Of Cowboys and Frenchmen
Reprinted with permission from Think & Ask.
When I was seven years old, my family moved from France to America. I wore a full cowboy suit on the flight, including boots, a hat, spurs and a little plastic gun. I was a little French boy, but I was very excited to be moving to the land of cowboys.
In March of this year, I traveled through the heartland in a rock band as America was being plunged into war with Iraq. As anti-French sentiment reached a fever pitch, I realized that the cowboys for whom I had yearned as a kid were now running the country, and I was not one of them. I was an "injun." I was the enemy.
The events leading up to war in Iraq are familiar. Bush and his team pushed their agenda in the face of massive opposition from the UN and the European community. France spearheaded the opposition. In America, many interpreted France's anti-war stance as anti-American.
A backlash began, and the rhetoric reached surreal, infantile proportions. American newspapers portrayed French politicians as weasels, some going so far as to PhotoShop actual weasel heads on the body of Chirac. Restaurants boycotted French wines. One patriotic restaurant owner invited the press to witness him pouring hundred dollar bottles of champagne down the toilet. People substituted the adjective "French" with "Freedom." Perhaps the idea was that the French were the negation of freedom and were trying to enslave all Americans forever by not lending their army to the pointless invasion in Iraq.
I watched all of this with bemusement and growing unease. It was getting really weird. If Rumsfeld's Department of Homeland Security could detain suspected terrorists with little to no cause, would French people be next? I had never felt like a member of an oppressed minority. I had emigrated from one First World country to another. I am a white male. It's true that when I arrived in the U.S., I had a heavy French accent. This set me apart from the other second graders in my class. Some of the bigger, dumber kids picked on me for being different, but I eventually lost all trace of my accent. Throughout my adolescence, being French seemed like a card I could play to my advantage with girls, not a handicap.
But by the time my rock band, Melomane, was touring the country in March, America was starting to scare me. As we drove through the South, we caught snippets of world events on televisions in dingy clubs. It became increasingly clear that Bush was going to have his war whether anyone liked it or not. Bush's handlers probably didn't show him the videos of millions of protesters around the world denouncing his cause. Or maybe these videos strengthened his resolve and made him feel steadfast before God, against all odds; much like Saddam must have felt in his secret bunker before the shit hit the fan.
We arrived in Nashville on March 10 as the war began. As we drove our van down the glitzy main thoroughfare of this country music Mecca, I saw cowboys everywhere. There were good old boys milling around in diners, gas stations and boot shops. This was America, love it or leave it. My French passport felt like a badge betraying my enemy status. I was a weasel in a land of cowboys. If they found me out, they would consider it their God-given duty to run my ass out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, like in the Lucky Luke comics I had read as a kid.
My anxiety - fueled by six hours in a van, large amounts of caffeine and some residue of THC - reached fever pitch. I needed a drink. We pulled up to a bar and ordered some beers. Above the bar, CNN spewed the latest announcements of the conquest and glorious liberation of the Iraqi people. I checked my cell phone and heard a cryptic two-word message from my father in California. "Call me."
My father seldom calls. When he does, he leaves 20-minute messages in his molasses-thick French accent describing the activities of his day, week and month in excruciating detail. Right away, I imagined the worst: he had been "detained indefinitely" by the Department of Homeland Security for "activities" which "jeopardize domestic security." In other words, for being French. They had jailed him, tortured him to extract the whereabouts of his family and they were coming for me next.
We went to the club and unloaded our equipment. I needed to clear my head, be alone and try to reach my father. I found an uncrowded restaurant nearby, sat at the bar and dialed his number. No answer. I ordered a glass of water. The girl behind the counter smiled at me. It was not a smile of suspicion. She doesn't realize I am the enemy. I looked at the selection of wines behind her and saw about a dozen good French bottles. I drained my water in one gulp. Emboldened, I asked her why the restaurant had not boycotted French products. She looked at me as if I had a goat's head growing from my forehead.
"Boycott French products? Are you fucking crazy? I'm about to start boycotting America! This country is fucked! I'm seriously considering moving to France and asking for political asylum! We are being oppressed by an evil, insane dictator! Boycott French products, ha!"
Later that night, we played a great show. I made lots of new friends in Nashville and met many people who felt the same way I did about Bush and his war. The girl from the restaurant came to the show and brought her friends. We all hung out at the bar until closing time.
At about 2:15 a.m., I got a call from my father. He was sorry for the short message earlier; his phone got disconnected and he misplaced my number. For the next 20 minutes, he raved about what a great job Bush was doing in Iraq, ousting that scumbag dictator and liberating the Iraqi people.