Je t’aime ... moi non plus

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, by Elaine Sciolino, Times Books, RRP$27, 352 pages

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, RRP$37.50, 576 pages

Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon, by Arthur Kaledin, Yale, RRP$45/£30, 400 pages

Books have been written, movies made and glasses lifted to honour the Anglo-American “special relationship”. But that friendship pales in drama and durability alongside the courtship carried on for more than two centuries by the US and France.

Those twin democracies were born in back-to-back revolutions that inspired each other, sprang from the same Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, and even featured many of the same players, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Tom Paine. Since then, France and the US have stood together in war and diplomacy, welcomed each other’s immigrants and cultural trends, and inspired endless mutual fascination. France has become McDonald’s most profitable foreign market. Americans will buy almost any book with the word “Paris” in the title.

Aside from a 2003 spat involving the Iraq war and “freedom fries”, the Franco-American embrace has tightened in recent years. President Nicolas Sarkozy returned France to the Nato military command abandoned 44 years earlier in a fit of anti-US pique. So warmly has Sarkozy spoken of the US that the French press has dubbed him “l’Américain”. His US counterpart, Barack Obama, has returned the compliment with such ardour that British commentators, prematurely, declared their own country’s “special relationship” with the US dead. Obama’s approval ratings are nearly twice as high in France as at home.

Suddenly, however, the Franco-American relationship is in trouble. The cause is last month’s arrest in New York City of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then managing director of the International Monetary Fund. DSK, as he is known in France, was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid and paraded – handcuffed and unshaven – before waiting photographers in a local ritual known as the “perp [for perpetrator] walk”.

The resulting images sparked outrage in France, where photos of crime suspects are banned. Robert Badinter, one of France’s top judicial figures, called the ex-IMF director’s treatment “a lynching, murder by media”. A poll showed that 57 per cent of French thought Strauss-Kahn had been set up, possibly by US officials. Celebrity intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy expressed dismay that the US was treating such a respected figure as Strauss-Kahn “like just another person”.

Therein lies the misunderstanding. Americans praised DSK’s treatment as evidence of their country’s even-handedness. The French see Americans as anti-authoritarian sadists humiliating an accomplished dignitary who might well be innocent. Worse, the DSK case reaffirms the old Gallic view of Americans as uptight puritans unhinged by the very idea of sex.

Just in time, a trio of books has emerged to help clear the fog over the Atlantic. All went to press before the Strauss-Kahn incident. But each offers insights into why the two nations, despite their shared ideals, see the world so differently.

The Pulitzer Prize for premonition must go to Elaine Sciolino, longtime New York Times correspondent in Paris, whose La Seduction mentions Strauss-Kahn throughout and offers a reason for the current unpleasantness: Americans do not understand the French art of seduction. The word, she notes, lacks a negative connotation in French, and instead suggests charm, persuasion, attraction. Thus, a sinister-sounding French diplomatic bromide like l’opération séduction actually means “charm offensive”. Seduction, as she describes with verve and personal anecdotes, is a way of life in France, with everybody from politicians to dentists turning on the charm to get their way, put people at ease and generally make daily life pleasurable.

Giving pleasure, after all, is France’s unique selling proposition. The country has for centuries created beguiling things to eat, drink, smell and wear. When my Paris landlord arrived with an old chair that the tiny apartment did not need, he explained that it was “for the pleasure of your eyes”. Such thinking is a tool of French diplomacy and commerce, especially in the important cultural and luxury sectors. Indeed, Charles de Gaulle once called Brigitte Bardot “the French export as important as Renault cars”. Seduction, writes Sciolino, “is more than a game; it is an essential strategy for France’s survival as a country of influence”.

Sex is part of the package. The French flirt with unconscious ease, and sexual banter that passes unremarked in a Paris office would bring legal action in the US or the UK. Sciolino details Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a séducteur but notes his wife Anne Sinclair’s indulgent dismissal: “For a political man, it is important to seduce.” Of course, the relentless pursuit of pleasure has also given France its casual work ethic, an anaemic economy and a complicated set of social rules that, if misinterpreted, can lead to sexual violence. “When it works, it’s magic,” the author says. “But it can also entail inefficiency, fragility, ambiguity, and a process that at any time can end badly.”

As it evidently has for Strauss-Kahn, whose plight remains Topic A in France. Traditionalists worry the incident will stifle the innocent coquetry that has allowed France to avoid the Anglo-Saxon gender wars. Journalists are flagellating themselves for having too long dismissed the oafish behaviour of leading politicians. Ordinary French are wondering why the errant rich and well-connected so rarely get punished. Asked about the DSK case the other day, Sarkozy declared: “It is terrible when everybody thinks the justice system supports the powers that be whenever they mistreat the little guys.” Cases involving ministers go to a special court composed mostly of fellow parliamentarians. Charges against other politicians sometimes evaporate, and trials are delayed for years.

