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Anti -Americanisms in France

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Anti -Americanisms in France
  A NTI -A MERICANISMSIN F RANCE Sophie Meunier  Princeton University France is undoubtedly the first response that comes to mind when askedwhich country in Europe is the most anti-American. Between taking the leadof the anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s and taking the lead of the anti-war in Iraq camp in 2003, France confirmed its image as the “oldestenemy” among America’s friends. 1 Even before the days of De Gaulle andChirac, it seems that France has always been at the forefront of anti-Americananimosity—whether through eighteenth-century theories about the degener-ation of species in the New World or through 1950s denunciations of theCoca-Colonization of the Old World. 2 The American public certainly returnsthe favor, from pouring French wine onto the street to renaming fries andtoast, and France has become the favorite bogeyman of conservative showsand provided material for countless late-night comedians’ jokes. 3 Surprisingly, however, polling data reveals that France is not drasticallymore anti-American than other European countries—even less so on a varietyof dimensions. The French do stand out in their criticism of US unilateralleadership in world affairs and in their willingness to build an independentEurope able to compete with the United States if needed. 4 But their overallfeelings towards the US were not dramatically different from those of otherEuropean countries in 2004. 5 Neither was their assessment of the primarymotives driving American foreign policy, and US Middle East policy in partic-ular. 6 Furthermore, despite what seems like growing gaps in their societal val-ues (especially regarding religion), French and American public opinions agreeon the big threats facing their societies, and they still share enough values tocooperate on international problems. Most paradoxically, given France’s inter-national grandstanding on cultural issues, the French like American popularculture as much as the Germans, and even more than the Italians. 7 Why do the French appear as incorrigible anti-Americans? Why is Francesingled out as a bastion of systematic opposition to US policies? Anti-Ameri-  French Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005 07-Meunier 5/26/05 3:39 PM Page 125  canism can be defined as an unfavorable predisposition towards the UnitedStates, which leads individuals to interpret American actions through pre-existing views and negative stereotypes, irrespectively of the facts. It is basedon a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong at the essence of what is America. This unfavorable predisposition manifests itself in beliefs,attitudes and rhetoric, which may or may not affect political behavior. IsFrance, according to this definition, anti-American? It is difficult in practice todistinguish between genuine anti-Americanism (disposition) and genuine crit-icism of the United States (opinion). It is partly because of this definitionalambiguity that France appears more anti-American than its European partners.While it is not clear that the French have a stronger negative predispositionagainst the US, they do have stronger opinions about America for at least threemain reasons: the deep reservoir of anti-American arguments accumulatedover the centuries; the simultaneous coexistence of a variety of types of anti-Americanism; and the costless ways in which anti-Americanism has been usedfor political benefit. This article explores each of these three features in turn,before discussing briefly the consequences of French anti-Americanism onworld politics.  The Long Sedimentation of Anti-American Arguments The first reason explaining why French anti-Americanism stands out is thatFrance is the country with the deepest, most sedimented reservoir of anti-American arguments. French anti-Americanism is as old, if not older, as thecountry of the United States itself. Its long genealogy has been well docu-mented over the years, best and most recently by Philippe Roger, who arguesthat its building blocs were constructed not only before Gaullism but evenbefore the 1930s. 8 Anti-Americanism in France seems to have proceeded incycles triggered, though not exclusively, by conflicts in the Franco-Americanrelationship. In spite of the heterogeneity of its sources and manifestations,what may explain the longevity of French anti-Americanism is the fact that,over time, the public discourse built up a rich repertoire of anti-Americanarguments, ready to be used with minimal adaptation to the new context. French Anti-Americanism as Old as America Itself  Each period in the long Franco-American relationship saw the development of a new set of anti-American arguments, which over time accumulated into a vastrepertoire. As a result, each time the occasion of criticizing the US would arise inFrance, either for external or for internal reasons, opinion-makers could usethese arguments and adapt them to the current situation. Following is a rapidsketch of the marking moments in the history of French anti-Americanism. Sophie Meunier  126 07-Meunier 5/26/05 3:39 PM Page 126  French animosity towards America (and vice-versa) first built up duringthe time when France was an American power and, in particular, during theFrench and Indian Wars—on-and-off between 1689 and 1760. 