France and California--Vive the Differences and Similarities

Did you happen to feel it? That sudden impulse to buy gas by the liter? A furtive urge to smoke a foul, unfiltered cigarette? Did you wonder what was going on?

I'll tell you what it was: California has burst out like Lance Armstrong passing the pack in the fiscal Tour de France. The Bear Flag Republic, all by itself, has overtaken La Belle France to become the Chanel No. 5 of the world of wealth, the fifth most powerful economic force du monde and gaining on Germany and Japan and Mother England and the other 49 states put together. In sum, our GDP now is bigger than their GDP.

But California is not Bismarck's Germany. So the Golden State was more gilded than Gaul by about 50 billion; it is not our style to grind the loser ignominiously into the dust. We are more than a benevolent nation-state; we are the world. We bestowed Euro Disney on France, and allowed Marcel Marceau into the country.

Differences? Bien sur. Californians cavort in the streets for a champion basketball team; the French break out the confetti for poets.

The French get six weeks' vacation, your average Californian gets two. Maybe that's why we are the world's cinquieme economic engine and France is sucking our low-emission fumes. (The laid-back Californian was the malicious invention of East Coast pundits. Farmers and movie stars, our rugged pioneer forebears, both start work at the crack of dawn.)

France gets its electricity from nuclear power, we get ours from Texas' power.

California was glad to let nuclear bombs be tested in Nevada, home of a fake Eiffel Tower; France tries out its nuclear arsenal in the South Pacific, far from the real Eiffel Tower.

The French very sensibly take their dogs to restaurants and leave their children at home. Californians, regrettably, do it the other way around.

France is pretty creeped out by Scientology. Here it's the state religion of Hollywood.

The French revere their language. We treat ours like Silly Putty.

Hollywood grinds out the entertainment that makes the French intelligentsia scream about cultural imperialism (even as your average Jean eats it up). Last week, Sumner Redstone, that ubermaster of Viacom, Paramount, MTV, UPN and half the known entertainment world, told me with breezy contempt, "People all over the world . . . they want American movies. They don't want French movies."

In France you can get red wine at McDonald's. Until recently, in Orange County you couldn't order red wine at the Performing Arts Center lest you spilled it on the white carpets. (The vines that made Los Angeles a winemaking powerhouse in the 19th century were imported by a French immigrant named Vignes.)

France preens itself on the Concorde. California birthed the Stealth bomber. Paris has the Jeu de Paume museum, and a museum of locks. Los Angeles has MOCA, and a bra museum.

A French company named Vivendi makes movies at Universal. A California company named Kaufman and Broad builds suburbs in France.

The French believe in public transit. Californians believe in the sanctity of one-man, one-car. L.A. is considering hiring a French firm to build its bus shelters. During Los Angeles' transit strike, Mayor Riordan set a good example by bicycling--except that he did it in France.

And yet we look in the mirror and see something of each other. California goes its own stubborn way in the U.S. just as France charts its own wayward course in Europe.

Parisians feel kinship with San Franciscans; both have miserable summer weather. Southern California is more south-of-France-friendly; Cannes and Beverly Hills are sister cities.

California and France are the makers of fashion and food style. Maitres Splichal and Puck trained in the best kitchens in France; Alice Waters, the mother of California cuisine, was invited to open a restaurant near the sacred precincts of the Louvre.

France and California both have moderate-minded Roman Catholic cardinals named Roger. Marie Antoinette, important Frenchwoman, lost her head to the mob. Rose Bird, important California woman, had her head handed to her by voters.

So rest easy, France. We may have passed you, but we won't forget you. We are too much alike.

Charles DeGaulle observed pungently that "Only peril can bring the French together. One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese."

Gray Davis, governor of a nation-state with a hundred different kinds of athletic shoes, united only by perils natural and man-made, would understand perfectly.

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Patt Morrison's column appears Wednesdays. Her e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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