Andre Siegfried and the Complexities of French Anti-Americanism

Article excerpt

Though it is generally agreed that Andre Siegfried (1875-1959) was one of the most enduring and influential French commentators on the United States between the 1920s and the 1950s, scholars do not agree on the extent to which he should be considered anti-American. This article concludes that while Siegfried round the American social model to be profoundly unsettling, and that his views of the country's population were consistently informed by racist assumptions, he also evinced some admiration for its economic dynamism and regarded it as a necessary if problematic partner. Moreover, for much of his career many American commentators regarded Siegfried as a perceptive and fair-minded observer of their country, though by the 1950s his racist views drew increasing criticism. Siegfried's career thus illustrates the complexities of French intellectual anti-Americanism.

Keywords: Andre Siegfried, anti-Americanism, racism, modernity, French-American relations

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"With such a friend, who needs an enemy? The volume before us shows clearly the pernicious character of [Andre] Siegfried's influence, especially as it concerns the image of the United States held by many Europeans." With these words, the American historian Oscar Handlin, writing in Commentary in 1956, condemned Siegfried's 1954 book Tableau des Etats-Unis, complaining that the Frenchman had been promoting flawed ideas about America for half a century. (2) Handlin was not alone in his judgment; the political scientist David McLellan, in a review of the same work, concluded that Siegfried "has been something of a national force in shaping the contemporary image of America," a state of affairs he considered most unfortunate. There were other French commentators who were more fair-minded, McLellan claimed, but instead "works such as those of Siegfried and Co." had had an "inordinate impact," encouraging the development of Gallic anti-Americanism. (3)

While not all reviewers would have agreed with Handlin's or McLellan's assessment of Siegfried, few would have disputed their assertions concerning his influence. As Time magazine put it in 1955, Siegfried was "France's No.1 living authority on the US." (4) By then, commentaries by French writers on American culture, politics, and society were legion, but few could match the longevity of Siegfried's efforts to interpret America for France. He had first visited the United States in 1898 at the age of twenty-three and returned fourteen times--with several visits lasting months--before his death in 1959. It took some time for him to establish his position as an authority on America; he only truly achieved renown with the publication of Les Etats-Unis d'aujourd'hui (translated into English as America Comes of Age) in 1927. Though he did not produce another book about the country until 1954 with the publication of the Tableau des Etats-Unis (translated the following year as America at Mid-Century), in the intervening decades he published numerous articles and short studies, and his opinions were widely sought. His status as a professorat the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, where he taught courses on American civilization, further enabled him to shape French elite attitudes towards the USA.

After his death, Siegfried was lauded for his influence on the study of French politics as well as his views on international relations, but in more recent years he has been criticized by scholars such as Pierre Birnbaum, Gerard Noiriel, and Zeev Sternhell for his allegedly essentialist, even racist conception of French nationhood. (5) Siegfried is also frequently cited in studies of French anti-Americanism, though scholars differ in their characterizations of him. Pascal Ory and Bernadette Galloux-Fournier concede that Siegfried had reservations about the United States, but note his restraint in comparison to vociferous critics such as Georges Duhamel. Gerard Fabre contends that while his views were ethnocentric, Siegfried was also a pioneering comparative analyst. …