French President Nicolas Sarkozy likes to call Barack Obama his pal, and French women swoon over his smile and well-proportioned ears. But any boost that Monsieur Obama might give to the trans-Atlantic Camembert trade come November threatens to be undone by the Palin blip on the election radar.
Sarah Palin reminds us of the fundamental divide between the francophone and anglophone worlds: sex.
Palin takes me back to everything I learned about sex in France (and lest you think that this is a pornographic exercise, let me point out that my grandmother reads this).
Before I went abroad last June, I could have put Danielle Steele out of business with the compendium of raunchy sexcapades I had collected from friends since high school.
It was thus with great dread that I undertook the transatlantic journey to Sexyland.I purchased a garter belt, threw away the key, got a syphilis vaccine and stayed very far away from the Marquis de Sades castle. The topless women on the beach in Marseilles had breasts like warning beacons: "Imagine what we do in private if the twins are allowed out in public."
Last September, I was overjoyed to discover that women in Paris were clothed. Very clothed. Turtlenecks. The men had tight pants, but I learned to walk with an averted gaze and squint method to avoid repeated bulge sightings.
I was safe. I was safe because the French dont talk about sex the way Americans do.
Palins VP run serves as a glaring reminder of this. The franco-anglo cultural barrier runs deepest when it comes to the bedroom.
In Montral, I grew up with a distinctly non-American conception of how you discuss these things. One of my earliest vivid memories, when I was about 4 or 5, is of my mother taking me to the bookstore to pick out a book about sex. Maman, do viennent les bbs? (Mom, where do babies come from?) answered all of my questions about conception, gestation and birth in simple language and pedagogical detail. In kindergarten, I had all my questions answered at home.
And so did everyone else, I assumed. Until we moved to America. In 9th grade health class, we learned how to put a condom on a banana, graduating really well equipped to protect fruit against STDs. I thanked District 115 for being so progressive as I watched Bristol Palin waddle onto the stage at the Republican National Convention.
I have college-aged friends whose parents still havent had the talk with them. Its not something American parents seem to discuss with their children. Sex is not something broached pedagogically and openly in school. Information, scientific fact, general knowledge is not widely disseminated, especially not in Alaska.
The fact that my parents gave me abook about sex as a child is such a novelty that guests to our home invariably ask to see the Girardin relic.
A sex book for children. Of course its in French. You guys are so liberal in Qubec.
My American friends are right. There is a francophone propensity to openness about this kind of information. In Paris, for example, exists at the Cit des sciences, a whole exposition devoted to pedagogical dissemination of sex info for children. Parents can take their kids through the expo on a Saturday morning and have all their questions answered in an honest and detailed manner. Todd and Sarah are about as likely to hit up this exhibit when they take their next family trip to Paris as they are to actually obtain passports for the Palin brood.
The prevailing strategy in most of the U.S. of A. seems to be that ignoring the very existence of sex will prevent children from ever discovering it or, worse, engaging in sexual behavior. This pervasive aoidance has led to a vast dichotomy between what is taught and discussed and what is actually done. If American parents and school districts dont talk to their children about sex, their children certainly, and very openly, engage in lots of it. And they like to talk about it. Because whenthey dont learn the proper discrete vocabulary, the proper language, sharing between peers tends to transgress the narrow bounds of tastefulness. People share their X-rated play-by-plays with plotlines more explicitly detailed than Lord of the G-Strings. How else would Levi and Bristol have known how to get it on? Their high school certainly wasnt telling them how to do it.
This kind of oversharing is not something most Francophones would do. Theres a glaring paradox; people in France and Qubec --exposed to knowledge of sex from a young age, saturated with sexy publicity --dont like to reveal the personal details of their intimate lives. And people in the United States and its cultural periphery --learning from a tender age that sex is taboo, that sex isnt a topic of mainstream conversation, that sex is not something their parents or teachers will ever discuss --treat their own exploits as illicit, illegal. They also get their mothers on the covers of People, Us Weekly, OK and The National Enquirer in the same week. But its not Bristols fault that her mother and her school district didnt tell her about condoms.
On the other side of the great sexual divide, there is a world that cant understand how Palin opposes abortion, even in cases of rape. They dont get how she can be against sexual education and for abstinence-only instruction.
The French and French-Canadian media consider her the stand-in for an antiquated, backwards country, which French newspaper Le Monde painted last Sunday as an America that sees itself as immutable and that cant recognize that the planet is changing all around it.
To the French, the America where Palin can run for office is one where men hang bear skins from the walls, where the natural order, and mans role at the center have been fixed once and for all by this Creationism they teach their schools.
As far as theyre concerned, were still in colonial times.
Were in an America where condoms sometimes dont exist, where women shoot down moose and where God is on our side.
But were also in an America where a black man with fantastic ears is running for President.
If only the French could be so lucky.