C’est le wild wild West, Y’all!

You’re walking through the streets of France, and you see something that stops you in your tracks.  A cowboy hat, a red, white and blue denim vest, a denim, floor-length skirt, and cowboy boots. It gets worse. This American stereotype and her group of cohorts begin dancing.  Not just dancing, but line dancing. You are officially embarrassed to be an American. But then something strikes you as odd. The dancers aren’t speaking English. They’re speaking French. You must be dreaming, but you’re not. Line dancing and American country-western culture has grown extremely popular among the French population, especially among the older generations.

When I was in Saint Raphaël, a town about an hour away from luxurious Saint Tropez on the French Riviera, I was lucky (?) enough to stumble upon a line dancing performance that took place on the boardwalk. I immediately experienced the same embarrassment previously mentioned, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the dancers. Admittedly, I became fascinated with the whole situation.  I was perplexed by the fact that something that even most Americans consider to be a part of low-culture was almost being celebrated and taken seriously in France where such an emphasis is placed on high-culture. What was happening?

Line dancers in St. Raphaël by Julia Spiers

France now plays host to upwards of 50 country western themed festivals with some of the more popular ones including Country Rendez-Vous in Craponne-sur-Arzon, France and Festival de country musique Mirande in Mirande, France. Country Rendez-Vous prides itself in showcasing authentic country music, featuring mainly American performers and vendors hawking “authentic” western and Native American garb to the attendees.  The festival in Mirande is quite arguably one of the largest in France, attracting over 150,000 visitors annually.  The festival here offers similar experiences as the one in Craponne including musical acts, line dancing competitions, vendors, and even a pétanque cup.  One of the festival goers, Françoise Seube , describes how her love affair with country music began, saying, “At first, I was an Elvis Presley fan who dreamed about driving across route 66, then I discovered line dancing and I never stopped.”  Some natives of Mirande aren’t necessarily welcoming to the Festival, saying they would prefer the legend of their local hero, d’Artagnan (of Three Musketeers fame) to be revived. However they are still able to recognize that the festival has benefited their sleepy town.

Indeed, after French musicians began reproducing American country music in their native language, the French obsession with everything country began to take off.  The festivals began popping up along with line dancing clubs and a club de lasso.  This obsession can even be found in popular French destinations like Disneyland Paris where a popular attraction called Frontier Land mimics the style of an old American frontier town.  Some French are even taking this obsession on vacation with them as dude-ranches have become popular vacation spots allowing a hands-on experience of the American frontier lifestyle.

It’s hard to say what spurred the French interest in country western culture.  But what spurred American interest in French culture? Think about it. What comes to mind when Americans think of France?  Wine, cheese (gastronomy in general), châteaux, high fashion, etc.  The list is probably endless. The point is that Americans don’t have a history of these things that we so strongly associate with France and it seems that France becomes romanticized because of these things that aren’t a part of American history.  This is why most French people will tell you that Americans don’t really have a culture or a cuisine.  Our history is so new that we haven’t had time to develop these things, leaving the French without any romantic notions of our culture.  But the American frontier and the “Wild Wild West” is something that is uniquely American and exotic and unknown to French history and culture.  It seems that the French therefore romanticize this notion of the American West and everything associated (music, dancing, fashion) with it, much in the same way that Americans romanticize their culture.

Click here for more French line dancing.

Written by: Danny Wuerdeman
Research/ editing: Jaclyn; Thimotheus Hoffman