American Images in Today's France

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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American Images in Today's France


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


A well-worn shibboleth still much alive, and now wrong-headed, has it that France is inveterately anti-American; when, in fact, the country for the most part has never been more pro-American, or certainly in the forty years or so since I began visiting or working there. The decisive victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the Presidential election in May followed by his party's triumphs in the National Assembly elections in June gives support to my contention. His socialist opponent made much of Sarkozy's pro-American sympathies both in foreign affairs and in his belief in 'Anglo-Saxon' ideas about reforming the French economy. According to the Guardian, 16 May, French commentators saw Sarkozy and his stylish wife as 'very American' and 'a la Kennedy'. Both of them, avid readers of books about the Kennedys, would have taken this as high compliment.

Despite publicized differences in foreign policy, the average French person in a variety of age groups has really bought into recent American trends with a vengeance. And paradoxically, given that this is hardly the healthiest era in American history and civilization, the quite uncritical, sometimes typically French reshaping of an American mentality to the Gallic scene now poses a threat to the future fabric of France's democracy. After September 11, we heard a lot about America as an exporter of democracy, or more perfected democracy, around the world; but in the French case, the snapping up of today's American movies, computer culture, clothes styles, and some of its eating and drinking proclivities has eroded what is typically French about the country, which will inevitably weaken its civilization, especially in the face of current serious threats to its existence.

But first, where does my view of France's recent love affair with American mores fit into the 'literature?' On the whole, it doesn't, and this is partly the nature of who retails the shibboleths. One simplistic starting point for such interpreters takes off from the French government's publicized differences with President Bush on the Iraq war. Then come a whole array of additional cliches that simply regurgitate the putative ways France once seemed to behave vis-a-vis America. Take recent pot-boilers by John J. Miller and Mark Moleskins, Our Oldest Enemy: a History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, Denis Boyles, Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese, or Richard Z. Chesnoff's The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us, and Why the Feeling is Mutual, partly based on the fact that his French village neighbours haven't given him the time of day! Certainly anyone with suspicions about French anti-Americanism could point to the sensible book-length prediction by Pierre Biarnes, to the effect that Le XXIe siecle ne sera pas americain; or to critiques of the States after September 11, such as by Gerald Messadie in Mourir pour New York?, not to mention those of the abominable crank, Thierry Meyssan, in his L'Effroyable imposture: 11 septembre 2001, beloved in certain Arab milieus.

But staying in the realm of books, the other side is well represented, too: Genevieve and Philippe Joutard have recently found many Americans on both sides of the Atlantic who love La France, and they think the oft-cited tendentious feelings between these countries are decidedly exaggerated. The venerable Jean-Francois Revel weighs in with his passionate defence of the United States in Anti-Americanism, and Philippe Roger, a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, treats a long lineage of French anti-Americanism that he believes needs and is now getting much revision on the ground, despite what the 'clerics' keep perpetuating.

My intent is to go at this problem with anything but a hair-splitting approach, repeating that by and large, France in recent years has never been so pro-American; but that paradoxically, this poses a grave problem to the health and future of its democracy.

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