It is instructive to recall the early days of Franco-American infatuation, before the disillusionment and cynicism set in – an age when Americans believed, as their revolutionary icon Thomas Jefferson put it, “Every man has two countries, his own and France.” In The Greater Journey, David McCullough profiles a pioneering group of Americans who went to Paris out of curiosity and love. This was not the famous generation of Fitzgeralds and Hemingways who fled to France in the early 20th century. McCullough, a Pulitzer-winning historian, focuses on those who came in the 19th century to benefit from France’s cultural superiority. They included the novelists James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), artists Samuel FB Morse (who later invented the single-wire telegraph) and Mary Cassatt (the first female impressionist painter), plus a dozen or so lesser figures. “They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them,” writes McCullough, “and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream.” It did not hurt that the city offered, as Cooper put it, “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup”.

McCullough weaves his mini-biographies into an entertaining history of France and the US roughly from the 1830 dawn of the July Monarchy to the early 20th century apogee of the belle époque. Bliss was it to be in Paris then, and to be American was very heaven. France saw these fresh-faced visitors as Rousseau’s noble savages, except that they could be taught French and table manners.

Paris was fizzing with artistic and scientific inquiry. Aspiring doctors arrived by the boatload, including Elizabeth Blackwell, who returned as America’s first female physician. Charles Sumner, a visiting US senator, was so impressed by the sight of black students in Paris that he became an anti-slavery crusader. McCullough uncovers the lost diaries of Elihu Washburne, a novice US diplomat whose horrific description of the 1870-71 Prussian siege of Paris and the subsequent Commune rebellion is worth a book in itself. Washburne issued travel documents that saved thousands from death, fed countless more at his expense and sprang others from jail. Afterwards, numerous French babies were named after him.

In 1831, when the first of McCullough’s Americans were heading to France, a young French politician named Alexis de Tocqueville sailed in the opposite direction. Like many French fans of America, he thought the new land might have something to teach the old. His observations, published a few years later, hold up well. Among them, writes Arthur Kaledin in Tocqueville and His America, are the insights that Americans – unlike French – favour coercive moral legislation and detest rank and privilege (bad news for Strauss-Kahn). Kaledin, whose thoughtful portrait focuses more on ideas than events, says Tocqueville was pleased to find that “the old black magic of deference that had so cowed Europeans was missing from American politics”.

Instead, Americans had constructed a republic of money, a ruthless society that worshipped commerce, ran roughshod over electoral minorities and had a propensity for violence. The new system, says Kaledin, was based on “a culture of illusion, entertainment and spectacle, in which even politics would become a carnival”. Tocqueville would have had fun with the “perp walk”. And yet, he had to concede, American democracy worked – offering suffrage to all adult males at a time when only 2 per cent of Frenchmen could vote. Better yet, the country learnt from its mistakes and reinvented itself constantly. As Tocqueville marvelled: “Every day in America is new.”

It still is. Americans’ notoriously short attention span may cause them to forget some of history’s lessons but it also allows them to pivot from mistakes without fuss. Thus, a country decried by Europeans as irredeemably racist only a generation ago became the first of the western democracies to elect a black head of state. Interestingly, DSK is already fading from US headlines as Americans move on to other carnivals.

France, however, has things to learn. Its 18th-century revolution, bloody as it was, may not have gone far enough. The French retain a deference to authority that Americans left behind at Lexington and Concord. If “seduction” plays a role in French society, it is a reminder that hierarchy persists and politesse is needed to defuse arbitrary power. Where France seems secretive and stiflingly centralised, America appears transparent and energetically fractious.

To suggest that France become more like the US, however, is still a capital offence in 6th arrondissement salons, with reason. Tocqueville’s American republic is currently beset by widening economic inequality, with little will to reverse the process. Hardly any of the well-connected Wall Street buccaneers who created the worst financial crisis in memory have been called to account. In France, at least, an incident in a New York hotel room has launched a debate that just might bring change to French journalism, justice and sexual mores. America should dispatch a new generation of curious expatriates to observe France’s experience. More than two centuries after they helped each other attain liberty, both countries are still struggling with that other goal of their twinned revolutions, the one that would have everybody treated like just another person.

Donald Morrison is author of ‘The Death of French Culture’ (Polity)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.