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.