The French are not American. They do eat at McDonalds, wear blue jeans, play basketball better and better, and to the despair of Parisian café intellectuals watch American movies and television. French businessmen have realized that English is the language of global trade (and that global trade exists), the nation has given up the sovereign franc for the international euro (which looks suspiciously like the American dollar in its continental use and currency, but is actually worth something these days), Parisians have decided—long after New Yorkers and Angelenos—that smoking in restaurants is naughty, and most of the population has discovered that the personal computer is definitely more useful than la plume de ma tante.
But French resistance to American notions and goods is not down and out. Consider the trappings of power in the capital city. When President Sarkozy goes here and there (and when is not in motion?), no one really knows. He is not accompanied by the kind of noise that American presidents, and lesser people of importance, demand in Washington. When the president goes anywhere, his motorcade requires three stretch limousines, about a dozen and a half motorcycle outriders, and another eight or nine vehicles, including Chevy Suburbans loaded with Secret Service agents with Uzis and a van with a poor sot poking out of the sunroof taking video of the presidential exhaust fumes.
Only the limousines do not have sirens—or, if they have them, they are not turned on out of consideration for the presidential ears. The motorcycles, vans, and the police cars have sirens distinct from those of ambulances and fires engines both in frequency and in volume: they can shatter glass and be heard for miles.
The vice-president gets only two stretch limousines and proportionately fewer other vehicles while ambassadors from high-risk nations and cabinet secretaries directly involved in snarling about terrorism get just one. It is easy enough to determine who—or at least what kind of person—is causing the racket and hurting everyone’s ears simply by tallying up the rolling stock.
The two-limousine motorcade, during the time that vice-president Cheney was being ferried back and forth to his “undisclosed location,” was one of the best jokes in Washington. Anyone who wanted to do him harm, and was willing to pay the price for doing so, simply had to keep an eye out for two limousines and a lot of sirens which took the same route every morning at the same time. But to call this absurd is to miss the point: the vice-president is important, and his importance needs to be underscored, no matter that he would have been a great deal safer in a five-year-old Toyota Camry preceded by a bicycle and followed by a couple of armed men on skateboards in complete silence.
Sarko will never be so important, at least as long as the French decline to be American. Of course that could change, and an early warning would be Parisian sirens. After the second world war, all of Europe, with horrifying memories of what air-raid sirens were foretelling, decided that police cars and ambulances could do with something less hair-raising. The result, as anyone knows, is the rather nasal and monotonous ooh-aah of the emergency klaxon, without the operatic range of the American siren (which some drivers have actually learned to play, not tunefully, but sort of melodically: it may be the only American sound more annoying than hip hop).
If the arrival of Sarko, or even the prime minister or the Serbian ambassador, is ever heralded by a chorus of air-raid sirens, then the end may have arrived. It would certainly be accompanied by Frenchman drinking lite beer instead of kir, eating hot dogs standing up instead of pâté sitting down, and ordering salad before the meal.
And perhaps the outlook is not so good. M. le Président has already broken French precedent, acquiring a girl friend and subsequently wife with a great deal of publicity. Some think this is a scandal and actually have loud opinions to offer instead of silent shrugs. It never could have happened in the day of François Mitterand who never attracted paparazzi or got ink on the front pages of the American tabloids, never mind his ménage à trois, his gourmandise involving ortolans, or his final and fatal illness: these were nobody’s business.
He did not trumpet them—and no sirens accompanied him in life or to the grave. His sense of power was more serene and, long live France, private. How gloomy it would be if his successors’ private lives became public fodder, and future leaders had to remind the citizens of Paris of their great stature by deafening them with sirens. How gloomy and American.
© Joseph Lestrange