Anti-Americanisms in France

By Meunier, Sophie | French Politics, Culture and Society, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Anti-Americanisms in France


Meunier, Sophie, French Politics, Culture and Society


France is undoubtedly the first response that comes to mind when asked which country in Europe is the most anti-American. Between taking the lead of 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 "oldest enemy" among America's friends. (1) Even before the days of De Gaulle and Chirac, it seems that France has always been at the forefront of anti-American animosity--whether through eighteenth-century theories about the degeneration of species in the New World or through 1950s denunciations of the Coca-Colonization of the Old World. (2) The American public certainly returns the favor, from pouring French wine onto the street to renaming fries and toast, and France has become the favorite bogeyman of conservative shows and provided material for countless late-night comedians' jokes. (3)

Surprisingly, however, polling data reveals that France is not drastically more anti-American than other European countries--even less so on a variety of dimensions. The French do stand out in their criticism of US unilateral leadership in world affairs and in their willingness to build an independent Europe able to compete with the United States if needed. (4) But their overall feelings towards the US were not dramatically different from those of other European countries in 2004. (5) Neither was their assessment of the primary motives driving American foreign policy, and US Middle East policy in particular. (6) Furthermore, despite what seems like growing gaps in their societal values (especially regarding religion), French and American public opinions agree on the big threats facing their societies, and they still share enough values to cooperate on international problems. Most paradoxically, given France's international grandstanding on cultural issues, the French like American popular culture as much as the Germans, and even more than the Italians. (7)

Why do the French appear as incorrigible anti-Americans? Why is France singled out as a bastion of systematic opposition to US policies? Anti-Americanism can be defined as an unfavorable predisposition towards the United States, which leads individuals to interpret American actions through preexisting views and negative stereotypes, irrespectively of the facts. (8) It is based on 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. Is France, according to this definition, anti-American? It is difficult in practice to distinguish between genuine anti-Americanism (disposition) and genuine criticism of the United States (opinion). It is partly because of this definitional ambiguity that France appears more anti-American than its European partners. While it is not clear that the French have a stronger negative predisposition against the US, they do have stronger opinions about America for at least three main reasons: the deep reservoir of anti-American arguments accumulated over the centuries; the simultaneous coexistence of a variety of types of anti-Americanism; and the costless ways in which anti-Americanism has been used for political benefit. This article explores each of these three features in turn, before discussing briefly the consequences of French anti-Americanism on world politics.

The Long Sedimentation of Anti-American Arguments

The first reason explaining why French anti-Americanism stands out is that France is the country with the deepest, most sedimented reservoir of anti-American arguments. French anti-Americanism is as old, if not older, as the country of the United States itself. Its long genealogy has been well documented over the years, best and most recently by Philippe Roger, who argues that its building blocs were constructed not only before Gaullism but even before the 1930s.

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