The French Want to Remain the French

PARIS — As an exercise in style, the tweet from The Associated Press Stylebook appeared to strain taste and diplomacy: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”

At least it looked offensive to the French, or perhaps rather to people of Frenchness, or people with Gallic inclinations, or people under the influence of French civilization.The French noted that they had been placed between the “mentally ill” and the “disabled.”

Certainly, the French Embassy in the United States reacted with indignation on Thursday to the A.P. tweet. It published a spoof on Twitter suggesting that it had renamed itself “the Embassy of Frenchness in the United States.”

“We just wondered what the alternative to the French would be,” said Pascal Confavreux, the embassy spokesman. “I mean, really.” Perhaps, as Ben Collins, an NBC journalist suggested, “people experiencing a croque-monsieur.”

With the A.P. tweet registering 23 million views, 18,000 retweets and cascades of mockery, the news agency decided Friday to reverse course. It issued a statement calling its recommendation an “inappropriate” suggestion that had “caused unintended offense.”

A second A.P. tweet removed the reference to “the French” without explaining why writing “the college educated,” for example, could be construed as “dehumanizing.”

The AP stylebook, a compilation of best writing practices, is a reference for many American journalists and other writers. But the point it appeared to be laboring to make about facile stereotyping of large groups of people seemed lost in this instance.

Lauren Easton, the vice president of A.P. corporate communications, told the French daily newspaper Le Monde that “the reference to ‘the French,’ as well as the reference to ‘the college educated’ is an effort to show that labels shouldn’t be used for anyone, whether they are traditionally or stereotypically viewed as positive, negative or neutral.”

How “the French” constitutes a “label” left many French people mystified. It is simply who they are. Paula Froke, the editor of the A.P. stylebook, did not respond to a request for comment.

Why exactly The Associated Press chose the French to illustrate its point was unclear. The old and vigorous alliance between the United States and France is subject to periodic eruptions as two proud countries with a strong sense they have lessons for the world pursue their respective interests.

But the intermittent fracas, as over the Iraq War or more recently over a nuclear submarine deal with Australia, are generally followed quickly enough by rediscovered love grounded in grudging mutual admiration.

Jeremy McLellan, a comedian, tweeted that “My favorite movie is The Connection with Frenchness,” a reference to “The French Connection.” It appears unlikely that “pass the fries with a touch of Frenchness” would go down well.

Certainly, no French diplomat has ever complained that being called an envoy of “the French” was somehow dehumanizing. In fact, the French rather like being stereotyped as the French, if that is the issue. They undergo Frenchness with considerable relish.

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