Matthew Price, writer and book critic
France and America: The Very Best of Enemies
Why France and America love to mix it up.
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005

The American Enemy: A History of French Anti-Americanism, by Philippe RogerThe vogue for freedom fries may have waned, but more than two years after the diplomatic dustup between George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac over the Iraq war the books on the fractured state of Franco-American relations keep coming. Denis Boyles’ “Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese” (Encounter), Richard Z. Chesnoff’s “The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can’t Stand Us — and Why the Feeling Is Mutual” (Sentinel), John J. Miller’s and Mark Molesky’s “Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France” (Doubleday) — the very titles suggest that while George W. Bush may have made nice with Jacques Chirac on his most recent trip to Europe, certain segments of American society are never going to give France a break.

But according to the French scholar Philippe Roger, such Francophobic biliousness may be nothing compared to the deep-seated antipathy that our Gallic cousins feel for us. Nevermind the Marquis de Lafayette — or Benjamin Franklin’s cozy memories of his years whipping up support for the nascent republic in the salons of Paris. The French have had it in for American civilization from the beginning.

In his book “The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism,” published in English this month by the University of Chicago Press, Roger surveys two centuries of political polemics, pulp sci-fi serials, and travelogues, unearthing an often entertaining treasure trove of outrageous overstatement and bitter accusation that variously depict America as a stunted wasteland, a soulless technocracy, and a racist behemoth hell-bent on world domination.

When the book came out in France two years ago, at the height of the diplomatic tensions over Iraq, Roger — who teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales in Paris — met with some hostile responses. But Roger, who prefers to call himself an “anti-anti-American,” insists his book isn’t in any way an apology for America. “If you speak in concrete terms like foreign policy,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s quite clear that opposing America is sometimes — you can say often — necessary.”

But the friction over even so momentous an event as the Iraq war, Roger says, does little to explain the roots of the hostility, which go farther back than he had previously imagined. What began 14 years ago as a research project on the right-wing anti-Americanism of the 1930s quickly grew into a farther-ranging inquiry. “I started working on a small piece,” he says. “I didn’t realize at all that I had to go back two centuries.”

According to Roger, the term “anti-American” in French is relatively new — traced by lexicographers only to 1948 — but anti-American sentiment, he shows, was alive and well before there was even a United States. Voltaire may have written “it was philosophy’s efforts that led to America’s discovery,” but many French philosophes looked across the Atlantic and were disgusted by what they saw (or imagined).

Consider Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte du Buffon, a leading 18th-century naturalist and man of science whose theories would prove influential on America’s other critics in the 1700s. In works like “Varieties in the Human Species” (1749) and “On the Degeneration of Animals” (1766), Buffon concocted a set of bizarre taxonomies to demonstrate that the species of the New World were invariably shriveled and stunted. Of course, Buffon never actually visited the land he was writing about. Nevertheless, his claims so bothered Thomas Jefferson that he procured the carcass of a 7-foot Vermont moose to deliver to Buffon. Buffon — a petit homme who stood 5 feet tall — remained unimpressed, however, and refused to revise his opinions.

In the early decades of the 19th century, French anti-Americanism went through something of a dormant phase (even if diplomatic relations had reached a breaking point during the so-called XYZ affair of 1797-98, which kicked off a small shooting war between the two republics). Alexis de Tocqueville undertook his vast, nuanced study “Democracy in America” in the 1830s, but it did little to change the minds of France’s Americaphobes. After the Civil War (during which the Confederacy had many French sympathizers) they emerged armed with an entirely new set of complaints. America had been transformed from a land of stunted, degenerate species into a menacing industrial colossus.

The specter of the voracious “Yankee” who, having conquered the South, now had his eyes set on the rest of the world, stalked late-19th-century French social science and popular fiction. Ethnographers rewrote the history of the Anglo-Saxon race, leaving the Germans out and recasting it as one dominated by American (i.e., WASP) bloodlines. “The true peril,” warned Edmond Demolins in his 1897 essay “Anglo-Saxon Superiority: To What It Is Due,” is the sturdy American individualist “who comes alone, with a plow.” The actual military threat of Germany, which had obliterated France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, was beside the point, for “social force is one hundred times more powerful than all the armies in the world.” And the breathless 1899-1900 science-fiction serial “La Conspiration des milliardaires” (The Billionaires’ Conspiracy), by Gustave Le Rouge — dubbed the “shop girl’s Jules Verne” by one critic — depicted a plot by a fiendish group of French-hating Yankee plutocrats to invade Europe with an army of automatons.

