NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND, LOOKING FRENCH,

by Laurie Meunier Graves – Wolf Moon Press

In the 1991 movie Europa, Europa, Salomon Perel, a Jewish boy, becomes separated from his family. The setting, of course, is Europe during World War II, and young Salomon (Solly) must survive by pretending he is not a Jew. Based on a true story, the movie follows Solly on his journey for survival as he passes himself off as a German orphan and eventually becomes a member of Hitler Youth. One day during class, a teacher instructs the students on how to identify Jews by their looks, by the size and shape of their heads as well as other physical characteristics. Solly squirms in his seat but manages yet again to escape detection when his teacher concludes that Solly has all the characteristics of a good Aryan boy.

The other day, I thought of this when I read Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times. In it, Mr. Krugman describes the distress conservatives are feeling these days over the supposed incivility of liberals. Mr. Krugman then proceeds to list several examples of conservative incivility, and one, in particular, caught my attention: “like the Bush adviser who told The New York Times that the problem with Senator John Kerry is that ‘he looks French.’”

Poor Senator Kerry! He looks French. Perhaps he should pull out of the presidential race before conservatives rush to Massachusetts to measure the Senator’s head.

Looking French. What exactly does this mean? Being Franco-American, I have had numerous opportunities to reflect on this. In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose it’s only fair to admit that I, too, look French and have been reminded of this on many occasions. My youngest daughter, whose eyes are so dark that her pupils are indistinguishable from her irises, also looks French. “You two must be mother and daughter,” people say when they meet us for the first time, and I cannot deny it. Our dark coloring is a genetic inheritance from our Norman forebears who came to Québec and migrated to Maine. This, I suppose, is the look that people associate with being French, and Senator Kerry has been saddled, through no fault of his own, with a dark complexion. It doesn’t matter whether or not he is French or of French descent. He looks French, and that is enough to damn him.

However, France is a fair-sized country with considerable diversity. My own grandmother was blonde, and I can think of many French actresses who are fair. Catherine Deneuve, Julie Delpy, and Emmanuelle Béart immediately come to mind. There is, in fact, no single French look. Some are dark; others are not; and appearances can be deceptive.

In addition, it’s a dangerous, divisive way to judge people. Looks and ethnic background should play no part in how a candidate or anyone else is judged. It smacks of racial purity and eugenics, that there is a right way to look and a wrong way to look. After the terrible wars of the last century, many of which were based on ethnicity, you would think that the government of a democratic country would not allow its top officials to indulge in this sort of behavior. Our government sets the tone for this country, and it is astonishing to me that such statements are tolerated.

Finally, what is this antipathy toward the French? This spring, we saw the advent of freedom fries and the spectacle of certain restaurants dumping their French wine. The Club for Growth, a conservative organization, called Senator Snowe a “Franco-Republican” when she would not go along with President Bush’s tax cuts. (Need I add that Senator Snowe, while dark and from Maine, is not Franco-American? And that this remark did not go over well in a state that is 40 percent Franco-American?) Then, we have this comment about Senator Kerry’s looks, a remark that reminds us of dangerous times, both in this country and abroad.

As far as I know, we are still eating German chocolate cake and Canadian bacon, even though the Germans and Canadians have been as adamant in their opposition to the Iraqi war as the French have. I have not heard one recalcitrant Senator labeled as either a German-Republican or a Canadian-Republican. To the best of my knowledge, not one presidential candidate has been told his problem is that he looks German. Or Canadian.

The French might have helped the US win the Revolutionary War, but it seems to me that the relationship between the two countries has been far from easy. In the late 1800s, the New York Times railed against Franco-Americans and a supposed Catholic conspiracy to take over New England. In the 1900s right through the mid-century, the Klan was strong in New England and especially in Maine. Their primary targets were Franco-Americans, and they succeeded in terrorizing an entire ethnic group and convincing them that they were second-class citizens.

I would not wish to return to those times, to “the good old days.” In Maine, Franco-Americans are finally finding their voices, and it is ironic that bad feelings for this ethnic group have flared yet again in different parts of the country. I expect this ill will toward the French will eventually pass. I don’t foresee a time when Franco-Americans are loaded in cattle cars and taken to concentration camps. However, our government’s ethnic hostility toward the French is chilling, and I hope the time doesn’t come when I’m grateful that our eldest daughter, with her blue eyes and fair complexion, can pass for an Anglo-American.

By Laurie Meunier Graves, editor of “Wolf Moon Press Journal
© Wolf Moon Press 2002-2004 all rights reserved.

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