Printer Friendly

France and anti-Americanism.

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.

Wide support for government action, not just to preserve the national heritage but also to support current creation, is attested by Lang's unflagging popularity throughout the 1980s. This general belief in a cultural role for the state explains in part why the phrase 'American culture' often sounds like an oxymoron to French ears. Of course, most people suspect that the Paris art market doesn't compare with New York's; many are aware of that city's wealth of museums (MOMA, Metropolitan, Guggenheim); some would not be surprised to hear that access to all sections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington is free; the vital part played by American art foundations might even be acknowledged. But however rich American cultural life is proven to be, the fact that it is driven by private money places it beneath serious consideration. The United States, unlike France, does not maintain a national composer at the cost of 50 million francs a year(5): this is enough, in the eyes of many, to brand Americans as philistines.

It is true that the French worship artists like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood or Lou Reed, but these and other American cult figures in France are often viewed as exceptions, not as ambassadors of their culture. They tend to be loved despite, not because of, their nationality. It is also true that French intellectuals regularly expose common anti-American prejudices. Jean Daniel, editor of the left-of-centre Nouvel Observateur, was impressed by the sense of 'abundance, quality and freedom' he found during a visit to Harvard University. He also discovered 'documents on the Front Populaire that were impossible to find at the Bibliotheque Nationale'.(6) A French mediaevalist noted how, in a Detroit public library (open to everyone), she found a book she had not been able to trace at the Bibliotheque Nationale (restricted to people with a university degree). 'Nothing gives a better illustration of the narrowness of our cultural conceptions', she writes, 'and yet we are so proud of our reputation as a highly cultured people'.(7) That the brightest representatives of France's intellectual elite are regularly surprised to find a wealth of readily available material in America shows the depth of French cultural prejudices.

These cultural prejudices strengthen political stereotypes. Vincent Auriol, the French president until 1954, wrote that 'Americans are naive, ignorant, and don't understand a thing'.(8) Today, many of his countrymen would agree that American presidents of the past half-century have included a backwater haberdasher, a four-star simpleton whose skills were confined to the golf course, a Texan rogue, a preachifying peanut-planter, and a dozing geriatric acting out wild-west fantasies. Generally, political life in the US is viewed in the same uncharitable light. The emphasis on majorettes and confetti by French media covering any American election promotes the idea of a contest between nonentities who do not begin to compare with the men of letters who rule France.

A recent issue of the trendy magazine Actuel is a catalogue of many common perceptions about American society and culture. The issue is tastefully entitled 'L'Amerique est-elle devenue completement con?'(9) Judging from the silliness and bigotry exposed in article after article, the answer is clearly yes. But are all Americans completely mad? The editor, in all fairness, admits that 'ten million' are not. Who the members of this elite are, and on what criteria they have been elevated above the 96 per cent of Americans who deserve the epithet 'con', we are not told.

Neither are we told that every single one of these cliches is 'made in USA'. The myth of America as a cultural desert is widely accepted in United States literary and academic circles. The American writers that Jack Lang invited to the Sorbonne in 1983 to reflect on 'the role of culture in resolving the world's economic crisis' expressed their dismay at the lack of concern for the arts in Washington. 'In our country', said Susan Sontag, 'we don't have a Minister of Culture, and if we did we wouldn't have someone like Jack Lang. We'd have Clint Eastwood'.(10)

To be sure, the US Treasury does not share the French government's readiness to fly intellectuals across the Atlantic on Concorde and put them up at the Ritz. But the praise of Lang by the American participants at the Sorbonne meeting was based on principle rather than material interest: like him, they approve of State culture and object to commercialism. In a letter written to the New York Times after their return, four of these authors lambasted the TV series Dallas as 'a symbol of the sort of cultural levelling that leads to the overwhelming of local cultures by worldwide film and television distribution networks'.(11)

Denunciation of America's cultural influence is inseparable from criticism of American society, institutions, and policies. In France, critics have borrowed from two main sources: homegrown anti-industrial, authoritarian nationalism and the American anti-liberal campus radicalism of the 1960s. This latter trend, which has been kept alive by a vibrant 'adversarial' culture in America, originated all the themes reviewed so far -- US policies as solely motivated by self-interest, exploitation of the Third World by multinationals, aggressive diplomacy, etc. While claiming to shield European minds from sub-standard foreign products, Lang and other foes of 'American cultural imperialism' may have helped to promote and adapt for local consumption one of the United States' most dubious intellectual exports.

Psychological functions of anti-Americanism

French resentment of the United States is commonly explained by the pain of adjusting to a fall in rank. Ex-League champions often bear a grudge against the upstarts who have knocked them into second division, the argument goes. One may add that hostility is even more natural if the fallen stars owe their continued existence to the upstarts' money and coaching. There is something in all this, but many in European countries which were never world powers share the same hostility. All over Europe, the most fervent anti-Americans are found in the anti-colonialist left. Clearly, the urge to condemn the US involves deeper psychological mechanisms than frustration at loss of prestige.

