France, the U.S. and liberté or liberty?

France will celebrate Bastille Day on Saturday. Like its sister republic on this side of the Atlantic, the French Republic will mark its liberation from the yoke of monarchical rule. But despite the shower of fireworks, parades and speeches in praise of liberty, don’t be deceived. Just as America’s red, white and blue is the mirror image of France’s blue, white and red, liberté isn’t quite the same as liberty, especially in the 21st century.

We have long known that France is, well, a foreign country. Take the bidet — which most Americans do, as a cooler for Coke, not a spritz for their private parts. (Our national soft drink, on the other hand, was quite literally seen by the postwar French as an American plot to “coca-colonize” their nation.)

No less particular, and even more peculiar, is the ascenseur à cornichons, or cornichon elevator, the green mesh platform with which one raises those glistening and petite pickles to the jar’s lip. The elevator is as graceful for the French as it is meaningless for Americans, for whom cornichons are little more than failed pickles. (Besides, what’s wrong with a fork?)

Johnny Hallyday, the 69-year-old megastar whose concerts still fill French football (i.e., soccer) stadiums, is no less foreign for Americans: a bit of a surprise, since he launched his career half a century ago as France’s answer to Elvis. The odds are long he will sell out the Beacon Theater this fall for his first New York appearance.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’ suggestion that “dirt is matter out of place” offers a key to these cultural oddities. Just as we transform soil from one kind of thing to another when we move it from the backyard to the kitchen floor, so too do we comprehend French culture. To our eyes, the bidet is little more than plumbing out of place; the cornichon elevator is ingenuity out of place; and Hallyday, quite simply, is Elvis out of place. Once replaced in the proper cultural frame, however, they no longer occupy a conceptual black hole but instead cast a light on the complex society that gave them life.

Does Douglas’ insight also apply to liberté? For many Americans, the liberty tree would shrivel and die in France’s tax-soaked, socialist soil, tended by a powerful state. Why is it, we wonder, that the bumpers of Peugeots and Renaults are not festooned with “Take France Back” stickers?

After all, like the English colonists, French revolutionaries were rebelling against monarchical despotism. The rubble-strewn space they left where the Bastille prison once stood reflected this newfound sense of “negative” liberty: It was freedom from. From arbitrary rule, from invasive institutions, from hereditary privilege. They were free, in short, from being thrown into the Bastille on the whim of a nobleman.

But, as it turned out, the French also wanted freedom from material insecurity, want and illness. During the revolution there also surged a “positive” understanding of liberty, most powerfully expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and based on the notion of the common good. By obeying the general will, individuals merge their particular, personal interests with those of others. Only on such foundations are men and women able to fully realize freedom. Here, the French became free to. To work with others, to commit to a greater good, to sacrifice their individual desires in order to achieve something bigger and better.

American conservatives are quick to point out that this positive notion of liberty helped lead to mob rule and the appalling excesses of Robespierre and the Terror. Let us leave to historians the debate over whether this was the result of unique historical circumstances or ideological inevitability. But we should recall that our own country straddles the same tension between the negative and positive charges of liberty: The pursuit of happiness, after all, proclaims certain positive rights (and later, the Constitution’s “promote the general welfare” added to the chorus). America’s forefathers, as (the admittedly French) Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in “Democracy in America,” “had a higher and more comprehensive conception of the duties of society toward its members than had the lawgivers of Europe at that time, and they imposed obligations upon it which were still shirked elsewhere.”

But now more than ever in the United States, the negative gloss seems to have trumped the positive. The noisiest among us only want freedom from — taxes, a healthcare system, a California bullet train. They’ve forgotten the importance of freedom to. For this reason, just as cornichons are botched pickles, liberté may seem like liberty trampled. But once resituated in its proper frame — one brimming with state-subsidized day-care centers and doctor visits, four-week paid vacations and the 200 mph TGV — liberté fully assumes its meaning.

It’s their mix of freedom from and to that explains how the French can be the most individualistic of peoples, yet remain committed to a state that seeks to guarantee the well-being of all its citizens. Is it possible that the titles of our founding documents say it all? America’s is the Declaration of Independence, full stop, while France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen underscores not just rights but also duties.

Americans will probably differ on whether cornichons are good to eat, but as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked about such things, they are “good to think.” On Saturday, let’s reflect on whether the same holds true for the notion of liberté: at the very least, it is good to think about pickles, plumbing, pop stars and life in the land of the free, à la française.

Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the University of Houston and is coauthor of France and its Empire Since 1870.

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