French Images of the American South

French Images of the American South

By Thomas Noland

Vol. 2, No. 6, 1980, pp. 8-13

PARIS – As French television viewers watched in horror, 12 men leaped out of two vans and a car, crouched, and began firing guns at a group of people with signs. Bodies wilted like empty sacks and fell to the pavement. The sign-carriers fired back or ran for cover; some were cut down in mid-stride. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, police arrived, the shooting stopped and the men who fired were hustled off in paddy wagons.

It was not “The Untouchables” or “Hawaii Five-O” or any of the other American reruns that are standard fare on “Television Francaise.” t was the evening news, Nov. 4, 1979, and the astonishing footage had been made only one day earlier during an anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstration in a place few French had ever heard of Greensboro, N.C.

“You could tell from the tone of the anchorman, that the idea was ‘Once again, a violent outburst in this violent country,” recalled Chris Henze, a press attache at the U.S. Embassy who watches the news as part of his job. “I think things of this type get more attention if they come from the U.S. After Iran, the Greensboro shooting was the major story that night.”

There was an important aspect that set the Greensboro story apart from similar tales

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of American mayhem, however. The issue in Greensboro was race, and even if most French cannot tell Greensboro from Buffalo, almost everyone connects racial violence with “le sud” — the South.

It is Henze’s job to convince French journalists, who in turn convince the French, that such incidents are echoes of a Southern past that is long dead, and only twitches unexpectedly now and then.

The day after the shooting, he briefed a reporter for France-Soir – Paris’ largest circulation daily — who was about to appear on a television panel to discuss it. Evidently, Henze made his point.

“He did an admirable job of putting it in perspective,” Henze said, “talking about the rela tively low Klan membership in the U.S., the fact that it was an isolated incident. It was a very unfortunate event. That sort of item makes people believe we’re a country that allows racists to get out of control. I think there’s a great amount of ignorance about the progress that has taken place in the South.”

Indeed, comments from businessmen, day laborers, housewives and government workers interviewed here indicate Henze is right. The South’s forward strides from the dark ages of Bull Connor’s police dogs and Lester

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Maddox’s race baiting are recognized mostly by those rare Frenchmen who, in visiting or doing business below the Mason-Dixon line, have experienced the newest New South first hand.

For the great majority, impressions of race relations in the region are derived from sources so spurious that comments have a fairy-tale quality. Many believe the Georgia portrayed in “Autant Emporte le Vent” (Gone With the Wind) is the Georgia that brought forth Jimmy Carter, and imagine his Plains peanut farm to be graced by an ante-bellum mansion issuing nubile belles in crinoline dresses, and docile, buck-dancing Blacks who sing spirituals as they wander through the fields carrying enormous burlap sacks. Most Frenchmen do not know that George Wallace is no longer governor of Alabama; any mention of Fob James, who succeeded Wallace last year, is met with shrugged shoulders and blank stares. Some express a desire to visit the South they are attracted mainly by what they have heard of the gentle climate – but almost all want to see either Florida’s Disneyworld or New Orleans, where they imagine everyone speaks French. Mississippi? Alabama? South Carolina? These are terra incognitas to the French, slightly menacing places off the beaten path, places where, they believe, the kind of violence they saw on television Nov. 4 still occurs routinely.

A more realistic view is held by those whose friends or relatives have seen for themselves. Yvonne Perret, a Paris hotel clerk, has a cousin who bought a house in Jackson’, Mississippi and emigrated there with her husband and children. Mrs. Perret tells of worried letters from her relative after Blacks moved into the neighborhood, “which drove down the property prices.” And yet, she said, her cousin stayed on, and soon a daughter — Mrs. Perret’s niece – began to make friends with the Blacks who moved in.

“These were friends she loved and respected,” Mrs. Perret said. “It couldn’t be like the 1960s. Things must be changing there.”