The French writer who has described these mechanisms with most depth is Jean-Francois Revel. In How Democracies Perish (1983), a book written at a time of heightened East-West tension, he shows that the mental underpinnings of neutralist attitudes in Europe are fear and wishful thinking. Europeans, Revel argues, want to think that the USSR is a fundamentally peaceful power; the source of tension must then be in the Western camp. American intransigence was assumed to be the only obstacle to peace and those who pointed to Soviet aggressiveness were branded as paranoid cold-warriors. This view was reassuring, since American allies were much easier to deal with than Soviet enemies.(12)

Denial of unpleasant facts helps explain recurring instances of double standards, or indeed double-think, like de Gaulle's view of the United States as the main threat to France's independence (while knowing full well that Soviet troops were, as he put it in 1947, 'two legs of the Tour de France away from Strasbourg'), or the Europeans' strong objection to linking continued aid with Soviet good behaviour as originally agreed in Helsinki.(13) But if fear of the Red Army is a factor, it sheds a light only on opposition to Washington's diplomacy. It does not explain why Europeans, notably the French, like to think of America's institutions as oppressive and its people as self-righteous conformists.

In another book, Revel states that an important function of anti-Americanism is to 'comfort our feeling of intellectual and moral superiority'.(14) Some Europeans admittedly realize that Americans, far from being apathetic bumpkins, are inveterate debators of issues. They recognize the modern relevance of Tocqueville's observations about Jacksonian America in the 1830s: 'Hardly have you set foot on American soil, when you find yourself in the midst of a sort of tumult; a confused clamour rises from everywhere; one thousand voices reach

you, each expressing some social needs'.(15) One hundred and sixty years later, anyone who switches on a television set or opens a newspaper in America won't have to wait long to see a critical report on health care, on racism in pop songs, homelessness, or any of the hundred issues that preoccupy the nation at that particular time.

This realization, however, will not shake a good European's sense of his or her intellectual superiority. This sense is so ingrained that any sign of intelligent debate in America will be seen as: (a) a commendable exception, and (b) a welcome indication that some Americans are willing to learn from Old World sophisticates. 'I saw industrialists, engineers and bankers react like Europeans', said Jean Daniel charitably. 'I heard sociologists and psychoanalysts question the consumer society and lack of values. Woody Allen has replaced David Rockefeller. This is a great sign of European health. This is a great sign of American decline'.(16)

'America', Revel suggests in Ni Marx ni Jesus, 'must be seen as a sick nation of racist dullards whose only hope lies in following Europe's lead'. This stops us from looking at ourselves and facing the painful truth: pogroms, the holocaust, the Moscow trials, totalitarianism throughout a whole continent -- in short some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind -- happened in the past 80 years in Europe, not America. The presence of a monster across the Atlantic helps us forget our own demons.

On a less tragic level, a similar form of double-think is involved in our traditional vision of the political power of corporations in America. This cliche helps us dispose of another awkward fact: 'trusts' are much less safe in America than they are in Europe. While the busy-bodies of the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, after breaking up AT&T and having a go at IBM, have set their sights on the software giant Microsoft, EEC governments, and the French more than most, protect their industries. This unabashed mollycoddling is widely accepted: the multi-billion-franc bail-out of Renault went unnoticed while loan guarantees to Chrysler (which did not cost a cent to the US taxpayer) created a furore. Judging from the web of regulations shielding many sectors from cars to computers to steel -- even after the Single European Market -- European groups are quite successful at getting the government on their side.(17) Yet, America is presented as the land of the almighty lobby.

French anti-Americanism works a little like the 'defence mechanisms' described by Freud: through various devices -- denial, repression, etc. -- the mind keeps the ugly inner pulsions from emerging into consciousness, while shielding the national ego from outward realities it cannot deal with. A country that hasn't come to terms with the unpleasantness of the Algerian conflict will delight in pointing out another's dirty war. A nation whose government hires and fires television bosses likes to look on American media as a collection of stolid boot-lickers, etc.

Once again, criticism of American people, government or firms is not in itself proof of anti-Americanism. Systematic and insistent blame, however, is the sign that this criticism has another function than pure analysis -- it helps the critic feel good. It may also disguise pro-American behaviour. Like Freud's defence mechanisms -- which do not prevent rational action -- anti-Americanism works on a purely symbolic plane. For all of Lang's UNESCO fulminations, no one ever suggested banning Dallas from French airwaves -- for one thing, at the first missed episode the government would have had a riot on its hands.

