An Ugly American rejoices

Le Pen's victory goes a long way toward wiping the smirk of moral superiority off the faces of Parisians who love to bash America.

By Nina Burleigh
Published April 24, 2002 7:59PM (EDT)

I'm sorry I was in bed when the tear-gassing of the anti-fascist protesters was underway Sunday at the Bastille a few blocks away. I'd like to have been there, if only to witness Parisians' impassive hauteur disintegrate into something approaching embarrassment.

For Ugly Americans living in Paris, the Le Pen upset is cause for celebration.

It's been a long winter here fending off righteous French indignation about Bush's belligerence and our "overreaction" to the Sept. 11 attacks without sounding like Pat Buchanan. The extreme right's surprise showing cheers me because it should go a long way toward wiping the smirk of moral superiority off the Parisian face where America is concerned.

Now, to my delight, I and the entire world learn the French not only have their own Pat Buchanan, but an even greater share of like-minded idiots. I know I should be concerned about rising European neo-fascism, racism, anti-Semitism. But all I can think of is the face of the obnoxious anonymous Frenchwoman I encountered on my last flight into Paris.

I flew into Paris from JFK on a discounted Air France red-eye. I was sitting one row in front of three Arabs who had just been visiting relatives in Paterson, N.J. They were in their 60s, two women and a man, and spoke almost no English or French. They also did not share, to put it nicely, our American notions of crowded-airplane etiquette.

The man, who sat behind me, not only kicked but screamed and punched the back of my chair every time I leaned back. He and the women argued and laughed throughout the night, while the lights were off, and even the squalling babies were asleep. The Air France stewards tried unsuccessfully to quiet them, but gave up.

When dawn finally broke, my annoyance gave way to curiosity, and when I realized the trio behind me were having trouble filling out their customs cards I offered to help. My motives were only partly altruistic, since I was curious about where they were from. Syria, it turned out, and a town I'd never heard of.

As the plane began to descend, the man got busy again, grunting as he pulled down pounds of hand luggage and piled it in the aisle. Nearby passengers looked on in awe, as did I, realizing he was preparing to disembark Middle Eastern-style, in a stampede for the door before the plane touched down. Again, the Air France stewards argued with him, and again, by dint of the language barrier and the man's sheer stubbornness, they failed.

At last, we were earthbound. Bleary-eyed, grumpy passengers were in the aisles, pulling bags down, waiting for the line to move. While I was pulling my bags down, the man and one of the women shoved past me and made it all the way into first class, knocking people back into their seats in their haste.

The third, a linebacker-size woman with a head scarf, slammed me toward my chair. I stiff-armed her and, in English, told her to sit down and wait.

At this point, a classic, sexy Frenchwoman with bed-head tendrils of curly hair in her face, in the middle of doing the triple scarf twist, rode to the rescue.

"Please don't push her," talking to me from two rows back.

"But, but, she's trampling me."

"They've spent their lives in a small village. They don't know any better."

"But they've just been to New York!"

"Please don't hurt her. She could be your mother."

Oh God, the M word. People were looking at me now.

"But I wasn't hurting her! In fact, I just helped them fill out their cards!"

I don't remember the reply, but I know I didn't get the last word. Half the passengers were eyeing me with disgust. The sexy little French girl oozing concern for Third World travelers had just exposed me as a callous American.

In the eyes of her fellow passengers, I was now Donald Rumsfeld calling Afghan civilian casualties an unfortunate accident. I was the Tomahawk cruise missile, swaggering George Bush, a greedy Enron asshole, an anti-Arab racist and a cold-hearted rich bitch from New York who wouldn't let an old peasant lady pass her -- all rolled into one! Just another First World, sole-superpower bully, insensitive to the customs of people from undeveloped countries.

The French have a phrase for what I experienced over the next several days. It's called "esprit d'escalier," and I had an exceptionally powerful case of it. I had just personally experienced what it means to be an American abroad today - and I hadn't been able to defend myself. My helpless, stuttering response rang in my ears, and each time I heard myself it sounded more quintessentially American in wounded tone and naive spirit.

"But ... but ... I was hurt!"

"But ... but ... I just helped them!"

The morally superior Frenchwoman's defense of the stampeding Arabs pissed me off even more because I know what the French in Paris really think about their own Algerian immigrants. To give but a few recent examples, at one gathering a sleek minx who described herself as a communist regaled me with a lengthy list of the problems of unchecked Algerian immigration. She concluded with something like a call for eugenics.

"They should have made a law requiring them to learn how to be Frenchwomen," she said of what she described as the overbreeding mothers whose children are forming a new class of street criminals. "At least teach them to go to the gynecologist!"

At another recent dinner, an upper-middle-class father who sends his daughters -- though not for long -- to a Paris public school, ranted about the way the Algerian pre-teen boys in their class treated his girls. "They tell the girls to look at the floor when they're around. They have no respect for women. They hate them!"

This kind of talk is going on all the time among the Parisians, people whose hearts -- and mouths -- bleed for American blacks and Native Americans, Afghan civilians and, yes, stampeding Syrian tourists. I don't suppose any of them actually voted for Le Pen. But at the least his upset victory should hand them a new humility.

On the other hand, that might be like expecting them to pick up after their dogs and quit smoking.

Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh ( is author of “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.”

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