2002 October 16 Wednesday
John Vinocur: Why France disdains America
Vinocur describes two recent books on French views of America written by Jean-Francois Revel and Philippe Roger. The French resentment goes back a long way:
Scholars of the French Enlightenment considered American plant and animal life degenerate, inferior to that in Europe. Children born in the New World were incapable of prolonged thought. Venereal disease had its home there. At the same time as the creation of the United States, and while a part of fashionable Paris was titillated by the Yankee insurgents, Roger writes, by 1778 in France a "a globally negative image of America was anchored in the literate public."
That French disdain for the US translates into real world consequences - at least if you consider events in the UN Security Council as consequential:
UNITED NATIONS, New York The impasse between the United States and France over military action in Iraq has deepened in recent days after an effort to reach a compromise stalled, with the French insisting that the Americans must come back to the UN Security Council before they can use force, according to diplomats.
Update: Also see the Walter Russell Mead review of the same two books L'obsession anti-americaine: Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconsequences by Jean-Francois Revel. and L'ennemi americain: Genealogie de l'antiamericanisme francais by Philippe Roger in his Foreign Affairs March/April 2003 article Why Do They Hate Us?: Two Books Take Aim at French Anti-Americanism.
On the one hand, anti-Americanism is, as both Revel and Roger convincingly argue, a self-referential Franco-French phenomenon largely untroubled by larger questions of fact. On the other hand, the rise and persistence of this discourse reflects actual historical trends. Anti-Americanism developed and persisted in France because the United States thwarted, threatened, and diminished that country. Anti-Gallicism in the United States has had a fitful and shadowy life because France has only rarely risen to more than a nuisance in American eyes. In the realms of power politics, economics, and culture, French anti-Americanism is the psychological footprint of a conflict -- a conflict all the more irksome to the loser simply because the winner never seems to have paid it much attention.
Unfortunately the books are not available in English. But the Mead review in particular gives a good sense of their arguments. Unfortunately, those arguments make it clear that the US can't really do much at all about the anti-American sentiments of the French. They want to be bigger players in world affairs. By being so much more powerful than them we effectively limit their potential to be world players. What they object to are things about us that we are not going to want to change.
France could not have despised us too much back in the late 1700's. Honest Ben Franklin was making merry with all their ladies. It saved our butt in the Revolutionary war. Even later, it sent us the Statue of Liberty.
It's really only recently it came to abhor us. The great egotist DeGaulle inspired the adverse feeling. For him France was everything. He thought we never gave it enough respect. France pulled out of NATO for some silly reason. It was hard for the French leadership to accept that twice the American barbarians had go over there to rescue them. It stuck in their craw to think they were no longer a world power. All it has left is the veto power in the Security Council. It will use that to show it is no longer a supplicant.
De Gaulle didn't pull France out of NATO for silly reason. Rather that he was outraged that the Americans vetoed his redelpoyment of NATO French tropps to Algeria. Further, as insufferable as de Gaulle was, there was good reason for de Gaulle's disdain for the Americans. It appears that recently declassified documents show that Roosevelt contemplated de Gaulle's assination when the latter was being particularly troublesome. Great way to win an allies trust no matter how don and out he is
In any case, the French will have to flush this self destruive anti-Americanism themselves. Americans don't have to stand back but can encourage those reformist tendencies
French hatred of the Americans is deep-rooted and goes way back to the historical and traditonal French hatred for the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. It is but an off-shoot of the French's blanket hatred for the British, the Americans being themselves an off-shoot of the British people.
French animosity could be traced to the its failure to stop the Norman invasion of northern and western France at the height of its Frankish glory. The Normans then invaded, led and assimilated with their English kinsmen. From then on it was train of centuries of Anglo-French rivalry, from the Hundred Years War to the defeat of Napoleon by Wellington. And always in the end, the French ended as losers.
Neither was the French intention to aid the Americans in its revolution against England that noble. It was not democratic then, but an imperial tyranny. French "succor" in Yorktown was just a scheme to further weaken the Anglo-Saxon camp by tearing away the Americans from the Brits and pitting them against each other. Unfortunately for France, things did not turn out that way. The British Empire became stronger and bigger while its American twin became even more powerful than its older brother.
At the same time, the world's greatest Frenchman (who happened to be Corsican and Italian)was humbled by the undefeated Duke of Wellington. The French never got to exact its revenge. The Prussians ended France's role as an effective power, and invaded her twice (as Germany)in WWI and WWII. France comparatively appeared smaller when US and UK defeated its stronger tormentor
in both instances and liberated the proud French.
After the war, the Fench could not beleive it when it found itself no longer a superpower, having been defeated by its colonies in Algeria and Vietnam (a sound and decisive and undeniable defeat with surrender at Dien Bien Phu).
Talk about gnashing one's teeth.
Thank you John for reminding us that Ben Franklin spent his time in Paris making merry with the ladies at his age when there was no viagra. Beats flying a kite.