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The Jehoshua Novels


Meanwhile: Why only 7 of the G-8 took off their ties

[ed. title and first paragraphs deceptive of articles point]

Meanwhile: Why only 7 of the G-8 took off their ties
Kenneth Dreyfack IHT
Wednesday, June 16, 2004

PARIS

Thanks to my musically tuned-in daughter, I recently discovered Moloko, a funky, inventive trip-hop band. One of my favorites on their album is “Party Weirdo,” which talks about confused outcasts. At the meeting of the heads of state of the Group of Eight countries on Sea Island, Georgia, last week, President Jacques Chirac of France was the party weirdo.

If you saw the ceremonial television footage of the G-8 party opening, you know what I mean. Each of the distinguished visitors arrived at the meeting center in a candy-colored golf cart. George W. Bush’s cart was decorated with a red, white and blue American flag motif. But Chirac eschewed a ride in one of these amusing little vehicles. Instead, he actually walked from the parking lot to the Sea Island front door. Maybe he just wanted to stretch his legs after the long trans-Atlantic flight.

Refusing a ride in a golf cart does not suffice, per se, to qualify anyone as a party weirdo, even if it was a bit maladroit given the context. But then, Chirac gaffed in a much more profound way: He over-dressed. The White House had made it clear that the dress code for the meeting was casual. And here was Jacques decked out in a hand-tailored, designer-made grey suit, starched white shirt and red silk tie.

More compelling evidence of deviant behavior came as the distinguished participants sat down around the conference table to start work. There was a smiling Tony (Blair), a gleeful Gerhard (Schröder) and a positively giggly Vlady (Putin) all yucking it up in their loose, open-necked sport shirts, while Chirac sat there stiffly in business wear.

If you’ve ever found yourself mis-dressed at an important get-together, you know how uncomfortable it feels. But Chirac was unmoved, refusing to shed his jacket and – the undeniable giveaway – keeping that red cravate tightly knotted around his presidential neck. He looked like a priggish, starched-collared nerd – exactly the kind of weirdo no one wants to get stuck sitting next to at a party.

You might conclude that Chirac’s sore-thumb attire just demonstrates how stiff and formal the French are. After three decades here, I can attest to the fact that the French can indeed be formal and standoffish. But I’ve also discovered that all the ritualized hand-shaking, “Bonjour Monsieur’s” and elaborate table manners can actually provide a set of useful conventions that set a framework enabling people to get to know one another. More to the point, I’ve also found at various mixed parties, barbecues and pot-luck dinners thrown by Americans here that French people are generally delighted to let their hair down and suspend their code of social conventions. It would not have been difficult for Chirac to at least loosen that red tie.

Chirac’s neckwear is not the only error in the pictures though. If you look closely at those television images of Silvio Berlusconi in jeans and Gerhard Schröder in a patterned sports shirt, you can see that something is vaguely off. If you didn’t know who they were and spotted these fellows wandering around the streets of New York, you would take them instinctively for tourists – foreign visitors trying to blend in to the local color. Somehow you can just sense that these guys don’t usually walk around in Eddie Bauer attire, at least not in public.

That’s the very reason that Bush, like his predecessors, tries to impose casual wear for important encounters between world leaders. Purportedly designed to put the participants at ease, it actually makes them uncomfortable and, more importantly, puts them at a disadvantage. By requiring them to modify a highly personal accoutrement, the clothing they wear, foreign White House guests are accepting White House ground rules even before they sit down to talk. Not only clothes make the man or woman, of course. But it’s no accident that the first thing institutions such as the armed forces or prisons do to establish control over individuals is to make them change their clothing.

If Vlady and Tony were willing to play the game, why did sly old Jacques want to play the role of the party weirdo? Precisely because clothes do make the man. Despite what The New York Times described as “recitals of French-American friendship in precast concrete” at the summit meeting, Chirac’s red tie was a red flag. With the future of Iraq and the Middle East on the agenda, the Gaullian inscription on that flag, echoing the motto on the first American flag in 1775, might read: Don’t Tread on Me.

Kenneth Dreyfack is a freelance writer based in Paris.

 Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

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