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America’s image problem. Is the press to blame?

Last night I met Jacques. He was a jovial character, in his 60’s, drank bourbon with no ice and cracked jokes the minute you met him. I didn’t like him. Anyone who has to try that hard to make me laugh can’t be trusted.

But by the time the aperitif was finished, I had warmed up to Jacques and realized that he was the most interesting person at our table of friends, opinionated almost to a fault and a genuine thinker. Never one to leave a comment open-ended, he sparked conversations I had yet to have in France.

One of Jacques’ most particularly interesting comments was about America.

“I hate the U.S.” he said after a few minutes into the conversation.

Now normally, this sort of sentence makes me want to throttle a Frenchie, but I could see that Jacques was the sort of guy who liked to incite controversy.

“Have you ever been there?” I asked him semi-calmly.

“No…” he said, before launching into his justification.

Jacques, like many French people, explained that he hates “L’Amerique profond,” which in English terms loosely means, “typical America.” Since he’s never been to the country, he can’t fully comprehend what he’s saying, and he knows it.

The image of America that he sees – on TV, in movies, in the newspaper – is, in fact, the reason so many people hate America. Just like Americans have an image of the French as baguette-carrying, beret-wearing, mustache-sporting cheese and wine lovers, the French consider the Americans a gun-toting, violent, ignorant, obese people.

Florida International Panthers v Miami Hurricanes

What's more American than cops and football?

And many of us Americans are. But many of us are not. As Jacques and I discovered in our animated debate, there’s the image of a country from outside its border and its image within. There is truth in the former based on the latter because, obviously, prejudices and stereotypes are based somewhat in reality.

However, once inside a country, it becomes impossible to define its culture. An American from afar can easily imagine the “average French person.” But a French person has tantamount trouble describing his own country and culture.

After all, there is the North – with its potato-at-every-meal culture, warm-hearted citizens with a Belgian touch and cloudy weather. And in the East, where France meets Strasbourg, the typical French person becomes at once German and “universally European.” In the Southeast, there’s the macho attitude, olive oil and fish dishes, lavender fields and a false-friendly people. Go over to the Southwest and you’ll find great wine, rainy skies, shy folks and beautiful pastures. And let’s not forget the enormous Arab population in France these days, or the number of West Africans and Vietnamese.

Of course, four years ago while I was sitting at home in Minneapolis and dreaming about France, I never could have imagined all of that. So, to hear Jacques tell me he hated America, part of me wasn’t shocked.

How could I be, when the only TV shows played here from America are “Cops,” “The Nanny,” “Seventh Heaven” and “Desperate Housewives?” The only news about America is about which country we’re blowing up next, our hypocritical stance on human rights, our gun laws, and our massive (and negative) influence on President Sarkozy? French kids are getting fatter on American fast food, zoning out on Miley Cyrus TV shows and watching Texan cops handcuff every Hispanic man in range. Why wouldn’t the French hate America?

The easy answer is to say that the media is to blame. But is it? It’s hard to know whether it’s the chicken or the egg who started it. After all, there are but a few free presses that exist today and they are not usually the loudest voices. Mass media is largely supported by government funding, so the majority of images we see of America and France (and other countries, for that matter) are based on what each government chooses to produce. And this, in countries where the press claims to be free.

So I’m not angry with Jacques. I know he means well. And when other French people tell me to my face that they hate my country, I will try not to get upset. But, I trust that I am allowed to make a few jokes about the complaining, afraid-of-change, adulterous French person in return.

Within reason, of course. I am on their turf, in the end.

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