The United States doesn't always do the best job of promoting itself abroad. Lots of people in lots of different places like to burn American flags and chant anti-U.S. slogans. It's stock footage at this point. But yesterday the New York Times highlighted an encouraging U.S. cultural diplomacy effort in a pretty unexpected area: French banlieues.

September 23, 2010

IT WAS operation damage control this week, as the Elysée tried to revive the president’s standing abroad after sharp criticism of his expulsion of Romanies...For all the president’s defiance, the French have been knocked by the response to the Romani row. Fully 71% of respondents to one poll said that they thought France’s image abroad had been tainted.

How might the Republic portray itself to European audiences as a dynamic global city through arts and culture or forge relationships through cultural diplomacy? With Finger Players' puppet theatre skits, Royston Tan's film 881, Peranakan artefacts and a Singapore Chinese Orchestra performance, among others.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday that the European Union needs a continent-wide plan for illegal Gypsy camps and children beggars that he described as plagues of the 19th century. At the same time, the EU justice commissioner maintained her concerns about France's expulsions of more than 1,000 Gypsies, or Roma, in recent weeks

Megeve, France, is a ski town at the base of Mont Blanc...Telluride, Colo., is a ski town at the base of the San Juan Mountains...this week, a long-standing effort between the comparable communities to become sister cities will take a big step forward. Three Telluriders are traveling to Megeve to act as representatives of Telluride in an international water conference.

It is arguably modern Europe's flagship ideal: the freedom to move across borders and seek a better life elsewhere. But in the Europe of Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, and others, the privilege has its limits -- and its paradoxes. Effectively excluded, it seems, is the one group singly most identified with a nomadic and peripatetic existence: the continent's 10 million-strong Romany population.

Amid all the furor stirred by the French government’s decision to repatriate hundreds of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma, many would be surprised to learn that Sarkozy is a pretty popular name among the Roma communities in Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. No, not French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but the name Sarkozy -- or rather Sárközy.

Is Nicolas Sarkozy's so-called burqa ban, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf writes, an expression of rising intolerance in France? Perhaps. Coupled with his expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma, it sure looks like le président is trying to use a cultural wedge to shore up his flagging popularity. Still, I think the "burqa" issue (or, alternatively, the jilbab + niqab, or abaya issue) is more complicated than David allows.