9 This is also theperiod when “enlightened” French intellectuals such as Buffon and Voltaireresorted to science to prove the inferiority of the New World—evidenced bythe smallness of the American flora and fauna (dogs that do not bark, animalspecies that have become degenerate, venomous plants, etc.). 10 Many Frenchcultural prejudices about America, as well as national contempt, were bornduring this “pre-history” of Franco-American relations. In spite of the mythology of Lafayette and the rosy Franco-American rela-tionship during the Revolutionary war of independence, the sedimentation of anti-American arguments in the French intellectual and political discoursecontinued during this period—untrustworthiness, provincialism, individual-ism, egoism. American passiveness during the French Revolution and neutral-ity after revolutionary France had declared war on England, as well as the1798-1800 “Quasi War” and the Louisiana Purchase comforted this image of aself-serving, hypocritical American nation.After a period of relative indifference of French intellectuals to America(with the notable exception of Tocqueville and later Baudelaire), the publicdiscourse focused passionately on the United States during the Civil War—even though none of France’s vital interests seemed to be at stake. The twindisasters of a French government that had silently bet on victory of the Southand of the end of France’s disastrous Mexican adventure contributed to forg-ing the next layer of anti-Americanism, made of accusations of materialismand primacy of economic interests, as well as resentment for the nascent for-midable power of the United States.The next wave of anti-American rhetoric entered the French political dis-course after World War I, in a period of French disappointment in the UnitedStates over its postwar isolationism and perceived biased indifference to Francein the matter of war debts and reparations. A major layer of the French anti-American apparatus was added at that time, when French intellectuals andother visitors to the United States, first among them George Duhamel with hisbestseller  America the Menace , conveyed the sense not only that America’s con-sumer and profit-oriented culture was unappealing in itself, but that it threat-ened to spread to France and affect its own traditions negatively. 11 The word “anti-Americanism” entered the French language in 1948, andby the early 1950s it had become a commonplace concept in French politicaldiscourse. 12 The twin critique articulated during the Cold War period on oppo-site sides of the political spectrum—both by Left Bank, communist intellectu-als and later by General de Gaulle and his followers—focused on thedomineering presence of the United States, which needed to be countered,either culturally or politically. If anything, the Vietnam War reinforced thisimage of the US as an imperialistic, expansionist, out-of-control superpowerrepresenting a threat to world order.  Anti-Americanisms in France 127 07-Meunier 5/26/05 3:39 PM Page 127  By the end of the Cold War, therefore, French rhetoric had accumulated avariety of anti-American arguments, some building on views articulated in anearlier historical period, others rooted in previous discourse but adapted tomodern conditions.  The Recent Deteriorating Image of the US in France These arguments came back to the fore when French anti-Americanism aroseagain in the 1990s. According to the extensive survey data recently examined byRichard Kuisel, it appears clearly that the deterioration of the image of the US inFrance preceded the Franco-American clash over Iraq—even though it skyrock-eted after 2002. 13 Upon close scrutiny, many of the criticisms of the US offeredby France in the past few years barely qualify as anti-Americanism. Does disap-proving of the American precipitation to intervene in Iraq or being skeptical of whether the outcome of the Iraqi elections was good automatically make oneanti-American? However, many of the French tropes of anti-Americanism devel-oped throughout the centuries resurfaced in the denunciation of the American“hyperpower” that culminated with Franco-American crisis over Iraq. Despite the widespread demonstrations of anti-Americanism throughoutWestern Europe in the 1980s over issues such as the American missiles, theReagan era represented a “veritable peak in philoamericanism” in France. 14 Surprisingly in retrospect, in 1984 more French (44%) than Germans or Britishdeclared themselves pro-American. In a 1988 survey, the French men andwomen polled rated “power,” “dynamism,” “wealth,” and “liberty” as thewords they most commonly associated with the US. In their majority, theythought that America set a good example for political institutions, the mediaand free enterprise. In spite of some early opposition to the 1991 invasion of Iraq and France’s participation in the coalition, the Gulf War represented theapex of pro-Americanism in France in the postwar period. A new cycle of anti-Americanism started in the early 1990s, and by theend of the Clinton administration, French confidence in the US had alreadybeen seriously eroded. In 1996, the French polled said that “violence,”“power,” “inequalities,” and “racism” first came to their mind when describ-ing America. This new layer in the already well sedimented French anti-Amer-icanism centered around a critique of American hypocrisy, both domesticallyand internationally. Domestically, French intellectuals denounced the contradictions betweenthe values righteously defended by American politicians and the violent real-ity of American society—homicide rates at least four times higher than inFrance; the number and easy availability of guns; the existence of the deathpenalty; the high degree of prison incarceration; rampant racism against theAfrican-American community; and the failures to provide basic public goods,such as universal health care and basic public education. Sophie Meunier  128 07-Meunier 5/26/05 3:39 PM Page 128  Internationally, the French anti-American critique that emerged duringthe 1990s centered not only on hypocrisy, but also on the increasingly unilat-eral actions of the United States, whose international power was nowunchecked as a result of the end of the Cold War. The image of the US becameone of a domineering ally, unbearable to France because it was increasinglyacting as a triumphant, self-centered, hegemonic superpower. This impressionstarted in the commercial sphere, where the US used force and threat to openup the European market for audio-visual products and for hormone-treatedbeef—thereby unleashing legions of public protesters, such as world-famoussheep farmer José Bové. 15 Congress also heavy-handedly passed laws designedto sanction foreign companies doing business in Cuba and Iran, which theEuropeans interpreted as amounting to passing US laws on a global scale. InFrance the denunciation of these hypocritical, unilateral American actionsbecame enmeshed in a virulent French critique of globalization often equatedwith Americanization. 16 The impression of unilateralist drift was further rein-forced by Transatlantic differences over NATO; European integration; the envi-ronment; the International Criminal Court; the selection of leaders ininternational organizations; disagreements over the handling of “roguestates,” in particular Iraq; and the US rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban treaty. 17 It is then that French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine coined the word “hyper-power” to capture the French vision of the US always acting as an unrestrainedsuperpower, always imposing its will, whatever the dispute. 18 The growing French fears of American unilateralism were confirmed assoon as the Bush administration came into office—some of its first movesbeing the rejection of the Kyoto Treaty, the withdrawal from disarmamentagreements, and the refusal to recognize the International Criminal Court.After the initial sympathy expressed to the American people after September11 and the decision to support the US in Afghanistan, France started to driftapart rapidly from the views of the American administration on Iraq, espe-cially after the passage of UN resolution 1441 in November 2002, the collapseof French efforts to avoid the war in early 2003, and the simultaneous out-pouring of Francophobia in the US. Since then, anti-Americanism in Francehas been steadily high and politically consensual, rooted once again not onlyin the facts of the moment but in the deep reservoir of anti-American argu-ments accumulated over three centuries.Finally, the traditional distinction made by the French between theUnited States as a collective entity and the Americans as private citizens iswaning. Indeed, international resentment towards the foreign policy of theBush administration seems to be spilling over onto the American people aswell. A November 2004 IPSOS poll conducted after the American presidentialelection shows that half of the French surveyed now hold an unfavorable viewof Americans. 19 The reelection of George W. Bush, which showed to the worldthat a majority of Americans indeed approve of the foreign and domestic poli-cies of his administration, seems to have narrowed the gap between more neg-  Anti-Americanisms in France 129 07-Meunier 5/26/05 3:39 PM Page 129
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