Dec 20th 2005
Copyright The Economist
NESTLING in a valley near Aix-en-Provence, Plan de Campagne is a familiar French landscape. A strip of garish hoardings on stalks reaches into the distance. Le Plan Bowling, a 30-alley indoor centre, squats near the El Rancho Tex-Mex grill, a clay-coloured mock hacienda, complete with cactuses and sombreros. Two McDonald’s fast-food joints rival Buffalo Grill, where poulet Kentucky and assiette Texane are served under a red roof topped with giant white buffalo horns. All this is ringed by vast parking lots, crammed with gas-guzzling 4X4s. Welcome to France, cradle of anti-Americanism.
Beyond the Romanesque churches and lavender fields of the tourist trail, France is changing. Slowly, its way of life is beginning to resemble that of the country it loves to hate. Over four-fifths of the French now live in towns or suburbsÃ³more than in America. Less than 4% of the French workforce is in farming. French intellectuals and editorialists may still philosophise in smoke-filled cafÃˆs, but their countrymen flock to Hollywood films and devour American brands. American culinary sinsÃ³fast food, TV-dinnersÃ³are on the rise in the land of gastronomy, and with them child obesity. Yet the more that ordinary French people embrace such American ways, the more the elite seems fixated with an anti-Americanism that runs far deeper than just differences over Iraq. What is it about the French and America?
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France has no monopoly on anti-Americanism. But no other country gets such scorn from Americans for harbouring the sentiment. France’s defiance over Iraq explains much of this today. But that disagreement swelled into an exchange of insults because it drew from a deeper well of American assumptions about the FrenchÃ³their unreliability, ingratitude, superciliousnessÃ³that are in turn inspired by the force of French anti-Americanism.
French anti-Americanism is unlike other European varieties, because it prevails not only on the political left but on the right too. Anti-Americanism in Spain used to be a largely right-wing phenomenon, and the tradition is venerable among right-wing writers in Britain. But only in France has it inspired the most potent strain of right-of-centre politics for nearly half a century. President Jacques Chirac derives most of his support from this tradition, whose champion is still Charles de Gaulle, the president who converted France’s dollar reserves into gold and, in 1966, defiantly pulled France out of NATO’s military command.
Some, such as Philippe Roger, the author of Ã¬L’Ennemi AmÃˆricainÃ®, detect an undercurrent of anti-Americanism going back to the denigration of pre-revolutionary America by French thinkers in the 18th century. It reappeared, often as cultural snobbery, in the 19th century, and hardened into contempt in the 20th, most virulently among communists, as American industrial might grew. A rash of publications during the 1920s and 1930sÃ³Ã¬L’Abomination AmÃˆricaineÃ® (1930), Ã¬Le Cancer AmÃˆricainÃ® (1931)Ã³railed against the inhumanity of American life. Ã¬Out with the Yankees!Ã® wrote one pamphleteer. Ã¬Out with the people and their products, their methods and their lessons, their dances and their jazz! Let them take back their Fords and their chewing gum.Ã® The sentiment has found an echo, especially in the columns of France’s national newspapers, ever since. The durability of anti-Americanism prompted Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign minister, to call it an ancient French Ã¬neurosisÃ®.
Scratch the surface of the denunciations from on high, however, and French anti-Americanism is not quite what it seems. First, because it is an elite doctrine that is often not shared by ordinary people. Second, because it is used by the political class more as a scapegoat for its own troubles than as a reasoned response to real threats. And, third, because it implies that the French clash with America out of antipathy. The real reason is rivalry, tinged with jealousy.
Ã¬It is an article of faith among American intellectualsÃ®, wrote Thomas Frank, the author of Ã¬What’s the matter with Kansas?Ã®, Ã¬that countries such as France resist Hollywood films because they are snobs, dedicated to bringing Ã«cultureÃÃ³in the form of arty, disjointed filmsÃ³to the masses.Ã® Certainly, French intellectuals cherish low-plot, high-art films, and the French Ministry of Culture leads a guerrilla war to defend such works from a vulgar American invasion. But what do French people actually watch?
Getty Images From France with love
In the first 11 months of 2005, the top film was Ã¬Star Wars: Episode 3Ã®. The all-time top box-office film in France is another American blockbuster, Ã¬TitanicÃ®. On the small screen, French versions of American reality television and confessional talk-shows clog up the schedules, spawning the term la tÃˆlÃˆ poubelle. French teenagers download American rap to their iPods. In 2004, the person most searched for on Google France was Britney Spears.
