Katha Pollitt writes France a “Dear Jean” letter

Here are some lovely snippets:

I used to love you, but this is it. We’re through. Oh, it was lovely while it lasted, my crush on your big welfare state, with its excellent national health service and its government-funded childcare. I liked your firm separation of church and state, your refusal to buy into the Iraq War, your mass demonstrations in support of workers and against the neoliberal agenda. And let’s not forget the long vacations, outdoor markets, flourishing bookstores, and high-speed trains! I even liked the fact that all your schools have the same centralized curriculum—not like here, where local cranks and preachers get to meddle with history and science and cancel the school play. French kids study philosophy in high school! How cool is that?

But now, no longer:

But, France, I don’t like you anymore. Because what is the point of having all those smart, cultivated, social-democratically inclined secular people if it turns out they are such self-satisfied creeps? You should listen to yourself sometime: smug, paunchy, powerful middle-aged men parading across the media going on about how Dominique Strauss-Kahn was just engaging in some typically Gallic flirtation in that Sofitel suite in Manhattan. “It was just a quickie with the maid,” said the famous journalist Jean-François Kahn, using an antiquated idiom (troussage de domestique) that suggests trussing up a chicken

And then we come to French women, and here I have more hesitancy about following KP:

Almost as repellent as the sexual entitlement of French men, with their insistence on their seigneurial right to “heavy flirting,” is the docility and feminine-mystique-ization of the French women who enable them. Well, maybe it’s not entirely their fault: not only do they never get to eat a square meal (oh, so that’s why French women don’t get fat),
masses of them are on tranquilizers—twice as many as French men, and one of the highest rates in the world (hmm, about that national health service…).

The thing is, it doesn’t seem very amusing to find that French women have a very high rate of taking tranqs. There are just too many serious questions to be asked when what looks from the individual’s perspective like her own health choice falls into such a significant pattern. France needs more feminists! Which briings us to that very topic:

Ironically, the DSK affair has given the small and internally conflicted French feminist movement new visibility and a great organizing issue. Petitions are going round against sexual harassment and male privilege. There’s rage and mockery at DSK’s pals and their dominance in the media. On May 22, hundreds of women demonstrated in Paris under banners with slogans like Men lose it—Women pay for it.

Liberté, Egalité, Sororité—when you make that your motto I might start taking you seriously again.

And somewhere in there she takes on their treatment of Muslims.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Katha Pollitt writes France a “Dear Jean” letter

  1. This isn’t the thrust of her essay, but since she mentions it several times: Does she think France has a national health service? It doesn’t, in the usual sense. Not even a true single-payer system.

  2. ‘Almost as repellent as the sexual entitlement of French men, with their insistence on their seigneurial right to “heavy flirting,”’

    Is this a fair characterization of French men in general, or is it only true of men like Strauss-Kahn and BHL who belong to certain elite circles? I don’t know – I know very little about France- but I worry that judging all of France on the basis of Strauss-Kahn and ilk is like judging the US on the basis of Beck and Coulter. I would be interested in hearing an ‘average’ French person’s perspective.

  3. Nemo, I have no idea what she might think the details look like. The public language on these things is very loose and ill- defined.

    Ben, I take her to be criticizing ‘the French’ for having men who are clearly creeps as esteemed public figures.

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