The Gallic Rooster Crows Again: The Paradox of French Anti-Americanism

By Kuisel, Richard | French Politics, Culture and Society, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Gallic Rooster Crows Again: The Paradox of French Anti-Americanism


Kuisel, Richard, French Politics, Culture and Society


"Those damned French!" That was President Eisenhower's reaction back in 11954 when the French National Assembly killed an American-sponsored scheme for a European defense force. (1) Almost 50 years later, Senator John McCain, in an off-the-cuff remark during the election primary last year, referred to a minor diplomatic dustup as "one of the many reasons I hate the French." (2) In Washington today such language, at least voiced by officials in public, is extremely rare. But the French, inadvertently to be sure, often seem to provide ample cause for such antipathy. Today, as in the early years of the cold war, the French have taken the lead in bashing the United States. The Gallic rooster is, once again, crowing at Uncle Sam. Trouble reappeared in the early 1990s, especially over French insistence on the "cultural exception" in international trade talks. But this was only the beginning of a new cycle of anti-Americanism.

The present foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, has, on several occasions, expressed his objections to the unilateralism of a single "hyperpower" and to the prospect of an Americanized global culture. (3) The former head of the Foreign Ministry's policy planning staff has attacked American elected officials for their ignorance of international affairs, labeling our untutored guidance to others as "imperialism." (4) At an international conference in Warsaw last year more than 100 nations issued a manifesto advancing worldwide democracy. Only France refused to sign the manifesto, provoking the New York Times to run an article entitled "At Democracy's Picnic, Paris Supplies [the] Ants." (5) A large majority of the French elite, in a poll taken this year, said the US and France are at odds over economic and trade policy, the environment, Cuba, and aid to developing countries. And almost half the general public said they hold an "unfavorable" view of American popular culture "such as music, television, and film." (6) Then there is Jose Bove, the radical turned sheep farmer, who has won international attention for ransacking the site of a new McDonald's restaurant and later traveling to Seattle to attack American-led globalization. And for Parisians hunting for books on America they can find recent titles like Le Cauchemar americain or Non Merci, Oncle Sam! (the latter written by a member of Parliament) describing American society in the most lurid terms. (7)

But there is another story, which makes these attacks seem contradictory or paradoxical. At the same time we read that France in 1999 sent more military aircraft to bomb Serbia than any European nation, and it placed them under US command. Hubert Vedrine, in a joint press conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell, announced that "Franco-American friendship ... is something very concrete for today and a great idea for the future." (8) Trade between the countries has doubled since 1985 and French direct investment in the United States also doubled in the 1990s making France the fourth largest investor here--ahead of countries like Japan and Canada. (9) Meanwhile, Americanization sweeps across the French landscape. There are almost 800 McDonald's restaurants in France, and in summer 2000 Hollywood movies attracted 75 percent of paid entries. (10) And now in a nation that celebrates the French language as the prime marker of national identity, almost two-thirds agree with the proposition: "everyone should be able to speak English." (11)

These two contrasting sets of behavior suggest a paradox. Despite the fact that the United States and France are more closely linked than every before; despite the cordiality of our alliance; and despite the fact that France is more heavily Americanized than ever before, anti-Americanism during the last decade has reached its highest intensity in over 30 years. Not since de Gaulle's presidency have we seen such animosity expressed--by political leaders and intellectuals, in books and periodicals, in polls and in public demonstrations.

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