An American in Paris: Diplomacy in the era of Freedom Fries

Party On my way to one of the many receptions ...

"Small talk" in Paris: scrutinizing U.S. foreign policy, secularism, and pop culture's influence

After working for six weeks in Paris, I have become more confident in venturing out in the city to get an in-depth experience of the culture. I realized that at some point you can only deduce so much by looking at signs, eating in restaurants, or hanging out in parks, so now I'm striking up conversations, joining groups of random students in sightseeing tours, even roller-blading with a group of strangers.

One of the most interesting places in Paris to encounter the world's diversity is in the Quartier Latin, where many tourists, college students, and local Parisians like to enjoy a crêpe, a coffee, a beer, or the just the beauty of Paris. One day at a bar, I was introduced by a friend of a friend to a group of college students studying at the Sorbonne, one of Paris's top universities. We started talking about the United States and international affairs. Their responses weren't shocking or offensive, but they were challenging. They posed questions that any educated college student would, many of which I am still thinking about to this day.

For instance, they asked me about how different U.S. constituencies were responding to the current administration's policies (domestic and foreign) — everything from tax cuts to the limited involvement in Liberia. I found myself stumbling for answers. It made me realize on my part, how much I haven't even looked outside California. Living in Los Angeles and going to school at Cal, I don't have firsthand observation of "national domestic response."

They also asked me about not-so-pressing issues that I don't always think about, such as the degree of secularism in the States. For me, knowing that I can practice my own religion without being forced to adopt the ideas of others is my definition of secularism. But to the French, the concept of secularism is more touchy. In France, the president has started a committee to study secularism. The students were proud of efforts to define, establish, and maintain secularism, but they were curious about the way the United States handles such issues. They said that they see "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill and hear constant references to God and religion in the speeches of President Bush. To them, secularism is the TOTAL separation of religion from the public sphere, even down to its display. This is a mainstream thought and has led to national debates over the past 10 years about, for example, whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil at school or in public.

Then we got to talking about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy, particularly America's strategy of pre-emption and its much-critiqued "unilateral approach." They had open minds, like many of us do at Berkeley ­ and at any college for that matter — so they weren't hastily starting a diatribe about U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq, but they were definitely critical. Using articles from the French press to support their position that the United States prefers unilateral options over the support of multilateral bodies such as the United Nations, they were curious about the clear-cut military and humanitarian positions that America has been taking on the Middle East and Africa, in particular regarding the Congo. The students criticized how the United States — while claiming to promote universal values of democracy and freedom — led the war with Iraq but is only taking a limited role in the Congo, where war, tyranny, and human rights abuses are actually tearing the country apart.

By contrast, they pointed out France's proactive, multilateral stance in international affairs: France was asked by the Security Council to lead the military involvement in the Congo this past month. On the same note, they viewed President Bush's visit to Africa in support of the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account (a development aid package) and the AIDs initiative — both of which are exclusively American programs — as a further evidence of the desire to effect foreign policy through unilateral channels. Agreeing that the United States has been pursuing humanitarian goals, just through different channels, the students and I concluded that in light of the expanding European Union, citizens of Europe tend to see many international affairs through a multilateral scope. They deem foreign policy initiatives executed with international support to be more respectable, honorable, and "cooperative" than those done unilaterally. Nevertheless, in my opinion, both the U.S. and France share the same fundamental international goals, but just have taken different approaches.

Putting aside these differences, I was surprised at how knowledgeable they were about U.S. politics. When I mentioned that I studied at UC Berkeley, they instantly asked me about the California state budget crisis! The proposal to recall Governor Gray Davis has also made its way into the French press. The students compared the California budget crisis to the difficulties the French government also has been facing in terms of pension reforms and unemployment benefits; pension reforms in France recently went through more than 900 amendments. It was interesting to note that although we don't necessarily see eye to eye on every topic, we at least go through similar experiences — and what better way to learn this than in a half-English, half-French conversation?

And then the unexpected…

As I have written before, a fun part of working at the U.S. embassy is being a part of the diplomacy that happens off the official turf: networking and meeting people at receptions. At a reception celebrating American Independence Day at the U.S. Ambassador's residence, I was surrounded by conversations about politics, international affairs, diplomacy, and family life. I took the opportunity to meet as many random people as I could, and was excited to be introduced to a French member of the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

I expected we would discuss politics, as others were doing around me. But instead she took an interest in my age, asking me what role pop culture played not only in my life, but in my education. (She has a background in teaching.) I explained that growing up in Los Angeles had significantly exposed me to images of Hollywood, cinema, television, fast food, fashion, and pop music. She became very interested in that and asked how consumer culture had shaped the way I look at my life, politics, and my future. Honestly, I couldn't even begin to answer that question!

Next she told me that pop culture's influence on the new generation — not just in France, but worldwide — was beginning to scare her, as she valued reading and family time over hours of television and computer/Internet activities. Surprisingly enough, I hear the same concerns back at home, with more programs in U.S. elementary schools focusing on "true values" of family time, reading, recreation, and exercise, and many parents' refrain about "TV versus family."

But the greatest part of talking with her was her advice on how to get the most exposure to international culture. She gave me a list of theaters, operas, and dance performances that would make my experience in Paris different from the standard tourist's or summertime resident's. That list has become my agenda for next week.