Not Nice in Nice
Illinois once was French—not that you’d notice
May 21, 1992
Illinois used to be a province of France, until the loss of a Continental war to Britain resulted in the surrender its North American territories to the Brits and the Illinois Country’s slide into barbarity. Public attitudes toward the French ever since betray out resentment at our abandonment.
Oh, my careless assertion here that Illinois bears a French name I finally corrected in a 2016 column, “Mis-say it loud, mis-say it proud.”
A lot of people lost money betting on the favorite, a French horse named Arazi, in the Kentucky Derby, which only confirmed the general ill feeling that the French cannot be counted upon. "The last good thing the French did," groused one loser to me, "was to execute Louis XIV."
Illinois used to be a province of France, generally speaking. The state bears a French name, it was "discovered" by Frenchmen, its first towns were French. But apart from a few relics and some unpronounceable place names little of what they left behind has endured. Too bad; the French interlude saw perhaps the only civilized era in Illinois's post-European history.
The trade in those days was mostly in furs. Today France is Illinois's eighth largest export trading partner, doing more than half a billion dollar worth of business in 1990. Roughly 150 French firms have operations in Illinois, employing more than 10,000 people; Illinois's Sara Lee Corporation alone does a billion a year in France. The French government maintains a more substantial presence in Illinois today than it ever did when it owned the joint, with separate scientific, trade, cultural, tourism, and investment offices as well as their consulate in Chicago.
These facts were brought home to an indifferent public during a month-long festival in May called "Illinois Salutes France." Centered mainly in Chicago, this state-backed extravaganza was meant to "showcase the long and prosperous relationship between Illinois and France." In fact it was meant to prolong and improve it, with a grab bag of tourism promotions, Chamber of Commerce talks, and cultural instruction. Nearly three dozen events were staged in all—cooking demonstrations, film showings, lectures on French history in the U.S,. investment tips, performances of French music. (The only act in this revue to play Springfield, alas, is the exhibit of French photography that will hang at the State Library through June 3.)
Chicago is the perfect place to contemplate the French influence in Illinois. The place was settled not (as popular myth might have it) by an Irishman but by a man named DuSable. The most popular paintings and sculpture that entrance people at the Art Institute are French by authorship or subject; seminal Chicago School architects like Louis Sullivan trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris; Marshall Field's department store was largely modeled on Paris's Bon Marché. French-style restaurants are again in vogue, and one of the Loop's more digestible fast food may be purchased at any outlet of Au Bon Pain, a sort of Gallic McDonald's.
French ideas and ways immigrated to Chicago, but not many of French people ever did. As a result the French are not a physical presence in the city the way that the Poles, Italians, Jews, Irish, Mexicans, and assorted Asian peoples are. Instead, French ways are kept alive by the traveled upper middle class, the junior-semester-in-Europe set.
I found myself amongst a whole auditorium of them at the Art Institute in mid-month, where we'd gathered to hear a lecture by French architect/designer Andrée Putman. She made a striking figure—tall, 60-ish, wearing gold lame pumps and speaking in a voice redolent of cigarettes and cognac, utterly French in her worldliness and in the careful calibration of ideas. The sensibility she demonstrated in words and in slides of her work was as alien to Chicago as wisdom is to an alderman, which made it and her all the dearer to the audience.
Style is sometimes assumed to be all the French have to offer, but the month was crammed with seminars and talks about investment techniques and high-tech medicine from the Institut Pasteur, and exhibits showing off high-speed trains—French style applied to public rather than personal ends. France's tradition of educated civil servants and central planning have given its industrial policy a coherence that has eluded Washington. The results sometimes shock inattentive Americans; France's commercial airplanes are more advanced, its architecture more daring, its telecommunications more comprehensive than anything being done here. Like much of western Europe, the French do not enjoy so much private wealth as do the equivalent classes in the U.S. but most enjoy a higher standard of living. The difference is the large investments made in public services, from transit to child care.
If the French have an ambivalent attitude toward American popular culture, Americans can hardly be said to have an attitude toward French culture at all. The popular U.S. view of France is a composite of perhaps a half dozen images—the Eiffel Tower, leering boulevardiers, Free French singing the Marsellaise in Casablanca, Brigitte Bardot, people eating snails. U.S. citizens of a certain vintage imagine the French Everyman to be Maurice Chevalier, an especially misleading notion, since the French on the whole are more choleric than genial.
To know the French, however, is not necessarily to love them. Our intelligentsia in particular seems antagonistic toward them, for reasons that are not always clear. True, they make prickly allies—the news from the early days of the Gulf War was whether, not how, the French and Americans would coordinate command of their respective forces—and their foreign policy is nearly as self-serving and corrupt as our own, if less racist. But I suspect the ill feeling is owed to two things: the inexplicable French respect for Jerry Lewis and the fact that so many of our educated elites flunked college French.
What Americans most hold against the French, it seems, is that they are not like us. They elect presidents who write poetry and history, and when they come to Illinois to sight-see they contemptuously pass up Great America and the Sears Tower for trips to blues clubs in parts of Chicago that haven't seen a white person not wearing a uniform in twenty years.
The Chicago papers not long about fretted about the failure of French and other foreign-language films to find a commercial audience here. (French films were the source of at least a dozen U.S. films in the 1980s, including Three Men and a Baby, that in addition to being more intelligible than the originals to U.S. audiences were less knowing about sex and less well acted.) Slow-reading Americans like neither subtitles nor dubbing, but the main reasons Americans don't like French movies is that they are about French people.
Tales of rude treatment in France are a staple of the U.S. tourist. Most (it usually turns out) occur in Paris, France's New York, or are the result of Americans' arrogant refusal to attempt the local language, or of the French eschewing the phony bonhomie of the mall. The French prefer hauteur to hypocrisy, which makes them not "nice" in Nice.
”Vive la France,” I say. ●