Edward Rothstein: We Hate the French, The French Hate Us

Roundup: Talking About History

Edward Rothstein, in the NYT (3-14-05):

... The accumulated evidence of France's flaws can be compelling, but what pale stuff this is compared with Francophobia's French counterpart! Next month, the University of Chicago Press will publish a book that attracted much attention when it first appeared in France, in 2002: "The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism" by Philippe Roger (the translation is by Sharon Bowman).

Mr. Roger, who teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, almost single-handedly creates a new field of study, tracing the nuances and imagery of anti-Americanism in France over 250 years. He shows that far from being a specific reaction to recent American policies, it has been knit into the very substance of French intellectual and cultural life.

While American Francophobia can seem transient, news oriented, associated with the political right and theatrical in character, French anti-Americanism - like a venerable Old World tradition - reaches far and deep. It is championed by both the left and right. And over its long evolutionary course, various scientific, philosophical, political, social and racial justifications have been offered. Mr. Roger suggests that its convictions are so fundamental that they are barely recognized, and they are spreading.

Mr. Roger does not debate whether or not particular manifestations of anti-Americanism are justified or unjustified. Mostly, he seems to think them unjustified, but that doesn't matter: anti-Americanism is not the result of perceptions, rather, it determines them. Nor is he interested in counterexamples like Lafayette or Tocqueville except if they shed light on his theme. He points out, for example, that Tocqueville's classic dissection of democracy in 19th-century America was widely criticized for portraying a "sugar-coated America." "In its repetition and perpetuation," Mr. Roger writes, "French anti-Americanism must be analyzed as a tradition." It is, he suggests, a "discourse," a way of thinking and speaking about the world that has its own premises and logic.

Before the founding of the United States, for example, one reaction to the Romantic idealization of the New World came in a series of scientific studies of the continent's plant and animal life. In 1768, the naturalist Cornelius De Pauw called America a "vast and sterile desert" whose climate nurtured "astonishingly idiotic" men. The natural historian Buffon claimed that its animals were stunted miniatures of their Old World counterparts. These assertions were so widely believed in France that Thomas Jefferson devoted considerable energy to their refutation.

Naturalism's hostility then gave way to social condescension from both royalists and republicans.

Scorn of America became a literary trope. In Balzac's novels, Mr. Roger points out, it is the "good-for-nothings" who go to America. In Stendhal's novels, various characters' disdain for the United States and what one calls the "culture of the god dollar" seem to echo the author's own convictions.

Mr. Roger argues that during the Civil War, many in French society hoped that the South would be victorious partly because it would provide more opportunities for French power. But the war was also seen as a racial battle between Anglo-Saxons in the North and Latins - almost Franco-Latins - in the South. For France, the Civil War replicated the larger power struggle it was confronting in Europe.

By the end of the 19th century, French writers also began to fear American power. One writer referred to Uncle Sam as "Oncle Shylock," resonantly adding anti-Semitism into the mix. In the 20th century, French politicians blamed the United States for joining the First World War too late, then for insisting that France repay its debts.

Intellectuals like Sartre credited the Soviet Union with winning the Second World War and said that England and the United States invaded just to get in on the victory. After the war, Mr. Roger writes, "what was left to defend in France? Frenchness."

Mr. Roger does not fully explain the reasons for an antipathy so far out of proportion to any nation's flaws, but his book stuns with its accumulated detail and analysis. Addressing his French readers, Mr. Roger argues that through this obsessive anti-American discourse, "we are shackled, unbeknownst to ourselves, to a whole past of repugnance and repulsions."

With such a past, how can America's contribution to this confrontation hope to compete?

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