One notable casualty of the diplomatic tug-of-war between France and the United States over the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has been verbal restraint. From the renaming of French fries to “Freedom fries” in the cafeteria of the House of Representatives, to George W. Bush’s claim on NBC News that France’s antiwar position was “anti-American,” to Thomas Friedman’s op-ed declaration in the New York Times that “France is becoming our enemy,” the accusations and exaggerations, especially on the American side, have come fast and furious this past year. So systematic, in fact, has been the anti-French tone that late last spring the French Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, raised the specter of a campaign of “denigration and lies” allegedly orchestrated by some American media outlets and their sources in the Bush Administration.
But, opposition to Bush’s foreign policy aside, is it really an exaggeration to speak of anti-Americanism in France? Certainly French ambivalence toward American power and influence–from de Gaulle’s insistence on military and diplomatic autonomy to present-day state-sponsored protectionism in the film industry–has long been a commonplace of modern political life. And certainly many French intellectuals, such as Jean Baudrillard and Régis Debray, to name only two, have made the critique of American cultural and political dominance a central part of their work. Whatever the case, anti-Americanism has lately become a sensitive issue in France, where it is not uncommon these days to hear someone preface a criticism of US policy or society by uttering a disclaimer along the lines of “I am not anti-American, but…” This sort of self-consciousness predates the ongoing diplomatic debacle and even, in many cases, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, though there is no question that the latter brought the issue to a head as never before. Even the famous front-page declaration of solidarity (indeed, of identity) with Americans–Nous sommes tous Américains (“We are all Americans”)–made by Le Monde‘s editor in chief, Jean-Marie Colombani, on the day after the attacks spoke directly to the instinctual French embrace of difference in regard to the United States, asserting a common bond of humanity intended to trump any and all reflexive prejudice. And by echoing the famous cry of the May ’68 student rebellion–Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands (“We are all German Jews”)–it seemed to be appealing, at least in part, to elements on the French left often accused of anti-Americanism and less likely than most to identify with American suffering.
As the rift between the two countries has widened, the debate over anti-Americanism in France has changed, becoming even more clouded than before by the political sympathies of the parties involved. Unlike Bush, however, few have directly accused the Chirac government of anti-Americanism for its opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Such charges have been reserved, rather, for the great antiwar movement and, by extension, for the general population, which in France, as in Western Europe as a whole, was overwhelmingly against military intervention.
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Why You Can’t Buy Lydia Davis’s New Book on Amazon
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In France a rather complex polemic has been waged against the “peace camp” by a number of prominent intellectuals. Foremost among them has been a troika of former leftists: writer Pascal Bruckner, filmmaker Romain Goupil (who still considers himself a leftist)and philosopher André Glucksmann, who first achieved prominence as one of the spiritual leaders of the May ’68 rebellion. In one of several co-signed editorials published in Le Monde last spring, the three deplored the tactics of Chirac’s “peace party,” saying that it actually “precipitated” war by “playing Asterix vs Uncle Sam.” But they saved their bitterest vitriol for “public opinion.” One day, they said, someone will tell the real story of “the hysteria, the collective intoxication that has gripped [France] for months…the quasi-Soviet atmosphere that has bound together 90% of the population, in the triumph of a monolithic idea allergic to the slightest contestation”–a description that seems oddly applicable to the US mood in the days leading up to the war.
The positions of Glucksmann and Bruckner are puzzling in light not only of the left-wing politics they espoused before reinventing themselves as anticommunist, pro-West “new philosophers” in the 1980s, but even in light of their current ideas. Bruckner, for example, is an eloquent critic of what he calls “economism,” that is, “the glorification, by all camps [left and right], of a discipline claiming to govern all of society, transforming us into hard-working hamsters reduced to the simple roles of producers, consumers, or stockholders.” For his part, Glucksmann, an outspoken critic of Russia’s brutal “war on terror” in Chechnya, has been a lifelong foe of tyranny in every form and was critical of Marxism even as a young radical in 1968. In Dostoïevski à Manhattan (2002), a meditation on the implications of the 9/11 attacks in the broader context of modern history, he identifies the kernel of “nihilism” at the heart of every one of the modern radical impulses–from Communism to Nazism and now to Islamic fundamentalism–for whom “all is permitted” in the attempt to attain one’s goals. How and why Glucksmann and Bruckner would exonerate the Bush government–which has made no secret of its intention to use force to reshape a reticent world to fit its vision of free-market “democracy”–of the respective sins of “economism” and “nihilism” are questions they have yet to answer.
