France and Anti-Americanism

By Astier, Henri | Contemporary Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview

France and Anti-Americanism


Astier, Henri, Contemporary Review


THE 1980s saw a sea-change in French political thinking: the USSR, which had long ceased to be a model but had benefited from a unilateral non-aggression pledge from the socialist left, was now seen as a totalitarian monster; NATO rearmament, not CSCE waffling, was perhaps the best protection after all; the communists' share of the electorate dropped to 10 per cent years before the Berlin Wall fell; Marxist analysis was discredited and the works of Friedrich Hayek and other long-ignored liberals were dusted off; 'third worldist' guilt was exposed in Pascal Bruckner's 1983 influential book Le Sanglot de l'homme blanc;(1) that same year the ruling socialists embraced fiscal restraint, monetary tightness, and market discipline with the zeal of new converts. In this intellectual climate, denouncing America's military or economic influence was no longer 'politically correct' in France.

French anti-Americanism, however, did not disappear: a die-hard survivor, it moved from the quicksands that had engulfed radical critique to the firmer terrain of cultural nationalism. For one century intellectuals of all persuasions had tended to view Americans as money-grubbing barbarians. After the Second World War many left-wing Frenchmen, like other progressives throughout Europe, felt that occupation of the Old World by legions of gum-chewing, Coca Cola-drinking hillbillies posed the threat of cultural subjection. As Paul Hollander notes, 'this cultural anti-Americanism . . . has remained the most pronounced among the manifestations of French anti-Americanism, persisting even at a time when its political roots had atrophied'.(2)

Throughout the 1980s the man who led the French resistance to the United States' assault on European sophistication was Jack Lang. In a historic speech at the 1982 UNESCO conference in Mexico, the flamboyant culture minister denounced the invasion of pop songs, movies and TV serials from 'an immense empire of profit', calling for a 'real crusade against (. . .) this financial and intellectual imperialism which no longer grabs territory, or rarely, but grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living'.

Opposition to 'cultural imperialism' as the most vicious form of oppression is one of the many themes shared by anti-liberals at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The French authoritarian right, whose most recent avatar is the 'Nouvelle Droite' movement of the early 1980s, has always poured scorn on the relentless mediocrity of Western mercantile democracies. Its leader Alain de Benoist, writing in a 1982 issue of the movement's magazine, proclaimed 'decadence worse than dictatorship', and concluded that he couldn't think of a worse fate than 'having to spend the rest of (his) days eating hamburgers near Brooklyn'. Elsewhere he elaborated on the two forms of totalitarianism: 'the first, in the East, imprisons, persecutes, hurts the bodies; at least it leaves hope intact. The other, in the West, creates robots happy to live in an air-conditioned hell. It kills the soul'. After Lang's Mexico speech, de Benoist paid a warm tribute to the culture minister, who 'may have pronounced the most important speech in contemporary history since de Gaulle's Pnom Penh address'.(3)

The idea that Racine and Debussy may be swept away by Ninja Turtles and Bon Jovi might seem outlandish, but it makes perfect sense if you entertain a healthy distrust of the market. As Marc Fumaroli pointed out in a recent essay,(4) Lang took to its logical conclusion the premise on which French cultural policy has been based for the past forty years: the State has a central role in keeping art alive. 'Seven more years and the disaster would have been complete,' Lang said after he became minister in 1981. 'Artistic activity would have been abandoned to the laws of the market'. To resuscitate the arts, which had been knocked into a coma by the law of profit, the new socialist government rushed them into intensive care by instantly doubling the ministry's budget. …

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