By the early 20th century, the template was set: America was an eternal threat to French civilization. Intellectuals of left and right could bicker endlessly over the direction of their country, but it was clear to all that America, tout court, was bad for France.

But the anti-Americanism of the interwar years, Roger argues, was often less about American strength than French weakness. In the 1920s and ’30s, anti-Americanism “fed on a violent self-loathing” and a strong well of anti-Semitism. Jean-Louis Chastanet, a left-wing member of the French assembly, concluded in “L’Oncle Shylock” (1927), that for America “lending money to others is a way of dominating them.”

Anti-Americanism reached its hysterical pitch in “Le Cancer américain” (1931), by right-wing intellectuals Robert Aron and Arnaud Dandieu, who declared in their “tract against the Yankee spirit” that “modern barbarism is reason in its American form.” France, they argued, was subjugated to a vulgar, latter-day Rome, with “French lap dogs of all professions, sexes and stripes flocking to Yankee banks or boudoirs.” Even with the United States hobbled by the Depression, Aron and Dandieu saw a France that was weak and servile, in thrall to American financiers.

After the Second World War, left-wing intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre rose to the fore, but the tune, it seems, had changed very little. “The Yankee, more arrogant than the Nazi iconoclast, substitutes the machine for the poet, Coca-Cola for poetry…the mass-manufactured car for the genius, the Ford for Victor Hugo!” bellowed the Communist poet Louis Aragon in 1951. That same year, an editorialist for the Marxist journal La Nouvelle Critique ventilated about the American “conspiracy against intelligence.”

“A vast undertaking to pervert science and art and degrade culture is taking place in our country in imitation of what is happening in the USA,” the magazine thundered. “The French do not want to become robots, nor intellectuals the trusts’ mercenaries.”

Even the French embrace of jazz and the experimentalist comedy of Jerry Lewis’s post-Dean Martin films is “anti-Americanism carried on by other means,” Roger argues, since championing such “dissident and subversive” elements allowed the French to portray mainstream American culture as pathetically blinkered.

In conversation, Roger is careful to distinguish himself from pro-American intellectuals like Jean-François Revel, who has long championed the American social model. (In his 1970 work “Ni Marx, ni Jesus,” Revel dubbed the United States “the country most eligible for the role of prototype nation.”) Roger’s motivation, he says, isn’t to stifle legitimate criticism of the United States but to “expose the French discourse of anti-Americanism wherever it seems to me beyond reason.” Rather than simply repeating longstanding stereotypes that are “disconnected with American reality,” he says, he wants the French to “refine their anti-Americanism” and “go directly to what is worth criticizing.”

But some scholars are skeptical of Roger’s line of inquiry. Richard Kuisel, a historian at Georgetown University and author of “Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization,” a 1993 study of Franco-American tensions in the Cold War, commends Roger for his “sensitivity to language and to metaphor,” but questions his emphasis on a “steady drum beat of continuous discourse, [which] misses some of the dynamic flow and cyclical nature of opinion about America.”

Kuisel also argues that Roger’s focus on literary sources and intellectual debate obscures legitimate economic and political differences between the two nations in the past 50 years. After World War II, America — in the form of the Marshall Plan, military bases, and Coca-Cola — was not a far-off abstraction but “so very real,” says Kuisel. “We were pressing on the French in all kinds of ways.” More recently, he adds, our embrace of market economics “suggests to the French that we lack a sense of fraternity and solidarity.”

Stanley Hoffmann, professor of government at Harvard and a longtime observer of France, notes that much of Roger’s source material is decidedly obscure, and that he excludes France’s pro-American voices from the past 200 years, such as Raymond Aron (no relation to Robert Aron), who often reminded his fellow intellectuals to be more judicious in their appraisals of America.

Fundamentally, Hoffmann argues, Franco-American disputes often boil down to a “family quarrel, a clash of two universalisms.” We should be sensitive to the fact that it is “difficult for France, which is now a much smaller power, to accept without gritting its teeth, the triumph of the other one.”

But Roger thinks there’s more to it than a simple case of sibling rivalry. The legacy of the ideas he traces in “The American Enemy” has ensnared France in a “logic which allows for the perpetual incrimination of America.” And it’s hardly limited to intellectuals, he claims. After all, Roger points out, in the months after 9/11, the French journalist Thierry Meyssan’s book “L’Effroyable imposture” (The Big Lie), which argued that no plane had crashed into the Pentagon, became a best-seller in France. Plus ça change…

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