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Editor's letter: Surprises from our oldest ally

Those who had the French pegged as libertine “surrender monkeys” might need a stiff cognac to help them digest the recent news.

Those who had the French pegged as libertine “surrender monkeys” might need a stiff cognac to help them digest the recent news. More than 300,000 people marched through Paris last weekend, not to rail against bourgeois society or worker exploitation, but to protest government plans to legalize gay marriage and adoption (see Best columns: Europe). Meanwhile, French warplanes were flying airstrikes in northern Mali (see The week at a glance), even before the U.N. explicitly blessed their presence. It looked briefly like an action unilatérale, the term the French disdainfully applied to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. By leading the fight to deprive al Qaida of another lawless stronghold, France embarks on what could be an open-ended conflict in an inhospitable and possibly ungovernable country.  

Doesn’t that sound familiar? France differs from the U.S. in a thousand ways, but caricatures of our oldest ally blind us to our many similarities. As vociferously as the French opposed the invasion of Iraq, they often have a strong appetite for military intervention in countries to which they have historical ties—remember Libya in 2011? Nor is France the universal vanguard of progressivism that many Americans imagine. True, its never-married president, François Hollande, has four kids from one longtime partner and now lives with a different woman. But especially outside of Paris, traditional visions of the family still prevail, expressed not just in last weekend’s marches by Catholics, Muslims, and other marriage traditionalists, but in the ironclad rituals of Sunday sit-down meals. Maybe that’s our greatest similarity: The French live, sometimes uneasily, with as many social contradictions as we do.

James Graff

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