A few years ago, I developed a script for an American TV sitcom. An aging French rock-and-roll star—picture a slightly seedy Johnny Hallyday—meets a young, sweet American girl in Paris, woos her, marries her and, together, they move back to the United States to live with her conservative and very rich family.
High jinks, as we say in the business, ensue. He wanders around the house in a Speedo and Ugg boots, criticizing typical Americanisms like Starbucks and Quizno's. Her uptight dad mutters about smelly cheese and Iraq War betrayals. But the two of them—OK, OK, it's a metaphor—actually have something to learn from each other.
What we were going for was a clash of cultures, but funny. Our American father (all hypertension, reflexive right-wing nuttery, scolding puritan attitudes) and our French libertine (sexually frank, culturally snobbish, unemployed) would learn to live together in tolerant harmony. Dad would come to savor good wine and two-hour lunches. The rocker would get a job and wear pants. You know, an exchange.
That was two years ago. Two events have since sent our project into turnaround. The first came when Nicolas Sarkozy, the center-right, America-tolerant French presidential candidate, emerged as a clear favorite. Could it be that France, stung by violent eruptions in the mostly Muslim banlieues of Paris, stagnant economic growth, a soaring national deficit and falling per capita income, may be slowly lowering the national nose just a touch? Recent polls show a population more worried about the future, and less convinced of Gallic exceptionalism, than ever before. As for that pompous old grandee, outgoing President Jacques Chirac, and the self-dramatizing diva act known as Dominique de Villepin? Let them trundle off into irrelevance.
But that's politics. The really big event was last December, when Johnny Hallyday—France's Elvis, Jagger, Springsteen and Sinatra rolled into one—picked up and moved to Switzerland. And for terribly un-French reasons, too: taxes. With rates as high as 60 percent, and inheritance laws turning outright confiscatory, the French superstar threw in the serviette.
Alas, poor me. Like every other successful comedy, my sitcom is based on differences, conflict. If the French start electing center-right presidents who promise lower taxes and immigration reform, there's not much funny material left to build a television series. We may as well make our rocker a Canadian. That's just the opposite of what we wanted from our French rock-and-roll star. He was supposed to teach our American dad Frenchy-ness, that sense of national consensus about what it means to be French.
Americans don't have it. When we talk about being American, we use words like liberty, freedom, opportunity. Compared with the French, we treat our country like a stock pick. We're high on it when it's high, down on it when it's having some rough quarters. But the French love of country is just that: a love of the physical place, the earth, la France profonde. When Americans hear French people talk about the local cheese, or the specific terroir of a wine, we roll our eyes and head to the Olive Garden, or some other generic transcontinental chain. But as a French friend of mine asked once, "You always talk about American individualism. If you're all so individual, why do you all eat the same hamburgers?"
Sure, there were a lot of things we thought the American father could offer—the benefits of a 40-hour workweek, for starters. But as we got deeper into the script, it became clear that the hero of the show (what network-development executives call "the moral center") was the sixtysomething French dude in his Speedo, a glass of red wine in one hand, the other caressing his twentysomething wife.
Not exactly standard fare for an American television network. Our script remains unproduced, yielding a larger metaphor. The longer France resists change and global competition—the longer it stays unproduced—the more irrelevant it will become. It's a shame, because France has lots of useful lessons to teach us. Even in a Speedo.
Long is a Hollywood screenwriter.