The more American brands flaunt their origins, the better they seem to do. In Carrefour at Montesson, a giant out-of-town hypermarket west of Paris, the bakery shelves are stacked with Ã¬Harry’s American SandwichÃ® bread, a sliced product that has taken the land of the baguette by storm. In the nearby McDonald’s, Le road to America menu tempted customers not so long ago with Le New York burger and Le Texas. Such is the success in France of McDonald’s, a chain that is struggling elsewhere, that its boss was promoted to reinvigorate the brand across Europe.
Existentialism on the rocks
The French seduction by Americana is not new. The French fell for American jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, welcoming black American musicians who saw France as a haven from the racism at home. Josephine Baker became a music-hall star in Paris. Sidney Bechet lived his last years there. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong were mobbed when they toured France. American writers, too, from Richard Wright to Henry Miller, made a home in Paris, finding a reception and stimulation that eluded them at home. Sartre and de Beauvoir adored America’s jazz, its novels, its films and its whisky.
Of course, a taste for American brands or popular culture does not necessarily mean a taste for America, its citizens or leaders. Consumption patterns are no guide to affinity, argues Mr Roger: American brands are popular in the Arab world, after all. Yet even the evidence for popular anti-Americanism is ambivalent.
For sure, 85% of the French disapprove of George Bush’s international policies, according to the latest German Marshall Fund transatlantic survey, compared with 72% of all Europeans and 62% of the British. Mr Bush’s French supporters are a silent minority: just 11% would have voted for him, said one poll before the 2004 presidential election. And today’s AmericaÃ³God-fearing, fixated by terrorism, militaristicÃ³is not the Europhile America of old that a nostalgic France often yearns for.
Yet the French do not seem to generalise this dislike. In one 2004 poll, 72% of the French had a favourable view of Americans, more even than in Britain (62%) or Spain (47%). Some 68% of those questioned in another poll the same year said that what unites France and America was more important than what separates them. During the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 2004, politicians were frosty, but the people at large showed an outpouring of gratitude to American veterans.
Even in the 1950s, as anti-Americanism raged on the left, ordinary French people did not express hostility to America. Between 1952 and 1957, according to Michel Winock, a French historian, polls found the French on average unequivocally favourable to America. Today America still draws the French. Young French bankers, cooks and students head for New York or California. Even French politicians cannot resist the allure. On the left, Laurent Fabius snapped up a short summer job lecturing at the University of Chicago in 2003 and again in 2004. On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, who found an hour to entertain Tom Cruise at his ministry in Paris, told a New York audience that Ã¬The dream of French families is that their children go to American universities.Ã® Even Mr Chirac has fond memories of a summer at Harvard. He may rail about American cultural imperialism, but could not resist inviting Steven Spielberg to the ElysÃˆe Palace to award him the lÃˆgion d’honneur. So much for French disdain for the new world.
In truth, the allergy to America was always a rather intermittent complaint.
When we recall the fervent anti-Americanism of the left in the 1950s and of the right in the 1960s, we can’t help but be struck by the transformation of attitudes and sensibilities that have opened the door to American mass and high culture. The transformation of attitudes has even resulted in general support for American foreign policies. Survey data show that while France manifested the strongest hostility towards the United States in the post-war period, it is now probably the least hostile of the European countries.
This was Ezra Suleiman, a political scientist at Princeton and astute observer of France, writing some 20 years ago. It is easy to forget that Ronald Reagan’s America was widely admired by FranÃois Mitterrand’s France. Even the French elite does not always feel compelled to stir up anti-Americanism.
Consider the revolutionary period, which Patrice Higonnet, a Harvard historian, calls the Ã¬mythological ageÃ® of mutual admiration. French and Americans, intoxicated by modern ideas about liberty, swapped theory, gunpowder and manpower. The Marquis de Lafayette, who was made an American officer and helped to defeat the British at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, was a shared hero. Tom Paine, an American by adoption, was granted French citizenship for his contribution to revolutionary thinking. Benjamin Franklin was adored in the salons of Paris, and Thomas Jefferson was invited to sit in the National Assembly during the writing of the French constitution.
For sure, anti-American feelings later stirred in France. French radicals were disappointed at the timidity of America’s revolution. Yet French fascination with the young republic survived. Disenchantment was followed by renewed admiration. Lafayette spent nearly 13 months in the United States as a guest of various Americans in 1824-25, before being sent home in a government frigate with a gift of $200,000 and the ownership of a small town. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland unveiled a gift from the French: a statue dedicated to Ã¬Liberty Enlightening the WorldÃ®.