Their support for Bush’s war is, on the other hand, consistent with a position they embraced at the time of the first Gulf War along with Bernard Kouchner, former health minister of France and co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning NGO Doctors Without Borders. I am speaking of the droit d’ingérence, the “right to intervene” or “interfere,” militarily if need be, in the affairs of a nation conducting war crimes against its own citizens. They appealed to this principle at the time of the Balkans wars when, in the face of overwhelming opposition on the European left, they supported NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, and they also did so during the Rwandan genocide, when the UN and the West stood passively by. When it became clear that President Chirac, in keeping with popular opinion in France and Europe, would oppose any American attack on Iraq, they defended the war as a case of humanitarian intervention and denounced the antiwar camp. While expressing some misgivings as to the methods of the Bush government in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Kouchner complained that, unfortunately, “anti-Americanism is submerging everything and making the situation unreadable.”
A similar critique of the peace coalition was expressed in late March, after the start of the Iraq invasion, by sociologist Michel Wieviorka in an op-ed piece in the daily Libération. Troubled by what he saw as an alliance of “pacifists, pro-Palestinians, antiglobalists, anti-Americans, French nationalists, anti-European sovereignists, and many others [coming] together in an astonishing front of refusal,” Wieviorka characterized the spontaneous expression of antiwar sentiment as “the zero degree of politics.” The zero degree of logic, however, seems to have been reached the following day by Robert Redeker, a philosophy teacher on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre. The peaceniks, Redeker said in a front-page editorial in Le Monde, are “at war against peace.” Their rhetoric is “unpeaceful in the aggressive virulence of its pronouncements against the United States.” “‘War on America!'” says Redeker, “has been the sole rallying cry of every form of pacifism of the last sixty years.”
As the debate over anti-Americanism in France obviously predates the current diplomatic crisis over Iraq, there has been ample time for temperatures to rise and ink to spill. Two much-discussed books confront the subject of French anti-Americanism head-on. The first of these, L’Obsession anti-américaine, by Jean-François Revel, now published in English as Anti-Americanism, is an unbridled polemic against a perceived enemy camp and a follow-up to the author’s earlier exploration of the subject in his 1970 bestseller, Without Marx or Jesus. Revel, a conservative member of the Académie Française, sees anti-Americanism in his country rather as right-wingers in the United States see a “liberal conspiracy” in the American media. It is ubiquitous, and the charge is above all abstract, rhetorical. Though he writes with verve and not without humor, Revel is anything but a detached observer. “The principal function of anti-Americanism has always been…to discredit liberalism [i.e., free-market capitalism] by discrediting its highest incarnation,” he argues, one of several claims suggesting that his gripe has as much to do with France’s socialist left as it does with French perceptions of Uncle Sam. And when he speaks of “the hatred that the majority of Muslims living among us feel for the West,” he begins to sound like some of the darker voices on the French political scene.
In the end, Revel’s own obsessions get the better of his judgment. This is unfortunate, because his spirited discussions actually manage to shed light on some of the positive results of global capitalism. But he simply can’t resist spinning out passages like the following:
Whatever reproaches American environmental policy may (or may not) deserve, it’s clear that the crux of the debate is situated elsewhere. The environmentalists’ agenda is to set up the United States, which is to say capitalism, as the supreme culprit, indeed the sole culprit, behind worldwide pollution and the supposed warming of the atmosphere. For our Western environmentalists are hardly objective scientists: they are leftists. They are interested in the environment only insofar as they can exploit it as an issue to attack liberal societies.
A more scholarly book on anti-Americanism in France is L’Ennemi américain, by Philippe Roger, which traces the history of French hostility toward America from the Age of Enlightenment to the mid-1950s, including a quick wrap-up of the past half-century. Subtitled a “genealogy of French anti-Americanism,” it is a vast compendium of quotations from virtually every field of human knowledge and across the political spectrum, all sharing a hostile or critical (and often hypocritical) assessment of one or many aspects of life in America: its natural habitat, its native populations, its European settlers, its evolving social conditions, politics, culture and so on.
