Thursday, December 22, 2005

Fords and Chewing Gum

The right and the left in the U.S. agree the French are anti-American. We disagree, however, on the cause. To many on the left the French are just at the apex -- perhaps due to their highly developed sensibilities -- of the world's revulsion at American unilateralism and hegemony in the wake of Sept. 11. They're the poster children of the "squandered the good will of the world" school of recent history.

And to them it's all the fault of the boorish Americans, with our insulting "Freedom Fries" and Fox News' obsession with the fact that John Kerry looks French.

Never mind that, to insult and defeat a politician in France, all you have to do is peg him with the term “l'Américain.” "Michel Rocard, a Socialist prime minister in the 1980s, was undermined by the label. Today, Mr Sarkozy's rivals on the right pin it on him."

This thoughtful, unsigned piece in the "Economist" brings some perspective to the French-American relationship. Among the insights are, it just might have as much to do with them as with us.

Anti-Americanism intensifies at times of French uncertainty. It has often flared after French military humiliation—1917, 1940, 1962—or instability at home. Striking positions of independence from America is a way for France to project power when it feels emasculated, something de Gaulle well understood after the American liberation of France.

"Today's concern about decline," the author argues, "is another such moment." Focus outward on the ugly Americans also is a way to avoid the mirror.

Indeed, Jean-François Revel, author of “L'Obsession anti-Américaine”, argues that French anti-Americanism, particularly in the media, often flourishes at the expense of self-examination. The French delight in exposing American poverty, racism and ghetto life, he pointed out well before the country's recent riots proved his point, when at home a tenth of the workforce is out of work and young French Muslims are isolated in suburban tower blocks. America, he argues, “serves to console us about our own failures by sustaining the myth that things are even worse there—and that what is going wrong for us comes from them.”

But, as someone who's always had a good time in France and thinks Paris is truly one of the world's paradises, I also assent to this maxim:

In many ways, France and America clash so often not because they are so irreconcilably different, but because they are so alike.

The modern French and American polities may have evolved quite differently, notably where the role of the state is concerned, but both emerged as highly codified, anti-clerical, secular republics. Both—unlike the dissembling English—can articulate unapologetically what their country stands for. Born of revolutions, America and France each established republics inspired by Enlightenment thinking, and based on freedom and individual rights. Within the same year, 1789, both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Bill of Rights were drafted.

Above all, each nation believed in the universalism of its model—the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilisation—and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride. And it explains why the French so readily pick on America at times of self-doubt.

Just listen to Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, who came to embody anti-American defiance. “What an honour to be French,” he wrote in a recent book, “loyal to a ... responsibility to bestow a conscience, a soul upon our Earth. Our democracy was built upon the affirmation of universal values,” he adds, and France's destiny is to enact “our universal and humanist dream.”

Fulsome romantic patriotism, messianic zeal to spread freedom, a nation with a god-given mission and destiny. "Why, he sound 'zackly like dat ol' debbil Bush!" as one of Walt Kelley's characters might have said. And it's true. And, like the Americans, the politicians who talk that way echo the sincere beliefs of the people in the countryside and small towns beyond Paris.

So, let France be France.

To be pro-American for long would emasculate. After all, what is France for if not to represent an elegant, pleasurable alternative to the American way, even if it does so as most of the country munches its burgers and goggles at its trashy television?