It’s a diversion
What prompted all this to change into 20th-and 21st-century anti-Americanism? Explanations include a clash of commercial interests, as American economic might grew and French clout declined; changing views of common foreign threats; and the two countries’ relative balance of power. To these might be added a French sense of insecurity. Anti-Americanism intensifies at times of French uncertainty. It has often flared after French military humiliationÃ³1917, 1940, 1962Ã³or instability at home. Striking positions of independence from America is a way for France to project power when it feels emasculated, something de Gaulle well understood after the American liberation of France.
Today’s concern about decline is another such moment. Sure enough, a favourite posture among the French political class is proclaiming the need to build up Europe to counterbalance the United States. Despite a recent thaw in Franco-American relations, President Chirac, in the best Gaullist tradition, continues to call for a Ã¬multi-polar worldÃ®. On the left, the Socialist Party campaigned for the European constitution with the slogan Ã¬Strong in the face of the United StatesÃ®.
Or consider the use of the term Ã¬l’AmÃˆricainÃ® by French politicians to discredit rivals. Michel Rocard, a Socialist prime minister in the 1980s, was undermined by the label. Today, Mr Sarkozy’s rivals on the right pin it on him. The epithet is potent because many current French phobiasÃ³capitalism, globalisation, liberalismÃ³are associated with America.
Indeed, Jean-FranÃois Revel, author of Ã¬L’Obsession anti-AmÃˆricaineÃ®, argues that French anti-Americanism, particularly in the media, often flourishes at the expense of self-examination. The French delight in exposing American poverty, racism and ghetto life, he pointed out well before the country’s recent riots proved his point, when at home a tenth of the workforce is out of work and young French Muslims are isolated in suburban tower blocks. America, he argues, Ã¬serves to console us about our own failures by sustaining the myth that things are even worse thereÃ³and that what is going wrong for us comes from them.Ã®
Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, kicked up a stir among the French during the stand-off over Iraq when he declared that Ã¬France is becoming our enemy.Ã® But is it really hostile to America?
America is, after all, one of the few western countries with which France has never been to war. Even de Gaulle supported America during the Cuban missile crisis, and reminded a joint session of Congress of the two countries’ history of shared values. The country that supposedly scorns American capitalism has spawned global companies that feed the American army (Sodexho), fit tyres on American cars (Michelin) and put the gloss on American lips (L’OrÃˆal). In many ways, France and America clash so often not because they are so irreconcilably different, but because they are so alike.
The modern French and American polities may have evolved quite differently, notably where the role of the state is concerned, but both emerged as highly codified, anti-clerical, secular republics. BothÃ³unlike the dissembling EnglishÃ³can articulate unapologetically what their country stands for. Born of revolutions, America and France each established republics inspired by Enlightenment thinking, and based on freedom and individual rights. Within the same year, 1789, both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Bill of Rights were drafted.
Above all, each nation believed in the universalism of its modelÃ³the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilisationÃ³and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride. And it explains why the French so readily pick on America at times of self-doubt.
Just listen to Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, who came to embody anti-American defiance. Ã¬What an honour to be French,Ã® he wrote in a recent book, Ã¬loyal to a…responsibility to bestow a conscience, a soul upon our Earth. Our democracy was built upon the affirmation of universal values,Ã® he adds, and France’s destiny is to enact Ã¬our universal and humanist dreamÃ®.
Such florid romanticism may provoke derision on the other side of the Atlantic, never mind how closely it parallels Mr Bush’s belief in his duty to spread freedom. But the basic point is keenly felt among the French governing class. It echoes de Gaulle’s Ã¬certain ideaÃ® of France, Ã¬dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destinyÃ®, 50 years ago. This competitive instinct explains why anti-Americanism was the natural flipside to de Gaulle’s effort in the 1960s to turn Europe into a French-led superpower.
As with de Gaulle, so with his inheritors. Romantic rivalry inspires Mr Chirac’s determination to create a Ã¬multi-polarÃ® world, and his resistance to Mr Bush’s doctrine of unilateral pre-emption. It explains France’s desire to keep its own spheres of influence, whether in Africa or the Arab world. And, incidentally, it explains France’s eagerness to see off others whom it considers to be encroaching on its domain, notably the British, whose first attempts to join the European common market were vetoed by de Gaulle.
Moreover, defying the might of America is a form of muscular self-affirmation, to be contrasted with the unmanly British tendency to jump when American fingers click. To be pro-American for long would emasculate. After all, what is France for if not to represent an elegant, pleasurable alternative to the American way, even if it does so as most of the country munches its burgers and goggles at its trashy television?