L’Ennemi américain makes lively reading, due in no small part to the author’s energetic, ironic commentary. Roger–a professor at the Sorbonne, editor in chief of the review Critique and a member of the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a government-funded research institute–has assembled a gallery of all the negative commonplaces, stereotypes and clichés about the United States: bad climate, savage natives, Indian-killers, slavedrivers, robber barons, capitalist fat cats, unlivable cities, soulless scientists, etc. The caricatures are occasionally drawn by some of France’s finest pens, and they get our attention. As this culture of complaint builds and ramifies, we witness the birth and development of an intellectual reflex.
It all began, Roger argues, with the suspicious glance cast westward across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, around the time of the new nation’s founding. This was when Cornelius de Pauw, a Dutch natural philosopher widely read in France, first claimed that “dogs cease to bark” when brought to America–a myth that survived all the way to the 1930s, when the great poet Paul Claudel, during his unhappy tenure as French ambassador to the United States, repeated the fiction, citing Alexander Hamilton as his source! In fact, the “barkless dog” derived from a broader misconception of the New World’s natural environment as insalubrious and debilitating. The French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707-88), was instrumental in spreading this fallacy, which he’d managed to “prove” through a series of erroneous studies comparing New World and Old World species, with the latter always emerging as stronger, larger and just plain better. Farfetched as it may sound, the misconception lasted well into the nineteenth century and was often used to explain what was seen as the erratic behavior of Americans of European origin.
As the nineteenth century marched on, negative French perceptions of the United States also became colored by politics (the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, etc.), American social realities (slavery, the slaughter of Indians, the proliferation of religious sects) and perhaps above all by a generalized animosity toward Anglo-Saxon civilization, of which North America came to be seen as the supreme extension. Then, as the Industrial Revolution began to spread and bear its bittersweet fruits, the image of America as the vanguard of a new, mechanized human society–the polar opposite of a still-agricultural, “Arcadian” France–combined ingrained Anglophobia and the Gallic disdain of American “uncouthness” to create the durable stereotype of the Yankee: rich, powerful, vulgar and a menace to all the things in life the French hold dear.
During the twentieth century, French hostility to America became even more complicated, according to Roger. As a colonial power, France viewed an ever-expanding United States as a direct threat to its own imperial ambitions, especially given the new dominions won by the United States in the Spanish-American War. The relentless thrust of American progress, the demon of the reactionary French right, came to be perceived as a danger by the internationalist left as well when early labor movements in the United States suffered serious setbacks at the hands of the country’s great industrial-financial interests. The picture further darkened in the wake of World War I, when France, frustrated in its desires to have the United States forgive its war debt, began to see itself as yet another victim of Uncle Sam, now redubbed by some “Uncle Shylock.” (Although French anti-Americanism has not always been tinged with anti-Semitism, their histories have sometimes overlapped, as Roger makes clear.) And the US liberation of France from Nazi occupation in World War II did little to simplify matters. The presence of US troops on French soil sparked new resentment among nationalists, while the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe stirred fears of a new occupation and rancor among many former resistance fighters with its contingent demands that Communists be excluded from office. Finally, with the 1960s came a renewed anti-Yankee, anti-imperialist vocabulary, spiced with neo-Luddite yearnings and Situationist anarchism, and so on up to the new millennium.
Throughout this vast historical reconstruction, Roger skillfully documents the sedimentation of an attitude, the weaving of an artificial, self-referential récit, or “narrative,” of America in French discourse. And the evidence is, at least quantitatively, overwhelming. From Stendhal’s categorical assertion that there is “no opera” in America, to Sartre’s offhanded dismissal that “America rings hollow,” the tendency of many French minds great and small to resort to facile formulas or received ideas when discussing the United States emerges in rather sharp detail.
This said, Roger never actually defines “anti-Americanism.” He simply describes it, in the French context, as “an endless war of words waged by France on the United States”; his stated task, in the book, is “to reconstruct its polemical logics.” It is, he believes, in the accumulation of details, the establishment of a lexicon of negative reference, that the “anti-American” reflex is born. In so broad a perspective, however, the concept of “anti-American” can become frustratingly subjective. What is “anti” to you might not seem “anti” to me.
