In Europe, they love to hate us

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left), President-elect Francois Hollande. Getty
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left), President-elect Francois Hollande. Getty
Posted: May 13, 2012

I REMEMBER WHEN President Obama went on what some conservatives (including this one) called the “apology tour.”It was shortly after he took office three years ago, and provided his critics with a lot of snarky material. Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “A superstar, not a statesman, today leads our country.”

He was referring to the fact that foreign audiences loved the image of an American president distributing mea culpas for what the vast majority of his compatriots viewed as making the world a safer and more-prosperous place. The crosses at Normandy come to mind.

That’s why I was particularly annoyed by Obama’s behavior in those first months after the election. It became clear almost immediately that our new president was not a big fan of the stereotypical symbols of patriotism, including Mom, the flag, apple pie or even Chevrolet (unless they needed a bailout.) And that would have been OK, if he’d just kept that information to himself.

But as I watched Obama commiserate with the rest of the world over his native country’s real or imagined transgressions, it suddenly occurred to me that we had elected the first European to the Oval Office. As someone who has dealt closely with Europeans and other foreigners for more than 30 years, this was not exactly a comforting discovery to me.

It’s not that I don’t like Europeans. I’m as much of an Anglo/Franco/Italo-phile as you can possibly get. I majored in French. I learned Italian in honor of my mother’s side of the family. I speak Spanish because I practice immigration law, which is the same as saying that Eskimos fish. It’s part of the job description.

I’ve lived in France and Italy, have enough stamps in my passport to make customs agents raise their eyebrows, and have more dealings with the State Department than with the Water Department.

No one could call me an isolationist.

Still, I am well-aware that a large part of the world has a jaundiced view of the United States, and it’s particularly pronounced among our “allies.”

My first taste of the “Ugly American Syndrome” was when I spent my junior year of college in Paris. It was right after Ronald Reagan took over the White House, and shortly after Francois Mitterand had moved into the Elysee Palace. (Apropos to nothing, I always thought it was interesting that our leader lived in a “house” while the French set their guy up in a palace. You storm a Bastille, and this is what you end up with? )

Wherever I went, carrying my American accent with me, the distaste was palpable. This might have simply been the normal French aversion to les Americains. It might also have been the fact that I mangled the language enough to tell my dinner companions that we put condoms in our food at home (preservatifs is a false friend) and that prostitutes and Protestants were essentially indistinguishable. I think, however, that it had more to do with resentment at the way America had usurped the central role on the international stage, one that France had always claimed for herself.

I also visited a cousin in Rome once who introduced me to her posse of friends, most of whom were members of the Italian Communist Party, which was more bark than bite but which was distinguished by anger at the United States and its “jingoistic policies.” When I told them that those “jingoistic policies” helped rebuild their own shell-shocked country after World War II, they raised their arms in a universally understood insult. Actually, the scent was worse than the sentiment.

And then there was the time I traveled to London, and was told by a train conductor that I had the wrong ticket. When I explained that the woman at the station window had given me the wrong advice, his response was classic: “I suppose you didn’t understand her given the fact that you don’t speak the language.”

This is not to say that I haven’t met foreigners who love America. In fact, I deal with them daily, helping them navigate the byzantine immigration system, which discourages any but the most motivated from trying to make a life in this country. Those who oppose immigration like to say they oppose illegal immigration, but if they understood how difficult it is to legally immigrate, they might have a little more sympathy for people who love, not loathe, this country.

All of this is to explain why I was sad to see the French kick Nicolas Sarkozy out of the palace. The former French president was thrown over for a Socialist who cohabits with a journalist and sounds like he’s a founding member of the Occupy movement.

Poor Nicolas. He actually loved America.

Big mistake. n

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow

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