Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

France is an Incredibly Foreign Country

We talk quite a lot of smack about France here, because we can. But one of the underlying points is that, in our terrible American high school educations, we're taught that there are countries "like" ours (France, England, Italy and maybe now Germany), countries that are less-good versions of ours (Mexico, Canada, Australia), countries that are disasters (Russia, India) and countries that are weird and scary (Japan, Honduras, Philippines, "Africa"). And this isn't true at all, and in the actual practice, France is as "alien" in terms of operational ideas as, well… Senegal and Algeria. (Heh.) The usual history lesson here goes something like "de Tocqueville blah blah," and since then we're basically the same country—but that couldn't be more wrong. And we are bizarre to them, which is why the French are horrified at how we treat the arrested in general (as in, with a lack of dignité), among other things. This is why we have the bizarre and somewhat paranoid ramblings of Bernard-Henri Lévy today, whose last official act as dominant philosopher was to send France to war with Libya. To us it is incredibly absurd that he can write "I am troubled by a system of justice modestly termed 'accusatory,' meaning that anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime." The French horror at our criminal justice system is not unreasonable, all told—Americans should as well be horrified at the way we've created an immense second class of semi-citizens in the prison industrial complex. But in terms of operational principles of accusation and trial? I can't even imagine another way! And neither can BHL, who has no conception that to us, the ability to accuse is considered a foundation of equality.

67 Comments / Post A Comment


Zola a un désappoint.

Art Yucko (#1,321)


lbf (#2,343)


SeanP (#4,058)

@NotAndersonCooper yeah, what IS it with France anyway? Between the whole Roman Polanski thing and this, I'm left assuming that the nation position on rape is… maybe it's not that big a deal? It's like I don't even know France anymore.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

Yes, but what you must keep at mind at all times when it comes to Bernard Henri-Levi is that he is an idiot. An idiot with a nice wardrobe and the kind of hair that Graydon Carter dreams about, but an idiot all the same.

@IBentMyWookie I am totally keeping that in mind today.


The thing about the French (and yes, I'm allowed to say "the thing about the French" because dammit they are a significant chunk of my family) is that they are incredibly gullible when choosing their public intellectuals. Add this to the fact that said public intellectuals apparently enjoy the only irony-free zone in all of France*, and voila, Bernard Henri-Levi.

*I am still astonished that nobody in France seems to recognize the obvious: that Michel Houellebecq is intentionally hilarious.

@Choire Sicha : I believe the prescription was "at all times." When riding the subway. When buying coffee. When gazing up at the summer sky. You must keep it in mind AT ALL TIMES, lest Henri-Levi take advantage of your momentary weakness and assume his true form of limitless power.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Thanks for that; I love Houellebecq & regard his writing as blackest comedy.

kpants (#719)

"Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore" Garrison Keillor (I STILL love this assessment.)

Mr. B (#10,093)

@kpants: Oh, nuts. Serves me right for not reading all the comments more thoroughly (see below). *Hangs head in shame.*

MichelleDean (#7,041)

@kpants Oh man, thank you for bringing that review into my life.

Smitros (#5,315)

@kpants But that would be, in Lake Woebegone [sp.?] terms, above-average for a French intellectual of recent decades.

SeanP (#4,058)

@kpants This is why I love Garrison Keillor.

melis (#1,854)

@SeanP That is the only acceptable reason to love Garrison Keillor.

Louis Fyne (#2,066)

@melis Whaaat???

Isn't Garrison Keillor kind of…"handsy" as well? Or does he just stick with the one mistress?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

The worst thing about this, for me, is that my girlfriend is a French Socialist and news junkie, so I imagine the next couple of years for me are going to be basically what it would be like for a French person dating someone who lived in L.A. during the OJ trial ("What about a glove? Agh I don't caaaaaaare…."). Especially considering that the French press are not used to (1) talking about politicians' sex antics or (2) having details about an ongoing criminal investigation/trial available to them in basically real time….