In the early days of the American Republic, for example, a visiting Talleyrand undertakes, we are told, to demystify the image of the idealistic white homesteader. In this secluded wilderness he encounters only drab farmers who “greatly resemble the indigenous savages they have replaced”–a rather tame picture compared with, say, Melville’s Indian-hater in The Confidence-Man or Cormac McCarthy’s band of white mercenary scalpers in the contemporary classic Blood Meridian. Does that make these great American writers contributors to the récit of anti-Americanism? Or take the case of the Surrealist writer André Breton, whose visit to the United States in 1949 left him with unpleasant memories of antiblack racism. One would think that this experience would make what Roger calls Breton’s “anti-Americanism” more understandable. At the very least, Breton’s dislike of the States seems a lesser offense than the crimes he cited.
Roger does not try to defend the wrongs committed by the American Republic over the course of its history. But he also refrains from expressing his opinions on them. And since he does cast judgment on his French compatriots for jumping to conclusions, this reticence sometimes has the odd effect of turning the United States into the elephant in the room that we’re all supposed to ignore. Moreover, his tendency to discuss specific events only insofar as they provide grist for the mill of the French “anti-Americans” wrenches them from their context, robbing them of any significance they may have held outside his argument.
Finally, Roger’s exclusion of the other face of the Franco-American relationship–the commerce of political ideas between the world’s two oldest democracies, and especially the French love of American literature, cinema and music–gives his otherwise admirable book a rather one-sided feel. It would have been interesting to see how the periodic disappointment of this love has contributed to French acrimony toward the United States. I think there are traces of this unwritten story in L’Ennemi américain, but they are viewed from an exclusively negative angle and ultimately lost in the deluge of details.
How real, then, is anti-Americanism in today’s France? Although one sees nothing here like the vicious anti-French campaign recently mounted in the American media, there is no doubt that, as in much of the world, the great sympathy felt for the United States in the wake of September 11 has long since given way to feelings of dismay and outright alarm at the actions and methods of the Bush Administration, and puzzlement at the lack of domestic opposition. Indeed, by the time US troops were approaching Baghdad, Le Monde‘s Colombani wrote that “vengeance does not make a policy,” and that, “seen from Europe,” Bush sometimes has “a new-look Dr. Strangelove air about him.” Nous ne sommes pas tous Américains, apparently. At the same time, French criticism of American policy is often tempered by an anxiety to appear as evenhanded as possible toward the United States, especially in the mainstream coverage of the occupation of Iraq. And the embrace of American popular culture has been unaffected by thetension between the two countries.
If there is anything that might be accurately termed “anti-American” in France today, it’s pretty much confined to far-left critics who view the excesses of the Bush Administration as inherent in the American system and not as the radical anomaly they are. By the same token, the pro-interventionists who, like Bush himself, level indiscriminate charges of anti-Americanism at those who oppose those excesses make the similar mistake of presuming the current Administration to be representative of American values. The greater sensitivity to anti-Americanism in France today may, paradoxically, be due in part to the Bush Administration, whose radicalism has made it more important than ever to distinguish the nation from its policies. This was one of the fundamental points made in another much-discussed book of the past year, Après l’empire (translated into English as After the Empire), by Emmanuel Todd, a demographer and sociologist whose 1976 book, The Final Fall, correctly predicted the breakup of the Soviet sphere. Todd writes:
Thinking reasonably about America in no way means trying to get rid of it, diminish it, or undertake any other fantasy-filled violence toward it. What the world needs is not that America disappear but that it return to its true self–democratic, liberal, and productive.
It is equally important to distinguish prejudice from sincere dissent. Many of the millions who filled Europe’s streets last winter wear Levi’s and Nikes, watch American movies, read American authors and probably eat more hamburgers than they would like to admit. They oppose not America but the politics of force, coercion and unregulated capitalism promoted by a small handful of people at the summit of world power. Their massive turnout was as much a message to their own conservative leaders–especially in Italy and Spain–as it was a challenge to the United States.