Paris never disappoints but Parisians sometimes do

In an earlier post, I explained why Paris never disappoints me. The same cannot be said of Parisians.

At times, Americans have been disappointed by displays of French anti-Americanism. I witnessed no such open displays and there appears to be little hostility towards American visitors. However, I saw several incidents that suggested the Parisian attitude towards America itself is, to put it kindly, unfortunate.

In the most jarring case, I overheard a Parisian tour guide explaining to French tourists how revisionist French historians have shown that America inflicted more damage than necessary on the towns and villages of Normandy during the invasion.

As Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, the intelligence associated with the invasion was severely, even tragically, flawed — with respect to anticipating the problem posed by Normandy’s hedgerows; with respect to targeting the bombing needed to facilitate breakouts (many Americans were blown apart by our own heavy bombers); and with respect to gauging German intentions at Argentan. In this context, it would hardly be surprising if the Americans inflicted “excessive” property damage on Normandy. But it was quite disappointing to hear to the suggestion, without any reference to intelligence problems and their terrible consequences for Americans, that the U.S. disregarded the well-being of Normandy when it liberated that region, and ultimately all of France, from Nazi control.

Anti-Americanism aside, Americans often have been disappointed by the general rudeness of Parisians. I witnessed no rudeness per se, although my daughter who is studying in Paris reported a few shocking instances of it. However, it was clear to me that, outside of the exclusive shops, Parisian customer service falls short of American standards. The notion that “the customer is always right” seems entirely foreign, and Parisian sales clerks sometimes are aggressively indifferent to whether the sale is made.

This phenomenon appears to be part of a more general malaise that is best understood by talking with young French men and women who have worked outside of France, especially in England or Ireland. This, by the way, is a rather large group. During the recent election Sarkozy made a campaign trip to London, in part to solicit votes, in part to persuade “the brightest and the best” to return to France, and in part to make a point.

This cohort typically expresses disgust with the French professional work environment which it finds hierarchical, inflexible, and non-innovative. This is a longstanding complaint, so my question was whether things are improving. The answer seems to be yes, but only slightly.

The election of Sarkozy may represent some evidence that many French, not just those who have worked abroad, sense the problem and long for a change. But Sarkozy’s rocky start is a strike against optimism. My impression is that, after his startling decline, Sarkozy may be rising a little in the public’s estimation. Ultimately Parisians, those arch-enemies of ennui, don’t mind if their leaders provide them with grist for the gossip mill. Indeed, with foreign conquest apparently out of the question these days, such material (involving conquest of a different nature) may rank among the best gifts they can confer. But even Parisians expect that a few meaningful accomplishments will proceed the juicy personal bits.

I think Sarkozy recognizes this now. However, as a matter of managerial style he is viewed as too reluctant to delegate, and his recent difficulties may have exacerbated this problem. Sarkozy certainly wasn’t wrong when he read the riot act to his ministers for speaking publicly without first figuring what the government’s line is. Yet, I wonder whether this was more an effort to impose needed discipline on his administration as a whole, or more an effort to deflect blame from his own shortcomings to date.

The situation can perhaps be summed up in the Parisian demonstrations that took place during my visit. They were a daily phenomenon, but not a very impressive one. So maybe, though the forces of reaction are gathering, Sarkozy still has time. Let’s hope so because, though Parisians often disappoint, they do not take disappointment well.

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