Why America's oldest friend and ally keeps an eye on our most painful headlines.
I once went to a Bruce Springsteen concert on the Fourth of July. It felt like the most American thing in the entire world to do, the most American thing I had ever done.
But I was very much in Paris when it happened.
Singing along with The Boss to “Independence Day” in the French capital was, oddly enough, completely appropriate. Bruce said so himself.
And that is because America’s Independence Day is very much linked to France. Springsteen reminded the crowd of this; that the French had been the ones to support the United States in the American Revolution, supplying us with money, arms, and support to fight the British. The crowd sort of cheered. No one was there for a history lesson. And they were getting impatient for “Dancing in the Dark.” But there was a general consensus that what Bruce was saying was good and true (even for someone like me, who is not a die-hard Springsteen fan and was there only to make my concert companion ecstatically happy).
I’ve been out of school for awhile now, but hope that any high school student who has recently taken an American history course would understand what The Boss was referring to. France played a huge role in creating the country we now know to be the United States. Not only by agreeing to send the original thirteen colonies money and guns and soldiers, but also by sending us their ideas. So many of the ideals that we attribute to America’s “Founding Fathers” actually started with French writers and philosophers like Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These luminary minds (please remember that Paris being referred to as the “City of Lights'' is due to their enlightenment, not bulbs and street lamps) wrote about the rights of men. Yes, we millennials now know that they really, really, really meant men, but hey, at least it was a start. They wrote about the separation of governmental powers and the separation of church and state. Their work influenced other men, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who relied on these ideas when drafting the Declaration of Independence.
See, it pays to be able to read in French.
When the American colonies declared themselves free from monarchical rule, it only took a few years for France - inspired by our revolution - to do the same. Something Louis XVI was of course afraid of when he helped fund the American Revolution, but he was so hellbent on sticking it to England that he gambled (and lost his head).
This exchange, this old friendship, this back-and-forth of revolutionary ideas is something that, more than two-hundred years later, we often forget. But it would occasionally strike me, whether leaving a Bruce Springsteen concert, sightseeing around Paris, or just going about my day while living there, than no matter how old the French capital felt to me, not matter how much history there was down every street or behind every building façade, that France as a republic, as a democracy, was actually younger than the United States. Only by a couple of years, but still. The difference between “old world” and “new world” seemed to fade away when I recalled that this whole “rule by the people” experiment was still relatively new.
Last week, as I found myself unable to turn off the news or look away from the headlines, I turned to see what the French newspapers were saying as well. Yes, of course, the entire world was watching as an angry mob stormed our Capitol building last week, and headlines explaining the insurrection were written in hundreds of languages. But I had to ask: is France in particular, our oldest friend and ally, keeping a particularly watchful eye on us to see how this democratic experiment is going? To see if our democracies, that were created in such close proximity to one another, are going to stand the test of time? They are equally shaken up from terrorist attacks, nationalist politics, and civil unrest… have we been a friend and an ally devoted to keeping a watchful eye on them as well?
A serious conversation, we know. We can’t only talk about melted cheese (although we’d really love to).
As a collective, we’d like to invite our students and all reading this to reflect on what democracy means to them, how it was taught to them as children, and how they understand its function in countries around the world, including France.
We’d like to focus on the ideas that those old French philosophers wrote about, namely equality and opportunity. Seedling ideas that took root back in both our revolutions, came to flourish, and are now in desperate need of watering and sunlight.
Bright days are sure to come. But for now, meditation and serious contemplation seem to be in order. We’ll leave you with this…