Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What France Can Learn From Its ‘Lost Province’

Published: April 10, 2007


France completed a bad real estate deal here a little more than 200 years ago. When it handed this city over to the United States on Dec. 20, 1803, as part of a vast land sale agreed to earlier that year in Paris, it pocketed the equivalent of less than three cents an acre.

By any estimate, the Louisiana Purchase was an astonishing transaction, more than doubling the size of the United States and ending France's ambitions for a North American empire, all at rock-bottom prices.

No wonder the French have mixed views of U.S. capitalism.

President Thomas Jefferson had wanted New Orleans because its port was critical to Mississippi commerce. When his envoys were offered all of Louisiana in the bargain, they could hardly believe their luck. The French did not even know how much land they were selling: the western and southern borders were vague.

In fact, for a mere $15 million, much of it borrowed from British banks, the United States acquired some 530 million acres, or 2.1 million square kilometers, a land mass stretching from the Mississippi to the Rockies, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. An east-coast power was transformed into a nascent continental one.

Napoleon, under military pressure in Haiti and elsewhere, lacking the resources to consolidate his North American holdings, thought he'd done all right. "I have just given England a rival that will sooner or later humble her pride," he commented.

Taking the long view, Bonaparte was not wrong. Sure enough, the mantle of great global power passed from Britain to the United States. But he erred in his core strategic gamble. British-American friendship has proved stronger than the war they fought to get separated; French-American friendship has proved uneasy despite the avoidance of war.

The unease in French-American relations is one of the world's most obstinate conundrums. Selling a half-billion acres on the cheap probably did not help. Nor has France's conflicted reaction to America's role in the country's World War II liberation from the Nazis. Nor have the countries' rival self-visions as universal moral beacons.

Might things have been otherwise? Pierre Lebovics, the French consul general in New Orleans, thinks not. "Was there another option?" he said over a copious plate of mussels and French fries. "Yes, we could have kept Louisiana and gone to war with the United States and lost the war."

Lebovics, in a bow tie, smiled. Case closed. In any event, he noted, the French still flocked to Louisiana long after Pierre Clément de Laussat, the prefect in New Orleans in 1803, handed over the city and, in his own words recording the event, "released from their oath of fidelity to France all those inhabitants who wished to remain under the domination of the United States."

These French immigrants' influence is still apparent, and not just in the French Quarter. Gastronomy and street life are intrinsic to New Orleans in a way that recalls Paris more than Kansas. If there's any truth in the dictum that Americans live to work while Europeans work to live, then this city is the exception.

It conforms, in significant ways, to the French view of what the United States ought to be - that imaginary land of jazz and Jack Kerouac, John F. Kennedy and Woody Allen, against which Gallic disappointment at God-fearing American reality, George W. Bush and all, is measured.

"Louisiana is our poor lost province," Lebovics said. "It lives in the collective memory. There's even an Indian tribe, the Houma, that speaks some French. That's why the reaction to Katrina and the devastation here was so strong in France."

That reaction's impact is unmistakable in New Orleans these days. The city is full of posters saying "From France with Love." They refer to a fine exhibition at the city's Museum of Art called "Femme, Femme, Femme."

The women in question are caught in over 80 paintings offered by more than 30 museums as their response to the city's plight. Works by Millet, Degas, Daumier, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and others chronicle changing female roles from the 19th to the 20th century. An astonishing little Picasso from 1918 - a bright beach scene painted on honeymoon in Biarritz - is alone worth the pilgrimage.

The French have also done much else. Aid worth more than $20 million has come from private French companies including Lafarge and Sanofi-Aventis. Books have been donated, schools assisted.

"There were a lot of questions in France about the slow response to the catastrophe," Lebovics said. "A nation surely has no sense unless you are also able to look after its weakest members.

"Some people here felt disdained by the North. The splits revealed were harsh. Is a nation just an agglomeration of people or something more?"

And here we are, back at the heart of the matter. Lebovics was too tactful to put the matter more explicitly, but the fact is the sight of myriad poor African-Americans apparently abandoned to their fate after the hurricane confirmed every French notion of the cruelty and heartlessness of American capitalism.

This vision is hard to shake, not least because it holds some truth.

But in many respects it has a paralyzing effect on France. The taboos surrounding the American or Anglo-Saxon model are so strong that open debate is impossible about what elements from it might free the French labor market and create jobs. Such discussion does not even occur during an election campaign in which unemployment is the main concern of voters.

That is a pity. France needs to throw off its taboos. It may then pay closer attention to a quality Lebovics admires in the United States, resilience. New Orleans is showing it. Americans tend to show it because they learn early that one setback, like a job loss, need not become a lifelong trauma.

The very nature of capitalism is flux. It is of its essence precarious. You lose some. You win some. And occasionally you win big, as in 530 million acres for 15 million bucks.