November 14, 2003

Commentary

Anti-Americanism in France: some misunderstandings

By Emmanuelle Le Texier
Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies , UCSD

French anti-Americanism is said to be radical. But in reality, as polls showed for the last 50 years, only a small fraction of the French population expressed anti-American sentiments. Moreover, this expression is mainly contextual and cyclical. This contradicts entirely the U.S. media approach that focused on extremely marginal French anti-American expressions before, during and after the Iraq war.

Let’s avoid a first confusion: people are not their governments. Anti-Americanism is based both on emotional sentiments and reasoned concerns, and it carries different meanings depending on geographic regions, governments, political groups or individuals. Anti-Americanism is firstly a rhetoric term that expresses strong disapproval for the government of the U.S. but not for the American people. It is secondly a broad range of sentiments that can be expressed throughout different actions or words, such as protests, boycotts, irony, political disagreement, etc. In the U.S. media, France - and by a curious extension French people - always appear to be leading a European anti-U.S. sentiment.

Indeed, there might be a French specificity, but I argue that it is historically rooted not on irrational sentiments towards the U.S. government but on different political perspectives for ruling international affairs.

In September 2003, a poll by the German Marshall Fund was released (8.000 individuals replied on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean). To the question: Would you like the U.S. to have a dominant position in the world affairs? Less than half of the Europeans replied by the positive whereas 77% of the Americans agreed. The comparison among European countries is interesting. When the people from the Netherlands, the U.K. and Poland replied predominantly by the positive, people from Germany and Italy replied by the negative by more than 50% and French by 70%. In the same poll, both Americans and Europeans seem to see the power of Europe as a soft power, which is based on three main instruments, diplomacy, trade and development aid, to advance European interests. On the opposite, America’s power was identified as a hard power, its main tools being the military and the intelligence. To the question: Under certain conditions, to obtain justice, is war necessary? While 55% of the Americans replied by the positive, only 12% of the French and the German agreed. Why are French responses so extremely different from American and other European perceptions towards U.S. involvement in international affairs?

Historical perspectives can certainly help in drawing the boundaries of Anti-American sentiments. Anti-Americanism has been a recipe to find unity in France, a common discourse that crossed over political cleavages. It still is an “ideological kit” as historian Philippe Roger noted in The American Enemy: genesis of Anti-Americanism in France (Seuil, 2003). This kit is recyclable when domestic affairs are going wrong. In addition, the ambivalent relationships between the New World and the Old continent have started as soon as in the XIX century. To a certain extent, the current situation only recalled former competition, in the new form of a clash of civilizations between the West… and the West. Finally, the so-called “French cultural exception” is still strong. That’s why current trends in globalization are often analyzed as a hegemonic Americanization of the world, as a threat to the preservation of both linguistic and cultural differences of national entities.

Although, it could be argued that these roots for Anti-American sentiments easily find their parallels in American expressions of francophobia (anti-French sentiment in America was as overloaded by French media as anti-Americanism was by the U.S. media. Remember the freedom fries, toasts, mustard, the wine boycott, and among other nicknames, the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”). And for sure, they provide only a very partial explanation for cyclical and marginal expressions of Anti-Americanism in France. In fact, I argue that the main source of tensions comes from divergent political approaches of the world affairs. The French government expressed a strong criticism towards the current U.S leadership. Some would say that it has more to do with the nostalgia of a declining power. But the fact is that these tensions show first, a change of perceptions in the role of the European Union in the world affairs and second, a strong preoccupation about unilateralism.

The care for multilateralism is present not only in the building of the European Union and in the choice to participate in international agreements and organizations (Kyoto protocol, International Penal Court, Convention on Children’s rights). It is also demonstrated in the constant affirmation for the need of multilateral solutions, especially through the rule of the United Nations. In that respect, the former French Foreign Affairs Ministry pointed out his view in a journal article published in Politique Etrangère, back in 1999: “To unilateralism - the one expressed by the current American Senate - we oppose a multilateralism that respects all members of the international community, whose guardian is the U.N.” In conclusion, both French anti-Americanism and U.S. francophobia, extremely distorted by national media’s, can be better understood as part of a process of national construction that fluctuates within changing contexts. It is regrettable that the marginal and cyclical anti-French or anti-American individual expressions portrayed by the media could harm the long-time respectful friendship between American and French people. What is at stake now is a real political divergence between American and French governments. The perceptions of the Other, of the friend or the enemy, of partnership or competition, are highly symbolical, especially in times of wars.

Emmanuelle Le Texier is a guest scholar, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Institut D’Etudes Politiques de Paris-France. She can be reached at eletexie@weber.ucsd.edu

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