Mar 1 1999

Something Stinks

Francophobia at the New York Times

For the Times of London and the Times of New York, it is still quite proper to say the natives stink– provided they are French.

When French soap merchants followed the lead of ours to persuade their public that it had B.O., the Timeses were happy to confirm it. The one in London (11/21/98) whinnied: “It’s True!: The French Really Are the Smelliest in Europe.” In fragrant New York, it was “Hygiene Poll Bares Source of the French Je Sais Quoi” (11/24/98). Craig Whitney’s lead chortled: “The French invented perfume because they had to. In the 17th Century, even Louis XIV seldom bathed.” He said that “recent experience in the overheated rooms” persuaded him that half the French fail to use deodorants.

Whitney’s nose is evidently more sensitive than mine. In my years in Paris for the Times, I hadn’t noticed the B.O., or for that matter, the overheating. I did recall French courtesy. So I faxed a note to the New York Times observing that the French did not invent perfume (read your Bible, I suggested), that frequent bathing had vanished from England with the Romans and did not return until fairly late (Tories sneered that the bathtubs in public housing were used only to store coal), and that we’d do well to mind our manners.

It was a pleasant surprise to be advised that my letter would appear. A copy was faxed to me near the deadline. It had been deodorized into a “Gotcha” correction about perfume, and addressed my rebuke for bad manners to all Americans, not just the New York Times. So I told them to forget it. But the French stink piece had amused the editors of the “Week In Review,” which repeated it (11/29/98), illustrated with a cartoon of a critter in French costume, titled “Pepe le Pew, le skunk.”

I thought of telling them that the skunk is an American animal, but decided it wouldn’t help. The New York Times‘ problem with the French is evidently more than skin deep. Only a week later (12/6/98), a Whitney lead declared: “With allies like France, does the United States really need enemies? Put another way, with allies like Britain, who needs France?”

The immediate issue was Clinton’s bombing of Iraq, but any sign of French independence, real or imagined, gives offense. Thus Roger Cohen, reviewing European reaction to Clinton’s impeachment (1/18/99), quotes an expression of concern by Le Monde, but needs to warn that it is a departure from “the familiar Gallic smirk.”

A word to the Times‘ foreign desk: Deodorant, anyone?