Indeed, race relations in the South have changed a good deal faster than they have in France which is one reason why the French find it difficult to imagine the South’s painful and ongoing evolution toward a society of biracial equality. Here, although segregation never was established by law there is a strong feeling about what is French and what is not — and the Blacks, most of them from former French colonies in Africa, are not considered French.

As a rule, they do not mix socially with their former masters. While overt racial hostility is rare, the covert kind, described by a French government employee who asked to remain anonymous, is common.

“The French are much more racist than the Americans, because the races have no experience of living together,” the employee said. “If there is a Black man in the top floor of your apartment building, people still complain, they still say, ‘What kind of apartment is this, with Black people in it? ‘

A second reason why the French have been slow to accept racial change in the South is no fault of their own. What appears about the region in the French press often is

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reported first in the International Herald Tribune, the highly esteemed English-language daily published here. Generally, the only news about the South that makes the Tribune has to do with race – and usually, with racial confrontation. If a Frenchman were to write a history of the region since 1960, based on the Tribune‘s clip files, his volume would faithfully record the 1961 bus beatings and burnings in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama; the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery; the 1971 school busing crisis in Charlotte and, of course, the recent deaths in Greensboro. The book would be topheavy with information in its early chapters. When race as an issue in the South quieted down in the early 1970s, the Tribune — and the French press — quieted down too.

And so, because the age of dramatic racial confrontation is mostly over, “We are told from America that America is no longer interested in fighting for the rights of Black people,” said a French professional, who follows American and French newspapers closely. “It (the American press) gives the impression that the situation is better. However, I always see stories where this is not true for example, the busing in Boston – but I don’t think the French public is aware of that.

“In France, people are just repeating what they read in the press. This is how they form their ideas. First the American press writes the stories, then the French press picks up what they say and it has nothing to do with reality. During the Vietnam War, you know, people were against America but they were just repeating what they read in the papers. Now that America is not intervening anywhere, the papers are saying America is weak, Carter is weak.”

Carter himself is a curiosity for people who equate ”farmer” with “peasant.” While the American press makes much of the president’s geographical origins, of his being the first Southerner to reach the White House since the Civil War, the French are more intrigued by his peanut business – which is widely misunderstood. “The French refer to Carter as a ‘marchand des cacahuettes’, the little Arab on the street who sells peanuts,” a Paris businesswoman said. “You say to them ‘He is also a very smart engineer,’ and they say, ‘Oh really?’

“I’m not too sure the average Frenchman even knows what being a Southerner means,” she continued. “You have to be very well-informed about America to know the difference. I don’t think most of them even know where Atlanta is.”

For those few who do know the role of Blacks in Carter’s election – especially Southern Blacks is notably appreciated. Le Monde, France’s finest daily and one of the most respected newspapers in the world, is unusually sensitive to race when writing about American politics. Unlike most foreign papers it has its own Washington staff and its reporting tends to be more comprehensive and accurate than that in Paris’ six other major dailies, some of which rely on second-hand information or short dispatches from Agence France-Presse.

Le Monde “no longer writes stories about Black voter registration in the South,” according to one French press critic – an indication of the newspaper’s acknowledgement of Blacks’ progress in this area. But the paper also exhibits an awareness that the struggle for Black equality is far from finished. When Andrew Young was dismissed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations last August, Le Monde congratulated Carter on appointing another Black, Donald McHenry, to the post. It admiringly reviewed Young’s civil rights activism during the 1960s, his years with Martin Luther King in the heyday of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And in a front-page editorial, the newspaper suggested that had Young been White, he might

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still have the job. It remarked that U. S. Ambassador to Austria Milton Wolf kept his position despite committing the same sin – meeting with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — which ostensibly led to Young’s ouster. Wolf, of course, is White.

But the French whose perspective on Southern race relations is closest to reality are those who have studied the region as tourists or investors. In both groups, according to U.S. officials here, the belief that the South is the land of “colored” waiting rooms, dual drinking fountains and midnight lynching parties has died an honorable death – and many of these Frenchmen, like New South apostles, are convinced the races get along better in Nashville or even Greensboro than in New York or Detroit.