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@stuffisthings By the way, an example of how French privacy laws work: we were watching one of those local news 'on your side' type shows investigating a shoddy architect, where they show these ludicrously badly built houses and the families who are worried they will fall down on their kids etc. And then they talk to the architect woman, who basically says the people with the (really obviously shoddy) houses are idiots and "that's how a wood house is supposed to be," and HER FACE AND VOICE ARE BLURRED OUT and I was like "Uh so what's the point exactly?"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but in France hamburgers eat people, yes?

roboloki (#1,724)

who wants freedom fries?

Mr. B (#10,093)

Bernard-Henri Lévy? Bernard-Henri Lévy!* I thought we didn't have to pay any more attention to that douche** after Garrison Keillor kicked his ass a few years back.

* I pronounce it "Henry-Levee," just because I can.
** Thank you, France, for your vocabulary, at least.

freetzy (#7,018)

"And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster…"

We can conclude from this sentence fragment that Dominique has not sexually assaulted Bernard.

freetzy (#7,018)

…yet… I should have added that earlier.

@freetzy HAHAHA. YES.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

@freetzy: CASE CLOSED.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

Yes, we are alien. Le Monde has an article on the treatment of the DSK affair in the "anglo-saxon" press. That's a common French term for things British and/or American.

Google Translator is reasonably good if you don't read French.


Jillsy Sloper (#12,648)

@Polly Peachum The comments on that are appalling.

hockeymom (#143)

I believe unbuttoning that type of shirt to that level is a fashion faux pas. But I will await Choire's next Gillette sponsored column to make a final judgement.

lbf (#2,343)

@hockeymom A few years back I was at a party he attended, and SWEAR TO GOD if the bar ahdn't run out of champagne, leaving me dangerously underdrunk, I could/would have thrown pieces of sushi in his gaping shirt.

@hockeymom Eeeewww. I just noticed that.

hockeymom (#143)

@lbf "Underdrunk" is my new favorite adjective. Or is it an adverb?

lbf (#2,343)

@hockeymom who cares, it's six o'clock in Paris and there is pastis to be had.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@hockeymom And yet that fucking Tom Ford feels free to make sartorial pronouncements…

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

I don't see any difference between the French and the Americans. It seems like both are equally baffled that the other are different.

@Niko Bellic I kind of feel like we are two assholes that feel the other is always an asshole, but we are actually both assholes in strikingly similar ways.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

@winchesterwolcott This is the way the rest of the world feels about you, I think. Certainly we in the less-good versions of yourselves.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Opinions are like families, everybody's got two, at least.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

"And I do not want to enter into considerations of dime-store psychology that claims to penetrate the mind of the subject, observing, for example, that the number of the room (2806) corresponds to the date of the opening of the Socialist Party primaries in France (06.28), in which he is the uncontested favorite, thereby concluding that this is all a Freudian slip, a subconsciously deliberate mistake, and blah blah blah."

But what does Nostradamus have to say?

He's unhinged. Am I the only one who thought that all philosophers possessed a strong grasp of logic?

No one in France takes BHL as anything but a joke. here he proves himself to be one once again by not bothering to check his facts.
The thing is that some people tried to explain the differences between the French and American legal system, the main one being that your system is called "accusatory", meaning that its to the accusation to bring the proof of its saying, while ours is called "inquisitory", meaning that the judge has an investigating power and will in fact take it upon himself to find out who's telling the truth.
As these things go, many people (I've seen them on Twitter) stopped at "accusatory" and took it for meaning that the burden of the proof falls upon the accused, probably because we always assume the worst from you guys in the USA.
BHL obviously didnt take the 2 minutes it takes on Wikipedia to check upon this ludicrous claim, but there's also something to be said about the editors of The Daily Beast not bothering to correct him.

freetzy (#7,018)

@Cédric Le Merrer I just read that the French have an "inquisitory" legal system, and I just CANNOT believe that they ACTUALLY hire the Spanish Inquisition to prosecute their cases. Seriously, I did not expect to learn that.

lbf (#2,343)

Also, the dude toured the US and wrote a fucking book about how he thinks he's Tocqueville. It's actually pretty much a constant in this country: if someone you meet claims to know and love the US, it's safe to assume he's a jingoistic dickface.

@freetzy obviously, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. (you're welcome, I always like a good set up)

SeanP (#4,058)

@Cédric Le Merrer bravo!