Margaret Thatcher once told Ronald Reagan that the French can always be counted on when push comes to shove. The history of the past fifty years bears this out: the Atlantic pact owes almost as much to Georges Bidault as to Ernest Bevin and Robert Lovett. France has been a staunch NATO ally ever since; de Gaulle gave unwavering support to the American administration of the day during the dispute over the status of Berlin in 1958-9 and in the Cuban missile crisis. The French have often been at the forefront: they pioneered European integration (although they prefer to pretend the EC was designed to resist American power); Giscard d'Estaing, with the help of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, played a key role in persuading a reluctant Carter team that NATO forces needed upgrading; Mitterrand's 1983 speech to the Bundestag provided crucial support for the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles. Time and again, on all important issues, the French have considered that their vital interests lie in solidarity with America.

France has been obstreperous only when it was safe to rebel. Even the most irksome gesture of all, the pull-out from NATO's military command in 1966, turned out to be largely symbolic. There was no question that in any war French troops would be part of an integrated command. Even more importantly, despite the talk of 'independent defence', no one was ever in any doubt as to which way French ballistic missiles were pointing -- least of all the Soviets, who understandably insisted on counting French land-based missiles as part of the NATO nuclear arsenal.

Ultimately, the function of anti-Americanism in France and other European nations could be to conceal from the world and themselves how eagerly they are following America's lead. It might be that after having been pioneers in every field of human endeavour for five centuries, Europeans find it difficult to admit that they are now being led. In the military field Western Europe has owed its freedom to an outside power. The model its economy has thrived on for fifty years comes from America. Some claim 'social democracy' as a European improvement on the harsher American version but it remains a derivative. Furthermore, social democracy may work for rich countries, but it is not much use as a universal model of development, as the example of Brazil shows.(18) The American, liberal way to wealth creation is being adopted from China to Senegal, and has already borne fruits in South-East Asia and parts of Latin America.

The clothes we wear, the tools we use, the way we organise our work, what we do in our free time, even, as we have seen, our rejection of American values, have been pioneered in America. Japan's spectacular success, far from proving that the United States' leadership is eroding, shows the rewards of integrating and building on the American model. Anti-Americanism is perhaps the way some Europeans come to terms with this idea.


1. Le Sanglot de l'homme blanc, tiers-monde, culpabilite, haine de soi, Paris: Seuil, 1983.

2. Paul Hollander, Anti-Americanism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp.384-5.

3. Quoted in Jean-Francois Revel, Comment les democraties finissent, Paris: Grasset, pp.33-34.

4. Marc Fumaroli, L'Etat culturel, essai sur une religion moderne, Paris: de Fallois, 1991.

5. Pierre Boulez' IRCAM/ensemble intercomtemporain received the equivalent of about |pounds~6 million in government subsidies in 1992. Francois de Closets, Tant et Plus, Paris: Grasset, 1992, especially chapter 5: 'L'Etat chef d'orchestre'.

6. Le Reflux americain, special issue of the review Faire, Paris: Seuil, 1980, p.111.

7. Regine Pernoud, Pour en finir avec le Moyen-age, Paris: Seuil, 1977, p.42.

8. Quoted in Alfred Grosser, Les Occidentaux, Paris: Seuil, 1978, p.139.

9. Actuel, March 1992. The title could be loosely translated as 'Has America gone bloody crazy?'.

10. Hollander, Anti-Americanism, p.385. Hollander's book is a remarkable study of the 'adversarial' culture in the US and of its worldwide influence.

11. Bishop, Mailer, Sontag, Styron. Letter to The New York Times, 27.2.1983.

12. Comment les democraties finissent, chapter 5: 'La peur de savoir'.

13. After the invasion of Afghanistan and the coup in Poland, demanding that the USSR respect the Helsinki accords was seen as aggressive. Europeans, however, still considered themselves committed to offering cheap loans to Moscow. In early 1982, French Premier Pierre Mauroy said that suspending credits to the USSR would be 'an act of war'.

14. Ni Marx ni Jesus, Paris: Robert Faffont, 1970, 'Bouquins' edition, 1986, p.78.

15. De la Democratie en Amerique, Robert Laffont, 'Bouquins' edition, 1986, p.235.

16. Le Reflux americain, p.114.

17. For an account of the activity of French industrial pressure groups: Jean-Dominique Giuliani, Marchands d'influence, les Lobbies en France, Paris: Seuil, 1991.

18. Brazil has one of the most advanced social legislations -- on paper. A Brazilian finance minister used a pithy formula to sum up his country's woes: 'a Swedish welfare system based on a Mozambican economy'.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:part 2
Author:Astier, Henri
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Return of a native: life on a Cardiff housing estate.
Next Article:Malaysia: dash for economic growth.

Related Articles
France and anti-Americanism - part one.
Yankee go home? Is Canadian anti-americanism dead?
Damn Yankees. (Expat Page).
The philosophical origins of European anti-Americanism.
The politics of envy.
Talk like an Egyptian: is Arab popular culture uniformly anti-American?
Thwarting anti-Americanism: eight steps for CEOs coping with the villainization of America.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters