If France Didn't Exist, Americans Would Have to Invent It

Article excerpt

In what follows, we look at American opinion on France over 30 years' time, as conveyed by several opinion polls. Granted that public opinion is an artefact, there are nonetheless phenomena that can only be grasped by quantitative studies that reflect the respondents' modes of thought, values, beliefs, patterns of representation and attitudes, as elicited by a question posed at a specific time. (1) Moreover, by looking at a number of subgroups we can avoid the implication that "(all) Americans think X or Y about France." Furthermore, the evolution of the answers to similar questions can be as informative as the answers themselves, since it teaches us about changes or continuities in American society's attitudes. (2) To that end, we will draw in particular on two iterations of a Sofres poll for the French-American Foundation (done in 2000 and 2002), which allows for interesting comparisons as the second set of responses came after the election of George W. Bush, the re-election of Jacques Chirac, and of course 9/11. (3)

The ultimate and lasting effect of the war in Iraq remains to be seen, but in 2002 there was still a clear continuity of positive attitudes--including France as a loyal ally--which deteriorated in the Spring of 2003. Second, the Americans answering these questions are by their own admission ill-informed and most of them have never been to France. Yet they offer opinions about France, suggesting that they do draw on various other sources of "information." Third, there is a consistent alignment of overrepresented favorable opinion among young people, minorities, and the better educated, especially when they are asked to compare American and French models of society.

Continuities and Changes in the Images of the French

The first lesson of the recent poll of September 2002, that is, after September 11, is that half of Americans have positive feelings for France, marking an increase from one poll to the other. This suggests that the trauma caused by the attacks and the immediate support offered by France have been perceived positively on the other side of the Atlantic.

As noted above, among the continuities Americans readily admit that they are ill-informed on France.

Moreover, the following poll (Gallup 1991) shows that four Americans out of five have never been to France, irrespective of their level of education.

Incidence of Travel between France and the United States

The following tables also show a continuity of attitudes. Three quarters of Americans would neither live nor work in France. On the questions of where they would rather live we have information from the poll of 1991: 29% of Americans would choose to live in the United Kingdom, 14% in the Netherlands or in Germany, 12% in France. However, one 18-24 year-old out of four would have chosen France over any other foreign country, a similar percentage to their French counterparts choosing the US. Less than 3% answered "no opinion" to those questions.

French-American Relations

On this subject, continuities of opinion have prevailed over the years and have been reinforced by the events of 9/11. In 2002, 68% of Americans regarded the two countries as "most of all, partners," (compared with 50% of the French answers), an opinion more forcefully expressed among men (70% versus 60% of women). On the whole, the distribution of answers reveals almost no difference among the subgroups, with the "no opinion" usually under 10%, except for the non-graduates (the only subgroup with 22% of "no opinion" and 44% of positive answers--all the other subgroups have answers over 60%). However, the number of those seeing the two countries as "most of all, adversaries" has also increased since 9/11 (18% versus 14%) with 31% seeing France as "unfirendly" in May 2003 (Gallup). The pollsters went further on this topic.

Since 9/11, the "unpredictable ally" answers have increased, and even taking into account the margins of error, the five-point increase is noteworthy. …