MaryHaines (#3,666)

@Cédric Le Merrer: Thank you much for explaining this. I keep reading "…meaning that anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime" and wondering, How…else…could you…?

barnhouse (#1,326)

There's this paradox of how they are so uptight, bourgeois, sexist, throwback but there is no denying that they actually take way, WAY better care of their disadvantaged than we do.

Bittersweet (#765)

@barnhouse: That they take better care of their disadvantaged is probably true. That their society/economy offers better advancement opportunities to their disadvantaged is up for debate.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Advancement opportunity is such an intensely nebulous concept, though, at least to Americans. We get that such a thing exists, we're even willing to stake "exceptionalism" on it, but in the event what does it come down to? Another car? A bigger house and fewer hours in it? (Or the big house, and every day in it…)

You read it here last — advancement opportunities is always in danger of turning into a code phrase for the hedonic treadmill

deepomega (#1,720)

@dntsqzthchrmn: This seems sort of privileged to me. Like, this argument assumes that everyone has the same access to resources and luxuries as the person making it – and the people who make it tend to be Generally Well Off. But if you were a first-generation non-native-speaking immigrant, I'm not sure you'd refer to getting a new flat with a better residents-to-bedrooms ratio so dismissively.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@deepomega Oh I agree! And would add that an ever greater percentage of us will be nostalgic for the days of bedrooms for the foreseeable future.

Bittersweet (#765)

@dntsqzthchrmn: I'm not quite sure what I meant by "advancement opportunities," except that they are something other than selling tchotchkes on a blanket outside Versailles with no prospect of a better life for your kids. (Not that the US doesn't have a permanent underclass as well, we're just not as good at pretending we don't have one.)

I lived there just after I'd read a lot of Beaudrilliard. References to him in conversation, which, yes, thoroughly deserve your ridicule here, were met with a blank "Qui?" So, not all that different.

As for BHL, well, Daphne Guinness. So there's that.

lbf (#2,343)

@TerseNursePornstein to further the destruction of assumptions: nobody under 60 knows who Jerry Lewis is either. I hope David Brooks* takes notes and omits the usual reference to how weird we are because we love him next time he talks about us.

*or fucking whoever

SeanP (#4,058)

@lbf "no one under 60 knows who Jerry Lewis is" applies more universally than you might think.

Baroness (#273)

@TerseNursePornstein I cannot believe that Daphne is so head over heels in l'amour with this popinjay. She often tweets about oh, the agonies of love. I've read it's pretty agonizing for his wife Arielle D as well.

@Baroness Am equally mystified. He's more insufferable than those who reference Baudrillard!

lbf (#2,343)

@SeanP my point exactly!

KarenUhOh (#19)

Never trust a culture that has to point at a vowel in order to tell you how to pronounce it.

lbf (#2,343)

@KarenUhOh I cannot for he life of me understand why the French think Nordic ä's, ø's and å's are comical and weird. UM HELLO HAVE YOU SEEN OUR KEYBOARD LAYOUT, IT'S RIDICULOUS

sigerson (#179)

I think I speak for all of America when I say this: the maid can complain all she wants but the NYPD doesn't arrest someone unless there is REAL EVIDENCE of a sexual assault and they have had time to interrogate the accuser to test her veracity. And Cyrus Vance doesn't push hard for no bail unless he's got the goods.

Beton Brut (#9,351)

@sigerson Not to mention that whole "we don't have an extradition agreement with France" thing.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Beton Brut It never came up?

Not to be an apologist for BHL – he's a miserable human being – but there's just one thing I want to pull out of what he said as worth keeping in mind. And that is that when he says "I am troubled by a system of justice modestly termed 'accusatory,' meaning that anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime" he is referring to the fact that France uses an entirely different legal system from the US, which is non-adversarial (in the sense that there are not "two sides" which each bring the strongest case before the court, but rather, there is a judge who conducts the investigation into the facts). I'm not particularly interested in starting a discussion of the relative merits of civil and common law legal systems on this comment thread, but I think his horror and incomprehension *in that regard* is understandable and a coherent case could be mounted to defend it. The French legal system seems fairly bizarre to me as an outside observer, as well.


Amasa Amos (#9,654)

@Aaron Baker: it's even funnier when you call the French "non-adversarial" court system by it's technical name: inquisitorial(!)

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