William Tappe is regional director in Paris for the U.S. Travel Service of the Department of Commerce. Part of his job is to arrange tours of the U.S. for French journalists; in many cases his agency provides free airline transportation through an arrangement with the Civil Aeronautics Board, along with discounts on such items as hotel rooms and rented cars. He also monitors reactions of the journalists – as well as ordinary tourists – who return to France after a sojourn in America.

Among those who visit the South, Tappe says the only complaint, besides a universal disgust with fast food, has nothing to do with race relations. “Recently, some have commented on how fat the Americans are in the South,” he said, smiling. “The French who are concerned about racial discrimination think of it as part of the folklore of the U.S. They are a very small minority — those who are aware at all. They have been receptive to criticism of the U.S. and they have retained that and they expect to find it. Especially first-time travellers to the U.S. seem to think they find it.”

For the most part, the journalists and others who are helped by Tappe’s organization return with glowing accounts of Southern

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charm and hospitality, although many French are distressed to find that New Orleans is not the Gallic mecca they imagined. “There’s a tremendous attraction to Louisiana,” he said, “and Miami, the destination of a National (Airlines) flight from Paris, is becoming well-known. The rest of the South doesn’t have much of an image.” As for the folkloric dimension of racial discrimination, as rendered by the french-dubbed Gone With the Wind and perpetuated in the horror stories from the worst civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, Tappe concluded, “It’s certainly not a problem for us in selling the U.S. as a travel destination.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy’s Commercial Division said the average French businessman who thinks of locating a plant in Dixie does not look upon Black-White relations the way he might have 15 years ago. Like the tourist who has educated himself about the region’s recent past, the businessman is more likely to consider the South’s labor climate than its racial climate.

Asked whether she knew of any French businessman who had balked for racial reasons over locating a plant in the South, attache Carolyn Ervin said, “I’ve never heard anything like that. French businessmen are aware of the easier labor climate in the U.S. generally, and there might be some understanding that the South is less expensive. The official U.S. government policy is to be neutral on all capital movement. We have lots of general literature which we give him (the potential French investor); then the Embassy lets the various state offices here know and they jump all over each other trying to get the industry.”

The jumping works both ways. Each of the offices also is interested in promoting its own state’s products for sale abroad. Louisiana, with an office near Paris’ most fashionable neighborhood, is the only state with a bureau in France; most states maintain their foreign offices in Brussels (headquarters of the Common Market), Germany or Japan. Especially aggressive as Atlanta increasingly becomes an international city, Georgia has foreign bureaus in Brussels, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Toronto.

“The serious investors,” Ms. Ervin added, “go to the large banks or investment houses, and they know, they educate them” about conditions in the South.

But how many serious investors take time to study Dixie? And how many tourists actually see the region? In relation to the total French population, with its fantasies, biases and amiable misinformation, both groups are miniscule. More importantly, the knowledge they acquire is barely diffused beyond a closed circle of friends and associates. Most of them are Parisians; the average French provincial never visits or does business with Spain or Germany, let alone the American South. Last year, according to the U.S. Travel Service, 259,818 Frenchmen came to America – and only 5 percent indicated they came to learn about the U.S. political or social conditions. Many more came to see “the sights,” and that, for the foreign tourist, means Hollywood, the Capitol and the Statue of Liberty not Birmingham, Little Rock and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

The shooting in Greensboro last November is more likely to shape the average Frenchman’s impression of current Southern race relations than any single factor. His knowledge of the South is largely imagistic: a bulldog-faced Alabama governor blocking the schoolhouse door; firehoses sweeping back a crowd of Blacks who tumble and cover their eyes; a man, his voice like the waters, telling thousands of his dream; a body wrapped in blankets on the balcony of a Memphis motel – and now, the dead on a street of another Southern town that will never become a tourist mecca. School desegregation patterns and voter registration figures simply can’t compete with that.

Thomas Noland writes for the Atlanta Constitution from Paris and teaches English at the American College.