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A night with our friends, the French

March 21, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

An event at the French Consulate to bestow knighthood on a local cultural guru became a celebration of Gallic dissent Wednesday night, just minutes after President Bush announced the launch of the first attack on Iraq.

"It's so bizarre," said Santa Monica architect Thom Mayne of the Morphosis firm. "The president's rounding up his posse and riding into Baghdad, and here we are with the French -- the demonized French!"

American suspicion of the French -- "they have a different word for everything," Steve Martin once said -- has deep roots. Rarely has it been as contentious as in the last month when French officials harshly criticized U.S. plans to disarm Iraq.

But on Wednesday, the focus was on celebration. A large, boisterous crowd of French and non-French alike shouted "Vive la France!" as they hoisted their Bordeaux and champagne glasses in honor of Paul Holdengraber, founder of a debate and discussion series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I synchronized this well," joked Holdengraber, who is now a chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters. "Bush needed something to piggyback on."

Much of the evening's chatter, as well as the remarks by Holdengraber and French Consul General Jean-Luc Sibiude, riffed off the French opposition to U.S. aggression in Iraq. The consulate in Beverly Hills is far more accustomed to processing visas and entertaining cultural figures than taking on matters of high-level diplomacy. Sibiude referred to himself as a public relations man, one now facing a tough sell; his last few weeks, he says, have been rough.

"We are passionate, we have strong convictions, France and the United States," said Sibiude, whose office has been active at bringing French culture to Los Angeles and vice versa. "In the business of messianism, you don't want to have competition."

Sibiude, whose dapper dress and swooping hair makes him seem a less smug Graydon Carter, introduced Holdengraber, who was born in Texas to Austrian parents and has lived all over Europe, as "a distinguished member of Old Europe," using Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's dismissive term for Germany and France. "Take it as a great compliment."

"With all seriousness, France and the U.S. will remain great friends and allies," continued Sibiude. He called the recent tensions "a passing fever between the French and the United States. The temperature will be back to normal."

And, referring to the substitution of the word "freedom" in renaming of a popular side dish in a congressional cafeteria: "The French fries will be back! And so will the French kiss!"

"Americans hate intellectuals, they hate people who like good food, and they hate people with style," journalist and "Forever Barbie" author M.G. Lord said Wednesday, repeating a theory she'd heard on National Public Radio. "They can't hate New York anymore, so they hate the French."

Lord was clear where she stood as the bombs fell. "I'm delighted to be on French soil."

"I think it's ironic," Tom Schnabel, KCRW-FM world music deejay, said of American hostility to the French. "If it weren't for the French, the Americans wouldn't have won the Revolution against the British."

Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeremy Strick and CalArts President Steven Lavine were also in attendance. Lavine praised the consul general's cultural efforts -- he was important in bringing the college's production of "King Lear" to a festival in Dijon this spring -- and said that the U.S.' diplomatic stubbornness had made him uncomfortable to be an American.

"They have a kind of openness and excitement about the cultural possibilities of Los Angeles, and a curiosity about intellectually minded work," Lavine said of the consulate. "They've been a wonderful presence."

As for the guest of honor, who came on like a multilingual stand-up comedian, the evening was an opportunity to make a plea both for France as "a country of nuance" and for tolerance here at home.

"Ideas are there for us to discuss," Holdengraber said. "They're not in black and white, as they've become tonight."

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