Would that the frontrunners on the right had the courage that Sarkozy seems to be displaying.  If only the battle was to determine how tough we can be on immigration as opposed to how quickly we can rollover.

Sarkozy has suggested the “radical” notion of imposing tougher criteria on unskilled and  low-income immigrants while easing access for highly qualified immigrant workers.
"There is generosity and there is irresponsibility," he continued last week, "And why is France the only country in the world that doesn’t have the right to choose its immigrants?  We can’t offer housing and jobs to all those who think France is an El Dorado."

No fears, President Sarkozy.  France is NOT the only country that lacks the right to choose its immigrants.  The United States seems unable to make the tough choices either.
Sarkozy also seeks to restrict the ability of immigrant workers to have family members join them and strips illegal immigrants of the right to receive residency papers after 10 years on French territory.

"Who cannot see that there is a clear link between a policy of uncontrolled immigration over 30 or 40 years and the social explosion in our poor neighborhoods. It’s blindingly obvious that there is a link" Sarkoy said in April, “Controlling immigration is a prerequisite for safeguarding our social pact. Otherwise it will explode. We need to control immigration, dry up its source, in order to be able to integrate those who are here.”

Integrate those who are here.  What a concept!  Are you listening President Bush?  Do you hear that Senators?  There are those in high office who embrace the notion that immigration is a gift, not a right.  That those who seek to enter another culture have just as many responsibilities, if not more, that the country to wish they hope to belong.  Americans need more than cheap lettuce and shorn lawns.  We need, and deserve, to have our new brothers and sisters accept and embrace the social pact that we have on American soil.  We as a nation deserve to have citizens who want to immerse themselves in our culture.  Anything less is intolerable.