Vie du campus

Americans in Paris : What that means in a post Freedom-fries world.

Former U.S. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claims to be a conservative.

But this January, he lambasted Mitt Romney for speaking French, implying that French as a second language is something best left to the United States’ liberals and progressives.

(As a side note, I’m not sure if this “criticism” of Romney was warranted.  A video of the Republican nominee speaking French betrays that his French is heavily accented — not that I’m one to talk— and faltering.)

If Gingrich really were conservative, he would applaud Romney’s knowledge, however rudimentary, of French.

Francophilism, specifically an appreciation for Paris, is every bit as much a part of the American tradition as the right to bear arms and apple pie.

“An American in Paris is the best American,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the great American novel, said. More than a century before, founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin echoed such sentiment.

In the Civil War-era, Senator Oliver Wendell Holmes came to Paris and learned what it was like to learn aside black students, and doctors came to Paris to learn to operate on women and to dissect cadavers, both of which were discouraged in the 19th century U.S.

In short, Americans who spent time in Paris gave us the Declaration to Independence, the quintessential American novel, and some of our greatest advancements in healthcare (but try telling that to Newt Gingrich!). It takes a serious case of cultural amnesia to avoid giving Paris its due in shaping the American psyche.

But what it means to be an American in Paris today, at least to many other Americans, has changed a lot since the Lost Generation camped out Café du Flore in the 1920s.

I was intrigued how many at home responded to where I was studying abroad, especially in comparison to how people responded to my friends studying in London, Berlin, and Seville.

To many, Paris seemed to represent less of a place to broaden the mind, and more as a place to go shopping and to learn the secret of “why French women don’t get fat.” (Perhaps it’s just because they eat less?)

Others weren’t thinking about food, but were drawing Gingrich-like political conclusions. Upon learning I would be in Paris, adults tended to crack jokes about socialists and communists, which many Americans put in the same category as Death Eaters. France, for some reason, represents to many Americans the Great Welfare State and over-government involvement in a way that Britain doesn’t, and I got a few comments on the poor state of nationalized healthcare — despite the fact that, as aforementioned, the U.S. owes a lot of its medical achievements to doctors who studied here.

I also heard a few snide comments implying that, by choosing to study in Paris, I was choosing “study abroad lite.”

“I’ve heard that everyone speaks English there, and there are a lot of Starbucks,” a few classmates said. To them, the emphasis was on how our country has shaped Paris — not the other way around.

Clearly, more has changed than what it means to be American in Paris. What’s changed the most is what it means to be American.

Regardless of its basis, the American response to French government says a lot about our feelings — and fear — toward our own. And our obsession with how Parisians look, rather than what they think, says a lot about cultural priorities.


What has made Americans in Paris “the best Americans” is not that they were in Paris. That made them lucky Americans, with the resources to get here, and the social networks to sustain them.

What made them the “best” was how they used and appreciated the resources of the city; how they came in with an open mind, and left with than an appreciation for civicism, art, prose, and philosophy; that they were focused on making the country better, and not trying to “conserve” something that never was. Patriotism didn’t mean insisting that the U.S. was the best; it meant looking at what other places did better, and learning.

And the fact they could speak French? Well, Newt, it didn’t hurt.

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