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Err France

The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us--and Why the Feeling Is Mutual
By Richard Z. Chesnoff
(Sentinel, 208 pp., $23.95)
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Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese
By Denis Boyles
(Encounter Books, 210 pp., $23.95)
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Here is how you build a case against France in 200 pages or less: Start by lobbing a generic insult at its national character ("self-righteous" is good; "snooty, elitist, self-satisfied, self-obsessed, humorless, [and] Paris-dwelling" is better). Throw in a few quaint anecdotes about the absurdities--cheese!, wine!, bicycles!, berets!--of Gallic life. Drop some bons mots with a casual sneer: a zeut alors here, an ooh la la there. Then, in all seriousness, reel off a compacted litany of French historical and political iniquities. And finally, conclude with an analogy that can be easily unpacked by American readers ("It's the Ted Bundy of European nations").

This, at least, is the formula favored by two brief new anti-French polemics, The Arrogance of the French by Richard Z. Chesnoff and Vile France by Denis Boyles. Both books lay down a similar set of grievances (though only after their authors have nobly established their objectivity by pointing out that they love and live among the French). Their j'accuse goes something like this: France hates America. We're richer, we're more powerful, we're more democratic; we're just better. And France's recent opposition to the Iraq war is but the latest wobble in a relationship marked by benign stewardship on our side and spiteful vitriol on theirs.

There's no doubt that France has been responsible for its share of political outrage over the years. And Chesnoff and Boyles hit all the low notes with glee: the brutal exploitation of colonies, the shameful collaboration with the Nazis, the oppressively stratified society that permits little mobility, the continued toleration of blatant anti-Semitism. But ultimately their books have two major flaws. First, France would seem like a much more formidable threat if the authors didn't devote quite so much space to its weakness and obsolescence on the world stage. Boyles breezily resigns France to the ignominy of being an "incidental nation"; Chesnoff, for his part, paints French foreign policy as nothing more than the impotent gesturing of Jacques Chirac and "his prissy foreign minister Dominique de Villepin." Having depicted France as weak and irrelevant, Chesnoff and Boyles struggle to explain why France should earn our anger rather than our total inattention.

The second problem is one of presentation. Arrogance and Vile are able at times to put aside peevishness and grapple with some difficult topics. What should the United States and France do about Islamic extremism? How can the two countries work together to export their democratic political systems to other parts of the world? But no sooner are these weighty questions posed than the authors recoil into another cute story of provincial zaniness ("then everyone broke into smiles, laughed those little French laughs" concludes one offering from Boyles). Rude bistro waiters receive the same cool disdain as President Mitterrand's economic policies; all offenses springing from the esprit national merit equal, improbable outrage.

And that points to the authors' biggest faux pas of all. France has erred on enough major, substantive issues to warrant genuine criticism. But complaining about the saucy service in Paris cafes doesn't amplify France's role in coddling Saddam Hussein; on the contrary, it diminishes it. And so a plea to future writers of anti-French polemics--and there will be more: Go ahead, bash France. But mon dieu, at least have the good sense to do it right.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.